Virtual vs. Physical Board Games

Morning Table Talk is a series where our designer Trevor Harron takes Sunday mornings to muse about games and game related topics.

As someone who majored in Computer Science, whenever I talk to someone about making games as a second job frequently I’m first asked “For what platform?” I then explain that I make board games and the conversation continues. Personally I feel that each medium for games has its own pros and cons and for this morning I wanted to look at digital board games and why they work in the digital space with a few nods to physical counterparts. For the most part, board games that are digital tend to fall into 2 categories:

  1. Games that are physical games as well and were made into digital games and,

  2. Games that for the most part only able to exist digitally.

Now the first group is obvious but let me elaborate on that second group, these games have some mechanics designed that could not work in the real world. For instance Hearthstone has cards that can ‘Discover’ other cards where the player is presented 3 cards to choose from (those 3 cards being randomly selected) or cards that create unique cards that cannot be found anywhere else in the game. This means that in theory to play this game in the real world not only would a person need multiples of every card in the game at their disposal but also would mean that calculating the random cards would need large tables of percentages and cause the game to take reeeeeaaaallllly long and kill the fun. A second example of this is a dungeon-making, rpg game called The Guild of Dungeoneering where we are trying to construct a dungeon for our dungeoneer to explore and monsters to fight. The basic tile laying mechanics the would be doable but then what happens when you run out of tiles? However the second set of mechanics comes from the dungeoneer having a deck of attack cards that get augmented by abilities and effects in the game; for example a helmet can add some defense cards to the dungeoneer’s deck. Making this into a physical game is not hard to think about but difficult to implement and that’s the key: to implement some of these digital games in the real word the experience suffers becoming bogged down with extra calculations and/or pieces.

Physical games have a few things they do better than their digital counterparts: randomness, tactile feel of a game, and the social factor. Computers are good at several things including complex calculations but randomness is not one of them. For a physical game however we have had nifty little things to help us with randomness: dice and/or cards. Coming to the 2nd item, how many times as you play Pandemic or even Monopoly where you realize that part of the experience is moving the cubes/tokens around, money changing hands, or even moving pieces? In a physical game things feel more real and enhance the experience but *most* digital games cannot do this. Finally,  while you can play a physical game everyone has to be present (though one could argue that using skype and a robot could be used but that is a trivial case). This social aspect is why a lot of people play board games or families have board game nights. Some could argue that being linked to people via the internet is similar but anyone who has played D&D via skype would understand that there are some big differences from a screen and seeing people across from you and talking with them.

However this can augment some of the physical games out there such as calculating the score of 7 Wonders or handling the fiddly phases and mechanics of Powergrid so my thought is that there are definite upsides to having a digital version of some physical games since that will enhance the experience of the player by not needing to look up complicated tables or even worry about setting up or cleaning up afterwards.

All of this is a long winded way of saying that there are advantages for both physical and digital games. As of this article I have not played a mixed media game (and would love to) but that is also a different set of design considerations. If you want a game where you can connect with anyone anywhere and potentially access every part of your game (almost) infinitely, then a digital game would be great! If you want a tactile experience with true randomness then a physical game is the game for you. Both have something they bring to the table and can be a lot of fun!

All of this is just food for thought so take some time, sip some of your morning beverage, and have a great day!