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Subject: An unappreciated reason for the board game renaissance (with implications for its future) rss

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Nick Bentley
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I'm writing again, in connection with a new project I'm working on. The project has a lot to do with abstract games, so I thought I'd occasionally post here. Here's the first piece:



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John
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Interesting. I certainly often want to escape screens after work (I look at screens all day). Your screenless smart games & puzzles sound interesting, but I'm going to turn off my screen and do something else now. Maybe even play a board game.
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Nick Bentley
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zabdiel wrote:
Interesting. I certainly often want to escape screens after work (I look at screens all day). Your screenless smart games & puzzles sound interesting, but I'm going to turn off my screen and do something else now. Maybe even play a board game.


The irony of my posting this piece on the intertubes is not lost on me.
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Russ Williams
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I'm skeptical about electronic "smart" boardgames without screens being more appealing than electronic "smart" boardgames with screens. For me, the appeal of boardgames over electronic games is not just literally about screens.

But time will tell.
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Nick Bentley
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russ wrote:
I'm skeptical about electronic "smart" boardgames without screens being more appealing than electronic "smart" boardgames with screens. For me, the appeal of boardgames over electronic games is not just literally about screens.

But time will tell.


What are the other dimensions of your distaste for electronic games? Is it something you can put into words?
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Nick Bentley
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milomilo122 wrote:
russ wrote:
I'm skeptical about electronic "smart" boardgames without screens being more appealing than electronic "smart" boardgames with screens. For me, the appeal of boardgames over electronic games is not just literally about screens.

But time will tell.


What are the other dimensions of your distaste for electronic games? Is it something you can put into words?


One thing I've noticed is nearly all existing electronic games feel chintzy/cheap. But there's no a priori reason for them to be this way (other than companies wanting to produce very cheap, non-premium products).
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Russ Williams
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milomilo122 wrote:
russ wrote:
I'm skeptical about electronic "smart" boardgames without screens being more appealing than electronic "smart" boardgames with screens. For me, the appeal of boardgames over electronic games is not just literally about screens.

But time will tell.


What are the other dimensions of your distaste for electronic games? Is it something you can put into words?

Some practical issues:

* Software is sometimes buggy; I dislike the feeling that my play of a "board" game could literally become locked up and unable to be continued due to a software bug.

* Similarly electronic hardware dies or goes obsolete. In ten years, when some custom electronic gadget for a "board" game breaks or stops working for some mysterious reason (as often happens to consumer electronics, after all), it seems quite likely that it will be impossible to repair, and perhaps expensive to replace (searching on ebay or whatever). Whereas if a physical board game piece is lost or broken, you can at least usually improvise a new piece or repair it, and carry on playing your game.

* Software is generally not modifiable by the end user, especially not in this kind of consumer product. So there's not much flexibility in terms of playing with house rules or variant boards/maps/pieces or new official rules or undoing someone's move by mutual consent during a game or exploring what would have happened if someone's losing move had been done differently, etc. (Consider the case of your own game Catchup, and the app which is still playing with the obsolete rule set!)

* Ecological/pollution/waste issues with the chemicals in the batteries and various electronic components in mass produced electronic gadgets, as compared to the more ecologically benign paper, wood, plastic, etc components of traditional boardgames, which are far less dangerous when they end up in the trash later on. Especially for the kind of game-specific dedicated hardware you're apparently describing (separate electronic gadgets for each game, as opposed to various programs which could all be run on a single computer or smartphone, instead of requiring new hardware for each new game).

* Most consumer software is privacy-violatingly intrusive and untrustworthy and insecure. "Internet of things" devices (which these "board" games probably are in some cases) are ridiculously insecure and get malware-infected and misused for massive denial of service attacks etc, or simply maliciously broken/vandalized.

===

And then there is a purely subjective aesthetic/philosophical issue: I find one of the very appealing core things about board games is exactly that they use "inert" physical components which are "brought to life" by the players themselves.

