Saturday, 20 August 2011

Just what the hell is a beer and pretzels game?

 Are these becoming essential gaming accessories?

I'm sure there are many more important questions in life that require an answer, or warrant the attention of inquiring minds way more than 'what is a beer and pretzels game?' However, the puzzle of what actually makes a game a so called 'beer and pretzels game' has started to bug the hell out of me recently. Because of late I'm being told every game out there is pretty much a sodding 'beer and pretzels game', by design it's how they're meant to be played. The implication of which is quite startling... You're all alcoholics!!!

So why has this phrase started to bug me? Well you see it never used to bug me at all, it actually wormed its way into usage in my gaming circle probably about 15 years ago now. It was brought in by an American acquaintance. This friend assures me the phrase comes from the U S of A and originated from the time honoured tradition of grown men sitting in front of TVs together getting drunk and eating snack food, while screaming at whatever sporting event happened to be on. Or playing poker! I'm going to say I buy this explanation of the phrase mostly because the phrase was used pretty much exclusively by American's around the time. However, Wikipedia seems to think its something else entirely here have a look at their beer and pretzels games page. As we all know Wikipedia is never wrong.

I took the phrase to mean a game played with friends that wasn't taken seriously, a fun night if you will. Not necessarily that's all a game was designed for, but that you could play any game for fun in this way if you liked. Now in our gaming group that normally meant board games where if we'd failed something we were forced to take a shot of some good foresaken spirit as 'punishment'. A  time honoured tradition in these parts once again introduced by my American friend. God I love American culture. We did also though partake of some 'beer and pretzel' wargaming. Now this meant playing a wargame in a silly way.

The most famous for me being Battletech 'King of the Hill' and again I'm going to have to admit this was a totally American invention. We'd built a huge Hill and 4 of us would fight over the hill and whoever controlled the top layer for an entire turn got a point. The first to 5 points won. Reinforcements were unlimited and the game wasn't played as a serious game. It was all about screwing each other over while having a laugh. Beer flowed and pizzas were ordered... and nobody EVER won.

But, here's the thing, Battletech for me at the time was, in the main, a serious game for me. I played to win and took my gaming with my itty bitty toy Mech Warriors very, very seriously. In fact its probably the only period of my gaming life and maybe even the only game I ever truly took deadly serious. I was a vicious killer in that game and normally always took my 'killer lists' and instincts to the board with me. I was what British people would call a 'wanker' about it. So Battletech was not a 'beer and pretzels' game it was just that we had beer and pretzels game nights where we played Battletech, if you catch my drift.

Now for over a decade I'd say that's what the definition of a 'beer and pretzels' game was. It was a night or maybe entire day where a group of mates would get together, bring a few beers round and play silly games and not take them seriously whatever they were, 40k, fantasy, Blood Bowl... Oh good God Blood Bowl... I shudder to think how many vodka fueled games of Blood Bowl have been played. These games were also serious wargames, or board games, to be respected as serious tactical endeavours. This definition of 'beer and pretzels' game my friends and I were quite happy with. So what's happened?

Well I started hearing entire game systems being describe as 'beer and pretzel' games. Almost like they were designed to be played while the consumption of alcohol, salt, fat and sugar are taken to health threatening levels... ergo you'll only have fun with it if you're stuffed full of junk food, and so smashed off your face you think wearing boxer shorts on your head is 'dead funny'. Do I have a problem with the idea of an entire game system being designed in such a way? Part of me really wants to say no, because I can't think of any real rational reason why it shouldn't be OK really...

However, I do have a problem with it because it's now used as a cop out for a game being rubbish!!! That's the rub with me, if it was used to describe a game that was fun then fair enough, but apologists for all games are wheeling the good old 'beer and pretzels game' card for all sorts of fetid turds. Perhaps my problem started when Games Workshop staff started telling me that 8th Edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle was designed as a 'beer and pretzels' game. They didn't always describe it thus though, oh no, it is a recent occurrence in the last 5 or 6 months. It started in one Games Workshop and was such a weird interjection into that conversation that it felt like head office marketing speak, so I tested my theory in a number of different Games Workshops throughout different parts of the land.

