For The Eleven this month, I want to take a look at Hybrid Games. This is not a very clearly defined term in our hobby, so I’m going to take a moment to explain what I mean when I say Hybrid.
There has traditionally been a philosophical split in board gaming between the so-called Eurogames and the so-called Ameritrash games (hereby to be abbreviated as AT). Eurogames tend to emphasize mechanics, low luck, and relatively little conflict. AT games tend to emphasize theme, lots of luck, and lots of punching other people in the face (not literally, of course). And for a while, there was a clear line between the two. Then, about ten years ago, that line began to blur. Eurogames started emphasizing theme more and embracing dice as a viable game mechanism; and AT games began introducing stronger mechanisms as well as emphasizing more skill over chance. So we have kind of a middle category, which I tend to call Hybrid Games.
It’s probably better to look at games on a scale rather than trying to plug them into one of these three categories – there are games that fit perfectly, but others that might lean more to Euro or AT while still being considered a Hybrid. For this list, I’m going to call out eleven games that I think are good examples of how a game that might be traditionally considered one or the other made great strides in trying to be inclusive and enter that realm of Hybridity.
Argent: The Consortium is a 2015 game published by Level 99 Games that was designed by Trey Chambers. In the game, players are competing for the chancellorship of Argent University, the most powerful magical school in the world of Indines. Over the course of five rounds, players will be placing mages in various rooms around the school in order to gain certain benefits. They’ll also be using supporters, items, and spells. In the end, the players will have to meet the selection criteria of 12 voters, only 2 of which are known at the start of the game. So you may need the most supporters, the most mana, the most influence, or something else. The person who has the most votes at the end of the game is the winner.
Level 99 is well known for heavy emphasis on theme and very conflict heavy games. In short, more in the AT style. This game marked a kind of departure for them with more Euro-style mechanisms in play, such as worker placement, spreading influence, and resource management. However, the game still has lots of theme and a good amount of conflict, so I think this is a perfect candidate as a Hybrid Game.
Cyclades is a 2009 game from Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc that was published by Matagot. Here, players are racing to be the first to build two cities in Ancient Greece (specifically in the Cyclades islands). To do this, you’ll be bidding on the favor of the gods – Ares will allow army movement and the construction of fortresses; Poseidon allows naval movement and the construction of ports; Zeus allows the hiring of priests and construction of temples; Athena provides philosophers and universities; and Apollo increases income. If at the end of the round a player has two cities, he wins. If multiple players have two cities, the one with the most money wins.
On the outside, this game looks like an ancient Greek wargame. There’s the movement of troops, jockeying for position, and a good amount of conflict. But there’s also a simultaneous auction going on as you try to win the favor of the gods, which adds a significant economic element to the game. It also comes from two designers traditionally thought of in the Eurogame realm. So I think this is a good candidate for a Hybrid Game.
Dungeon Lords is a 2009 game from designer Vlaada Chvátil and published by Czech Games Edition. In Dungeon Lords, which is based on the 1997 PC game Dungeon Keeper, players are in charge of running a dungeon and building it up to survive the inevitable onslaught of goody-goody adventurers. The game lasts for two years with a combat round after each. Each year is broken into four seasons where plasters choose three orders, then resolve them based on the order they were programmed. You could get food, become less evil, dig tunnels, gain gold, hire imps, buy traps, add monsters, or add rooms to your dungeon. During the combat round, you have to take care of some adventurers, and in the end, score based on how well your dungeon withstood their attack.
When this game first came out, I remember a lot of people being really confused by it. Mechanically, it’s a Euro, but with a fantasy theme that is not very common in most Eurogames. The fact that it’s kind of reverse fantasy (with the “bad guys” as the main protagonists) is really what makes it for me, but I find it to be a very challenging game besides. It has been criticized for a lack of choice, but I find it to be a unique combination of worker placement and programmed actions. I think it’s a great Hybrid.
