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Subject: Picking Up the Pieces: Why Board Games Should Go Digital rss

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Brett Bates
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Carcassonne on the iPhone and Small World on the iPad inspired me to write this article on why board games should go digital to reach a wider audience. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

http://www.bitmob.com/articles/picking-up-the-pieces-why-boa...
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Jason Begy
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You have mention some good pragmatic reasons, but the tactile and aesthetic pleasures of board games (currently) cannot be replicated, and those are major components of the experience.

More than one person has commented on the fact that "game design" is really "experience design." For board games, part of that experience is the sound, feel, and sometimes fury of the physicality of it all.

I'm not an expert in this, but I'm pretty sure that a major aesthetic element of go boards is the sound of the stones on the board, which influences choices in materials.

Digital versions are of course very convenient, but the comparison is similar to book vs ebook. Both have their place, and I imagine they will coexist for quite some time.
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Brett Bates
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You're absolutely right about that, and that's why I'm not going to stop bringing out a physical board with my friends anytime soon. But I am interested in supplementing it with digital play at times.

Maybe board game makers could start to include a digital copy of their games when you purchase the physical product, just as some DVDs now include digital versions as well.
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Tim Collins
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bbretterson wrote:
Carcassonne on the iPhone and Small World on the iPad inspired me to write this article on why board games should go digital to reach a wider audience. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

http://www.bitmob.com/articles/picking-up-the-pieces-why-boa...


Interesting article and well done. I will say this, as soon as board games go digital, I wont like boardgames anymore. I am attracted to them due to the tactile tabletop nature of them. Once that is lost, I feel you lose the essence of the game that makes it such a great way to bring people together. Now you just have another videogame.
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Patrick H.
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All of the reasons you give in your article are the EXACT same reasons I switched from board games to computer games back in the 80's.

They are also the EXACT same reasons I went back to board games.

The epiphany came when I realized I had piles of old computer games that I couldn't play anymore. The difference between my copy of Carcassonne and the iPad version is that my copy will still be playable in 20 years.

In the end, I really missed the intimacy inherent in passing the dice to the next guy, or having to remove your defeated armies from the board, that you just don't get from a screen.

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Steve K
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I've never taken to video / console / PC games.

I installed a few games on my iPhone, but although they are indeed a lot cheaper than their physical counterparts, I never actually play them. The reason is simply that I play boardgames with people, and I don't want to play against an AI or against a person while starting at a little screen.

When I travel, I read a book or stare out of the window. So many people seem to be listening to their own music and shutting themselves off from the real world.
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kSwingrÜber
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This reminds me a bit of a discussion I had with my wife (a Librarian) about books going digital. She does like the idea, I'm a bit ambivalent, except...

When we run outta oil, and other cheap means of producing power... we can still pick up an old-fashioned book and read it, even with no power...

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IrishFire Herself
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Nice photos, nice layout, nice article. I'll have to browse the rest of your blog sometime--nicely done!
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quardlepleen wrote:



They are also the EXACT same reasons I went back to board games.

The epiphany came when I realized I had piles of old computer games that I couldn't play anymore. The difference between my copy of Carcassonne and the iPad version is that my copy will still be playable in 20 years.

In the end, I really missed the intimacy inherent in, passing the dice to the next guy, or having to remove your defeated armies from the board, that you just don't get from a screen.



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Matthew Lock
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I thought that when I played Agricola for the first time; "This game is just about at the limit of what can be done in terms of keeping track of resources/scoring without digital assistance." So I agree that there is some potential there with games like Smallworld on the i-pad (I can't wait to try that one). But I can think of two reasons why there will always be room for pure board games.

1. One charm of the board game resource or troop management is that you have that intimate knowledge of your situation. It's not just stored in a computer. Also you know the mechanics of a battle or a resource exchange, unlike in a computer game where the software does the hard work for you. I don't want the game to take control.

2. Also, what hardware can this be accomplished on? The i-pad is the only one right now that can come close. If this took off I can forsee a console war similar to the video game industry, which is one reason I don't play video games that much. I don't want to have to buy multiple consoles in order to play the games I want. Consoles that will be obsolete in a few years, if they don't "red ring" in the mean time.