Everything that physically happens in the game is due to player actions, not due to some electronic gadget doing silent invisible computations behind the scenes. And not only the physical stuff, but also all the game mechanisms/rules/systems are carried out by the players, whether it's direct player decisions (e.g. moving their pieces, buying widgets and paying money to the bank, moving their score marker, etc) or players implementing "non-player" things like dice rolls to randomize game events.

With software, you can trivially easily achieve arbitrarily complex rules (and many computer games do that, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink just because they can), but I find it far more interesting (from a creative/artistic point of view) to see what can be done when you don't have the crutch of a computer to do arbitrary amounts of work behind the scenes, but instead the game rules/system/model must be not only understandable by the players, but directly implementable by the players.

And ultimately, that desire for a non-screen experience is not really about screens per se, but about a non-electronic non-virtual experience, period. The screen itself is just an obvious easily blamed manifestation. (For me, anyway.)
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Quinn Swanger
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I like the concept. Maybe this means that a worthy abstract game like Grim Reaper will finally be able to be played, in a practical manner, over the board with the help of something that will be able to do all of the aging automatically.
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John
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I agree with everything Russ says.

Most of his 5 practical issues could be addressed by good open source software but the biggest one for me is the Ecological/pollution/waste issues. I suppose that could be minimised if it was a game system allowing lots of games to be played.

russ wrote:

With software, you can trivially easy achieve arbitrarily complex rules (and many computer games do that, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink just because they can), but I find it far more interesting (from a creative/artistic point of view) to see what can be done when you don't have the crutch of a computer to do arbitrary amounts of work behind the scenes, but instead the game rules/system/model must be not only understandable by the players, but directly implementable by the players.

Isn't this partly a design philosophy thing? Just because you can implement complex rules it doesn't mean that you should. The same applies to board games to some extent - there is a huge difference in rules complexity between the simplest and most complex rule sets in board games. I'm sure there are simple game rules/system/model that could be easily understandable by the players but not so easily implemented by players without an electronic implementation. Whilst it's not a game Conway's Game of Life has the simplicity of rules and complexity of possibilities of a good abstract and whilst it can (and has) been implemented on a physical board it's not the most practical. It seems likely that there could be games with similar properties to Conway's Game of Life.
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Russ Williams
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zabdiel wrote:
Isn't this partly a design philosophy thing?

Yes, certainly; I think that it falls under my general disclaimer that it is a "purely subjective aesthetic/philosophical issue".
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Nick Bentley
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A lot of thoughtful stuff to chew on. Thanks for this Russ. The project we're working on doesn't address a bunch of them, but it does address a couple:

Quote:
* Software is generally not modifiable by the end user, especially not in this kind of consumer product. So there's not much flexibility in terms of playing with house rules or variant boards/maps/pieces or new official rules or undoing someone's move by mutual consent during a game or exploring what would have happened if someone's losing move had been done differently, etc. (Consider the case of your own game Catchup, and the app which is still playing with the obsolete rule set!)


Ours will be open source, arduino-based, so it can be used as an educational thing in high school computer labs, etc.

Quote:
* Ecological/pollution/waste issues with the chemicals in the batteries and various electronic components in mass produced electronic gadgets, as compared to the more ecologically benign paper, wood, plastic, etc components of traditional boardgames, which are far less dangerous when they end up in the trash later on. Especially for the kind of game-specific dedicated hardware you're apparently describing (separate electronic gadgets for each game, as opposed to various programs which could all be run on a single computer or smartphone, instead of requiring new hardware for each new game).


The thing we're working doesn't have separate electronic gadgets for each game. You play all the games with the same sets of components, and you can reprogram the components or download new games for them at will. But your more general point remains true.

Quote:
* Most consumer software is privacy-violatingly intrusive and untrustworthy and insecure. "Internet of things" devices (which these "board" games probably are in some cases) are ridiculously insecure and get malware-infected and misused for massive denial of service attacks etc, or simply maliciously broken/vandalized.


