Why Boardgames: Physicality and Reactionism

Judging from the explosion of smartphone gaming over the last few years and the more recent launches of Sony’s and Microsoft’s new generation of gaming consoles, videogames are more prolific and ubiquitous than they’ve ever been. But in the shadow of their success, tabletop games – their physical analog – have also seen steady growth. Fans of the hobby are calling it a “boardgaming renaissance” – a wave of new boardgame design and development riding not on the backs of mass-market whipping-boys Risk and Monopoly, but on entry-level designer games such as Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride.

Haven’t heard of them? You will – sooner or later. Games of their caliber already grace the shelves of major retailers like Target and Toys”R”Us. Also known among boardgamers as “gateway games,” they’re notorious for afflicting otherwise average people with severe boardgame addiction, often spurring them toward heavier games with more depth and complexity.

I’m one of said addicts. I don’t even entirely recall which gateway game got me, but I remember Settlers of Catan being particularly influential. Some seven years into the hobby, and my collection has grown to over a hundred boardgames, overflowing one of IKEA’s largest EXPEDIT shelves. I can comfortably say I’ve converted a handful of new addicts, many of which have continued to spread the hobby to their own social circles.

This resemblance to a religious (or even cult) movement is not coincidental. Videogames, after all, are supposed to be the cutting-edge of gaming – progressive atheistic naturalism (to draw a metaphor). Anything less is passé, stupid – barbaric, even. And yet, a more-or-less grassroots community instilled with seemingly backwards ideals has managed to thrive and grow amid the technological bustle, preaching in hushed tones a gospel of cardboard.

Boardgaming is the right wing of the gaming spectrum. It’s conservative. It’s reactionary. It asserts (and many might say, “proves”) that things were better done without the technology that is now prevalent in the modern digital era. And at the heart of boardgaming is the foundation on which all of its reactionary merits lie – physicality. Physicality may be the most banal distinction between videogames and their tabletop brethren, but, as you’ll see, it is also the most profound.

Virtues of Immutability

The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 generation of consoles touted and then popularized systemic online integration. For the first time in console history, online play was not an afterthought or an optional accessory – it was built in. PC gamers, in the meantime, were just warming up to Steam as a centralized platform. Internet-connected platforms came with robust socialization features and spawned the development of a new wave of multiplayer-integrated titles.

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That generation of consoles also included a very important feature – one that arguably brought about one of the most significant paradigm shifts in the landscape of electronic gaming – automatic updates. Up until that point, patching was primarily a PC gaming concept. It was often completely hidden from all but the most hardcore of players, and while some games had built-in auto-updaters, it was the individual developer’s burden to implement (or license) such a system.

In other words, prior to the 360/PS3 generation, videogames had much higher quality standards. They had to ship with the assumption that the player was stuck with whatever was physically on the disc.

This is analogous to the high standard by which a boardgame – a physical product – must necessarily be held. Its physicality – its pieces, its printed art, its rulebook – is immutable, and as such, it must ship under the assumption that a player that purchases that boardgame must be able to play it in its entirety with only the included contents. As with PC games of yesteryear, there will be boardgames whose developers publish rules FAQ’s and errata (the boardgame equivalent of a “patch”), but the designers can never assume that players will seek out or apply that information.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to find any digital games that don’t get patched within a few weeks of release. The only examples that come to mind are Nintendo’s portable titles. If there’s one good thing that comes out of Nintendo’s archaic approach to online integration, it’s that they’re forced to maintain those high quality standards that have since been muddled in the midst of the modern “launch-it-first, patch-it-later” mindset.

This mindset has evolved even further, though. The rapid acceleration of growth in the mobile (smartphone) gaming sector, led primarily by the rise in iPhone adoption, also brought about a widely accepted development methodology as a result of the App Store’s integrated update capability: post-launch updates. While few would argue that this is a bad thing, it adds a creeping uncertainty to player perceptions, especially as those perceptions become more and more entangled with a developer’s sketchy promises and ambitions. One need only look to the proliferation of “early-access” games to see the increasing prevalence of the practice.