But with that said, I do think that there is room for a middle ground, where board games and electronics merge in the most meaningful way that we have ever seen, and I am happy about that.
 
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The last thing I want to do is to stare at the computer screen after work.
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Abraham Drucker
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I think that there is room for both, but I can't see myself passing an iPod around the room to play small world. Digital games are great to play with friends who are remote (I play on BSW with my brother who lives several hundred miles away), but quite frankly in-person I much prefer the tactile experience. In addition, the 3-d nature of cardboard and plastic adds not only to my enjoyment of the game, but to my decision making process and ability to play. Things like army size and stacks of chits just aren't the same on a screen. Similarly, route maps and area control is much easier to do when you can stand over the game and look at it from multiple angles.

Digital has a place, but I don't think it will ever really replace tactile. Nor do I think it should.

There is one error in your article- the rulebook for monopoly isn't printed on the inside of the box. It's actually a long, fairly involved rulebook (IIRC 8-10 pages). Also, just making these games digital doesn't mean that they are necessarily that much easier to learn. True, the computer takes care of a lot of the overhead, but I tried playing 18xx online without reading the rules ahead of time - it didn't work.

When introducing new games, I usually tell people that they have fewer rules than monopoly.
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monchi
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I think that board games will always have their place, just as books will. As a society we spend an ever increasing amount of time in front of a computer screen. The last thing I need to do after spending 8hrs or more in front of a screen working is to spend 4 or 5 more hours huddled around an iPad playing games with freinds.

As much as playing games is about the game itself, for me at least, just as big a part of it is the human interaction and hanging out with friends. I have played lots of online games, and the one thing that always strikes me is even if I happen to know one of the "people" I am playing against it always feels like you are playing against the computer. And the idea of passing an iPad back and forth seems a little sad.

So far I have found most games to be hitish or miss, I have never played an online version of a board game and thought to myself...well I can get rid of that game now. The empty shell of the game is intact, but even a game like TTR which is okay online becomes a little mechanical when played online. Worker placement or tile laying games are easier to translate, but bluffing games are useless, even online poker as popular as it is is only half the game it is in real life. Bluffing is trying to fake someone out, not sure how you are supposed to "read" someone when you all you see is a cartoon on the screen.

I can see how if you are looking for a quick fix that playing a game online is good. There are a lot of digital or online games I have tried where if it was my first exposure to the game I would never try the actual game. I have tried about 5 different Catan versions and only one I felt truly felt like playing the real thing.

I guess if your concern is that setting up and breaking down a game takes too long, or reading the rules is too confusing, or that scoring takes advanced algebra to figure out then going digital would make sense...then again if you feel that way it is probably too much effort to arrange a games night at someones house, clean the house, get snacks together, pick out what to wear...if only there was a button you could push that would pick the game to play, play it for you, send you an email letting you know if you won or not, and post a sessions report on BGG outlining the strategy you used to win the game....probably already an app for that
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Brett Bates
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Thanks for all of your input, everyone. I knew my article would be a little incendiary, especially to long-time board game fans.

Like most of you have said, I don't think that physical board games are going to die anytime soon. I too prefer to play real deal instead staring at a computer screen.

But I do think the iPad and iPhone offer something special, something that previous digitized board games on the PC can't match, and that's a synthesis between the digital and the physical. When my friend and I play Small World on his iPad, we set just as we would sit while playing the real thing. You don't get the pleasure of the physical pieces, but you do get a streamlined experience -- and my main argument is that streamlining the experience to broaden interest in these games. I have plenty of friends who I think would enjoy board games but tune out the moment the massive number of components are unveiled, or the dizzyingly complex rulebooks and quick reference sheets are dolled out.

If a digital board game could quickly draw them into the core experience, and if they understand and enjoy it, then hopefully they'll be much more open to playing the physical product -- definitely a plus in my book.

Thanks again!
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bbretterson wrote:
Maybe board game makers could start to include a digital copy of their games when you purchase the physical product, just as some DVDs now include digital versions as well.

The article and this statement kind of ignore the expense of hiring an outside or internal group of programmers, artists, graphic artists, foley artists, composers, etc. to design and produce the digital version of the product (most digital version of board games I've played require at least a little tweaking to the rules to make them work).

