Living with Technology: Technology’s Impact on Board Games

By Loyd Case

Loyd explores how the resurgence of board games has been affected by the advancements in technology and growth of online communities.

A few years ago, I volunteered to host a LAN party at a local board gaming con. I was rebuffed, told in no uncertain terms that all that digital crap isn’t wanted at this particular con. After all, the weekend was supposed to be about “analog gaming.” Fast forward to the present and the impact of technology on board games is being felt in ways obvious and not so obvious.

I’ve been playing board games forever, or so it seems. My experience with cardboard extends back well before the misty dawn of computer and console games, back to the era when Avalon Hill pumped out dozens of games a year. I had a shelf full of those complex wargames with the little cardboard chits and enormous boards. But after college, I put those away. Partly, I couldn’t find opponents, but I’d also become a little weary of the slog: hours to set up and sometimes multiple days to play out a single game.

A few years ago, I returned to the world of cardboard, to find an almost alien landscape. I’d missed the Eurogame revolution and the revival of board gaming in the US, in all its Ameritrash glory. Now I have a new shelf of games. Better yet, I’ve got people to play them with – and one reason I have a game group is partly due to technology.

Ignoring game genres for a moment, modern hobby board games are considerably different from the bad old days of thousands of cardboard chits. They’re often much leaner, with simpler rules. Even games considered complex by today’s standards seem simpler than the rules-dense games that existed during the peak of the Avalon Hill era.

Recently, though, technology has started to make its impact felt in this somewhat insular world of “analog gaming.” It’s perhaps inevitable that a strongly social hobby like board gaming would find itself being changed by the increasingly social aspects of the Internet. Note that I’m specifically not going to talk about online, PC or tablet ports of board games. To me, Ascension on the iPad is a completely different experience than playing the card game face-to-face.

The Web

One of the reasons I gave up on board gaming long ago was difficulty in finding players. Today, it’s easier than ever. One resource I’ve used is meetup.com, the social networking site that specializes in bringing people together in meatspace, not just virtually. I’m now running (in a very loose sense) the Mountain View Table Games meetup group, and host a meetup once a month now.

Meetup is just one way of interacting with gamers. Boardgamegeek is hugely popular gathering site for board gamers, probably the 900lb gorilla of board gaming sites. It’s my go-to place for finding clarifications to rules questions and pick up strategy tips for any possible board or card game.

Smartphones and Tablets

I’m not talking about board game ports to tablets and smartphones. Those exist, and some are pretty cool implementations, like Ascension, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne. But I’m here to talk about board games in their physical incarnations, and how tech is affecting actual board gaming.

So let’s discuss using a tablet or phone as a board gaming accessory. Most of the apps mentioned run on iOS; there’s been relatively little movement on Android (or Windows 7 Phone) for this type of usage. But at a base level, Android and other smart phones can certainly handle PDF files, which is the most basic way to use a smart device.

For me, this actually began with laptops. Most of my board gaming action is in my dining area, and there was always a laptop nearby. But now that I’ve got both an iPhone and iPad, the laptop goes unused. Most board game publishers now publish their rules on their web sites as PDF files. There are also a host of customized rules and summary sheets created by users, also in PDF format. Coupled with Drobox and a sophisticated PDF reader like Readdledocs makes accessing PDF gaming tools incredibly easy. It also beats having to print out extra copies of the rules for other players.

But using a smart device goes beyond just PDF manuals. On my iPhone, for example, I’ve got several tools for board games. One is a randomizer for the card game Dominion, called DomionionKD, short for Dominion Kingdom Deck. It enables you to quickly create Dominion games, rather than having to shuffle the randomizer deck and drawing cards. If you don’t like what shows up, you can run it again. You can include or leave out expansions as well.

DominionKD is a free tool, but board game companies are starting to deliver tools that cost real dollars. One example is Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror Toolkit. Arkham Horror is a classic Ameritrash game with lots of fiddly bits and supporting up to 8 players. If you add in the expansions, the number of fiddly bits – tokens cards, and so on, increase geometrically.

The AH Toolkit allows you to manage all these bits a bit better, but the downside is that it’s pricey for an iOS gaming accessory. If all you do is play the base game, the app is $2.99, which isn’t all that bad. But adding in expansions is another $0.99 - $2.99 each. So if you’re a big Arkham Horror fan, the total cost with all expansions would be $15.92.

Still, it’s a cool accessory, because it replaces a lot of the cards and, if you like, the dice rolling. That potentially reduces a tremendous amount of clutter. The other downside is that each player will want to have their own copy (to manage their investigator), but there’s no synchronization in card draws between multiple users. That means you never actually work your way through a single deck.

Plus, it cries out for an iPad version; currently, the AH Toolkit only supports the iPhone and iPod Touch. Still, it’s an interesting peek at the potential integration of physical board games and digital tools.

Kickstarter and GMT’s P500

Kickstarter has had a tremendous impact on board gaming. In the past, success with board games has been something of a crap shoot. Will a game sell? Does a company invest in spending thousands of dollars on a print run, only to end up with piles of unsold boxes in a warehouse?

Kickstarter changes that equation a little. One great example of this is the Euro-style blend of Yahtzee and worker placement, Alien Frontiers. This game started as a Kickstarter campaign, raised enough money for a print run, and was tremendously successful. At its base level, you’d pledge the price of a game on Kickstarter, which might include promotional incentives. This allows the designer or publisher to gauge the interest before they commit to printing. Kickstarter programs have an expiration date, so if the game isn’t funded by a set date, the pledges are returned.

Most Kickstarter games offer additional incentives. Let’s take a random example: Miskatonic School for Girls, a deck building game that’s loosely based on Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu Mythos. Sure, you can pony up $50 to preorder the game, but wouldn’t it be cool to pledge $400 and own some original art from the game? Or pledge $750 to work for the company for free as an intern? Better yet, how about $1,000 and get a card included in the game with art based on your own kid?

Not every game shows up on Kickstarter, but some game companies are taking notice of the pre-order pledge phenomenon. GMT Games, which produces the excellent Dominant Specieis (but is mostly known as a hex-and-chit board game company) offers a P500 program. If it gets 500 preorders for a design, that design gets produced and shipped. If you’re one of the 500 pre-orders, you’re guaranteed a copy.

It will be interesting to see how technology continues to shape board and other tabletop games. There’s a lot of experimentation going on, and some will no doubt fail. But as with all tech innovation, those failures are often the seeds for the next wave of innovation.