Digital editions of board games: silly, better or simply different?

Digital editions of board games: silly, better or simply different?

It sounds like an oxymoron, something that shouldn’t even be a thing. Yet, digital versions of physical board games are around in numbers and you can find them on various flavours of smart phones, tablets or computers. Combining digital and analog forms of play to create something new or out of the ordinary is not an easy feat, yet it has been attempted, long before the dawn of tactile screen technology. 

Hybrid board games

The Quest for the ring (1981) for the Magnavox Odyssey2 - known as the Philips Videopac in Europe - is probably the best game I can think of that combines traditional board game concepts with the interactive features of a video game. The graphics and gameplay look more than dated by today’s standards, so you have to put this game back in its context to truly appreciate what its creators were looking to achieve. Parts of the game are played on a high quality board map of the fantasy world the adventure takes place in, with various physical pieces and tokens, while other segments are played in the video game.

The Quest for the RingBy putting a map overlay on top of the console’s keyboard, the interface of the console is enhanced to create something specifically tailored to the game, not limited by the machine's input device. Two other games like it were made in what was referred to as the Master Strategy Series. I have personally never played these games and I only found out about them just a few years ago. I’m sure none of them are considered timeless classics and that their gameplay would seem extremely limited compared to current video games. Nonetheless I applaud them for exploring new ways of delivering interactive storytelling. Keep in mind that this was all at a time when the home computer market was in its infancy, the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft’s first Windows operating system were still a few years from their release.

You can read more about the Master Strategy Series at the Odyssey2 homepage where you will find extensive info about the games and lots of photos of all their components.

As often with groundbreaking ideas and despite Philips having won numerous awards for this novel concept of hybrid gameplay, the idea of combining physical add-on components to a gaming device was never pursued further by the company or any other for that matter.

The dawn of new tech

ApptivityFast forward a few decades, into the age of smart phones and tablets. These devices have done a great job at hiding the technology from the user, turning them into something else than just a computer. Board game apps are becoming increasingly popular on iOS and Android. As most, I was initially a little puzzled. It does seem like a strange idea at first but it’s not that crazy after all because most of these games are taking advantage of the devices they are designed for. It’s as though the tactile interaction with the screen has given developers permission to start innovating again.

Yet, only occasionally have we seen apps that make use of external add-ons to interact with the device. Apps like like Mattel's Apptivity series showed us we could potentially be at the doorstep of a new era of gaming innovation. This was six years ago and we're still waiting.

In the meantime, let’s have a look at a few of these tabletop adaptations I was talking about and see what they have to offer.

Companion apps

Have you ever played 5 Minute Dungeon? It’s a quick and fun co-operative card game that requires 2 to 5 players to make their way through a stack of cards (dungeon encounters) in less than five minutes. You can use any old way of timing it but since the game can be paused at times, the developer decided to offer a free phone and tablet app that does just that while adding fun voice-overs with a variety of personalities. It may be a bit of a gimmick but it does add to the gameplay by enhancing the feeling of urgency as you near the end of the countdown. It’s also very easy to tap the screen to pause the gameplay when required so it works perfectly with the frenetic gameplay dictated by 5 Minute Dungeon. It’s a good example of how a very simple app can enhance your gaming experience.

Straight port

Another route developers have taken is to create full digital versions of their games. Here are few I have tried and used. I’m not here to review the games; in my opinion, they are all great. I solely want to look at whether the digital platform is used to enhance, complement or simply replicate the gaming experience. 

Small World 2, the digital equivalent of Fantasy Flight’s Small Word is a straight conversion of the board game. There’s only a video tutorial to help you get to grips with it so it requires a bit of figuring out if you have never played it before (which was my case). It a typical case of a tablet app that would be fun to play during a long road trip but it does very little to offer anything more than a straight port.

Talisman by Games Workshop is a complex adventuring game that uses a fair bit of elements such as cards, miniatures and tokens as well as a large board. It’s not exactly a game you take out for a quick play as it requires some setup and a good study of the rules booklet. The games exists in a digital version (by Asmodée), as well as the many expansions available for it. It can be played on your mobile device or your computer. It offers a great built-in tutorial which makes learning to play easy and saves you a bunch of time setting up. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the rules.

Adding to the play experience

Lords of WaterdeepThis brings me to Lords of Waterdeep by Wizards of the Coast. It’s a strategy board game set in D&D’s Forgotten Realms. The physical version of the game has many components such as meeples, token, cards, coins etc. It isn’t a quick game to pick and play, in other words: it’s a little daunting for non hard-core board game players. The digital version has a number of built-in features that make the most of its platform, such as offline and online play, downloadable expansions and tutorials. These tutorials - eight in total - cover all aspects of the game and are a great way to familiarize yourself with the rules. I was well impressed by how good a job it did at helping me learn a complex game. 

Potion Explosion is another great adaptation that also makes the most of its digital platform. So much has been done to streamline the interface that it feels more like puzzle video game. I have never played the physical version but, it definitely gave me  a good taste of it.

OnirimLast, I wanted to look at a digital card game port so I downloaded Onirim, an intriguing game with beautiful art and design. A first glance, it seems the physical game would be confusing, so having your hand held while you learn seems like a good idea. As it turns out, the digital version has it’s merits and despite the lack of tactile interaction, it makes for a nice little game to play on the go.

Better or just different?

In my opinion, neither. Ultimately, I see digital editions of board games fulfilling three purposes:

- They serve as good tasters for the physical versions of the games at a fraction of the price. Some board games require a big investment and sometimes you find yourself at a loss having to choose between two but can only afford one. Trying out a tablet version if available can help you gauge if it ticks the right boxes for you and help you in your buying decision.

- They offer a cheap way of learning how to play the game in some cases. There are plenty of videos out there that teach you the rules of many board games, but playing them first hand at your own pace makes it easier. You learn by doing, not by being passive. If it’s a game you end up liking a fair bit and buying the tabletop version, you will always have the digital one to play while travelling!

- They are fully fledged experiences. Some of you may prefer at times to play digitally, or you may want to get better at a specific game on your own. These are not dumbed down versions of real board games, they are video games in their own right.

Is it for you?

Nintendo LaboIn the end it comes down to this. There is no real right or wrong way to play. As long as you are having fun, it’s all that matters. Personally, I do see these digital ports as something beneficial for gamers of all levels. They can provide you with an alternative for a game you want to play but cannot afford in its physical form or it can serve as a complement to its real world sibling. As long as what you play promotes getting together, playing and interacting with a group of gamers in person, you can’t loose!

I am still fascinated by the concept of mixing physical and digital media. I would love to see something in the vein of the old Quest for the Rings. I could see it happening in the near future, too. Nintendo has just introduced their Labo kits for Switch. These look terrific as they engage players by re-introducing crafting to kids and grown-up while emphasizing the social aspect of these activities. If these games prove popular, we might see more of them or different applications of that concept!

Until next time, be well and remember: why you play is more important than what you play!

Cheers,
Wouter


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