Board Games Are Better Than Video Games In So Many Ways

People have been asking what I've been doing recently.

WELL!

Call it video game detox. I've been pulling up fat handfuls of the roots of videogaming — board games, pen and paper roleplaying games, "live action" games — and chewing on them like some nerd herbivore.

While mobile gaming's been continuing its frightening rise, I've been carrying 2 kilo board games to friends around London. While Mass Effect 3′s ending was shredded by gamers like so much pulled pork, I've been scribbling notes for my own 2300AD campaign. And while gamers are tapping their teeth in hesistant excitement for — what — Dishonoured? Bioshock Infinite? I'm trying to find the time to attend a Zombie LARP in an abandoned Redding shopping centre.

This isn't me clawing at the jaws of a dinosaur as it goes bubbling down into a tar pit, either. Board game sales are actually increasing, year on year, and have been for more than a decade. Board games, would you believe it, seem to be coming back.

(Zombie LARP, by the way, is where you actually run away from actual guys pretending to be actual zombies, armed only with a pair of metaphorical balls and an actual Nerf gun.)

Now, in this post I'm not going to try and inspire you to take off your shirt and fling all your game consoles from the window. For that, we'd need you to visit my house, a crate of 40 beers and a game of Memoir '44: Overlord. In this post I just want to convey to you what's exciting about analogue game design itself.

Let's start with me saying something nice and mad.

Technology, which is to say "digital" game design, is the single biggest obstacle game designers have ever faced.

The games industry is, in part, defined by a lust for new tech. Money has always found a home in a new console cycle, a new games platforms, a new graphics engine, a bigger game world, a more detailed game city, a more plausible AI, a new input device. These are all expectations sat on a AAA video game designer's back before he's typed the title of his design document.

More board game reviews from Shut Up & Sit Down

Review: Fiasco "Perhaps the best game you've never even conceived of."

Review: Merchants & Marauders "Rum! Guns! Thievery and corruption! Broadsides and boarding actions, executed by daring captains, their magnificent ships reeking of fragrant spices and tobacco. A glittering sea, taken to foul moods and murderous storms. Sharks! MONEY!"

Review: A Game of Thrones "This game's biggest success is how it feels worryingly like taking part in the baleful power struggles of George R.R. Martin's novels."

But let's take a step down, to the guys who are just working within existing formats rather than trying to push the envelope. There, technology still faces them with a horrific problem- if they can't communicate their idea perfectly to the team of specialists required to turn that idea into a finished video game, that idea is dead as sure as if it was suffocated by a beefy dude with some piano wire. If that doesn't sound so hard, try writing the design document for Gears of War.

But let's take yet another step down. Recently we've seen indie and mobile video games wandering into the spotlight with no make-up and no acceptance speech, having attained their success using only comparatively simple tech. Yet even in these cases the designer must still know how to code or how to transmit his vision to programmers, sound designers or whoever else. And if that doesn't sound like much of a hurdle, let's hypothesise that you had an amazing idea for a video game, but no programming experience. Imagine how far away that prototype would feel.

What we call "technology" is really a swimming pool so stuffed with sharks as to look like an undulating grey floor. It is this pool that ideas for video games must cross in order to exist. SNAP! goes a pair of jaws. The guns/punching/jumping in your game doesn't feel satisfying. SNAP! The finished product is buggy. SNAP! You fail to assemble the finished project within the time or budget available to you. In a burst of foam and gore, your video game is dragged down, down, through a gap in the shark mattress.

(Which is exactly why the "punk" movement within the indie scene is so exciting. Game designers using programs like GameMaker to make games with zero aesthetic appeal but a certain… heart, and purity of intent. Brendan Caldwell's articles through that link kick arse, by the way. You should read them.)

But board games? With board games or card games, depending on how handy you are with a pair of scissors you can have a prototype up and running within hours. One of my favourite board games, Galaxy Trucker (which sees players racing to assemble spaceships in a 2D lego fashion before taking off in a heroic, rickety, doomed convoy), literally came to the designer in its entireity while he was taking a shower, and if he wanted to he could have been playtesting it the next day.

But we're getting off track. The accessibility isn't the point. The point is that this is lossless game design. There is no shark pit. When you buy a board game, what you take home and play is the original concept precisely as it was in the designer's head. That's the mecca for video games. For board games, it's the norm.

Let's put it another way. You walk into a video game store and the shelves heave with fuck-ups, almosts, wannabes, disasterpieces, train wrecks, never-gonna-happens and shovelware. Your eyes drift to the charts, the sequels, the games you know, but the actual ratio of directionless embarrassments to successfully implemented visions is horrific.