In cases where there already is a digital version, it would make sense to include a voucher or a trial copy. But to pack in an entirely separate product (which a digital version would be — this isn't like movies where the digital copy is just a lower-quality version of the primary product) seems like a great way to make the price of board games shoot through the roof.

There's also the issue of price. Paying $5 for a digital iPad board game is a great deal if you already have an iPad, but I don't, and don't plan to get one. Part of the appeal of board games is that when I buy one, I have a way to play it already: my kitchen table. I don't need a $200+ piece of specialized electronic hardware to operate it.

All that said, I'd love to see more digital versions of board games as independent products. I have the Xbox Live versions of Catan and Carcassonne to thank for introducing me to modern board games in the first place. Ticket to Ride is another good one.

The way my life is right now it is incredibly difficult to get a group of people together for a board game at all, let alone get them to play six hours of Twilight Imperium or Arkham Horror or something. A quality version of either of the above (and more) on XBLA or PC is something I'd gladly pay for, and it would be much easier to find a willing group of players to participate. Plus the expandable format of many modern board games would appear to dovetail perfectly with the trend toward downloadable add-ons in video games these days.
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Troy Winfrey
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A good article. I'd propose a different framework, though: an analogue of Clayton Christensen's "disruptive" vs. "sustaining" innovations.

As he defines it, a "disruptive" innovation is a cheaper, crappier, usually more flexible but underpowered way of doing something. (It has *nothing* to do with more features, advanced technology, etc. Those are "sustaining" innovations.) A great example of a disruptive innovation is the iPhone. It's not a technologically-advanced phone like people thought at first. It's a crappy computer that can handle a lot of computing tasks reasonably well and has the big advantage of being usable on the go.

Digital board games are potentially disruptive to the traditional board game model. They are individually cheaper (assuming the cost of the device has been ignored, which is reasonable unless the device is a dedicated board game player, useful for nothing else). They also address three major problems with board games: setup, portability and saved-state, and finding an opponent. Complexity is harder to call, but if we look at the historical picture (many hobbyists are too young), we see that old-school wargames and titles like Magic Realm are arguably unplayable without significant computerized housekeeping. So just as the cell phone's portability came to override its poor-quality, insecure, grossly overpriced calls, so the e-board makes up for a lot of issues with real games.

However, here's where my analysis diverges. The disruptive innovation will not "replace" the thing it disrupts for a long time in the best of circumstances, and for the special board game case, it probably won't ever. Here's why.

Disruptive innovations appeal to people who don't use the "standard" thing being disrupted...and to people who do use the standard, but who are currently 'overserved' by that standard (i.e., satisfied with what they're getting and not interested in paying more for more). This is a bright future for the e-board, as more iPad users discover e-board titles *and boardgamers use the e-board version to evaluate whether or not to buy the "real thing"*. This is a huge and largely unacknowledged issue in boardgaming. Some people will buy and play anything, period. Others must be more choosy, usually because of space, time, or financial constraints. Up to now, the ways to evaluate games for purchase have not been suitably satisfying. In essence, the e-board offers a lower-cost, lower-risk way to get this customer task done. In all sectors, this has meant that a disruptive innovation will take off.

But the basic board game will stick around. In part this is a special case, because inefficiency--social interaction and all that entails--is one of the major reasons for boardgames in the first place, and is thus resistant to disruption. This need for small-scale social interaction is still essential in America despite technology, and in fact may be growing with the greying of America (see also the rise in interest in home entertaining, including home cooking, and responses to recessionary pressures). Similarly, well-produced physical components are part of the social experience and will always have a place. (They will probably get more elaborate, in fact, for an aging rich population that derives status from showing off while hosting.)

So here's my take. Board games are going to expand big-time as more people discover them via e-boarding, and established hobbyists are able to try more games more quickly before buying (representing manufacturer revenue increases even if the only sale is the app). Standards for physical games are likely to continue to improve.
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Bastian Bux wrote:
You didn't factor in the cost of the Ipad or Iphone, which is pretty disingenuous for a comparison. Really, you think the choice for me (with no Ipod/Iphone) is to spend $4.95 for e-carcassonne or 36.99 for real carcassonne?