Boardgames provide the kind of stability – in both quality and in content – that is becoming increasingly rare amidst current digital trends. Boardgamers can rest assured that when they purchase a game, that game was tested as-is with no expectation of having to be “fixed” later.

Reclaiming Ownership and Value

Another byproduct of the advent of persistent online connectivity is the increasingly clouded notion of videogame ownership. With online integration and digital distribution channels came ever stricter digital rights management (DRM) policies. Services such as Steam, Xbox Live, and Playstation Network have gated their products behind identification and authentication systems. Many multiplayer games have issued online passes in order to restrict the used game trade. The free-to-play movement, furthermore, is attempting to usher in an era of “games as a service” in order to rationalize mandatory recurring costs to consumers of their products.

Let’s face it – with the fate of many modern videogames tied to the power switch of some remote server, many videogamers today have no satisfactory answer to the question, “Who owns my games?” Sure, vehement consumer backlash has swayed developers away from restrictive DRM policies in recent years, but the fact still exists that videogames are no longer the boxed, self-contained product that they once were.

Boardgames give players an unequivocal answer to the question of ownership. It is their entirely physical nature that allows this. A boardgame has no logins, passwords, or device authorizations. It sits on its owner’s shelf, available at its owner’s whim. There are never service outages or expired licenses. The owner could even cheat (if he so desired) without getting his right to play the game revoked.

minisMore importantly, the physical nature of the boardgame necessarily requires its owner to invest time and energy into its play. He has to read the rules. He has to pull the box off of the shelf and open it, shuffle cards, sort pieces, assemble a board. There’s a ritual, in some sense. (That cult analogy again.) There’s overhead in playing a boardgame, and because of that, they tend toward mechanics that encourage repeated play to justify that cost. This kind of repetition, in conjunction with a boardgame’s innate tangibility, breeds a deep sense of attachment and owner’s pride, reflecting the significant efforts made in pursuit of its appreciation. The boardgame acquires a kind of value to its owner that is difficult to replicate in the digital medium – a medium becoming increasingly laden with $0.99, one-night-stands of mindless, spoon-fed excuses for “play.”

It’s almost hilarious to consider this particular game developer, who has been so entrenched in the digital medium that he has come to consider the notions of locality and physicality in gaming to be some unique epiphany.

Social Contract as Punkbuster

The notion of a boardgame’s physicality isn’t limited to the tangibility of the game itself. It also applies to the implicit physical presence of its players. There was a time when videogame multiplayer meant LAN play or couch co-op. Older gamers will often look back fondly on those times. Meaningful social bonds were formed more easily in close proximity, when a group of gamers could put their controllers down and grab a bite to eat together, reflecting on their recent misadventures.

Not to mention the fact that they didn’t really have to deal as much with the kinds of trolls and asshats you find online nowadays. It turns out a lot of individuals interpret Internet anonymity as a free pass to act like dicks (ref. Penny Arcade’s succinct depiction). This kind of behavior has pretty much become an accepted part of the videogame community since the advent of online play. Despite the efforts of numerous companies to combat the stigma, the behavior persists. At least that’s what my brief foray into DotA 2 matchmaking suggests.

With boardgaming, as in the olden days of local co-op, players have to be physically next to each other. As such, their behaviors become more strongly dictated by social norms. Even complete strangers have to show some measure of restraint when severe antagonism could easily earn them a black eye or two. At the very least, players can apply real-world social pressures that cannot be reliably implemented in an online environment. Particularly troublesome players can be shunned from gaming groups, kicked out of venues, and blacklisted without the ability to hide behind a new avatar.