Yeah, it's a problem, though not an unfixable one.

I'll be keeping all your thoughts in mind as we build and test our stuff.
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David Buckley
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As someone who has always preferred board games over turn-based computer games, my preference has little to nothing to do with dislike of screens. I prefer boardgames because the rules and action outcomes are explicit. I can see the link between the decisions I make and the changes to the board state, not secret calculations buried inside computer codes. I'm not sure if my explaination is clear but I'm also not sure how to make it clearer.
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The combination of "self-aware tabletop games" and Russ's thoughtfully-expressed preferences for more low-tech forms of tabletop makes me think of...

The Gaminator: a self-aware game piece sent back in time by GameNet to terminate Russ before he can lead the resistance to the new form of gaming.
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Nick Bentley
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Buckersuk wrote:
As someone who has always preferred board games over turn-based computer games, my preference has little to nothing to do with dislike of screens. I prefer boardgames because the rules and action outcomes are explicit. I can see the link between the decisions I make and the changes to the board state, not secret calculations buried inside computer codes. I'm not sure if my explaination is clear but I'm also not sure how to make it clearer.


Totally clear. I'll note secrecy isn't an obligation for digital games, even if that's a common style for turn-based computer games.
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Russ Williams
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milomilo122 wrote:
Buckersuk wrote:
As someone who has always preferred board games over turn-based computer games, my preference has little to nothing to do with dislike of screens. I prefer boardgames because the rules and action outcomes are explicit. I can see the link between the decisions I make and the changes to the board state, not secret calculations buried inside computer codes. I'm not sure if my explaination is clear but I'm also not sure how to make it clearer.


Totally clear. I'll note secrecy isn't an obligation for digital games, even if that's a common style for turn-based computer games.

There is a weird phenomenon where even when a game is perfectly playable manually, many people seem to "turn off their brains" when playing a software version. E.g. Neuroshima Hex! is a board game I've played hundreds of times, and is perfectly fine as a board game, no problem for my wife and me; we both enjoy it and play it easily. Yet I see many forum posts from people who play the software version and swear that it's too "confusing" or "complicated" or "difficult" to resolve the battles manually and that they only enjoy playing it on their computer.

A consequence of this is that by definition you're not playing very competently if you can't even mentally/manually read out how battles are resolved. E.g. imagine a Go player who can't imagine the next few moves and depends on the computer to inform them whether a group is surrounded and removed or not.
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Nick Bentley
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russ wrote:
milomilo122 wrote:
Buckersuk wrote:
As someone who has always preferred board games over turn-based computer games, my preference has little to nothing to do with dislike of screens. I prefer boardgames because the rules and action outcomes are explicit. I can see the link between the decisions I make and the changes to the board state, not secret calculations buried inside computer codes. I'm not sure if my explaination is clear but I'm also not sure how to make it clearer.


Totally clear. I'll note secrecy isn't an obligation for digital games, even if that's a common style for turn-based computer games.

There is a weird phenomenon where even when a game is perfectly playable manually, many people seem to "turn off their brains" when playing a software version. E.g. Neuroshima Hex! is a board game I've played hundreds of times, and is perfectly fine as a board game, no problem for my wife and me; we both enjoy it and play it easily. Yet I see many forum posts from people who play the software version and swear that it's too "confusing" or "complicated" or "difficult" to resolve the battles manually and that they only enjoy playing it on their computer.

A consequence of this is that by definition you're not playing very competently if you can't even mentally/manually read out how battles are resolved. E.g. imagine a Go player who can't imagine the next few moves and depends on the computer to inform them whether a group is surrounded and removed or not.


Yes! This is the story of my life with mobile games. I don't know exactly how they do it, but they encourage me to play mindlessly. Part of it may be that my phone encourages me to use it mindlessly in general. But I don't know how it does that either. This is EXACTLY what I mean in the essay when I use the word "mindlessness".