If you add the hundreds it takes to buy + the phone plan, we're getting closer to an actual comparison. Depending on the size of your collection, eventually non-computer collections will cost more, so then we can move on to the other reasons to own real board games.

E-Carcassonne (iCarc?) is cheap because it's not really meant to make money. Income from selling this app is a bit of extra, the real goal is to sell iPhones. It's a feature of a product, not a true product in its own right.

This ties into the manuals-are-hard-tutorials-are-easy issue too: the problem is not really with the format. The problem is that manuals often are not very good. People tend to be lazy, so if the manual isn't well done they are prone to give up. Because these applications are meant to draw people to the real product, they have to be as attractive as possible. The software developers go to great lengths to smooth out wrinkles, more so than many boardgame designers. This is not inherent to the format or medium though. Boardgame manuals can be written properly too.

People don't buy an iPhone to play games on. They buy an iPhone because they want a smartphone, and the iPhone has the features that are most attractive to them. Otherwise they get a Blackberry or another type of smartphone, whichever suits them best.

The iPad is a little bit different. Not that people buy those specifically to play games on, but that is clearly an aspect closer to the real purpose of the device than with the iPhone. The screen is bigger, big enough to allow for a decent resolution while still showing the big picture, the OS is that of an actual computer so the apps are more likely to remain forward compatible. The iPad is something of a console combined with some aspects of a PC. If, and I do say if, electronic versions of boardgames are to push cardboard boardgames out of the market it'll be through tablet PCs, not through smartphones.
 
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Callan Bond
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If I have gamer friends over for a 'game day', the physical versions are getting played without question- for many of the reasons already listed here. I would never want to have a group of people crowded around the iPad, unless we were playing something like PadRacers. Maybe a max of two players for a game like SmallWorld I would do local on the iPad.

More than that, though, I don't have nearly as much time as I would like to have friends over for 'game days' any more due to an avalanche of other commitments. Therefore, what I am most excited about is the ability to get a polished, pick-up-and play version of my favorite game and play with live opponents, at any time, over the internet. I've done some BrettspielWelt gaming and it is just so clunky and hard to find opponents sometimes. I would love to just stretch out on the couch beside the wife as she is watching some tv show I have no interest in, and play a few quick games of Dominion or Agricola on the iPad.

For that reason more than any other, I can't wait until there are more iPad boardgames.

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Eric Jome
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It is inevitable that touch surfaces and computers will become very influential in the area of board games in the future. There is no way for that to happen in the near term because these things are too inefficient and too expensive to be competitive.

When they build a touch screen that can get rained on, go for days without a recharge, has constant wifi or better everywhere it goes (and I mean everywhere, including at sea, on planes, underground) then the ubiquity of machines will enable mostly video enhanced board game play.

But for now, it is just way, way, way too easy and cheap to whip out a copy of Carcassonne and just play.
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Ray O'Russa
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This is a topic that has so many implications for the future, and not just about board games.

Consider physical books, magazines, newspapers, CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, film photography, games, etc. It is interesting that except for film (which is almost gone now), the other physical formats are still with us. True, some newspapers and magazines have folded and are now completely online or completely gone, but at this point we still have most of those, although others are struggling to hang on. There is discussion about the future viability and survival of the various music and video disc formats. Now we're wondering about the future viability of physical board games.

The OP article is quite good, and it's hard to disagree with his reasoning. However, I think the discussion is not whether the physical or digital path is the best; rather, it should be that people can have a choice in the matter. I, for one, think that digital versions of all these formats is a great thing in their place, BUT I would hate to see the physical versions of all of these formats just disappear over time. I like the choices we now have, but I also realize that in the future it will be simply what most people want and can afford. The public will decide, mostly with their dollars. I hope that both the physical and digital versions of all of these formats can peacefully and permanently coexist. Maybe that's a dream, but that's what would be the best, IMHO.