You walk into a board game shop (not your Cranium or Cluedo, I'm talking proper nerd board games) and every one of the games on the shelves is a human being's shrinkwrapped idea. There are still disasterpieces, licensed cash-ins and cynical sequels, but for the most part you can walk to any part of the shop, stare dead ahead and find yourself staring at the five lovingly playtested dreams of five human beings.

And they are dreams. The cross that the board gaming hobby has to bear is that there's no money in it. No fucker plays these things. Depending on the publisher, a board game selling 20,000 copies might be seen as a happy success. But what this does mean is that most every designer is doing it for the love.

And that's just the start.

COMING UP NEXT, I'll start getting specific, pointing out a few board games that'll show how this hobby is a minefield, except instead of mines you're endlessly stepping ideas that are as surprising as mines, but usually more fun. Then in a third article I'll talk about the REAL reason you should be playing board games. Until then, probably just have a browse of Shut Up & Sit Down, my board game review site. We're doing the hobby justice, I think.

Quintin "Quinns" Smith used to write about video games for Rock, Paper Shotgun and nowadays he writes about board games at Shut Up & Sit Down. Find him online at his own blog or on Twitter at Quinns108.
Republished with permission.

Comments

    Considering my friends are either work colleagues or overseas playing Board Games doesn't seem like a viable option all this article does is depress me.

    Game of Thrones is an awesome boardgame.

      Yeah I bought it a couple of weeks ago and on the weekend played. Never knew I could have so much fun playing a board game for upwards of 3 hours. It was our first play through and just great learning all the rules and devices stratergies against each other

    Toward the end of last year I was keen to get my friends into the World of Darkness PnP RPG. But no one was interested, so I bought the core rulebook and a few packs of d10's for nothing!

    Ah to have a group to actually RP. One can dream.

      I have a crazy conspiracy theorist character in that.
      Of course he's not actually entirely crazy, the government and the vampires are out to get him, but on the other hand the space aliens probably aren't trying to imprint thoughts into his head.

    Started playing some euro games with my friends on our weekly games night (used to just play vidyagams). Started with Settlers of Catan and introduced Carcassonne later. Catan has gone down great and we play it at least once a week and the extra people who are usually around on those nights (not playing PC games) have started playing the games too which is great :)
    The trading aspect of Catan is probably the most fun about it and leads to scheming and cutting off anyone who shows some sign of leading.

    Actually looking to buy into an expansion (and also buy the 5-6 player extras for it) either Seafarers or Cities and Knight but at this stage leaning towards Seafarers. Anyone got any experience with either?

      Yes - Cities and Knights is a fantastic expansion that really expands the core game well. It is very well designed, and seems almost as if it was always intended to be the full experience.

      I was less impressed with Seafarer's. It feels more like some tacked on design that doesn't really add anything fundamentally new, or add anything to the core gameplay.

      Check out board game geek for other reviews, but I'd highly recommend Cities and Knights over Seafarers. Only down side is that games can go for say, 30-45mins longer.

        With Seafarers I was thinking that the more varied design of maps and added objectives while keeping to rules close to the original Catan would be better for the game and not intimidating people who hadn't played before.
        How much complexity does Cities and Knights add? I'll read reviews of both before I go and drop the coin on either obviously, just curious on real world experiences.
        Would you still enjoy playing standard Catan after getting used to C+K?

          Seafarers (as far as I can remember) adds water tiles, more land tiles, Gold resources and ships. So it is basically just more Catan. If that's what you are after, go for it.

          Cities and Knights adds a city upgrade flipbook, Barbarian attacks, Knights, commodities (resources for upgrades) and a new way to get development cards.
          The upgrade book replaces the building reference cards and allows you to spend the new commodities to upgrade different parts of your cities. The upgrades give you access to 3 different themed development decks (which replace the old one). You receive a card by rolling a third dice when you roll for resources and match the colour rolled and the number on the red dice to your level of upgrade.
          Commodities are gained from Sheep, Mountains and Forests, instead of getting 2 of a reasource.
          Knights are a new type of 'building' like ships in Seafarers. They sit on corners of roads, block development and longest road, can be used to scare off the robber and can be upgraded to add more strength upto 3 strength.
          Barbarians get closer to catan based on the third dice (50% barbarian move, 50% development card) and if not driven off, by having knights strength equal to or greater than the number of cities, will destroy one city of all players with the least knights.