I don't want to design games that encourage that sort of mindset, and it's one reason I've been hesitant to work on digital games. One thing that makes me excited about the current project is that, for reasons I don't fully understand, the system has the opposite effect on me.

edit: an exploration of this phenomenon would be a worthy thing to write about.
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This is an interesting topic for discussion. The only game with an app integration that I have is Alchemists, which I very much enjoy. It`s kind of a different thing though, because app use is pretty minimal (in the sense that you don`t spend too much time interacting with your device) and it`s not a matter of handling stats and effects for you, it actually makes the game playable (tehnically you can replace the app with a person who can`t play the game but has to feed information to the players for the whole game...come on who does that).

Compare this to Mansions of Madness: Second Edition which seems to me (just by looking at reviews and playthroughs, have no interest in trying it) that it`s more of an app with physical components, not the other way around. Now to each his own, and I`m most definitely not a luddite (actually I played - and still sometimes play - video games for many years before discovering board games) but for some reason I tend to recoil at the thought of this type of app-integration...unless it makes a new, interesting concept work well (like the deduction game in Alchemists).

These discussions remind me of similar worries and debates regarding the future of books, back when Amazon`s Kindle brought e-books into the mainstream a few years back. There were some studies published about reading comprehension that suggest human beings better absorb information from a physical book, and I think this might be true for boardgames. I work in academia and we use all sorts of modern gadgets and software and all that...but when we really need to delve into a research paper, you better believe it gets printed out. Of course you can do all manner of highlighting and annotations and bookmarking with any decent PDF editor...but I for one feel I can only fully absorb the information when it`s on paper. And I feel the same way about boardgames, and I believe lots of other people do.

Now the interesting question is: how will people born in the last years, which in some cases are exposed to tablets at 3-4 years old, process information when they get older? Will they feel like an old-fashioned book is incomprehensible, and a boardgame arcane? Food for thought to be sure.
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Nick Bentley
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It's interesting that you mention Kindle, because it's the only digital device I own that doesn't make me mindless. It has something to do with the fact that it's single use, and that use is a mindful kind of activity.

I remember back when I owned a nintendo DS, I played that fairly mindfully, much more mindfully than I do current mobile games. And it is also more like a single use device.

A friend owns a radio that plays only one station: NPR. When I first heard about it, I thought it was a stupid hipster idea.

But then I spent some time at his house and lived with it for a while, and I fell in love with it, I think for the same reason I love my Kindle.

hmmmm
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Mihnea Cateanu
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milomilo122 wrote:
It's interesting that you mention Kindle, because it's the only digital device I own that doesn't make me mindless. It has something to do with the fact that it's single use, and that use is a mindful kind of activity.



You are absolutely right. I also own a Kindle and very much enjoy using it, I think 80-90% of my reading is done on it. Fiction is fine, the problem (for me) is when I try to read some technical stuff or non-fiction...I feel like I`m not entirely absorbing the information. Some suggest that this is (at least in part) caused by the fact that you can`t really get a feel for the structure of the text when you don`t actually thumb through and get a sense of where you are and how stuff is organized (like with a physical book). One could make the case that with boardgames, having to actually shuffle cards, move tokens, calculate stuff, roll dice etc helps in your understanding of the game as a whole.

BTW, your project looks really interesting
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Nick Bentley
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mihnea_1309 wrote:
the problem (for me) is when I try to read some technical stuff or non-fiction...I feel like I`m not entirely absorbing the information. Some suggest that this is (at least in part) caused by the fact that you can`t really get a feel for the structure of the text when you don`t actually thumb through and get a sense of where you are and how stuff is organized (like with a physical book).


I've had the same experience. In addition to the factors you mention the formatting of scientific/technical papers is often at odds with reading them on screen.

Quote:
One could make the case that with boardgames, having to actually shuffle cards, move tokens, calculate stuff, roll dice etc helps in your understanding of the game as a whole.


