Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Death of the Board Game

I have a copy of the Warcraft board game. It's a fairly decent game, certainly not one of the worst I've ever purchased. It's got attractively designed pieces, an understandable instruction manual, and you can get into a game without too much set-up. It does a fantastic job of capturing the original computer game's dynamic of base building, resource management, and strategic troop deployment.

It does such a good job, in fact, that you'll find yourself wishing you were just playing the original game.

People still play board games. A fairly large number of people. And there are some fantastic board games still being made. My friends and I still get a bunch of fun out of Betrayal at House on the Hill even on the twentieth or thirtieth game of the thing.

But to some extent computer gaming has made board gaming redundant. It's now possible to engage in a multiplayer strategic game over the internet. Better still, in a computer game there's no set-up, there's no packing away to be done when it's over, and all the dice rolling and inconvenient maths is done for you. Plus there's sound, graphics, and a potentially much faster pace.

Are the reasons people still play board games anything more than a lacuna of technology's advance? Will there still be a market in a future where (1) everyone owns a handheld gaming device (possibly incorporating a mobile phone), (2) everyone is comfortable using gaming technology, and (3) such devices are capable of reliably networking with other devices globally or locally from any location?

I asked Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games this question when I met him at Conflux this year; his reply was that he felt there'd always be a place for social, tactile gaming. As far as social gaming, I don't disagree. I think people will want to bring their gaming devices together in one place even when they could play the same game from remote locations. It already happens in the culture of LAN parties, and I think it would happen more often if top-end gaming rigs were inherently more portable.

But tactile gaming? It's an attraction to physically hold the pieces, but when it's the last and only attraction that board games still have, I don't know that it'll be enough.

Given current trends in the design of both handhelds and mobile phones, it seems likely that within five years a majority of the western world will own a gaming device capable of playing wirelessly networked games. And within seven years, there will be multiplayer high-quality multiplayer games available for that platform which reach a casual mainstream audience.

And at that point, I think we'll be witnessing the death of the board game.


statistical_blip said...

I play board games regularly, but rarely play computer games. With a boardgame, you look your opponents or comrades in the eye across the table, you see their smiles and disappointments, you feel the pieces in your hand and you look down at a board in natural light rather than up at a screen, burning your eyes in the darkness.

GregT said...

Yes, but is that something that can't be replicated by technology? Say, if your gaming device had a video-chat window open while the game was running. Or the advent of force-feedback touchcscreens like the ones I saw at Tokyo Game Show? I don't think there's anything inherently magical about the board gaming experience that can't ultimately be made obsolete my technology that's on its way within the next seven years.

Yehuda said...

Board gaming, as noted, is a social experience. It still has several advantages.

First of all, if video conferencing were so great, there wouldn't still exist Business class on airlines. While I'm not saying that holographic technology will never make this happen, it's nowhere near it yet.

Secondly, the computer experience is a separating one. Again, they may fix this eventually, but right now there is eye strain, repetitive motions, and so on.

Thirdly, there is as much or more headaches setting up computer games. Aside from having to own, upgrade, debug and connect your computer, there are the login issues, advertisements, installing the games, network downtime, blackouts and so on. Not to mention the lack of portability and requirements for power.

Fourthly, computer programs are notorious at only doing what they are capable of doing. In board games, I can leave games lying around, let my opponent take back a move, give him an additional piece or change the rules midgame, hand the game over to someone else, create a variant, and do anything that suits my fancy. I can sometimes do some of this using a computer, but almost never all of it.

Fifthly, offline games are quiet and unmonitored, untracked. I don't always want to be in the eye of the electronic world.

Six, although there are multiplayer games, electronic games really lure you into social isolation. That rarely happens with board games.

Seven, I can't play electronics on the sabbath, and Amish can't play them at all :-) .

I could probably go on. But I don't entirely disagree. I am looking forward to board games that include RFID chips and electronic components which will serve to allow board games to move in new directions. But progress is slow.


Julia B said...

I think you're looking at this, understandably, from the point of view of a gamer. Having spent quite a lot of time recently around non-gamers, I would say that there will always, always be a place for tactile games. In fact, it has been quite an eye opener for me that not everyone has played Resident Evil, not everyone knows what the cool bits in Silent Hill are and lots of peoeple have never heard of Kingdom Hearts.
(Quote: "Kingdom Hearts? I bet that's some sort of girl, romance game, isn't it?" Speaker stabbed to death shortly thereafter)

Since I have been at the backpackers, there have been 4 interminable games of monopoly, we play Jenga almost every night, and we are thinking of buying some more games just because when you are sitting around with the same people every night you need something to keep things fresh. I agree with Yehuda's point that electronic games, even online ones, tend to lead to some social isolation.

While electronic gaming is becoming increasingly popular, I think that perhaps it is easy to overestimate it's sway on the general population when you hang with nerds.

GregT said...

Yehuda - Other than points two and seven, your objections are premised on (1) the current state of technology, and (2) a gaming device resembling a current PC. I'm talking where technology is going within seven years, and evisioning a device more like a Nintendo DS with added processing power. No installation time, no viruses, no waiting. Save your game if you want to walk away, bring it back later. True, games are only as good as their software in terms of what they let you do with the rules, but I've already seen some boardgame translations that encompass practically every house rule I've ever heard of, and most other multiplayer games are pretty flexible.

