Defining the Hobby: What Are We Doing Here?

As gamers, we have our own vocabulary.  And sometimes we throw words around without really thinking that others may not know what we’re talking about.  This post (and a few more after it) will attempt to define some of the terms we use a lot in the board game hobby.  This edition is going to look at some big picture terms, namely those that we use to label what we’re doing.

GameA competitive activity involving skill, chance, and/or endurance where players act according to an agreed upon set of rules for their own enjoyment or for that of spectators.

This definition was based on the definition I found at  There are several key points I want to highlight here.

  • Competitive: Games are competitive.  You can be competing against other players, or you can be competing against the game itself.  If you’re not competing, even marginally, then you’re not playing a game.  This is why I contend that a lot of party “games” are not games at all, just activities.
  • Players: You have to have people for it to be a game.  Games cannot be played by no one.
  • A set of rules: Games have to have rules, and rules should be set before the game begins.  If you’re making it up as you go along, you’re not playing a game.  Unless the game is Calvinball and the rule is that you can’t play the same way twice.
  • For their own enjoyment: If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point?  Now, fun is a very subjective term, and different people have fun in different ways.  I don’t have fun at Agricola, but I would never say that it’s not a game because of that.  But a game is an activity you enter into with the intent to have fun – whether you do or not is not what makes it a game.

Tabletop Game: A type of game that can be contained to a relatively small flat surface, such as a table.

A big problem in defining the hobby is “What do you call it?”  Some people like to call them analog games, to differentiate from digital games.  Tabletop games seems to be the current accepted term that refers to all games that can be played on a table.  You can also play on the floor, on the roof, in a meadow, whatever, but the point is that you can play them on a table.  Does that make ping pong a tabletop game?  Sure, I’d be happy to call ping pong a dexterity game.  More on that next time.

Board Game: A type of game that uses some form of board as an essential component.

Card Game:A type of game that uses cards as its main component.

Dice Game: A type of game that uses dice as its main component.

When someone refers to “board games”, they are often referring to these three categories as a whole.  Certainly on BoardGameGeek, the three are interchangeable.  But there is a distinction.  Board games have boards, obviously.  But these boards are also integral to play.  Many dice games and card games also have boards, but these are usually used for storage and organization purposes rather than having an essential role in the game.  King of Tokyo and Marvel Legendary are two perfect examples of this.  A board in a board game, however, really is necessary to make things work.  In Ticket to Ride, for example, the board is necessary so you know where all the routes are.  The cards are very important in the game, but without the board, you’re just playing rummy.

So what about tile laying games?  Where do these land in the gaming spectrum?  I say they’re board games because usually you’re building the board as you play.  Look at Carcassonne – the playing surface is constructed throughout the game.

What about games that are played on the table and don’t have a board, cards, or dice?  I’m thinking in this case of dexterity games like Jenga or Animal Upon Animal.  I would still call these board games, and propose that the table itself is the board.  You think it’s not a necessary component?  You try playing one of these games without a table.

What about scoreboards?  Are those enough to categorize something as a board game?  No.  Cribbage is my all-time favorite game and it has a 121-hole peg board.  But it is far from necessary – you can keep score on a piece of paper.  Cribbage is a card game.

Board games can also have cards and dice as well, but the question I tend to ask myself is, “What is the most important component in this game?”  If it’s the cards, and everything else is just supporting the cards, it’s a card game.  If it’s the dice, it’s a dice game.  But if the board is there and essential to gameplay, it’s a board game.

Roleplaying Game: A type of narrative game where players assume the roles of different characters in fictional settings.

Roleplaying games, or RPGs, are free form games that are usually all about the story.  There is usually some sort of game master that runs the game, and players make choices that affect the world they are inhabiting.  Dungeons & Dragons is the classic RPG, but there are many different types out there.  Often, players will be deeply involved in character creation, campaigns, and building the world.  It may not be as competitive as some games, but the main objective is always to tell a great story.  Players are working together to meet certain objectives, and there are lots and lots of rules.  It’s usually a flexible experience, and one that creates a lot of enjoyment amongst its characters.

