We live in an increasingly digital world. The average person spends hours a day staring at little glowing rectangles in one form or another. It’s how we connect, but it can also be isolating. That’s a big reason for the resurgence of tabletop games. They give us the tactile experience of rolling dice, playing cards, and moving game pieces around the board. Board games allow us to interact face to face with other humans and share an experience together. A story will unfold for all of us, and we don’t know which way it will go. That's the beauty of analog gaming. But, predictably, it was only a matter of time before the worlds of digital and analog collided.
There has been a recent surge of digital gaming in two distinct ways. Digital apps of highly-respected games are becoming super popular, and some analog games are actually starting to incorporate apps into the game itself.
Digital iterations of XenoShyft, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Ascension, and countless others have found homes on phones, tablets, and PCs. Board game apps are usually faithful representations of the tabletop version, with straightforward rules and iconography. They’ve become so popular, they’re often the first introduction to a game some people will have. They’re portable, fun, and offer a bit more of a mental challenge than your average bird-versus-pig app. Another plus, when you’re playing digitally, you can play a lot more games. Whether you’re playing against other humans or AI, the rounds go by much quicker. With a computer to do all the upkeep, dealing, and scorekeeping, it frees up a lot of time to concentrate on developing your strategy.
Other games, like XCOM: The Board Game and Alchemists, have incorporated apps into the actual gameplay. These games rely on technology and are virtually unplayable without the accompanying apps. It is an experiment in gaming that seems to have a lot of potential, but it’s hard to see what direction this trend will go. It’s worth it to consider the history of digital elements in analog games.
Way back in the day (if the late 70s/early 80s can be considered “way back in the day”), we had games like Stop Thief and Dark Tower. The electronics in those titles seem a bit crude by today’s standards, but at the time, they were revolutionary. These games came out right around the time home video game consoles werebecoming widely available, and that could be one of the reasons we didn’t see more electronics in games at the time. It would’ve been difficult for board games to compete on an electronic level with an Atari 2600 or a Commodore 64. Since then, we’ve seen a few scattered attempts at marrying technology with board games. Titles like Nightmare and Atmosfear used VHS tapes or DVDs to progress the gameplay. Dream Phone had its famous pink phone, and Mall Madness had an intercom system to tell shoppers where the best deals were along with a credit card slot to make purchases. These are just a few examples of how electronic elements have appeared in games over the years.
Today, we’re introducing electronic elements into games in a slightly different way. Pretty much all of the digital additions we’ve seen in games recently have come in app form. They can range from helping to pick a starting player, to randomizing decks, to helping you tally the score at the end of the game. At this point, there haven’t been enough digitally-enhanced titles published to get a good sense of how diverse and wide ranging an impact our current technology might have on board games. We’re kind of at the dawn of this trend, so it’s hard to say if gamers will fully embrace the technology or prefer a completely analog experience.
It is interesting to see designers starting to think on another level and bringing in new tools in a creative way. We certainly don’t think we’ve seen the end of technology in gaming. It will continue to change and grow as our understanding of the science does and as our hobby evolves. Electronics will never be able to replace the wonderful joys that analog gaming brings, but it’ll be fun to see how it influences the future of our favorite hobby.