Julia - I'm not saying video games have replaced boardgames yet. The major factors are that (a) not everyone is into games, and (b) that not everyone owns a quality portable gaming device. I suggest that (a) is to some extent a result of (b); if you look at what IPod has done to people's knowledge of how to use digital music, or phone cameras to people's use of digital photography. Within seven years, mobile phones will be downloading and playing games more sophisticated than what the DS currently runs; these games will be networkable and they will have casual/mainstream appeal. We're approaching a hundredth monkey effect in gaming; where comics never crossed over largely because of marketing and distribution issues, games are driven by technology, and that technology is driven by a lot of dollars. We're going to see games cross over into the mainstream in the manner of film or TV within the next seven years.

Mikko Saari said...

Having given up electronic gaming almost completely, I don't think board games are going nowhere fast. It just isn't the same thing, and the future where it is, is still very far away. Handheld game devices are a long, long way from the pleasure that is handling quality board game components.

Price is an issue. A board game costs about $40 - will that buy a gaming device and a game for all four or five players?

Also, I think video conferencing simply can't replace having your opponents in the same room with you - and if everybody is in the same room, isn't it much better to have them focused on common game, instead of their personal gaming devices?

A piece of software including all known house rules is still very much different from piece of software that allows you to change a rule - any rule - to whatever you want it to be, whenever. Implementing that kind of flexibility to game design is quite a paradigm change, pretty much, and I have hard time seeing that happen. Also, making home-made expansions and also completely new games is a lot easier, technically, in the cardboard and wooden cube world.

This all sounds a lot like the predictions for the death of book, and as far as I see, books haven't gone anywhere and it doesn't look like they're going in the near future, either. Replacing traditional things with technology isn't easy.

Anonymous said...

Wow... this post had me rather conflicted. I disagree with you... and I don't. I can see what you see. I can't wait for the technology that would allow us to play without restrictions.

But there is something about board games that will always remain with them. Some of it is physicality and some is just in the design choices made because of the restrictions that board games has.

GregT said...

I have to admit that even I'm not sure if I agree with me. But I can't see how I'm wrong.

I likes me the controversial articles.

GregT said...

Mikko - Board games have a lot less in the way of traditional and symbolic associations than books. Videogames are a tactile experience, as are board games (especially if force feedback touchscreens are implemented). I don't think you can necessarily take the price of a console into account in comparing prices, especially if the console we're talking about is also your mobile phone. In Australia, a boardgame is $50 to $120, and a videogame is $60 to $100. Those prices are largely a factor of market size - as the market gets bigger, you can expect to see board games get more expensive and videogames get cheaper.

As for focusing attention, I'm not sure how focusing on a gaming screen is different from focusing on a board, if everyone's physically present in the room. Either way, it's not eye contact.

Your comments are appreciated muchly, by the way!

Chris said...

Although the audience for board games is increasingly niche, it is unlikely to ever be completely eliminated. My gaming group, which plays both videogames and boardgames, infinitely prefers boardgames when we get together.

The quality of boardgame pieces has improved dramatically in recent years, and opening a Days of Wonder box is a more satisfying experience than opening any videogame box. ;)

Plus, the kind of social interaction achievable over digital devices is insufficient for many extroverted players who really need the physical connection to the other players; to read their faces and body language. This simply cannot be achieved digitally (yet...)

Also, I must point out that the set up and dice rolling elements of boardgame play are perks for some players. In our surveys we found dice rolling was very popular (one individual complained about the D20 system because it had reduced the diversity of dice in circulation!) Similarly, games with arcane setups can be satisfying for some players.

And as a trivial case in point, Settlers of Catan has orders of magnitude more players as a boardgame than as a videogame. ;)

There is no doubt that videogames have forced boardgames into a niche - but that niche is actually at its most commercially viable point in the history of play right now. Rather than videogames killing boardgames, they seem instead to have focussed the boardgame designers and allowed them to improve their art immeasurably - especially in Germany, which is the global hub of the boardgame industry right now.

Long live the boardgame! ;)

Best wishes!

joy said...

Some board games, like Cranium, are meant to be played outside of the computer. Technology might play a role in board games (timers, button presses, charge card swipes in Monopoly), but I still think it's a while off for board games to become totally obsolete. But I can see where you're going with the hand-held gaming as a social norm, seeing the market penetration of the DS.

In all honesty, I don't play many board games in my dorm because they are a lot less portable than, say, a DS. So there's that, too.

szkorhon said...

Physical boardgames hore intuitive interface. There are boardgames people who don't share the same language or who are illiterate can play together.

If you've seen people in the back alleys in slums playing board games, you really wouldn't say their consumers are a niche group. Not everybody will have that DS portable 2015.

And I doubt many of use will be playing computer games that are now popular, but some of us will be playing the then-retro board- & card games.

One more thing: drinking and playing. It's far more fun to play in a pub with real board than if everybody had a handheld device or data glasses.


Greg Tannahill said...

Sorry, Szkorhon, people in back alleys in slums are by their nature the ultimate niche market, as they're implicitly divorced of all purchasing power.

But it's totally awesome that you've played a multiplayer game in a pub using data glasses. I'm sorry you didn't find it to be as fun as a boardgame. It's probably because there aren't many quality developers designing for data glasses yet; give it time.