          I probably haven't explained it too well, but that is the basics. It isn't too difficult but is definitely more difficult than the base game (or Seafarers).
          Both expansions will work together, but I'm haven't played them combined.

            That's definitely a good point, SOX. C&K adds a layer of complexity that I find most people (non-gamers included) adapt to quickly - but there is that intimidation factor to get over first.

            Personally, I find vanilla Catan lacks the breadth of strategies that C&K provides; that said, my brother, whilst still enjoying C&K, prefers the basic version for the slightly shorter games and simplicity.

            If you're in the 'I prefer the simplicity' camp, Seafarer's could actually be a good choice if you're wanting to add a little something different to your games. TBH, I'd never thought of it that way before, so thanks for opening my eyes - I see the point of Seafarer's now! :)

              Cheers for the descriptions guys. Will talk with my friends to see what interests them the most between the two :)

                No problems.

                And as I posted further down, if you are in the Geelong/Melbourne area, come check out my gaming group(s). You'll be able to try out C&K for yourself.

                I have a group that meets up on tuesday nights at Good Games geelong, and a Gaming/Anime group that meets up on friday nights at Deakin Waurn Ponds. Alternating gaming and anime screenings.

          Oh, and to answer your last question.
          Yes.

          Base Catan is more elegant. Shorter and simpler. Both games are fun in their own ways.

      I have played some Seafarers online, not my fave expansion, but it's pretty good if you want more of what the base game does. For something a bit different Cities and Knights adds some nice city upgrading as well as needing the players to semi-cooperatively protect their cities from attacks.

      I also don't really like the 5-6 player expansion from the few plays I've had of it. I feel it makes the game too long . It does allow you to build/trade outside of your turn though which can help relieve the downtime of waiting for your turn.

    The last thing I expected was a post from Quinns on kotaku.
    For anyone interested in boardgaming I can't recommend Shut Up and Sit Down enough, they are easily my favourite boardgame reviewers.

    As someone who buys everything from OzGameShop, because paying $90 for a new release game is robbery, I more than willingly parted with $130 (including shipping) for a complete set of David Sirlin's Yomi.

    Exactly as Quinn has written here, boardgames are creations of pure design. A bit of artwork and some nice card stock can make them feel more luxurious, but I have played paper prototypes of several of my friends (and my own) games, and had more fun than anything a multi-million dollar game engine has provided.

    I think every video game designer should create at least 1 board game, completely of their own design, for the learning experience it entails.

    BTW, Support your local game developers, get behind Boss Fight (http://ogrillion.tumblr.com/), designed by Brisbane-based Brendan Evans! It's a tonne of fun.

    I went to a second hand shop on the weekend and found The Hobbit board game for $12, mint condition. Just have to find someone willing to actually watch it.

      Play it! ugh.

        If you're in the Geelong/Melbourne area there is a club at deakin waurn ponds with plenty of people to play with.

        If not, there are plenty of gaming groups around australia, a lot of which have probably advertised on Boardgamegeek. Check out the forums to see if anyone has advertised or askfor any groups in your area. http://www.boardgamegeek.com/forum/95/boardgamegeek/australia
        Otherwise go check out any local gaming stores, especially those with gaming room (probably mostly used by Magic players) and ask the owner.

    A few people in my group have been reading Shut Up & Sit Down, haven't looked much yet, but I will say Fiasco is fantastic.
    Also everyone should try King of Tokyo.

    Not a board game but nothing beats a friday night with friends, a few bottles of alcohol and 2 decks of UNO.

    Join a board game club. I am a member with League of Extraordinary gamers in Brisbane. Massive library of games and people willing to play. Favourite game at the moment is Dominion, the game gets crazy the more expansions added to the starting game!

    I should probably get my board game onto Kickstarter, if I could just get someone to do the land & construction prices, doing that is a pain in the butt since you have to work them against each other all at once, until then I'm stuck.

    The problem I have with board gaming, is that no one wants to play stuff that I want to.

    If you play games with a "normal" person, you'll have to play Monopoly, Cluedo, or Scrabble. Always the same 3-4 games.

    If you play with board gamers, you'll have to play Catan, Carcossonne. Dominion, or something about trains. Again, always the same 3-4 games.

    I have no interest in playing any of those. (and I own Carcossone, or however it is spelled, I don't even care right now)

    I guess it's the same with video games. Battlefield, Call of Duty, Halo...

    Great article watched every episode of your series after I found it on Penny Arcade. Glad to see Cosmic Encounter was reviewed. My favorite board game ever.

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