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Cardboard X Circuitry: The Charm and Allure of Electronic Board Games

By Wesley Fenlon

We play three electronic board games from decades past and find that there's fun here that you just won't find in today's all-digital games.

In 30 seconds, an evil, sentient virus will take control of Earth's military weapon satellite Battlesat 1. Only the elite commando from the Asiatic Alliance has a chance in hell of stopping it. Only he stands between the Omega Virus and total control of Battlesat's defensive laser systems--systems capable of raining fiery armageddon down upon the Earth.

His hand hovers over the command console that will launch an attack against the virus. There are three choices, but only one will dismantle the insidious infection and restore control to Battlesat 1's helpless computer.

15 seconds. There isn't time for a second shot. Thirty-three percent chance of victory. His finger wavers. He chooses a button and presses it, holding his breath as the command is processed--and then an explosion bursts from the lo-fi speaker at the center of the Omega Virus board, ending one of the most intense, fast-paced board games I've ever played.

Victory. "You human scum," the virus snarls, before its voice grows choppy and the beleaguered central computer regains control of Battlesat 1.

Despite being 20 years old, The Omega Virus retains an urgency and intensity virtually nonexistent in today's games.

The Omega Virus is no ordinary board game. It's an electronic game, published by Milton Bradley in 1992, that pits players against an invisible foe as they scramble to collect the equipment needed to save Battlesat 1. Players can battle each other, too, but down that path likely lies failure for all, laser bombardment of the Earth, and a gloating, victorious virus.

Despite being 20 years old, The Omega Virus retains an urgency and intensity virtually nonexistent in today's games. In the late 1970s and on into the 80s publishers repackaged classic games like Battleship and Monopoly with digital components to give them a fresh shot at the market. Those games are best forgotten. But other, more creative games spawned from the electronic gaming gimmick and built around it, crafting something genuinely unique out of cheap circuitry and speakers.

The Omega Virus, Dark Tower and Clue FX are three such games, each published a decade apart over a span of thirty years--nearly the entire lifetime of the electronic board game. They're as fascinating as they are gimmicky, and each represents the technology and design sensibilities of the time. And despite age and obtuse design working against them, two of the games are actually fun. We dusted off these games from the storage closet, set our iPhones and iPads aside, and immersed ourselves in the fusion of cardboard and circuits. After we found some spare D size batteries, of course.

Dark Tower

On the first turn of the first game of Dark Tower I've played in over a decade, a dragon attacked me with a blood-curdling electronic screech, murdered two of my warriors and took a quarter of my unspent gold. That moment encapsulates the experience of playing Milton Bradley's classic Dark Tower: you will spend most of the game being randomly, viciously, and unfairly assaulted by dragons, the plague, and armies of brigands.

Or perhaps you won't, and one of your friends will. Dark Tower deserves to be called a classic thanks to the imposing plastic tower that dominates its board--the tower houses a computer that controls the entire game, which entails playing out battles, tracking players' loot, army size and food supply.

The Tower plays dual roles as antagonist and dungeon master, exemplifying the "play against the board" gameplay later electronic board games would adopt. Players move around the board's four kingdoms searching for three keys that unlock the tower, and the first to dig up all the keys and attack the tower with a gaggle of warriors earns a short victory sound effect from the vanquished tower.

As a game, there's not really much to Dark Tower. There's no player vs. player combat, movement around the board proceeds slowly, and strategy is almost nonexistent. As an experience, Dark Tower is something special. The whir of the tower's motors, its beeps and boops, and the backlit film cells are charming and technologically impressive for a 31-year-old device. In replaying Dark Tower, my childlike awe has turned into appreciation for the complexity of the device.

The play experience comes from interacting with the tower and watching helplessly as it controls your destiny. Random (and often punishing) events lend Dark Tower the old school feel of an 80s video game--a rarity in modern gaming on consoles or tabletops. Most of the electronic board games preceding Dark Tower did little to justify their tacked-on circuitry; Dark Tower created an experience impossible to replicate any other way.

The board game is unfortunately so rare that the experience of Dark Tower comes with a lofty price tag. There are free ways to come close to the real thing, however: a wonderful app designer made a replacement Dark Tower for Android, and Java and Flash versions are accessible from The Dark Tower Page, a fansite created in 1997.

The Omega Virus

Dark Tower's monolith serves as a silent, imposing adversary while housing the electronic equipment necessary to bring dragon-slaying, epic fantasy dreams to life. The Omega Virus's electronic brain doesn't have the same gravity, so it compensates by incessantly--and I do mean incessantly--taunting and berating everyone in the game. The Omega Virus plays out on a massive board divided into small color-coded rooms. A plastic "Command Center" in the middle of the board houses the electronics, while four buttons on top control everything from searching rooms (each has a unique access code) to attacking other players.

