Posted by: markfender | July 18, 2012

Warhammer is Ameritrash

There’s a new edition of Warhammer 40,000 out! I haven’t played it! (which echoes my experiences with 3rd, 4th, and 5th editions)

There’s this new Allies Matrix in the game. It tells you which factions your faction can ally with. One of the options is Desperate Allies, which basically means that if you roll a 1 on a d6 check, your allies will stand around and do nothing for the turn.

That’s a flavorful rule, but one that made me realize a nasty secret about Warhammer: It’s Ameritrash.

Ameritrash is a concept in the board game community used to describe a type of boardgame popularized in America: it’s highly thematic, highly luck-driven, and concentrates more on simulating its theme in the rules than it does on necessarily a smooth game experience. Typically, the rules for Ameritrash games involve a lot of exception-based gameplay in order to get the individual rules to simulate the thematic elements the game is going for. The name’s a bit derogatory, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I myself tend to prefer the Ameritrash game because I get bored by the streamlined elegant mechanics of Eurogames. I like my games to involve spaceships or dragons in some way, and you’re just not gonna find that in something designed by Reiner Knizia.

Transporting this idea to wargames, we can see the same elements present in Warhammer and other european wargames. While the original idea was probably to model historical battles and some of the crazy situations that occurred in them, it’s broadened out from that field into a ton of exceptions. Enter Games Workshop. While the height of the ridiculous luck-driven gameplay was probably found in 2nd edition, it’s still present in things like these Desperate Allies rules. In order to make a thematic sort of game where two forces may not like each other very much but are forced to work together, there’s a random roll to determine whether half(ish) of your army gets to play this turn? It’s hitting that thematic element pretty hard.

It might just be incredibly obvious to everyone else and I only now put two and two together, but I think european-style wargames are really designed to tell a story. If your Eldar allies refuse to fight for half the game, that’s a story you can relate to someone later and probably laugh about. The other random elements in the game are also there to create a story. But not necessarily a good game experience.

Randomness is present in all these sorts of wargames, for obvious reasons. And even less Ameritrash wargames have flavor – stating that Bane Knights are better fighters than Mechanithralls is flavorful and also implemented in the rules by the slight difference in MAT. That’s to be expected if your game isn’t just about doing some math and moving some colored blocks around. But I think there’s a more mechanical interest to make games “fair” in non-Ameritrash, whereas something like 40K wants as much randomness as possible in order to lead to odd and quixotic situations. “Fun” equals “story” in their eyes. Something more mechanically rigorous can also have stories, but those stories generally arise from tactics and strategy carrying the day.

So, what did we learn? Nothing, really. Ameritrash is such a nebulous term that no one can agree on the definition. Since the original term doesn’t mean much, applying the term to a different game doesn’t really mean anything either. It just sort of struck me that this emphasis on emulating thematic elements with randomness seems very par-for-the-course in all the British wargames I’ve seen and probably describes exactly why I don’t like them.


  1. It’s certainly a feature of most GW games (and probably a big reason why I mo longer play them. I like more actual game in my gaming) but I was thinking about Epic. At least the current version as its the only one I really have played and I feel there is less emphasise on randomness in that one. Anyway, interesting idea. Not something I’ve clearly thought put for myself but I think your pretty spot on. Whatever its a good or bad thing depends on what you want from the game. Blood Bowl is still one of my favourite games for instance.

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