Tactile Digital Play, Part 2: App-Based Board Games

Tabletop Games

Temple Run Danger Chase gameTemple Run Danger Chase game

Watch out for that demon monkey! Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

My previous post on tactile digital play was about a few new gadgets that blur the line between digital and analog, allowing for physical manipulation to control an on-screen app. Then there’s the other approach: taking a digital property and turning into a physical toy or game. These game adaptations have their roots in the app world but are are almost completely analog — no iPad required.

Before I get into the specifics, it’s worth asking why these games exist. Why would you take a physics-based puzzler like Angry Birds (which, of course, uses its own tweaked version of physics) and turn it into an actual toy (which uses real physics and is therefore much harder)? Why take an arcade game that uses your smartphone’s accelerometer and touch screen, requiring reflexes and dexterity, and attempt to replicate that in the world of cardboard and dice?Well, money is the easy answer, of course. If you have a franchise as big as Angry Birds then you might as well make hay while the sun shines. But there’s more to it than that: if you were just after some extra licensing opportunities, the T-shirts and plush toys are surely an easier solution. Instead, there’s this odd compulsion to recreate videogames in real life, to turn Fruit Ninja into a physical experience, and that’s (at least in part) because we still crave those tactile experiences. When we play a videogame, we want to be in the game. Again, it’s why the Wii (along with the Kinect and the Move) was so successful.

So does it work? Some better than others: while the physical experience of Angry Birds isn’t exactly the same as the app (for one thing, you have that pesky third dimension to deal with), the toys do recreate the experience of the app: You set up structures and then knock them down with birds. Granted, your birds don’t have special abilities and the blocks don’t actually splinter and shatter, but it is essentially the same game. Fruit Ninja, on the other hand, doesn’t quite capture the feel of the app: you’re flipping over little plastic fruits on a surface with plastic swords, which isn’t nearly as fun as the idea of slashing away at fruit flying through the air. And once you get to the abstraction of the card-only Fruit Ninja game? Then it’s purely branding — come on, where’s my sword?

Ok, so enough of that. What about the games? I received review copies of three app-based games recently: Temple Run Danger Chase, Temple Run Speed Sprint, and Where’s My Water? When I heard about these games, part of me was pretty skeptical, and part of me totally bought into the merchandising: my younger daughter really loves the Where’s My Water? app and I figured she’d probably enjoy a game based on it. (What can I say? Swampy is cute.) Temple Run seemed a harder sell: it’s less character-driven, and could you really do a fast-paced action game as a physical board game?

Let’s start with Temple Run.

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