Miniatures Game: A type of tabletop game that uses miniature characters in a scaled simulation.

Board games and roleplaying games often use miniatures.  However, miniatures games exclusively have miniatures that follow real-life rules of movement and are used to simulate combat rather than abstracting it.  They often use rulers and other forms of measurement to figure out what movement is possible.  Players typically put a lot of care into their miniatures, painting them and setting up detailed terrain maps in order to play out their scenarios.

MechanicsThe details about how a game works.

Mechanics are the forces in the game that cause it to work.  This includes how you move, how you score, different actions you can take, and in general what makes the game flow.  You’ll often hear someone refer to a specific mechanic of a game.  This drives me a little crazy because a mechanic is someone who works on machines.  The proper term when talking about the individual systems is mechanism.  It is a series of mechanisms that make up the overall mechanics.

Why people in the hobby care about mechanics is that they are little DNA molecules that can carry over from game to game and help you to learn them.  If you are a big fan of Dominion and I show you another deck-building game, you’ve already got some idea of what you’ll need to be doing in order to be successful.  There are 51 mechanical styles listed on BGG, and lots of those encompass several different styles into general groupings in order to help you find more games you might appreciate.

Theme: The story of a game.

The theme of a game is basically what it is about.  Why are you moving those pieces around?  What are you trying to accomplish?  Why should you care?  There’s a very wide range of possible themes out there, and while every game has some sort of mechanical system in place, not every game has a theme.  Some games are completely themeless, while others have very weak themes that are just there to help the player remember what’s going on.  Still others have very strong themes and really seek to immerse you in the created world.

EurogameA style of game that originated in Europe (specifically Germany) and tends to emphasize high strategy and deep mechanics.  Eurogames also tend to have low luck, little to no player conflict, and theme that has little to do with gameplay.

Eurogames (often shortened to Euros) were among the first to be referred to as “designer games” because they credited the designers right on the cover, just like a book does with its author.  They developed primarily in Germany where conflict in games was discouraged due to the high volume of family gamers.  Indeed, Germany is still the center of the Eurogame movement, but Eurogames are now made everywhere, even outside of Europe.  The name refers more to the style than the location of creation.

The most notable thing about Euros is that they really emphasize mechanics over everything.  Many Euros are criticized for being soulless because they are just about pushing cubes around with no sense of story.  You’ll often heard the term JASE (just another soulless Euro) or Trading in the Mediterranean thrown around as derogatory descriptors of these games.  However, they often provide great depth of strategy and can really give your brain an workout.

AmeritrashA style of game commonly associated with the US that emphasizes theme above all else.  These games tend to have high amounts of luck, lots of player interaction and conflict.

Ameritrash was initially used as a derogatory term to describe the smash and bash dicefests commonly found in American games.  Fans of the style decided to embrace the name, and now it is used as a badge of honor.  There is still controversy about the name, however, with many feeling that it still gives a negative connotation, especially to people unfamiliar with its usage.  There is a movement afoot to rename it Amerithrash, but I don’t think that has completely caught on yet.

Ameritrash games are very centered on their themes.  All mechanisms in the game are in support of the theme, and games can often feel very lucky because of it.  This means that strategy is difficult to develop, and critics often call them dumb games because of it.  However, if stories are more important to you than gameplay, you can’t go wrong with a good Ameritrash game.

We’ll end it there for now.  In the next edition of this series (whenever that may be), I’ll be talking about some specific types of games you may encounter.

These definitions are not intended to be definitive, but rather a jumping off point for discussion.  Think I’m way off base?  Tell me!  Have some additions?  Tell me!  Have more terms you think should be defined?  Tell me!  Let’s define the hobby for anyone who wants to know!  Thanks for reading!


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