Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Better as a Video Game? Part II

My first post in this series detailed an amazon.com review of Tide of Iron that seemed to suggest board games in general are dated because the mechanics are more easily implemented in a video game setting. This review seems extreme, but I hear more qualified versions of this sentiment fairly often. To a reasonable person who actually enjoys playing board games, when might certain games be more suited to a video format?

Case Study: Cities & Knights of Catan

I'll cover three answers to this question and how each pertains to this one particular title. A board game may be better as a video game when:

  • setup is extensive when compared to the actual value of game play, or
  • particular mechanics or housekeeping functions are tedious or repetitious, or
  • the game isn't heavily played or well known by the players and thus much easier to play when led by a computer program.

Setup Time

Jennie has mentioned that she has friends that enjoy playing Cities & Knights of Catan online, but refuse to play the physical version of the game. Part of this is due to the basic setup time of any Settlers of Catan game: the board has to be randomly constructed, several decks of cards shuffled, game pieces removed from their storage bags, and finally opening placement of settlements (and cities as the case may be) and distribution of initial resources. Any game that requires several steps of setup will certainly play faster in video format, so if fitting in a quick game is one's primary goal the computer version has the upper hand.

Bits & Pieces

Cities & Knights also has many more cards, pieces, rules, and special situations than vanilla Settlers. As in the base game, resource cards must be dealt to players at the opening of each turn, but in Cities & Knights commodities and three different categories of progress cards are also distributed. In C&K players need to track which types of knights they have on the board, whether those knights are activated or not, which player has the most knights, progress of their city developments, a host of incoming progress cards, the robber and the merchant pieces (the latter of which tends to move very frequently), differing hand sizes due to city walls, when to place Metropolis pieces, 'Defender of Catan' cards, and other assorted mechanics and bits of information. I will not concede that all of this bookkeeping, card drawing, and piece tracking is reason to only play the video version of the game, but it does contribute to that argument.

Complexity as a Barrier to Play

A third angle at which to look at this game is its difficultly to get to the table. I own the board game and have yet to play a full game of it in tabletop form, both because I've yet to fully grasp the rules and since the game's complexity is such that I will only introduce it to players already quite familiar with Settlers of Catan.

I've played the online version probably 10-15 times, and because of the structure of the computer program I have yet to master the intricacies of some of the mechanics, especially the special abilities and movement of knights. The computer notifies players when knight abilities are available, and then only allows legal moves. It's impossible to use a knight improperly in the video game, whereas in the board game I'm not only unsure about exact legality of a move, but I might not even realize everything a knight can do, and thus won't even notice I'm missing important options.

Another reason C&K never hits the table is that it can really only be played by those that already fully understand the base game. Very few of the people I game with locally have played Settlers enough times that I feel prepared to add on the extra complexity of Cities & Knights. I am much more likely to introduce a new mid-weight game such as El Grande or Fury of Dracula, as I feel teaching those games from scratch is easier than adding lots of new complexity to a game players are just beginning to understand. Perhaps Cities & Knights online will allow me to teach the game more easily and thus ultimately result in more tabletop plays. We will see.

Wrapping Up

Cities & Knights of Catan is one instance where it's been suggested the online video game port may be a better implementation of the game than the original tabletop version. Though there is no conclusive evidence, and how one views each of the three major points discussed in this post is certainly still subject to personal preference, I'm willing to concede the legitimacy of the argument in this case. There is no reason why someone who plays fairly deep board games (El Grande, Agricola, Caylus, etc.) wouldn't feel right at home with the complexity of the tabletop Cities & Knights. However, when you take into account the strategy and game play one gets for the level of complexity (quite a bit from the aforementioned titles, perhaps not as much from C&K), perhaps the organization and acceleration achieved by the video game is appropriate in this case.

Also see: Better as a Video Game? Part I

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