Sure enough, it turns out I am no longer playing Warhammer 8th edition right, I got it all wrong. Like staff were telling me at first, yep I just wasn't playing the game with all the right accessories you see. I do however feel sorry for the poor staff member in the Liverpool store. You see he caught me on a bad day with the 'phrase' and I asked whether I could buy some 'Games Workshop beer' and 'Games Workshop Pretzels' to go with the game. His confused face probably meant I should have asked for Citadel beer and Pretzels. I also asked him whether now because it was mandatory to play Warhammer pissed out of ones head while buzzing on junk food, if young kids were discouraged from playing the game? Or was it now Games Workshop policy to be encouraging under age drinking?

Coming to a Games Workshop near you!!!

The real kicker for me though was that 2 weeks ago a member of staff described 40k as a 'beer and pretzels' game to someone who I know takes 40k as seriously as I took Battletech all those years ago. Yeah that is probably too seriously. The resulting one sided discussion, well diatribe really, was one of the funniest I've witnessed in sometime. There was no swearing, but there were some colourful insults 'buckets for hands dice junky' and 'lobotomised spaz chavs' are definitely going into the storage banks for future use. Primarily because they're colourful and offensive but won't get stared out on forums!!! So what has changed then? Well I'm now told as a defence for the inherent imbalance in Warhammer Fantasy Battle that it is all part of the game, and if I was drunk I'd understand that Dark Elves are meant to be that hard.

I have seen that argument banded around on message boards to describe pretty much every game when somebody says they don't like it, or that it hasn't got enough depth, or is unbalanced. You can guarantee that a few posts later that someone will defend the game as a 'beer and pretzels game' like they're not going to get how great the game is until they're drunk. This approach to defending games winds me up, yeah sure I know there are games out there that have placed their gaming tongue firmly in their cheek, and are indeed designed to be nothing but fun games, but guess what? They're fun without the application of ethanol based liquid refreshments, they're just fun, and normally very well constructed.

The real trigger though for this article came recently, when I heard Warmachine described as a 'beer and pretzels' game. Now that raised concerns from me right away, as well as my bushy eyebrows. Sure, the game is fun and certainly has a comic lighthearted tone in the rulebook, but it is a serious system or certainly seems to have pretentions to be such. What with their tournament system and the support they offer to this scene. After conversing with the guy in the shop I found something interesting out. He was using the phrase to describe how him and his mates played Warmachine. They'd all get together and play lots of games and just socialise and have fun, the games his group of friends were taking seriously were Infinity and 40k. Warmachine was that groups light relief game, he wasn't saying it was a 'beer and pretzels game' in the way Games Workshop staff members are trying to tell me Warhammer Fantasy is, but more in the way my mates used to play king of the hill Battletech.

The idea of having a designated none serious game though amongst a group of friends is an appealing one, because gaming can get heated and serious. So if we all knew we weren't taking game 'X' seriously when somebody asked if we wanted to play it, we'd know to leave our game faces at home and bring some beers instead. I know language evolves, as does the hobby, but just what the hell does the phrase 'beer and pretzels game' mean to you? Is there a common meaning? Genuinely I'd like to know, so as always lets have your thoughts. Peace out!


  1. I wrote a post on it a while back too.

    I've been uncomfortable with it as a term since I first read it - I don't think till that point I'd ever heard anyone actually say it.

    As with any term, I think there's the danger it will start to mean something even if it didn't before, and as you suggest maybe create dividing lines, and even push out individual experiences.

  2. @porky an interesting article, cheers for posting the link. Definitely good to see that I'm not the ony person who is concerned about the rise in use of the phrase, even if we are concerned for slightly different reasons. I too hate how we cage ourselves in with restrictive language but a common language or phraseology is sadly a inevitability of any walk of life... no matter how much I hate it. Still not sure what's wrong with the phrase 'fun game' which I used to use in simpler days. For me its the use of the phrase for defending poor product, by saying you're taking things too seriously or aren't playing it right somehow... poppycock!!! lol.

