Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Boardgame: the Videogame

Back in the olden days of the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo...even to the less-old-but-still-old days of the Playstation 1, Nintendo 64, even onto the PS2 and the original Xbox...the idea of a boardgame on a videogame console was absolutely absurd. Sure; the occasional copy of Monopoly or Clue may have shown up, but those were almost uniformly inferior to simply playing the real thing on your dining room table. Even if a good boardgame could manifest itself on those systems, back then the idea seemed backward. Why would you play a videogame version of Risk when you could play Starcraft with someone anywhere in the world?

But today, both technology and boardgaming have come a long way. And oddly, (or perhaps inevitably) this hobby and that technology are beginning to converge. High-definition picture makes for sharp, clear images of all the fine print commonly found in a boardgame, stuff that would really hurt the eyes on an old-school, low-def screen. Touchscreens make manipulating the various bits on the board intuitive and easy. Throw in high-powered processors and graphics technology, and now a boardgame on modern technology can actively provide advantages above and beyond their "analog" brethren, such as background music, sophisticated computer opponents (AI), animated boards and special effects.

Will technology ever be able to replace boardgames? That's a silly question when thinking pragmatically; if we're still reading books on paper, we'll still be playing games on a board. But let's think theoretically for a moment. I thought of this over the weekend, while playing Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer and Lords of Waterdeep on my tablet. While playing them, I came to the starting revelation that I like both of them MORE than their "real-life" counterparts. Ascension is a deck-building game, and in the app, all the shuffling is done for you. All the cards are already arranged, and all the resources and special abilities of cards as you play them are calculated for you. In the case of Lords of Waterdeep, the game is almost exactly the same, but the board has some cool little animated details, there's some "people doing stuff on the sly" background music, and the game can be played through asynchronous multiplayer (meaning the game pauses until whomever's turn it is goes, then you're notified when it's your turn). You can play multiple games at the same time, and fill the downtime with a match against up to four AI opponents of varying ability.

I definitley don't think we've gotten to the point yet where people will just start bringing tablets to meetup groups instead of actual boardgames, but I wonder if that will ever happen. Some of these games, like the two I mentioned above, benefit greatly from the enhancements the digital medium bring. But will anything be able to replace the tactile, human component of sitting around a table with some friends and sharing your collective attention on one thing? That's the tough part for me. In a "pass-and-play" game of Lords of Waterdeep on your iPad, what are the other four guys/gals doing around the table/couch/whatever when it's not their turn? They don't have intrigue cards to look at, points to calculate, empty spaces on the board they're hoping no one notices...they'll just be sitting there. And if they're not just sitting there, then their attention is split with whatever they're doing between turns. So for that reason alone, I think boardgame apps, as awesome as they are, will for now only be a way to play a good boardgame solo, rather than replacing their wood and cardboard counterparts.

That is, of course, until the world's first table-sized tablet shows up....

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