4 Thoughts About Board Gaming in Digital Space

When I, along with the rest of the world, began to realize that we’d be spending a lot more time at home in early 2020, I knew that I’d need to get used to playing board games online. It never quite happened. I’ve certainly played my fair share, but I couldn’t help shake the feeling that I was never getting the full experience of the game, no matter which platform I used. I envied the people who found the transition to remote play seamless. I was surprised to find that even I, a mildly socially anxious introvert, missed conventions, game days, and simply being in the presence of others.

Even though everyone reacts differently to remote play, I think there are inherent features of digital implementations of analog games that drive different experiences. Remember, all game experiences are understood subjectively, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t objective traits that influence that subjective experience. Here are four areas where I see a distinct difference between remote and in-person play.

1. Interactive media

Even on a physics engine like Tabletop Simulator, which is supposed to provide a more direct, 1 to 1 way of interacting with the game, I find myself struggling with the UI of the platform quite a bit. Certain actions are much quicker and easier on that sort of platform than in real life, like shuffling a deck. Other actions are much more cumbersome, at least until you’ve internalized the controls through practice, like finding a particular card in a deck. We figure out how to use our hands and fingers as infants. Sub-par UI makes me feel like I’m back at that stage, fruitlessly grabbing the air and realizing my feet exist.

Setting aside physical accessibility issues in board games for a moment, a lot of the challenge in most games is internal: understanding the board state accurately, figuring out the implications of various options on your turn, and landing on a final decision. The actual execution of that decision, physically, is a non-issue. Moving pieces around is so natural, so normal, that you don’t even think about it. Or, at least, if it is an issue it’s seen as a problem with the design.

I’m fortunate to be able-bodied, and I suspect for some the interface problems are reversed; where I find physically manipulating components or reading text on cardstock trivial, people with certain disabilities might find the digital space much easier to navigate. Both types of media should be designed, as much as possible, to be broadly accessible and intuitive to interact with. 

For this reason I find systems that automate part of the process, like on Board Game Arena, usually feel closer to the in-person experience because my mental energies are spent more on the game rather than the UI. I’ve not played on Tabletop Simulator or Tabletopia enough for the interface to not be an impediment to my enjoyment. It feels like I’m trying to play with one of those plastic arms people use to grab things from high shelves instead of my own hands. However, automated systems do affect the experience in a different way…

2. Exposing the math

Playing on Board Game Arena is great if you want to improve your skills at a game. Not only can you play over and over in a shorter amount of time, but you can see the calculations more clearly. Numbers come to the forefront, unburdened by the distractions of art and thematic immersion. Many games survive this, as their mathematical bones are interesting enough to explore when laid bare. With other games you start to realize how essential the aesthetics are to their enjoyment. An argument can be made that, if a game survives this exposure, it’s greater than a game that doesn’t. In some senses I buy that argument. But I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying a game for its surface pleasures. Sometimes a game is just nice to see and touch.

Because digital implementations can be played more quickly and with more emphasis on the math, they can be incredibly valuable for designers and developers. It’s a fantastic environment in which to conduct rapid, data-gathering playtesting, though developers should not neglect testing the physical aspects of the game in the process. 

So even though this aspect of digital gaming can be valuable and instructive, it does take away something. Most gamers probably wouldn’t consider me to be much of a “thematic” gamer, but I still long for that tiny bit of immersion I get from around-the-table play. Doing the calculations myself, rather than having the system do them for me, is its own pleasure.

3. Understanding “depth”

It’s difficult to describe what we mean when we say a game is “strategically deep”, though most know it when they see it. I think digital play, particularly with systems that automate, can help guide us in our understanding of which games are deep. Here’s my guideline: a game is more likely to be strategically deep the closer digital and analog games are in playtime. Think about it: an automated system removes time spent doing trivial calculations and physically manipulating the pieces. What’s left? Thinking about your turn and clicking on some things to execute those turns. The clicking process should be quicker in the digital realm. If a game is substantially quicker with those aspects removed, then much of the time spent playing IRL is spent not thinking about strategy.

It’s not a perfect system. Sometimes the digital interface can actually be slower than in-person play. The Through the Ages implementation on BGA doesn’t allow you to undo part of a turn, so I’ve found that it can drag when someone messes up a little detail and has to restart their entire turn to fix it. In person they’d be able to do that much more quickly. Also, some games have both a lot of depth and a lot of time spent on other things. 18xx games, for instance, tend to drag when people are trying to calculate routes, something that can be automated digitally. That doesn’t mean they lack depth. Still, I think this can be a handy trick for understanding where time is spent during different games.

4. People matter

No matter how hard I try, I can’t feel as connected to other people when I’m talking to them over voice chat as I can when they’re in the same room. There’s something about physical proximity; the subconscious way we read body language, perhaps, or the way our brain chemicals react to nearby bodies. I’m not particularly comfortable in social situations, but when immersed in a game I can relate to others absorbed in that same game.

That said, remote play can have its advantages. It’s much easier to disengage from the game if someone is being disruptive or toxic. Finding random people to play with is a snap, and doesn’t require any social niceties. But, for me, sitting around a table with other people is irreplaceable. We don’t have to be playing a particularly interactive game, or talking very much. The presence of others is fundamental; part of what makes us who we are.

How have you reacted to remote play? I’d love to hear other people’s experiences on this subject.

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