With the unstoppable rise of digital and online entertainment over the last decade, one could be forgiven in thinking that tabletop games would be on the way out. However, this is clearly not the case, with games like ‘Catan’, ‘Resistance’ and others achieving success among gamers recently. Why is this? Well, my belief is that tabletop games are very well suited to certain types of games, as they have a specific set of properties that enable unique mechanics, allowing for experiences that video games currently struggle to reproduce. This article is not an attack on video games, merely a defense of tabletop games for their relevancy in the modern age. So, without further ado, I present to you my reasons for ‘Why Video Games and Tabletop Games can still be friends’:
The first point about tabletop games is that the vast majority of them are local multiplayer. This is the area I believe tabletop games show the most promise for maintaining their place in gamers’ lives, so whilst there are single-player board/card games, this is will be the focus of the comparison. Additionally, consoles are typically the go-to devices for convenient local multiplayer video gaming, as many games support multiple controllers and can be played from the comfort of the couch, so they will be the point of reference. LAN gaming is also relevant, though this is generally more inconvenient as everyone is required to bring their own hardware, and depending on how they are set up, may not benefit from the same face-to-face social aspect that a lot of local multiplayer thrive on.
To begin the comparison, let’s look at how current local multiplayer video games and board games are laid out. From a social perspective, tabletop games are well suited for player-to-player interactions, as in order to actually play the game, gamers must usually face towards the middle of the table and thus face players on the other side, compared to video games where the focus is on a display somewhere else in the room. This has the immediate advantage that it is easier to talk to more of the players face-to-face, and allows players to see reactions and other body language that would otherwise be missed if a player was facing the screen. Some well known games have even used this as their primary mechanic, like Charades and, to a lesser extent, Resistance.
Additionally, the tabletop setup has another advantage in that a table can potentially portray more game information at once to a player than a typical screen. This is because a table can take up more of a player’s vision, due to the fact that a standard table surface is larger than a lot of screens and that a player sits right next to it. And that’s before we even consider that players often have their hand of cards as well.
The Settlers of Catan
One of the best contenders for video games solving both these issues is that interactive coffee table thing that Microsoft was demonstrating a few years ago, but the cost of entry for this hardware would likely have been quite prohibitive for mass-market adoption.
There is a mechanic in tabletop gaming that has existed for decades has only recently been made convenient in local multiplayer video games, and that mechanic is hidden information. Hidden information allows gamers to plan strategically and surprise other players with their actions, something that isn’t really possible if all the game information sits on one screen. From Poker, Cluedo or Scrabble to more modern games like Catan, Dixit or Resistance, tabletop games have used hidden information as a great strength, with some of these games being based entirely around the concept. For example, in Resistance, players are divided in to two teams: the spies and the resistance. The spies know who the spies are, but the resistance members don’t know who anyone else is. Your goal as a resistance member is to simultaneously figure out who the spies are, convince the other resistance members that you are on their side and make missions succeed. It is also the goal of the spies to convince the resistance members that they too are resistance so they can go on missions and fail them. The game then quickly becomes a fantastic mess of logical thinking, lies, bluffing and deception.
The reason for the lack of this great gameplay element in video games is obvious: nothing can be hidden if everyone is looking at one screen. Of course, if players are using two different screens, such as playing online or via LAN, then the hidden information mechanic can be achieved, but come with other disadvantages, with the former having a lack of locality and the latter having the inconvenient hardware requirement. The Wii U, whether intentionally or unintentionally, partially solves this problem, since up to two players can have an extra screenful of information all for themselves that they can keep secret, allowing for new types of games not previously seen in the video game realm.
Another promising video game platform for local multiplayer with hidden information might include mobile devices, as each player has their own screen, though they lack the large centralized public information space a.k.a. ‘the middle of the table’, that tabletop games utilize so well. Battery life is also a concern, at least for now.
This one is possibly more of an emotive reason, but I think it has merit anyway.
Board games are inherently physical. This means they are bound by the laws of physics. Every card, piece and coin takes up space in the real-world, and there is a finite number of them. This allows certain kinds of player-feedback that video games would be jealous of. For example, if I just had some great dice rolls in Catan and picked up a bunch of resource cards, I might have a hand so large I might struggle to hold them fanned out all at once. To me, this means I must be doing well, not just because of the number of cards (something a video game can replicate) but also reinforced physically by the fact it is more difficult to hold and manage the cards. Conversely, if I have no cards in my hand in Catan, the fact I can move my hands freely implies a bad/lesser state. Similar examples include placing reinforcements in Risk or even Monopoly money!
It’s not just the feeling of the pieces either. The fact that pieces are bound by the rules of reality means certain gameplay elements can become more intuitive, or may even affect the gameplay itself. For example, if I run out of reinforcements to place in risk, it is very intuitive that I can no longer place units. In a video game, this might be an arbitrary limit put in place by a game designer. Another example might be in card games using a standard 52-card deck. If I have three Jacks in my hand and I know Bob has one, then none of the other players have Jacks, and this may affect my gameplay decisions. This board/card game language is so intuitive that even video games can use it knowing that players already know how it works; coin flips, dice rolls, card draws and hands are all well-known mechanics that can help convey a system faster, similar to the language of health bars, checkpoints and experience/levelling that video games rely on so heavily.
Hopefully I have convinced you that board games will remain relevant at least for now, mostly due their focus on people, utilizing unique mechanics and tactility! Now, back to makin’ games…
For the games, just google the names I mentioned. I’m sure you’ll manage.