Rethinking the Future of Board Games

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Wizard Hex thumbnailWizard Hex thumbnail

Last year I questioned whether the future of board games would eventually incorporate things like OLED screens built into the hex tiles and digital interactivity in place of wooden meeples and bits. I was doubtful, and defended the analog side of board gaming: “cardboard tiles, the colorful wooden pieces, shuffling the cards.”

Well, a lot can happen in a year.

Read on for more about the intersection of high tech and low tech, cardboard and silicon, and internet-assisted interaction.

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Wizard Hex on iPadWizard Hex on iPad

Wizard Hex on the iPad. Image: Trouble Brothers

Last year I questioned whether the future of board games would eventually incorporate things like OLED screens built into the hex tiles and digital interactivity in place of wooden meeples. I was doubtful, and defended the analog side of board gaming: “cardboard tiles, the colorful wooden pieces, shuffling the cards.”

Well, a lot can happen in a year.

We aren’t at the stage described in the Science Daily article yet, with bits of cardboard that respond automatically to placement and movement. But since last February I’ve played Carcassonne on my iPod with friends hundreds of miles away. I’ve gotten to see a very cool implementation of Settlers of Catan on a Microsoft Surface table. I’m intrigued by early descriptions of the Duo Device that works in conjunction with an iPad to play a party game. I’m still not entirely ready to give up my cardboard and wood and paper, but I am ready to concede that the future of board games will incorporate technology more and more.

Board games have come a long way since Monopoly and Risk—there’s a wide variety of themes and game mechanics, and a tremendous depth of strategic options in some games. Games are no longer primarily the domain of children but there’s also a wonderful selection of innovative games for children which are appropriate for the Chutes and Ladders crowd but offer actual choices and compelling gameplay. Ultimately, though, the point of most board games is interaction. We play games with other people because in most cases playing with a computer is a poor substitute, even in situations when a computer can be a formidable opponent, such as chess. Sure, sometimes you want just the pure strategy, but for many of us (me, at least) game night is about more than just the game. It’s about hanging out with old friends and meeting new people, sharing your latest acquisitions, smashing your opponents with a clever strategy or losing spectacularly.

Carcassonne on the iPadCarcassonne on the iPad

Carcassonne on the iPad. Image: Chuck Lawton

This is precisely where technology can be a boon, if used correctly. Carcassonne is one of my favorite tabletop games—in fact, it’s one of my “gateway” games that led directly to my current obsession with games. With the iPhone app, now I’m able to play Carcassonne with my friends in Portland and my fellow GeekDad writers in North Carolina and Wisconsin and Arizona—all at the same time! No, it’s not exactly like sitting around the same table, but until GeekDadCon becomes a reality it’s a darn good substitute. Sites like Brettspielwelt allow you to join players from around the world in games like Pandemic, Dominion and Settlers of Catan.

Another thing that digitized games offer is the ease of setup, cleanup and scoring. Carcassonne is a lot easier to score at the end of the game when the computer calculates it up for you (though sometimes I wish it would allow me to step through the scores one by one, a little more slowly). For a game that has as many little bits as Small World, it’s great when you don’t have to stop to sort all the pieces after the game and keep them from getting mixed up. And I have to admit that the idea of having a slim iPad (or other game-playing device) rather than carting around several big boxes of board games would be terrific for travel.

Small World on the iPadSmall World on the iPad

Small World on the iPad. Image: Days of Wonder

There are, of course, many board games which would become much simpler and easier to play if they were digital. Wings of War is a WWI dogfight simulation in which the actual physical locations of the cards (or miniatures) matters, and moving them about on a table can be an imprecise thing. Shifting or rotating the card just a hair can make the difference between a hit or a miss, so there’s a certain amount of fudge factor involved. But that’s kind of the point—the online game Steam Birds is a lot like playing Wings of War, except that you know all the planes are moving precisely and exactly as far as they’re supposed to. It’s still fun to play, but if I’m on a computer I might as well have real-time control over the plane. For that matter, I could be playing a flight simulator.

Speaking of miniatures, I’m not a wargamer but I’m sure that all those battlefields and models could be much more easily manipulated, shots more easily measured, scores more easily tallied if everything were digital. But how many wargamers really want to trade in the experience of painting their miniatures, building terrains and just the actual physicality of moving the pieces around? I think technology in board games will be most appreciated when it enhances the experience somehow and makes the game more fun to play—when it simplifies the parts of the game you didn’t really like anyway, but keeps the stuff you enjoy.

