Friday, October 31, 2014

Board Games in Application

The world of board games is no stranger to all kinds of digital aids, which rose in popularity with the introduction of smartphones. Unofficial scoring helpers for games such as Agricola or 7 Wonders, a life and status tracker for Sentinels of the Multiverse or set randomizers for different deckbuilding games seem as natural as a scoring pad or a simple sheet of paper and a pencil. But is this just a novelty or a great shift in gaming?

7 Wonders Scorer by Forrest Wang

If you’ve been to Essen this year, you probably had a chance to play XCom: The Board Game from Fantasy Flight Games. Perhaps you were one of the people who bought Alchemists from Czech Games Edition. And you know that, in essence, both of these games require a digital component to play (with Alchemists introducing a token alternative to having at least one smartphone at the table).

Alchemists has recently been “ran through” by Richard Ham (known and loved by the gaming community as Rahdo). The naturally mouth-watering main part was then supplemented by Rahdo’s opinion on digital components in the runthrough finalthoughts. Suffice to say, that he his attitude was quite positive, with a few very good arguments against all the things people seemed most unhappy about when it came to fusing board games and digital applications.

Alchemists official cover by CGE
(source: BGG)

The truth is that I wholeheartedly agree with most of the points in the video. Making the argument that Alchemists would be unplayable in twenty years, which seemed to surface most often when it came to both the newest CGE outing, as well as when XCom was being discussed, is indeed not a very strong one - especially now, when finding all sorts of digital media from two decades ago seems easier than ever. The same goes for all sorts of “no smartphones” table policies. There is, however, one thing that surfaced in the general discussion – an argument mostly made by all those truly excited about including digital elements in board games.

Alchemists by CGE
Selecting another position
on an iPhone @ Spiel 2014.
(source: BGG)

On a somewhat personal note I should say, that I am not sold on the idea of mandatory application use for my board games. Although I love the social aspect of gaming, I also find the physical aspect of games very appealing. Simply put, I like touching and moving the components, and distancing the player from some of the game elements by putting them behind a touch screen is something I am not crazy about. Still, what the enthusiasts say is that this step allows for introduction of mechanisms simply too complicated or too fiddly to implement in a fully analogue game. And that resonates with me on a completely different level.

From a designer and publisher perspective it might be extremely tempting to start looking closely at the possibility of removing some of the in-game busywork and hiding it within the depths of a simple app. But there are broader implications everyone – those who make games and those who play them – should possibly consider. And it is one of the elements that makes board games what they are today, possibly even being responsible for their growing popularity in a world that seems completely submerged in its digital existence.

The Settlers of Catan cover
(source: BGG)

Since Settlers of Catan made its glorious appearance on the market, paving the way for games very unlike older American titles – complicated, heavy with rules, often convoluted or inconsistent enough to make them very niche products – tabletop gaming was about simplicity. Board game mechanisms can only be so complicated, and beyond a certain level lies a realm of games played only once a year, or only be their greatest and most devoted fans. The trick is – and has been for the last twenty years – to design systems that introduced interesting decisions or simulated complicated ideas in a simple, digestible form.

Make no mistake: introducing digital components to a tabletop game is a great opportunity, but I sincerely do not think that these elements will start taking over board gaming anytime soon for a simple reason. The more complex systems have already ruled the tabletop gaming world and (although still existing and doing well) they failed as its mainstream. Reintroducing them using mandatory apps is a novelty that is probably here to stay, but not dominate the scene. When it comes to high complexity simulations with internal systems hidden away from the players, we already have those: they are called videogames.

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  1. Just this year, we've seen mobile integration into games such as Golem Arcana, XCOM, Alchemists, World of Yo-ho, and there are many more in development. But in addition to the aspects you mentioned above, there are publisher advantages to doing this as well: Data that can be uploaded, analyzed and adjusted-- such as game performance data, player data, sales data, etc. This data can be used for sales and marketing strategies, organized play programs, digital player rewards, just to name a few. That sort of real-time data is the missing link for publishers in how their games perform, sell, and to gauge player experience.

  2. I don't know if this is good or not :)
    Somehow, in my personal opinion a board game is losing some of its charm when mobile technology comes into play. However, as a part of a business which has to grow, we cannot be oblivious to this trend.

    One interesting article about mobile gaming and addiction

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