The Omega Virus takes Dark Tower's player-versus-board design and coats it in a heavy layer of science fiction. The box and manual are lavishly adorned with bold artwork torn straight out of an 80s comic book. In fact, the front half of the manual is a comic book that explains the game's backstory (evil nanomachines!) and depicts all of the awesome virus-killin' tools players have to find to save Battlesat 1. The Negatron, naturally, is a device that "reverses the effects of a Positronic Time-Distortion Sphere. Experts speculate that the Omega Virus has protected its central processor by 'throwing' it several seconds into the future."

The Omega Virus' disaster setting factors into the play experience thanks to a strict time limit. The longest play session is a tense 35 minutes, and experts can opt to start the timer at 15 minutes. If no one finds and defeats the Omega Virus within the time limit, it's game over for humanity.

Everyone wants to win, but the Virus' constant verbal insults and the urgent pleas of the poor computer encourage the perfect balance of coopetition. Attacking another player in the middle of the game to steal one of their tools betters you chances--and induces howls of rage, much to my delight--but when it comes down to the wire the best-equipped space marine becomes Earth's last hope. Players can pass during their turns just to afford someone else a few precious seconds to combat the Omega Virus.

Unlike Dark Tower, The Omega Virus rarely feels completely random or unfair. The board's rooms are littered with traps, but they're always possible to deflect by energizing the proper shield (via pressing one of the hub's four buttons). Only in the game's final minutes will the Virus randomly destroy players' secondary probes, which are used to explore rooms--and at that point, sections of the board have begun to close off, making the probes less useful.

Ultimately Omega Virus' short running time and player interaction, be it competitive or cooperative, make it a more engaging game than Dark Tower. Without a screen the game's control pad isn't as fun to play with as Dark Tower, but The Omega Virus is still a blast.

Clue FX

While Dark Tower and The Omega Virus' designers struck out to craft original games around the technologies available at the time, Clue FX is a more modern example of the electronic game cash-in. The game "updates" the classic board game of Clue with an electronic game master and a board that contains sensors in every room or section of the mansion grounds where a murder has, naturally, taken place.

Pushing down on a figure in one of the rooms tells the game where your character is. This is where the game really branches out from classic Clue: there are four playable characters, who are not suspects in the murder, and a group of NPCs (including some returning favorites like Professor Plum and Colonel Mustard) who are. Each NPC is on an envelope with one of the classic cards inside--a murder weapon, location or suspect--and the players get the leftover cards in their hands.

Clue is normally a game of deduction. Smart notetaking and observation of other players can help you rule out suspects and cards without ever seeing them. Clue FX almost entirely ruins the strategy of the original game. Because each NPC has a card--and because those NPCs can be hiding in any room on the board--ruling out suspects, murder rooms and weapons comes down to luck.

By widening the scope of characters, Clue FX inadvertently removes the original game's balanced strategy. And without strategy, well, Clue isn't very much fun at all.

Clue FX is mildly entertaining thanks to the voices of the posh guests, and you could argue that tracking down all the subjects makes the game feel more like a mystery. That's enough to make Clue FX interesting for kids, but Dark Tower and The Omega Virus are more fun to play.

The technology's cool, at least--the board looks pretty ordinary, but contact points in each room are triggered when a pawn is pressed down. Pretty snazzy that a game made in 2003 uses chips in its board and its pawns, though the drawback is damage to the board's circuitry makes some rooms impossible to visit.

The End of the Electronic Board Game

Electronic board games are complex and thus expensive to create--and why put forth the effort, when video games are so successful?

Electronic board games had some real mainstream appeal once. Dark Tower was amazingly advanced compared to hum-drum games of the 1980s, and into the 90s games like Mall Madness kept the concept of electronic interactivity popular among kids. Board games aimed at kids became more elaborate, with moving parts, 3D constructions of plastic or cardboard, and mechanized elements.

I grew up with games like Tornado Rex and Forbidden Bridge, products of the early 90s that proved moving parts were endlessly exciting. Electronic games are more complex and thus more expensive to create--and why put forth the effort, when video games are so successful? Electronic board game releases slowed to a trickle in the 2000s, and today the iPad hosts some of the game world's most popular titles, like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. And they cost five or 10 bucks.

The prevalence of affordable technology will hopefully lead to an electronic board game resurgence one day in the form of something like the ePawn Arena, a French-designed gaming board that combines motion tracking technology with a cheap LCD to unite physical pieces and digital programming. Game companies could easily sell "game packs" with all the pieces but the board itself. Though ePawn uses its own tracking technology to identify pieces, RFID holds the potential to integrate physical components into virtual worlds.

Stacked up against today's smartphones and game consoles, electronic board games can't impress kids the way they once did. Amazing technology is everywhere. But the genre isn't completely extinct just yet: German company Ravensburger has developed several electronic board games in the 2000s, including the award-winning Whoowasit?.

Thanks to the German school of board game design, which propelled Settlers of Catan to more than 15 million sales, board games have seen a bit of a renaissance in the United States. European game designers ushered in an era of design in which licensed products like Battlestar Galactica and World of Warcraft can have deep, interesting board games instead of crappy cash-ins. It seems only appropriate, then, that a German game company would keep the electronic board game alive--and maybe, by doing so, give it a chance to evolve into something cooler than Clue FX.