While online videogames face a constant (and possibly worsening) struggle with issues of cheating, sexual harassment, death threats, and downright indecent conduct, boardgames are reaching an ever widening swath of the general population. Spiel – the largest annual boardgame convention in Europe – is reputedly attended by a largely well-represented demographic. Even Gen Con, America’s biggest tabletop gaming convention, is reporting rapid growth in attendance by families and females.

Culture of Game Design

This notion of “games as social contract” speaks to a more fundamental distinction between videogames and boardgames. Boardgames, being physical, easily-manipulable entities, do not enforce rules of play. People do, and they do so by learning rulesets that would normally be implemented and enforced at a code level in any kind of digital equivalent. This fact makes the social contract of play much more powerful and more binding in tabletop form. When the game takes place entirely in the minds of the players, it ceases to exist the moment that contract is broken.

Digital games encode their rules of play. They restrict and interpret player action automatically – oftentimes without the players being aware of it. Players can only grope at the bounds of that design space, picking and choosing to interact with the parts of it that appear to serve their immediate in-game goals. Only the most dedicated of players attempt to decipher the entire underlying model of play, asking not only, “How?”, but also, “Why?”.

When playing boardgames, asking, “Why?” is the norm. One cannot just hope to “grasp” at actions without violating the rules of play. By learning the rules, players comprehend the interconnectedness of the systems. Players are constantly analyzing the underlying model of play, since they are the only ones enforcing it. In doing so, they indirectly place themselves into the mind of the designer. They even learn to interpret designer intent and come to educated conclusions when any kind of rules ambiguities arise.

This inherent analysis of play breeds a culture of game design among the boardgame community. Hobbyists have learned to value innovative and interesting mechanisms more than the thematic skin enfolding them, as it is those underlying rules of play that ultimately color the game when one is constantly analyzing, interpreting, and enforcing it in one’s own mind.

Boardgaming’s mechanics-first mentality is undeniable. In the time it took the digital gaming realm to invent and popularize the MOBA, boardgame designers invented and proliferated multiple genres: worker placement, cooperative games, deckbuilding, microgames, and “legacy” games, just to name a few. The cardboard medium is still ripe with promise and possibility, not unlike that early era of videogame “biodiversity” to which Chris Crawford alludes in his 2011 GDC talk, in which genre standards didn’t yet exist. Unsurprisingly, he mentions European designer boardgames as a promising source of creative ideas.

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Divergent Paths

Mainstream digital gaming has been seduced by the allure of the rapidly advancing technology that powers it. Never was that more apparent to me than during the PS4 reveal at E3 2013. Cinematic game developer David Cage of Quantic Dream managed to completely miss the point when he ignorantly associated creative limitation with technological limitation. “We can take you to places you’ve never been before and make you feel emotions you’ve never felt in real life without having to wonder whether we’ll have the horsepower to do so.”

I played my first-ever tabletop RPG last week – a short-form, non-GM’ed title by the name of Fiasco. It employed a printed lookup table and a handful of dice. And it was easily the most unique and eye-opening experience in gaming that I’ve had in years (complete lack of “horsepower” notwithstanding).

Yet in that same press conference, indie luminary Jonathan Blow quietly took the stage and subtly derided the preceding explosions, instead presenting The Witness, a game with ambitions of actual experiential innovation that didn’t revolve around riding an adolescent adrenaline rush.

And he’s just one of many such developers choosing to de-emphasize (if not entirely eschew) technological advancement in favor of inventing new forms of play. There’s already rising reactionary sentiment within the videogame community itself – most notably in the indie scene. Many of the most lauded games of this past year have consciously adopted minimalist and retro aesthetics in order to bring the actual gameplay to the forefront.

The rising popularity of tabletop gaming can simply be seen as a culmination of that same sentiment of gaming conservatism. Technology should be in service to the game, not the other way around. And it is becoming clear that boardgamers are finding it easier and better to just take digital technology entirely out of the picture.

 

schlaghund is a former game developer and perpetual game enthusiast. You can find more of his writing at schlaghund’s playground.

Don't be shellfish...
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