Yes, I think it's plausible.

Quote:
BTW, your project looks really interesting


Thanks!
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Re: An unappreciated reason for the board game renaissance (with implications for its future) of REPAST
russ wrote:
I'm skeptical about electronic "smart" boardgames without screens being more appealing than electronic "smart" boardgames with screens. For me, the appeal of boardgames over electronic games is not just literally about screens.

But time will tell.
thumbsup 'Gnomes'-homes WHOMES else'd prefer "hand-beheld" sort?

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AndAgainMA wrote:
The combination of "self-aware tabletop games" and Russ's thoughtfully-expressed preferences for more low-tech forms of tabletop makes me think of...

The Gaminator: a self-aware game piece sent back in time by GameNet to terminate Russ before he can lead the resistance to the new form of gaming.
gulp "Hades Shades" of 'Pavlov`s' "Dog MINES!" someday in Siberia AFTER they'd "clean swept away" THAT "Schrodinger'`s CAT-box" >sauron<

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henry flower
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russ wrote:
[q="milomilo122"][q="russ"]
===

I find one of the very appealing core things about board games is exactly that they use "inert" physical components which are "brought to life" by the players themselves.

Everything that physically happens in the game is due to player actions, not due to some electronic gadget doing silent invisible computations behind the scenes. And not only the physical stuff, but also all the game mechanisms/rules/systems are carried out by the players, whether it's direct player decisions (e.g. moving their pieces, buying widgets and paying money to the bank, moving their score marker, etc) or players implementing "non-player" things like dice rolls to randomize game events.

With software, you can trivially easily achieve arbitrarily complex rules (and many computer games do that, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink just because they can), but I find it far more interesting (from a creative/artistic point of view) to see what can be done when you don't have the crutch of a computer to do arbitrary amounts of work behind the scenes, but instead the game rules/system/model must be not only understandable by the players, but directly implementable by the players.



This^^^
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henry flower wrote:
russ wrote:
[q="milomilo122"][q="russ"]
===

I find one of the very appealing core things about board games is exactly that they use "inert" physical components which are "brought to life" by the players themselves.

Everything that physically happens in the game is due to player actions, not due to some electronic gadget doing silent invisible computations behind the scenes. And not only the physical stuff, but also all the game mechanisms/rules/systems are carried out by the players, whether it's direct player decisions (e.g. moving their pieces, buying widgets and paying money to the bank, moving their score marker, etc) or players implementing "non-player" things like dice rolls to randomize game events.

With software, you can trivially easily achieve arbitrarily complex rules (and many computer games do that, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink just because they can), but I find it far more interesting (from a creative/artistic point of view) to see what can be done when you don't have the crutch of a computer to do arbitrary amounts of work behind the scenes, but instead the game rules/system/model must be not only understandable by the players, but directly implementable by the players.



This^^^

In all the respects that matter most I share Russ's position too, but I do wish contributors to this forum wouldn't sprinkle it so indiscriminately with terms such as "arbitrary", "trivial" and "meta-". In the post above, for example, if we pause to consider it carefully, what can "arbitrary amounts of work" possibly mean?
 
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mocko wrote:

In all the respects that matter most I share Russ's position too, but I do wish contributors to this forum wouldn't sprinkle it so indiscriminately with terms such as "arbitrary", "trivial" and "meta-". In the post above, for example, if we pause to consider it carefully, what can "arbitrary amounts of work" possibly mean?


Not to put words in his mouth but I think Russ is using that term very carefully. He means that the designer of a digital game does not have to consider the ability of a human player to implement or even understand the calculations occurring in the game that determine its outcome. Because he has a computer capable of performing almost any calculations needed, he does not have to distill down the design to its essence to make it fully implementable by a human. Thus, whatever calculations he comes up with or discovers he needs, he just throws them in because the computer will handle them.
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