Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Beyond the Board

I used to bother my roommate in college because he listened to audiobooks rather than reading them. "Oh, I've read that book," he'd say. To which I'd reply, "Whatever."

Admittedly, I said this primarily to get his goat, but having never listened to an audiobook, I saw the experiences as fundamentally different. Can you really say you've "read" something you've never set eyes on?

I've since renounced this view. While I recognize that the two experiences of eye-reading a book and ear-reading a book are different (and there are some books I wouldn't "read" with my ears), I wouldn't call one experience definitive and the other a lesser copy.

So...what does this have to do with board gaming? Read on, good reader! (Or have Siri or Microsoft Sam read it for you.)

A few weeks ago, I joined a website called Board Game Arena. Board Game Arena has various real-time online implementations of board games I like, and the interface is quite good (at least I think so, not being spoiled by mobile device interfaces). Their Dominion interface, for example, is far superior to the one I had used before (though Isotropic has all of the expansions available). I joined the site because I recently acquired Troyes but have since found anyone stout enough to tackle the rules with me.

The online implementation was good, and I enjoyed actually being able to play the game. I also enjoyed my plays of Puerto Rico and Dominion on the site. But I return to the blog with several observations:
  • Board games are not dead. I read in this article about the folding of Scene-It's parent company that, essentially, people don't play board games anymore. This was what the company's COO attributed the folding of the Scene-It brand to. (I said on Twitter that a more likely explanation is that Scene-It isn't a very good game.) But back to the point: in the same way that I doubt e-reading will completely erase physical books, I doubt that digital implementations of board games will eliminate their analog counterparts. The tactile feel of pieces, the 3D view of the board: these things are hard to beat. Until holotables come around, but that's another story. While I enjoyed the digital versions, it made me more eager to play the game with others around a table.
  • I'm a more aggressive player online. You wonder how there can be so many trolls online; there don't seem to be that many trolls in your circle of friends. (And if there are, you need new friends.) The anonymity the Internet provides makes way for people to be jerks. And while I wouldn't say that my play style is on the mean side (and I don't taunt opponents I don't know outside the game), it is certainly more aggressive. I eschew direct conflict where possible in real-life games (unless it's absolutely necessary...or against @Futurewolfie), but I don't have so many qualms online, where the game is a cerebral "meeting of the minds" more than an excuse to be social.
  • It's hard to teach online. @Futurewolfie jumped into a game of Troyes with me on BGA, and he had never played. Oh. Boy. Troyes may be a bad example, but it is incredibly difficult to teach without being able to show and tell. As someone who works with words for a living, this was a rude awakening.
  • Games go much faster online. I've never played Axis & Allies on a board. I love the game, but each time I've played has been on the computer. I've heard of grueling, all-day sessions, but my experiences have been much shorter, in the two to three hour mark. The same holds true on BGA. You can knock out a game of Puerto Rico in a half hour. Troyes? The same. Dominion? Fifteen minutes. Because the bookkeeping is taken care of for you, because the computer is faster at rolling dice and shuffling your deck, games are swift. I like this, as it allows me to get in more games, but I have noticed that the pace of play online expects the players to follow its lead. I don't get upset when someone takes a bit to think over their purchase of Dominion in real life, but online, I have to resist the urge to call the other person grandpa. I guess that while the game is boiled to its essence and takes less time, it's less leisurely.
These aren't meant to be either positive or negative; just a collection of observations. I don't think any of these points preclude a digital version of a board game from being a board gaming experience. But as listening to an audiobook is a different reading experience from moving your eyes across the page, I think the two ways to game are variations on the same theme.

What have you noticed about the difference between digital and analog play?


  1. I just joined Yucata.de recently and have played games both in one sitting, as well as over the course of several days. I agree I like the speed and computer calculations! I've had my kids play with me (as on a team) at times to teach them. And to see if they like the games on there.

    In fact, I think that's the best thing about online game sites and electronic implementations of board games - to test them to see if you'll like them enough to buy the actual board game. For example, so far my kids really like Stone Age (which kind of surprises me), but couldn't get into Vikings. These things are good to know. :-)

  2. Jason, that is an excellent point: these online implementations are a great way to try before you buy. I can see why your kids might like Stone Age: lots of dice. And the components of the physical game are out-of-this-world good.


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