More to the topic at hand, the advantages of physical board games are simply the old-fashioned and NON-technical social atmosphere they create, as well as the production values of the components and sounds and sights that go along with them. You can play with your family and friends and enjoy pizza and soda pop, and have a great time together (well, we assume). You can actually touch (gasp!!) the real playing pieces and cards, and actually roll the dice yourself!! How is that possible? It's just nice to get away from YET ANOTHER SCREEN and YET ANOTHER CONTROLLER to have to look at. And if we're going to have touch-screen operation, why not just enjoy the "real thing" if you can afford the time and space? The disadvantages are the set-up and tear-down processes, and the mess they create on one's table area, as well as the long rulebooks and sometimes long learning curves. Let's face it: you have to be a gamer to enjoy some of these games. Most people are too lazy to want to do that. Of course, that is also part of the charm.

For perhaps the opposite reasons are the advantages of the digital versions. No set-up or tear-down, no mess, turn on and then save and turn off, portability, and certainly great-looking graphics and sound. The rules and learning curve may not necessarily be any different, depending on how the digital version is designed. Their disadvantages are in many ways the advantages of the physical versions.

I guess it all depends on what a person wants. In the end, perhaps both sides are right AND wrong at the same time because they come from opposites ends of perspective. There is certainly no need for either side to bash the other. That's total nonsense. As I said before, I like the idea of both coexisting on a peaceful and permanent basis. I'm just afraid that maybe won't happen. I'll try to grab my favorite games now before it may be too late. I hope I'm wrong about this.
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IrishFire Herself
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Meh, I see the parallel but think it's a bit of a stretch. Although film is becoming a thing of the past, the way we consume movies and photos is much the same: people aren't going to stop printing out photos anytime soon, and digital movies vs. physical film movies make no difference at the user level. There's no tactile loss to the conversion.

Photoshop may be aiding and abetting graphic artists, but pencil and paper isn't going anywhere, either.

Board games have been around for thousands of years. Digital copies are fun, but they aren't going to change the human impulse to manipulate physical pieces in our environment. If cardboard gets pricey we'll use paper. If wood and plastic get too expensive we'll revert to stone or plaster. The medium carries too much inherent benefit and is too forgiving of market values to fade away in our lifetime, or that of our grandchildren.
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Let's just put all boardgames on computers then we can take away another way to interact with other people.
/sarcasm.

Time to play Space Alert and Descent on the PC. psh.
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Like many here, I play board and card games for the social aspect. While playing online gives "some" social aspect, it's not nearly the same.

Some other reasons (some I'm stealing from previous posters):

I can loan my games to people and take them camping without fear of losing or ruining them, and if they are lost or ruined they're relatively inexpensive to replace (well, most of them).

Even after 20+ years you can take a board and card game and still play it (supposing it's been well kept). With electronics, and especially the way they are now, hand held devices become obsolete within 5 years and computers and consoles start to end their life span (i.e. support for, not actual usability) in 10 years.

I play board/card games occasionally online and one of my biggest gripes is that everything is done for me. This makes learning the game and the little things about the game difficult to follow. I also can not stand rolling dice on a computer, it just doesn't feel right. I suppose using Vassal would help with this, but then that's just a lot of clicking, and I still can't trash talk my opponent and watch their reactions.

If they come out with tabletop touch computers that can store dozens of games and only do the most menial tasks (such as shuffling and dealing), then I might be swayed, however there is still the whole cost and obsolete issues.
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Lori
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VanVeen wrote:
if we look at the historical picture (many hobbyists are too young), we see that old-school wargames ... are arguably unplayable without significant computerized housekeeping.


I feel pretty foolish now. I've been on BGG for years, and the whole time I thought the wargame scene was for real. All those people rating and logging games, and posting in the forums about their experiences playing old-school wargames--I totally took it seriously! But now I know that wargames are unplayable, I realize the whole thing was a hoax, just one of those BGG in-jokes. I should've been tipped off by the fact that no one ever actually brought one to game night.
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Board games, over time, developed to make optimal use of the physical possibilities and limitations they have in components, etc.

For the iPad, possibilities and limitations are different. It follows that, eventually, games on the iPad should be different in design to make proper use of that fact.

In the meantime, I am happy if they co-exist. Board games return a simplicity and elegance of design to gaming that, in many cases, got lost in video games
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