Is Going Mobile the Future of Board Games?
Board games are big business in 2015, but could greater incorporation of digital gameplay elements make them even better? Yes, obviously.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective first came out in 1981, and I've finally got my hands on it. It's a board game in which you move around London, gathering clues in order to solve a series of crimes. There aren't any silly "Roll a six to ask the butcher what he saw!" mechanics. You're given all the information you need over the course of a case, and you have to make the deductions yourself. It's about as close as you can come to being Sherlock without donning a deerstalker, kidnapping Martin Freeman, and dragging him around in order to talk to homeless people.
The only problem is that it's long been pretty rare. In the past, searches on Amazon have revealed used copies for upwards of $150, and I was never crazy enough to buy one of those. However, listings appeared for new copies on April 1, of all days—but a joke it was not. Some websites limited purchases to two per customer, knowing how much people would want this game. At the time of writing there are seven copies left on Amazon UK, so good luck. (And as of publication, it's out of stock.)
I was left wondering if there was a better way. What if Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective were converted into a video game? Then people could download it whenever they liked. Recently I've been playing board games that have come across to mobile formats to see how well they work. Would a game like Ticket to Ride, a classic and a must have for any board gamer, hold up on a little screen? I was unsure at first, but the short answer is: yes.
Of course, mobile adaptations of board games are never going to replace the real thing—just like the modern role playing video game hasn't replaced tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. (In fact, a new edition was released just last year.) However, video games like Neverwinter Nights, drawing heavily from the lore and rule-sets of D&D, do have advantages over the cardboard version. For example, giving players an actual, moving representation of what's going on in the game. It could be argued that D&D is supposed to be about using your imagination, and that you are massively restricted within the confines of a video game. But it absolutely appeals to a certain audience.
The pros and cons of video game versions of board games are pretty obvious. Mobility is a big factor. You can fulfill your dream of playing Monopoly while sitting on the toilet, if you like. I don't know why you'd want to (by which I mean, play Monopoly at all), but the option is there. Even just being able to play on your sofa without having to set up a board and a bunch of pieces is a bonus.
But then, that's also a con. Part of the magic of board gaming is setting up the pieces, rolling dice, moving things around and having a very tactile experience. This is lost when everything is condensed onto a screen. Lots of board games have nice, weighty dice which have exciting things other than just boring old numbers on. These types of game won't be part of the mobile revolution.
I've played a few games of the mobile version of Elder Sign, and it just doesn't have the same oomph as the "real-life" version. The majority of the game is based on rolling a number of custom dice in order to fulfill requirements laid out by a mission. The dice have three sides dedicated to "research," and then one each for "lore," "peril," and finally "terror." If you don't fulfill the requirements of a mission, you roll again, but lose a dice. It becomes more and more tense as you see your chances dwindling before your eyes, with the impending eternal reign of an Elder One looming over you.
On mobile, it's just kind of damp. Instead of an Elder One, I was worried about the impending death of my phone battery. You're effectively pressing a random picture generator button each turn, and you never get that situation where the dice seems to roll over onto the side you need in slow motion, right at the last second. Games with these custom dice, or ones with a whole bunch of pieces (war games in particular) don't have the same effect on mobile.
However, in the mobile version of Elder Sign you do get a series of handy tutorial videos built into the app, which is a lot better than reading through pages of a dense instruction manual. This is part of another aspect in favor of mobile board gaming: They are fantastic for introducing new players to the more physical originals. Why scare your friends away with piles of plastic figures and weird dice they've never seen before, when you can have them play through a quick game in 20 minutes on a device they understand?
It also avoids situations where the more aggressive member of your playing group slams the table too hard and trains go flying everywhere.
Ticket to Ride is simply brilliant on mobile. You collect colored cards in order to lay down tracks so you can complete the routes marked on your ticket cards. It's super simple and fast moving, and across a table a game can be completed in about an hour or so. On mobile, you can complete a full game in a fraction of that, in as little as ten minutes, which is great. There won't be any confusion about any of the rules. Scoring is done automatically, a godsend because there's always a moment in the "real" game where someone goes, "Wait, I think I should have more points." And you're told when you complete a ticket—playing with pieces, there's always someone who thinks they've completed one, but they've actually missed a vital route.
Getting to lay down the lovely miniature trains is missing from the mobile version, naturally, but this doesn't really take anything away from it. It also avoids situations where the more aggressive member of your playing group slams the table too hard and trains go flying everywhere, making scoring impossible.
Price is another big one. The standard version of Ticket to Ride costs around $45 on Amazon, and then if you want any expansions you'll have to fork over a bunch more cash. This is fairly cheap as far as board games go, too, as you'll often find pay more. On your phone you'll only be paying about $7 for Ticket to Ride, and a couple of extra bucks for each expansion. With manufacturing costs massively reduced, the price comes crashing down—a good thing when the palpable pieces aren't wholly essential to the game experience.
Board gaming should be a social experience, and playing alone on your phone won't help that. But many of these board game adaptations have online modes, or even pass and play functionality if you've got a few friends in the same room (preferably not the bathroom for this one). While these multiplayer modes aren't ideal, and need some tweaking, particularly in the online matchmaking department, it is nice to have the option. As I said, video game versions won't replace the real life versions, ideally—they'll merely supplement them.
In fact, there are now digital supplements to some board games. The XCOM board game has one player using an app on their tablet for the entirety of the game. This player is the team's coordinator, managing tasks in real time in the face of an alien invasion. Board game purists may turn their noses up at a digital element, but there is no denying that the app adds something that would be hard, or even impossible for a normal board game to achieve.
As a lover of both video and board games, I'm keen to see more crossovers like XCOM—or even just further ports of the best board games to mobile. The addition of digital elements has opened up endless possibilities for designers previously restricted by having to work with real world objects, made of plastic and paper. I'm excited to see what the smartest minds can come up with next. You know who else has a smart mind? Sherlock Holmes. Best get on the pre-order list, pronto.
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