Eclipse is a 2011 game from designer Touko Tahkokallio, published by Lautepelit. Eclipse is a sci-fi game where players are trying to build their civilization. On your turn, you’ll be performing actions by removing discs from a track, discs that will then be used on other parts of the board. You could explore new tiles, move around space, take control of new systems, research new technologies, upgrade your ships, or even build new ships or structures. Each disc that you use will cost you money at the end of the round, so be careful about how many actions you take. There’s plenty of room for combat in this game, but it’s also possible just to do your own thing and stay out of the way. After nine rounds, the player with the most points wins.
This game fits into the 4X genre – eXplore, eXploit, eXpand, and eXterminate. 4X games usually fit into the AT category as they are full of conflict. And Eclipse does fit into that mold. But it also has a lot of Eruoish elements, such as the action selection mechanism and the fact that you can just completely avoid conflict and pursue another path to victory. The one time I played, it was a three-player game where the other two just beat up on each other the whole time and I stayed on the other side of the universe. I didn’t win, but it was very nice that I didn’t have to get involved in that.
Kingsburg is a 2007 game by Andrea Chiarvesio and Luca Iennaco that is published in the US by Fantasy Flight. Kingsburg is a dice allocation game where players are rolling dice, then assigning them to different advisors in order to get their benefits – resources, soldiers, points, and modifier tokens were among the perks of each advisor. The game is divided into five years, each with three productive seasons followed by a round of building each. At the end of each year, the kingdom is attacked by a different fantasy enemy, and those who defeat it are rewarded while those who do not are punished. After the fifth year, the player with the most points wins.
Looking back on this game now, I think most people would probably agree that this is very much a Eurogame. However, I think this is probably one of the first games that really crossed the aisle and tried to merge AT and Euro concepts into one cohesive game. Specifically, dice – before Kingsburg, it was almost unheard of for Euros to use dice. Now they’re everywhere. Yspahan (2006) probably also had something to do with the dice revolution in Eurogames, but Kingsburg also brought in the fantasy theme, which was another unwritten taboo in the Euro genre. Kingsburg was probably the first to make a game that was really successful on both sides of the schism, so I think it’s definitely one that needs to mentioned on any list of Hybrid Games.
Lords of Waterdeep is a 2012 game from designers Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson that was published by Wizards of the Coast. It’s a 2-5 player worker placement game set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, specifically in the city of Waterdeep. Players take on secret roles that give them extra scoring opportunities, then spend eight rounds sending their agents around Waterdeep to collect the resources needed to complete quests. Along the way, they’ll be able to buy buildings and use intrigue cards to gain extra advantages. In the end, the player with the most points is the winner.
Lords of Waterdeep is a relatively light worker placement game, but what it does well is bring the mechanism to players that wouldn’t necessarily try that type of game. The D&D theme is not super integral to play, but serves its purpose introduce role-players to the board gaming side of tabletop gaming. The theme is the only part of this game that really isn’t Euro, but like Kingsburg, this has been a really good game for breaking down the boundaries between styles.
Mage Knight Board Game is a 2011 game designed by Vlaada Chvátil and published by WizKids. This game takes the Mage Knight universe (basis of a popular collectible miniatures wargame system) and transplants it into an adventure board game. In the game, you are a Mage Knight working your way towards a particular objective as defined by a scenario. Along the way, you’ll be leveling up your character and adding new cards to your deck, with cards determining how well you move, attack, and defend, as well as give you hiring ability. It’s a very open system that is being adapted into the Star Trek universe later this year with Star Trek: Frontiers.
While the theme and objectives in this game are very much in the slash-and-burn fantasy realm, there’s very little luck in the game and player-vs-player combat isn’t required (based on the scenario anyway). That’s not to say that there isn’t luck – you have to roll a mana pool and draw cards from your deck – but there are tons of ways to mitigate that luck, as in the best Eurogames. Combat is mostly confined to fighting monsters you encounter, and really turns into a puzzle as you try to figure out the best way to launch your hand against your enemy. It’s a very deep and thinky game, and one that I think merges AT and Euro sensibilities into something that is entirely fresh.
