I have written in the past about the physical limitations imposed on board game designers through the need to track everything with board and card. Similarly there’s often been speculation about what, if anything, the introduction of electronic appendages into board games does to widen that perspective. Reviewing children’s game Whoowasit?, which features just such a gizmo, for another site last week lead to me revisiting the topic in my head.
Another factor in my choosing to write about this was the observation made to me recently that the audio CD-based cooperative game Space Alert hasn’t spawned any imitators, in spite of having had great press and sold well enough to demand a reprint from the publisher. I think partly this is down to the atrocious reputation that games of this particular style, in which the action is controlled through a video or audio track, have garnered over the years.
Almost all the other examples are mass-market titles like the Atmosfear series which are briefly interesting for their novelty value, but otherwise execrable. This is unfair: Space Alert is a solid game and an interesting and far more creative use of the medium, but it’s carrying a lot of unseen negative baggage around on the back of that audio CD. You can’t entirely blame publishers who don’t have a maverick and imaginative designer like Vlaada Chvatil on the books from being wary of joining in this particular bandwagon.
Outside of combining board games with media you’re left with adding electronic devices. The first game to feature a very significant electronic element that I can recall is of course Dark Tower. I can remember seeing it advertised on the TV at the age of eight and lusting after it with an angry, dangerous passion that only an eight-year old nerd to be could muster. In spite of all my threats, cajolements and pleas I never did get a copy: perhaps the trauma pushed me over the edge into full scale obsessive game geekery. However I did get to play it a few years later, and loved it. Many years after that I got to play it online and found, as most of us have, that nostalgia is no substitute for a well-designed game. It wasn’t that much fun for children once they’d hit their teens, and the tower itself was a pointless gimmick.
The same goes for the electronic chest in Whoowasit? It serves two major functions. Firstly, randomly assigning secrets to room and food and clues to animals. Second it occasionally (and for no apparent reason) triggers random events. Children playing the game love the idea of the chest and delight in the sudden and unexpected events that it provides but in terms of game play, an adult gamer will immediately spot that it doesn’t do anything a couple of decks of cards couldn’t manage. Of course that’s not the point - it’s a game for young children, and they’re going to enjoy the chest and all is good with the world. But together with the Dark Tower it illustrates how the additions that electronics bring to board gaming are very limited, and how they’re never a substitute for solid mechanical design.
But wait, I don’t hear any of you cry since we’re many miles - likely even oceans - away from one another. Surely in this day and age of electronic wizardry there’s more potential in an electronic game aid than just handling a bit of random assignment or hidden information? Well potentially, yes of course. Potentially the sky’s the limit. But then we have to consider the vexed question of cost. Custom circuitry isn’t cheap to design or produce. I’m not an engineer, but as a computer programmer I have some insight into how quickly apparently simple decision trees can become enormously complex to implement when you try and translate them from the organic world to the binary one. Asking a device to do more than track simple information is asking for the eventual price on your game to be driven sky high. And while we all know there are crazy gamers who won’t baulk at a massive price tag if a game is unusual or good enough, they’re rare, and you’ve got to convince a publisher there’s enough of them to buy your game.
No, I don’t see a future in custom electronics for board games. But that doesn’t mean that I see no future for electronics in board games. Because ultimately the route that humanity found round the tiresome issues of engineering individual devices to do a job was to create a device that could be customised to do a variety of different things if given the right instructions: a computer. And while tabletop gaming and computing have a patchy and ignoble history that’s largely to do with portability, with getting the game and the players and the computer arranged in a shared space together in a manner conducive to play. But nowadays most of us carry a small computer around with us everywhere we go in the shape of a mobile phone.
So far, the link between board games and mobile devices has been limited to the obvious: ports of popular games to play on your mobile, and tools like timers, dice rollers and first player pickers to stand in for those times you’re lacking an essential component. All jolly good fun and useful too. But I suspect this may be the tip of the iceberg. I work for a media company, and one of the things we’re buzzing about at the moment is the rise of the second screen. Not in the sense of a second monitor for your PC, but as in people who work on a laptop or desktop system while also referring to a mobile for quick and easy jobs, or who watch TV while occasionally turning to their phone to make quick fact checks about what they’re watching on the internet, or deal with the odd email.
I see no reason why that phenomenon shouldn’t extend to board games. Second screens have become so ubiquitous that it seems economically feasible to design and release a game that assumes players have access to a mobile device and provides software to add an electronic element to the game alongside the physical components. Failing that, publishers could create apps that improve the play experience of physical titles. Whoowasit? provides an early example, with the app featuring a chest mode that replicates the functions of the gizmo in the boxed game but with better sound.
Adding electronic devices to board games is a dead end, a sordid and unfortunate evolutionary pathway that, like the Panda, was never going anywhere good. But adding software to board games could be the new dawn that designers need to re-ignite their creativity.