  3. Great article, personally I think it's down to the players to decide how seriously they want to take their games. I haven't come across the dreaded beer and pretzels term in any of my local GW's yet but If it does appear I will be asking for a full explanation as to the meaning of the term. I do take pleasure in making GW staff squirm occasionally.

  4. Cheers MCT. I don't normally like winding up GW staff primarily because I think they have enough shit to deal with anyway without me heaping more on their plate. However dumb remarks do get a polite rebuttal normally from me. I'm just, like you, not really comfortable being told how seriously I should take my gaming. That is a recipe for disaster for GW staff with me. Besides after the cost of buying a WFB army I'm not sure I'd have enough fund to buy the required amount of beer and pretzels to make the game fun... and even if I did I don't fancy dying young of the inevitable alcohol poisoning that consuming that much alcohol would bring!!! :P

    Yes people that was a dig at 8th ed!!!

  5. I too have issues with the concept of Beer and Pretzels games, or for that matter Serious Games (which seems to be a new buzzword). Does a war game become any less serious if your your armies consist of orcs and trolls instead of soldiers and tanks? Or Battlemechs instead of Battleships?
    It seems that the intention of the players, and maybe the physical presence of alcoholic beverages and starchy snacks, it the only thing that separates one from the other.

  6. Agreed EastwoodDC its the bloody age old human problem of wanting to label and categorise things some we can compartmentalize things. I think games designers can choose to approach the development of a game from a certain standpoint, i.e. a fun game with humour or an in-depth game that requires careful consideration or thought... however its those playing the game who should be able to define the experience they want.

    Taking one of my current favourite distractions DKH:DR it is clearly a game that was designed with an element of humour and character to it, yet its balanced and has a nice depth to it and it allows the gamers to decide and dictate the experience they have. That for me is how games should be. I think Porky's article sums up the frustrations I have with the homogenization that the internet effects on use of language... but that's a whole different topic!!!

  7. "I was what British people would call a 'wanker' about it. So Battletech was not a 'beer and pretzels' game it was just that we had beer and pretzels game nights where we played Battletech."

    This exemplifies something that I have argued for a long long time. You can design a solid, well balanced and tight rule-set, and then players can play it as seriously or as light-heartedly as they want. Game designers who design their games poorly because they don't expect anyone to take it seriously will find their expectations met and exceeded.

  8. @Purgatus on that I wholeheartedly agree. There are great games out there that are designed to be fun, BUT and here's the important thing, they're still robust rule-sets that are well balanced and designed. I hate people using the 'its meant to be fun' excuse for any game that takes a hammering because of balance or rules ambiguities. If the rules aren't important why have them in the first place? Nope this 'beer and pretzels' phrase is becoming seriously abused in the hobby nowadays and I don't like being told my wargaming should come with beer and salty snack foods as standard!!!

  9. Great article. You know, I don't think I've ever heard anyone use that term in real life, except maybe to describe party games.

    By that I mean not the sort of games we play as wargamers, but games like Pictionary, Illuminatus and the other Steve Jackson card games. In other words games designed assuming that the players are already at some social event and the game is either the excuse for the party or it's an activity at the party. So I guess I'd say video games like Guitar Hero and Mario Kart are also beer-and-pretzels games. They're simple, elegant, non-exclusive games kids play for funsies and grown-ups play for laughs. My non-gamer friends can play a beer and pretzels game, but would be bewildered and a little unnerved if I tried to get them to play 40k or D&D.

    So I guess I think that some games are designed as beer-and-pretzels games, but a beer-and-pretzels wargame seems like a contradiction. You can play wargame like that if you're already familiar with it, but you're not going to get a bunch of different work-mates at a party to just pick up 40k and play it like Pictionary. That's stupid.

    Therefore, anyone who claims that there are wargames designed as beer-and-pretzels games are, in my opinion, full of shit.

  10. @James S, lol. I fully agree. Its been used as an excuse for piss poor rules if you ask me, and thats just not on. Its a cop out. Also don't think pictionary or any other game was designed to be played while the consumption of alcohol and pretzels goes on. Hell yeah they were designed as 'fun social games' and that's fine but the consumption of alcohol isn't required for them to be fun... although it helps!!! :P