Saturday, March 14, 2009

Better as a Video Game?

Recently I've heard a sentiment mentioned several times: 'This board game would be better as a video game." What features in a board game would lead someone to feel this way? I recall several particular points here, and I'll cover them over a short series of posts.

Breaking News: Video Gamer Reviews Board Game!

I read a review of Tide of Iron (a tactical war simulation game) on that stated:

"If this game was published in the 70s or 80s it would have been groundbreaking and would have been amazing. As it is, computer games already do what this game tries to do."

According to this reviewer video and board games don't take up separate gaming territory: if a type of game has been well executed in video format, he would see no reason why a similar game would have any reason to exist in tabletop form. He continues:

"Fundamentally, as a board game you need to read and learn the rules to implement the mechanics of the game, whereas a computer game does all the mechanics automatically and allows intuitive player learning."

To me this exposes the poster as a gamer that has a strong bias toward video games in general. From his perspective probably 99% of board games would have absolutely no reason to exist, since what mechanic in a board game wouldn't be more easily implemented in a computer version? Candyland, for example, could be entirely played without any players at all! The computer could shuffle the cards, draw one each turn for each player, and move the pieces. Certainly this is much easier than dealing with the hassle of actually using the mechanics of the game. 'Candyland is a terrible example!' you might say, and I thought so too at first, since who wants to play Candyland? But maybe it is a good example because this is a game in one of the simplest forms possible and thus emphasizes some of the essential differences between video and board games.

What reason would anyone have to play Candyland except to 1. teach some basic game mechanics to a young child, or 2. interact face-to-face with your kids? Both of these reasons are entirely negated by the computer version. Video games skip the mechanics and remove the personal interaction.

Who Runs the Program?

We can think of a game's execution as a program. With video games the program is run almost entirely by the computer. The computer knows the rules and mechanics and runs the majority of the program in a quick and efficient manner. The only input required of the player(s) is the essential participant contribution to any game: the player decisions. Sure, a video game may require a player to click on a picture of dice to effectively "roll them" in the game, but really this is just the computer awaiting that player to tell it to continue. The player has no impact on the game at such a point, he merely gives the computer permission to generate a random number ("roll the dice").

On the other hand, during a board game session the program is run entirely by the players. The rules and mechanics are all laid out in the rules and the components of the game, but it is up to the players to learn and execute them. A video game lets players mentally skip over much of the nuts and bolts of game execution, whereas a board game requires players to be much more active participants. A video gamer may insist that this crucial difference allows him to more fully concentrate on the important part of the game: the actual decisions that lead to winning or losing. A board gamer might say that being completely involved with the game's execution leads to an experience with more weight and depth.

Who Builds the House: the Man with the Plans, or the Man with the Hammer?

From my perspective any cerebral activity would become a more full experience by adding a physical element. Imagine instructing someone on how to build a house. You give the orders about what materials to acquire, what tools to use, and how to proceed with construction. Such a job successfully completed would certainly give you satisfaction since your decisions were responsible for that success. Now imagine making those same decisions but also performing much of the physical labor. In this case the job may have been more of a hassle because you had to physically build the house rather than only supervise, but it also would have led to an additional level of satisfaction with the completed project. To me this describes some of richness of experience gained from playing a board game rather than a video game. Yes, the decisions are the essential part of the game, but the execution of the mechanics provides that extra bit of satisfaction.

Is this mostly a case of preference? Absolutely. The video gamer would emphasize the hassle side of the mechanics, the board gamer the richness of experience.

More examples and analysis to come...

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