Tobold's Blog
Thursday, May 05, 2016
The gamification of board games

This being 2016 I am actually wondering if I can assume that everybody in my audience has played board games, because one could well imagine a teenager having grown up with video games instead of board games. Anyway the last years have seen a large number of board games transformed into video games, especially on tablets, as the touch screen controls tend to work great for the simulation of a board game. There have also been a number of video games that are purely digital, but pretend to simulate a card game or board game that doesn't exist in physical form. This mixing of two different worlds, tabletop games and video games, has led to some interesting mixes of game design elements as well.

A typical board game is designed to be played by a number of players sitting around a table for a limited time, a few hours at most. At the end of the game, the components go back into the box, and the next time the game is played it is set up to the initial state. There is no persistence or effect of the previous game on the next. There are no rewards for playing or winning, other than the intrinsic fun of playing itself.

The video game simulations of board games are naturally faster than the originals, because the computer takes care of things like shuffling cards, setting up pieces, and stowing them away after use. And frequently you can play them solo against the AI, which makes the game even faster, because it takes out all the bantering between players. Playing alone also means you can play more frequently and possibly for longer than if you have to gather friends around a table. All this leads to a problem: The intrinsic fun of playing has naturally diminishing returns, and while for the physical board game it might take you quite a while before you play it a dozen times with friends, the video game simulation solo form you can play a dozen times in a day or a weekend.

Video games are designed differently than board games. They are inherently longer, a 10-hour board game would be considered nearly impossibly long, while a 10-hour video game is considered somewhat short. Most video games don't constantly start over in the same state again, but offer either a long story to go through, or some persistent character progress making your character for the next game somewhat better than he was in the first game.

The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, board game version, has some persistence, although that is more an inheritance of pen & paper roleplaying games than of video games: At the end of the game you keep the deck that you modified through playing, and you potentially also get persistent rewards in the form of more skills, powers, or cards. There is also a long story, with the base set already having 8 scenarios, and you can buy adventure decks to draw that out into a campaign of 33 scenarios without having to reset.

In Pathfinder Adventures, the video game adaptation, there are currently only 13 of those 33 scenarios available (although buying the $25 bundle gives you access to all 33 once they come out). Having played this extensively over the last week, I have played through those 13 scenarios with different groups and group sizes (I recommend 4). It took me some time at the start to realize that this is better played like a board game, including voluntarily resetting and starting over with new characters instead of switching characters in and out of an existing group. But even with resets the fun doesn't last forever. And the developers are aware of that, and added a different play mode which works more like a video game: Quest mode.

In quest mode you play through random scenarios, earning experience points, which then give you levels, which then give you added skills, powers, or cards. Unfortunately I didn't get to test that out yet, because in the release version there is a serious bug which makes quest mode unplayable, and I need to wait for the first patch to fix that. But I found the concept of further gamification of the base board game towards a video game quite interesting. It is something I have observed before: For example in the Civilization series of games, when you start a new game that new game doesn't remember any progress from the previous game; in the newer Thea: The Awakening, which is a somewhat similar 4X game, your success in the game levels up your god, which can then be used in a stronger form in the next game, and unlocks new gods. So there are some interesting game design concepts to explore at the frontier between board games and video games.

I work in a bookshop. A few years ago we didn't really sell board games at all but now we have a something like six bays dedicated to them plus displays here and there all over the shop. Board games have exploded as a form of entertainment in recent years and we sell to all ages, from six year olds through teen to adult.

Board games are "cool" at the moment. No doubt they'll slip out of fashion in time but they are and I think always will be a perennial seller to families with young children. No danger of a generation growing up not knowing what board games are just yet.
Yes, the board game market is exploding at this time. It's probably due to the move of games into the mass market, helped a lot by by mobile gaming. "We're all gamers" may be false, but when you look at the statistics, it's not THAT false.

There's also a lot of mixing which is starting to occur. The latest board games I played could seriously use the help of a computer. There's so many tokens and things to keep track of that it's overwhelming for a new player. Even worse, some games are starting to use mechanics which existed only in computer and card games: trigger effects and rule changes. The problem is that if you add too many of them it becomes a mess.... if you've played Euphoria you know what I'm talking about. In card games it's less of a problem, since the field is a lot smaller (and you don't have 4+ players...).

The opposite is also starting to happen, with board games with a definite lifetime and zero replayability. I find the idea interesting and as soon as I can get some people onboard, I plan to try Pandemic Legacy (google for more info, in short it's a cooperative board game which you alter during play, by actively modifying the game itself... stickers on the board, ripped cards, etc.).

@Bhagpuss - I think board games are "cool" because they are coming up with some really great things, minis and systems these days!

@Helistar - Yeah not too keen on the "Legacy" franchise which sees you rip cards and such. I prefer to be able to replay, or resell my stuff. :P

@Tobold - I've played a 10 hour board game with my family, with breaks obviously. It was an amazing experience. Unfortunately we all lost at the end! *shakes fist at Arkham Horror*! (but yes it's very rare to play such a lengthy game)
You guys need to take a look at tabletop simulator available on steam. Its an environment that allows games you would normally play around a table with friends to be made available on the computer with full multiplayer. People can add all their own content, scans, models, etc. Every game mentioned so far is already available. What this system doesn't do is take care of the rules. The people playing need to know the rules just like the real games.
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