Mission: Red Planet is a 2005 game designed by Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti that was originally published by Asmodee, with a second edition coming out last year from Fantasy Flight. The game is about exploiting the resources of Mars in a sort of steampunky setting. Each round, players will choose action cards to determine what they’re going to do for the round, including distributing astronauts to ships en route to Mars, moving astronauts around on Mars, or even removing other astronauts from the game. After the tenth round, the player with the most points wins.
I consider this game to be a Hybrid because it’s a kind of a mesh between Citadels and El Grande (role selection and area control). But aren’t those both more Eurogames? Yes, but the addition of a strong sci-fi theme adds the element of story that Citadels and El Grande really lack. There’s conflict and take-that as players try to get the best spots on Mars, but with low amounts of luck and very strong mechanics. Plus, it’s fairly accessible (though I wouldn’t recommend it with the full complement of six on your very first play).
Pandemic is a 2008 game designed by Matt Leacock and published by Z-Man Games. It is the game that launched the cooperative craze. In the game, you are working together to contain a worldwide disease epidemic long enough to find cures for four different diseases. On your turn, you have four actions, which can be used to move, establish research stations, treat diseases, cure diseases, or even exchange information. At the end of your turn, you get new cards and infect new cities, and of course, you always have to watch out for epidemics that will pop up. You win by curing all four diseases. However, if there are too many outbreaks, or if the deck runs out, or if you run out of disease cubes, you lose.
This game is one I almost left off the list, but I’m including it because I think it is one of the first games with this kind of theme that gained wide acceptance among Eurogamers (it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2009). I mean, it’s a game about the potential end of the world – heavy stuff. But what it really did was pioneer a new class of games. There were co-ops before 2008, but Pandemic started a tidal wave of them, and it has come to be a genre that is accepted by Eurogamers and ATers. With the release in 2015 of Pandemic Legacy, the game continues to be a genre defining system that will be around for a long time.
Small World is a 2009 release from designer Philippe Keyaerts and publisher Days of Wonder. It is a reimplementation of the system from Keyaerts’ 1999 game Vinci. In the game, you choose a race and power combination, then start conquering regions on the map. You need two chits to conquer a region, plus one per other piece of cardboard already there. At the end of your turn, if you don’t quite have enough to conquer anything, you can roll a reinforcement die to see if you can get enough. After a few turns, your race will cease to be effective and you’ll need to send them into decline. Then, you can choose a new race and power combination and start again. After a set number of rounds, the player who has earned the most points wins.
I’m including this one because Keyaerts and Days of Wonder took a game that was mechanically solid but thematically bland (ancient civilizations), and developed it into a very fun fantasy game. There are 14 races and 20 powers to combine (plus more with the expansions), so there’s a lot of replayability. I think what really makes it a Hybrid Game is that it’s a victory point based family game that is all about conflict and variable powers.
Twilight Struggle is a 2005 game that was designed by Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta, published by GMT Games. This is a card-driven two-player game set in the Cold War. In each round, players will choose cards from their hand to play, either as their event or for operation points that can be spent to spread influence. Players are trying to gain control of countries around the world – Europe, Asia, Africa, and so on. There’s also a space race that will give extra benefits, and a DEFCON track – if either player starts a nuclear war, the other player wins. After a certain number of rounds (assuming no one has one via the space race or armageddon), the player with the scoring advantage is the winner.
The first time I heard about this game, it was called “a wargame that Eurogamers would play.” And the five years it spent on top of the charts at BGG proves its wide appeal. The game is extremely thematic, and yet has really tight mechanics and very tense decisions throughout. It really is a very good Hybrid Game.
So there’s my list. Any thoughts on other games that could fit into the Hybrid category? Let me know if you think of any, and thanks for reading!