This past Sunday, two friends and I gathered around a large coffee table to play Gloomhaven, a cooperative board game that’s currently the hobby’s hottest product, occupying the number-one spot on BoardGameGeek’s all-time rankings. We sank into the sectional-sofa cushions and caught up with each other before starting, our host prepping a decadent mac-and-cheese feast for later in the day. The table in front of us was strewn with dungeon maps, plastic character miniatures, decks of cards, and all manner of tokens—just a fraction of the game’s total components, which come packed together in a comically elaborate 22-pound box.
Unlike most board games, which are one-and-done affairs, Gloomhaven builds a persistent world, and the characters we inhabited would grow in stats and skills from game to game. As such, we had a lot riding on Sunday’s session—our team of fantasy creatures were facing a boss monster, which we had already lost to once before in an arduous, hours-long battle. Losing again wouldn’t just hurt our characters’ progressions—it stood to put a chill on our interest in the game entirely, perhaps packing it away in favor of something lighter next game day.
About three hours later, with our team a hair’s-breadth away from death, we eked out a last-second victory. It was a moment of singular triumph—a high-stakes fight against long odds that felt possible only because of the synergy and cooperation between the three of us, brothers-in-arms. We howled in ecstatic victory, and slapped high-fives across the table so emphatically it shook our plastic miniatures.
The next day, this image went viral in the gaming world. Taken at the Oculus booth at San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference, the photo shows a group of people sitting around a table playing a board game (in this case, Settlers of Catan), just as my friends and I did on Sunday. Yet every other aspect of it appears totally antithetical to my experience—the table is empty of physical tokens or cards (rendered virtually instead), and the players, instead of engaging with each other via eyes and ears, are cordoned off into private VR enclosures.
The Black Mirror analogy is, of course, too easy to make. Reddit’s r/boardgames comments section quickly pounced, headlining a post of the image, “If this is the future of board gaming, I'd rather stay in the present.” Users called the prospect of virtual-reality board-gaming “sad” and “ridiculous.” It also feels inevitable.
The world’s biggest tech companies are investing millions of dollars into virtual-reality applications. The gaming industry especially seems to be putting a significant portion of its chips into the VR basket. People are even having weddings in virtual reality.
The hobby shouldn’t unconditionally reject a technology that allows more people to actually play that game
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that companies are attempting to bring board games into the VR space, despite cries from purists that the hobby’s core principles can only be met in the physical world. Those are things like in-person social interaction and the tactile feel of the game’s components (concepts that, it could be said, also once were inarguable core principles of a wedding—look how that turned out).
Coming off my weekend Gloomhaven triumph, the photo seemed especially appalling to me when I first saw it. The format would make it impossible to give enemy character tokens a gratifying thwack upon defeat, as my team had done that day. Gone would be our table-rattling high-fives. An ostensibly screen-free Sunday would be supplanted with a mess of bright pixels strapped inches from my eyeballs. And forget about eating macaroni-and-cheese with a headset on.
But look closer. The future proposed in the image does seem, on its surface, slightly dystopian. However, imagine if those players weren’t in the same room, around the same table. Imagine them spread across the globe, flung apart by matters of jobs and families and other adult obligations. Imagine them as friends who haven’t played a board game together in years as a result of geography, and imagine them putting on a headset one day to finally gather again.
Technology and board gaming have already made steps in that direction. There’s Roll20, a six-year-old app for playing Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop RPGs with friends over the Internet—a prospect unthinkable to a Dungeon Master back in the 1970s. Or the well-reviewed, VR-capable Tabletop Simulator on Steam.
I’ve never played a board game in virtual reality. And I won’t argue that doing so in the same physical room, around the same physical table as the other players, as in this photo, doesn’t violate at least some of the spirit of a board game, particularly the “board” part. But the “game” is also important, and the hobby shouldn’t unconditionally reject a technology that allows more people to actually play that game.
If I didn’t have my Gloomhaven crew within the same city limits, virtual reality would seem to be a perfectly reasonable location for our next quest. It would at least make cleaning up 22 pounds worth of pieces easier.