in General

Board Games: My New (Old) Love

It feels like I’ve been making and playing video games all my life. It turns out I’ve been playing board games even longer.

I’ve always loved board games, but being an only child, it was always challenging to find people to play with. My dad was often willing to play, and I would often pull out some of my favorites when friends came over. But it never felt like I could get enough.

It was no big surprise then, that as soon as I saw games on a computer I fell in love heads over heels. My first thought was “Wow! I can play games with the computer without having to depend on other people being here”. Imagine that! It didn’t matter that the games were uniformly horrible, hardly responsive, chunky, and monochrome. It was nirvana for me.

My second thought after seeing a video game was “I want to make those!” And that’s what I’ve been doing pretty much constantly since that day almost 30 years ago.

During that time board games took a back seat. My love was still there, but I was too busy with video games to consider them as serious entertainment. At times I’m sure I even thought that video games were a step up from board games; the next logical step in evolution.

That phase of my life lasted until grad school. That’s when a good friend of mine introduced me to this new little game that had just come out a couple of years before called Magic The Gathering. You’d think that grad school wouldn’t be the best time to get hooked on a game like that, and you’d be right. It was an amazing ride for several years (from Fallen Empires until Exodus for those of you keeping track). I realized how much I loved the physical and social aspect of board and card games, and how it was mostly missing from video games. At the time I was playing a lot of Warcraft and Quake 1 online, but the experience was nothing like playing Magic across the table from another person.

After my Magic phase, I tried some of the flourishing “euro” games that were just coming out at the time, but I was mostly absorbed back in video games again. Steam and iOS were taking up all my gaming time for a few years.

Then, last year, everything changed. Miguel came to visit with a car trunk full of board games. Literally! Not only did I have an absolute blast playing board games all week, but so did Amy, my wife. We were instantly hooked. Now all my gaming time is dedicated to board games, and I have hardly touched some kind of video game in the last year.

Why I Love Board Games

My love of board games comes from many different reasons.

Physical aspect. I love the convenience of digital distribution of books, music, and video games. But at the same time, I’m tired of manipulating pixels on the screen for all my activities (both work and entrainment). Touch screens are a small step in the right direction, but they still feel very artificial. When it comes down to it, nothing beats the feel of some wood pieces as you move them around the table. There are already too many screens and digital bits in my life.

Keyflower

Social aspect. Video games are mostly solitary experiences. Even multiplayer games, you’re usually not facing the people you play with, unless it’s with one of my favorite patterns: local multiplayer games, which are not extremely popular (and it’s hard to have the right people to play with around). On the other hand, most board games are inherently social. Not only I get to spend lots of extra time with my wife and friends, but I also get to meet lots of new people at conventions and game days.

Variety of experiences. I didn’t quite realize what a huge variety of experiences board games offer. Just a few games off the top of my head that offer a huge range of different experiences: Pandemic, Castles of Burgundy, Escape, Puerto Rico, Mr. Jack, Arkham Horror, or Dixit. And that’s only games in my collection, which is limited to my own tastes and doesn’t include war games or much Ameritrash. Video games probably offer an even wider range of experiences because a computer can be so versatile, but the board game landscape feels more varied and healthy. That might be due to video games being mass market, while board games are still trying to get there. I suspect that’s a topic for a future post.

Arkham horror intro

Learning new games. I love learning new games. You could even say I’m addicted to it. I love to see how things fit together, how the game plays out, and trying to figure out a good strategy. Generally, I’m much happier playing 20 new games 5 times than playing a single game 100 times. With video games, since the game is the running the simulation, not me, there’s a lot less to learn. There’s also something about tutorials that are an absolute chore and I dread learning a game through them.

Replaying games. At the same time, I love replaying games I already know how to play. This is something that often doesn’t happen with video games. A lot of them are intended to make more progress every time you play, culminating in some climax at the end, after 10-20 hours of play. After that, you can play it again, but I usually move on to some other game. One recent notable exception is one of my all-time favorite games: The Binding of Isaac, which forces you to replay it over and over.

They’re for me. I feel I’m squarely in the target audience for a good portion of board games being released. I’m eagerly anticipating releases later on this year, and I can’t wait to read about the new Essen announcements. Most video games, on the other hand, with a few notable exceptions, leave me completely cold appealing mostly to adolescent power fantasies. A quick glance at the top sellers on the App Store or even most console titles, and it’s clear that I don’t belong there.

Burgundy box

Fun New World

I love the experience of taking a field I didn’t know much about, and diving right in. I’ve been fully immersing myself in the world of board games. Every day I play one or more board games, and I go to a full-day gaming events once or twice a month. Sometimes it feels like drinking from the proverbial firehose. I’m constantly learning about new gameplay mechanics, the art of finely balancing a game, game evolution and trends, or even the works of specific designers and how they changed over time.

During a period like this, I tend to grow creatively a huge amount. Being exposed to something new causes all sorts of new associations result in a constant stream of new ideas. Some of them are related directly to board games, but a lot of them spill over into video games and even other parts of my life.

So what’s next for me? I’m not giving up making video games any time soon, don’t worry. I love making games in any format, and my goal is to continue making a living making games for different platforms. Board games are like another platform, but one with some strong challenges and constraints.

Of the video games I’m working on, one of them has very heavy board game influences in its design. I have no doubt that it would be completely different had I not rediscovered board games recently. We’re hoping to announce the game and talk more about it soon.

In addition to that, I’m, of course, dabbling on the side with board game ideas. Unfortunately there’s virtually no money in physical board games, so it’s just purely a hobby, but it’s a really fun one. And who knows, I might be able to make a digital version of one of those board games if I end up with a good design.

In the meanwhile, I expect to write quite a bit here about board games, and especially of the cross over between board and video games and what we can learn from each of them to make better games. You can also find me regularly on BGG.

  • Really interesting read, thanks. I too have recently been bitten by the board gaming bug. It started with me by being pointed to classics such as carcassonne and agricola, and then realising that there’s a whole world of different games with every theme imaginable.

    Board games have resinated very heavily with me and I too have been inspired by them. The iPhone game I’m working on at the moment is heavily inspired by carcassonne’s sense of exploration and creation.

    I’m on BGG too 😉

    http://boardgamegeek.com/user/pitpony

    Chris

  • PezMutanT

    I loved this article, specially because it could have been me who wrote it! I’d say we had the same life experiences, starting with simple board games, videogames, the MTG phase, making videogames, then board games again…

    All I can add is that making digital versions of board games is kind of growing on me lately. I’ve never finished anything yet, but I started implementing Dominion card game as a C++ design exercise and I think there are some unique challenges when it comes to implement a turn-based game, and specially a card game where every card behavior is so different from the others…

    It was really nice reading this, one always feels better realizing not being alone 🙂