Meeple Rising: How Digital Technology Is Growing, Not Killing Board Games

We've seen some of this with Skylanders and Disney Infinity, yet as the technology develops there is clearly much more that can be done. We've also seen digital companies take punts into physical - the developers of one of the biggest games in the world, League of Legends, recently launched a totally new board game.

Four years ago I noted here how board gaming was, with the advent of crowdfunding, undergoing something of a renaissance. Far from being a flash in the pan, this renaissance has continued, building on its successes and iterating ideas and cultures - and technology is at the centre of this meeple-powered movement.

As a digital game developer there might be a perception that what we do is all about the technology, that we're always on to the new and shiny "next big thing". And in part, yes, our industry is driven by changes in technology and they do constantly alter the landscape into which we release titles. So the antithesis of this might seem to be the board game: bits of card instead of GPUs, a couple of dice in place of CPUs, and an instructions manual instead of interactive tutorials. Chalk and cheese.

However the reality is quite different. As someone who's just been part of the team porting a classic and much loved 1977 game Ogre to digital, I'm well aware of the differences - and similarities - of both forms, and there is often much more overlap than you might think...

Low-fi Sci-fi? Ogre covers 1977-1983

Digital Ogre's Physical gameplay

Video Grew the Gaming Star

Video has disrupted video games. This movement was apparent years ago but the changes have surpassed what many in the industry thought might happen. 'Let's Plays' - a form of YouTube video where players simply played along to the game, recording both the game and the reaction from the people playing it became huge, dominating both gaming and video. Game developers actively court these YouTube stars, as their endorsement of a game can lead to vast numbers of new players. In recent years the live streaming of Let's Plays - via sites like Twitch - has shifted the movement into one that caters for the 'now' of gaming. This is technology squared - a 60 FPS game running live to a watching audience on console or desktop PC while a camera captures the expressions of the player as they battle within the game. The board game equivalent has been just as powerful to its own area, as the popularity of watching groups of people sit around and play games has rocketed. Seemingly old-school games like Dungeons and Dragons have regular live shows that attract thousands of viewers. Rich Keith of UK-based YouTuber's Yogscast, the first UK group to pass a billion views (yes I said billion!) noted;

"Most of the Yogscast creators grew up on laying board and table top along with video games. For a couple of them that's how they met and joined the Yogscast. So it was a natural choice to start streaming and making video channels about them. The fact that this coincided with an upswing in popularity has been tremendously useful! Our recent move to a custom built studio means we now have a dedicated board and tabletop studio where we can record with multiple cameras and live stream our games and matches."

Steaming digital games made from board games (it's getting very meta!)

The Wisdom of Crowds

Ogre and Munchkin creator Steve Jackson notes how key technology is in keeping the business of getting those low-tech card games into your hands;

"We're not a computer game company, but we still live by the computer. We use databases to keep track of cards, we use e-mail to keep up with contributors around the world, and we love Kickstarter."

Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have become much more central in the physical games industry. The logistics of this is very powerful: in your local area there may only be one or two people interested in a deck collecting card game about zombie penguins - globally there may be a few hundred - and that's enough, if all those people band together to fund that game via a global crowdfunding platform. Then if the resulting project is such fun that even zombie penguin-haters still end up having fun, soon the game is ordered for shops around the globe and a trend is born. Zombie seal, zombie polar bear, and vampire penguin card games mushroom on crowdfunding sites, iterating on the ideas and themes in new directions. It's all very infectious and exciting.

You Died and Went to Cardboard Heaven

We've also seen a huge rise in new board game projects coming from video games, closing this virtuous circle of games influencing one another. There's a huge number of these: XCOM, Superhot, Plague Inc, and so on (I was going to mention Civilization, but then discovered it started off as a board game, such is its perception as a video game today!). And the quality bar of these new entrants has been good! Sometimes they involve the original creators and other times not - but from the many I've seen and played it's clear that the themes and mechanics of the game are often preserved and well translated. James Vaughn is the creator of the hit digital game Plague Inc and also worked on a physical version. I asked him why?

"Tabletop games are a wonderful way for friends and family to spend time together without digital distractions. Making Plague Inc: The Board Game let me design a game in a whole new way whilst also exposing my game to a lot of friends who never play video games."

This means the creativity of the digital side is boosting the board game side - the technology advances in a game like Superhot (where time only moves when you do) are spurring new ideas in its card came sibling. Another great example is Dark Souls, the legendarily difficult digital hack-and-slash game (or hack-and-get-slashed, amirite?) which has brilliantly translated its mechanic of boss fights into the digital realm, where in both cases the monstrous boss monster follows a pattern of attacks which you must learn and dance around to kill them and win.

Dark Soul's board game (Image: Kickstarter)

Future Sounds of Gaming

So where next? It's not a huge surprise that both sides of this article - digital and physical are eyeing recent development in Augmented Reality - AR - as a further way to join the two sides. The idea of being able to animate your game pieces on your own tabletop is of course a tantalizing idea.

We've seen some of this with Skylanders and Disney Infinity, yet as the technology develops there is clearly much more that can be done. We've also seen digital companies take punts into physical - the developers of one of the biggest games in the world, League of Legends, recently launched a totally new board game. Plus the movement has gone the other way too, with physical game developers learning from digital too.

All in all our dice-rolling cousins are looking at exciting times and it will be interesting to see what has developed in the medium when I come to write about in another four years time!


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