Another example of an interesting cross-over game is Wok Star (which I hear has been picked up by Z-Man Games but no release date has been set yet). Wok Star plays like one of those casual Flash games where you’re managing a restaurant and have to serve up dishes before the customers get impatient. It does a remarkable job simulating that type of gameplay using cards, tokens and sand timers. But as with Wings of War it’s a little imprecise—you can forget to watch the timers, for instance. Tim Fowers of Gabob had mentioned that a dream component (which right now would make the game too expensive to produce) would be some sort of custom electronic timer that gave you precisely twenty seconds each time you hit it, with an audible alarm when time was up. If the game were digitized, it might also be nice to have a lot of the card shuffling, money-counting and card-drawing happen automatically—but part of the challenge is the physical movement involved with many hands in a limited space. Too much automation and the game would be too easy and lose its appeal.

So what’s the best way to create a digital game that retains the essence of a board game?

Cargo RunnersCargo Runners

Cargo Runners. Image: Trouble Brothers

Recently I had a fascinating conversation with Jeff McCord of Trouble Brothers about this very subject. Trouble Brothers has an interesting approach: they’re creating board games for the iPad, with plans to release physical versions later. With Cargo Runners, pictured here, it was a strategy born of necessity: McCord had worked on this board game design which has the look of something from the 1950s but before it was printed the economy went south and the game was put on hold. When he and his business partner Steve Shippert started up Trouble Brothers, they decided to see if they could sell the game on the iPad instead—and then use the awareness from the app to push through a physical board game.

The game did need some tweaks—for one, McCord acknowledged that people will sit and play a board game for a couple of hours, but digital games tend to feel long after half an hour or 45 minutes. Also, in the original design players had cards in their hands—something that’s hard to keep hidden from other players on a shared screen like the iPad. So the mechanics were adjusted and McCord feels the resulting game is even better than before. (And they’ve already contracted for the physical board game as well, which should hopefully start showing up on shelves next winter.)

Trouble Brothers’ other game is Wizard Hex, seen at the very top of this post. It’s a gorgeous abstract strategy game for up to six players (solo play is available against one to five computer opponents) and it has a unique set of rules. It has the feel of a classic strategy game: a simple board, limited pieces, a small set of rules which nevertheless allow for complex gameplay. Because it’s an app, pieces can light up and your available moves can be highlighted as you play. However, I can also imagine Wizard Hex as a physical game—it’s clear that Trouble Brothers has made the effort to give that impression.

Currently you can only play Wizard Hex against other people on the same device. McCord wanted to design a game that you could sit down at a table with your friends and play together, just like a real board game. But they are currently at work on online multiplayer through the Game Center (I’ve seen a screenshot) so hopefully it won’t be long before you can challenge me to a game. (And if you’re curious, grab it now—it’s on sale this week for $2.99; if it seems steep it’s because it’s a universal app that works on both iPhone and iPad.)

In the meantime, Trouble Brothers will be showing off their games (as well as a trivia game app) at MacWorld this week—look for them in the Mobile Apps Showcase (Kiosk #26) on the Expo floor, and tell them I sent you. While you’re at it, check out what the other small developers are doing and tell me if you see any other great examples of technology and board games merging.

Settlers of Catan on Microsoft Surface TableSettlers of Catan on Microsoft Surface Table

Ok, and finally there’s the Microsoft Surface Table. At PAX last fall I got to try out Settlers of Catan briefly, and it was … interesting. As I mentioned before, there are some things that are much more convenient: setting up the board, collecting resources when the dice are rolled—and you never have to worry about somebody knocking over a bunch of settlements and roads with an errant dice throw. But there’s also something lost—looking at your “cards” on the screen just doesn’t feel as natural as holding them in your hand. And overall the game looks and feels, well, flat (even with the optional card screens and acrylic dice blocks).

But I really like the look of the SurfaceScapes demo from a year ago, which incorporates physical pieces with the Surface table. Of course, this isn’t something that’s readily available, even if you could afford it (which most of us can’t). For now, the Surface table is probably something that you’ll see demoed at tech conventions and maybe eventually at a bar, but I’m guessing it may be a while before it’s within reach of even those who are willing to plunk down half a grand for a shiny iPad.

So, is any of this what the future of board games looks like?

Honestly, I don’t know. Like I said, I’m partial to boards and bits—heck, it’s the 21st century and I’m still reading paper books. But what I hope is that designers will come up with ways to use technology to enhance the experience of board games. Use technology to replace the things we don’t like about physical games, but don’t take away from the stuff we love.

Games are about overcoming constraints, thwarting your opponents and striving for victory. That, and having fun. Digital or not, the future of games must take that into account.

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