June 17, 2013

Digital Kills the Physical Star

There is an interesting debate raging over in THIS thread, which has to do with how much of the “video game” content related to iOS or other digital ports of boardgames is permitted (aka moderated) to permeate into BGG. This is one small manifestation of the watershed of changes the boardgaming hobby is experiencing as iOS and other digital implementations of boardgames continues to grow by leaps and bounds – and the pressures to come to terms with these changes will, I feel, continue to mount.

I’d prefer not to get into the policies of BGG and where content can or should land on the BGG/VGG divide. That’s a whole separate and specific topic to the Geek. Rather, I’d like to use the moment to talk about what the debate and the line between boardgame and video game represents for the future boardgames more broadly. And I have some questions in mind!

#1) Let’s assume (and we’ll challenge this assumption in a moment) that a boardgame and an iOS or other digital implementation of that same boardgame is still the “same game”. If so – what separates something we view primarily as a boardgame from something we would view primarily as a video game? Is there a line? If so, where is it?

I’ve been thinking about this topic a bit lately, even before the aforementioned thread discussion. I was reading a review of the Warhammer Quest iOS app, and the reviewer remarked how it “was” mechanically the same as the boardgame (for the most part), yet the mechanics were more hidden (i.e. you don’t actually see your die roll results). The author had a strange sense of not knowing whether they were supposed to be playing a boardgame – which the design was clearly based on – or whether they were actually playing a video game. Or some hybrid of the two.

The argument seems easier to make that they were still playing a boardgame when examined in the “from boardgame to digitial game” direction. But what about the other way around? I have an original iOS game called UniWar that is, for all intents and purposes, a simple hex and counter wargame. The mechanics and rules are all very transparent as well. If you gave me a few days, I could easily create a playable physical boardgame that worked exactly the same way and would yield the same strategic choices, options, and experiences.

So, is UniWar a video game or a boardgame?

Going back to the original question, if we set aside the physical versus digital format of the game – is there something particular that makes video games video games and definitely not boardgames? And in turn, what makes a boardgame a boardgame and definitely not a video game? What does the answer to these questions mean for digital implementations of games like Warhammer Quest? Or Eclipse? Or Agricola? What are they?

#2) The term “boardgames” has come to encompass card games as well – so in aggregate we might call them “tabletop games.” What is it that makes something definitely a table top game, irrespective of format, versus something being a video game?

One might be tempted to say that boardgames turn-based. Yet there are plenty of video games that are turn-based. Likewise, there are both real-time boardgames and video games. What about the element of dexterity? A video shooter game has dexterity, but many table top games utilize dexterity as well.

The only characteristic I can think of as appoint of differentiation is one of “mental experience.” Outside of the physical and tactile traits, a physicial boardgame and a “true” digital version present the players with the exact same game spaces and decision points, and specifically that the entire game space is mechanically discernible. The players can pull up a rulebook that explains the exact mechanics of how the game works.

That is the key difference in my mind – most traditional video games are far more opaque, or even outright impossible, to discern mechanically to anyone outside those writing the code. In a true video games, the code is the rules. In a boardgame, the rules are the rules. In a digital boardgame port, the rules are the rules BUT those rules are implemented via code. 
To go back to my Uniwar example, the “rules” of the player experience are clear and transparent – so I can take those same rules, ignore all the game’s coding, and make a perfect physical version of the game. For many types of video games, this process cannot be done. Sure, we have a Gears of War: The Boardgame, which thematically replicates the action of Gears of War: The Videogame Shooter, yet the play experiences are completely different – and in fact the game space created in the video game cannot be created in a physical version in a way that follows the same rules.

#3) If we recognize the inherent discernibility of the rules and mechanics of boardgames as being a defining characteristic, how does that rectify with video games that have the same discernibility, whether being a direct boardgame ports or an original game design?

In a way, I wonder about the aptness of the term “boardgame” overall. Some raise issue with the name noting that it leaves out “card games” as part of the definition. And following the reasoning above, we can also say that it leaves out “discernible video games” that are potentially indistinguishable from boardgames other than the format on which they are played.

Of course, “boardgames” as a term is a serviceable and widely used term. Yet I can’t help but be amused trying to think of other names!

Strategy games? Tactical games? Too narrow…
“Grok-able” games? Too geek-speak…
Discernible games? Too confounding….
Mechanistic games? Too dry…
Procedural games? Too confusing?
Trackable (or tractable) games?

Does anything resonate with you? Is it worth trying to label what defines these types of games?

#4) More interestingly, what does the blurring of the line between boardgames and video games mean for the future of games and game design?

I’m going to formally introduce a term I coined previously, which is Voardeogames. Voardeogames are those that that straddle the lines, where the rules for how the game’s mechanics work can be written out in plain language and understood, yet the intended implementation is primarily on a digital device – providing (perhaps) novel ways of interfacing with a game provided by that medium, even if the rules and mechanics could otherwise be replicated physically.

I wonder if we are going to start seeing a lot more Voardeogames moving forward. I see a few interesting things to support this. iOS (and other digital) implementations of boardgames appear to be surging in popularity, especially among traditional boardgames. In addition, such games are seeing wider market penetration across broader demographics – and successes of apps like the Carcassonne iOS app or Ticket to Ride is helping push mainstream visibility and interest in “boardgame-like” game designs. Further, digital implementations eliminate many of the barriers (but also many of the perks) to physical boardgaming – such as having to find a group of willing players to meet face to face.

From a design standpoint, I think traditional video games, in many genres, have a lot to learn from boardgame-like designs – the need to keep the rules and mechanics understandable and transparent, provide adequate feedback, create interesting decision points, etc. As I’ve expounded on previously, I think many traditional video games could benefit by providing more challenge and narrative to players, instead of intending to provide only an “immersive experience” for players to cruise through.

#5) Last – what do you think the collision course between boardgame-like designs and digital platforms means for the gaming industry? Does it change how you view traditional boardgames or traditional video games?

And with that, we’ll open the phones…

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