By Levente Fulop from Brno, Czech Republic (The King's Game) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Cardboard Ancestors

I find it inter­est­ing that I’ve begun enjoy­ing Popcap-style arcade games more than AAA titles. It’s not as if I find major releas­es over­whelm­ing or intim­i­dat­ing; I grew up play­ing shoot­ers, RPGs, flight sims, and adven­ture games — real­ly any­thing I could get my hands on. Plenty of these I still con­sid­er mas­ter­works.

However, these days, given the choice between BioShock and World of Goo, I’ll take the lat­ter almost every time.

There are some excep­tions to this, which I find reveal­ing. I found Assassin’s Creed to be end­less­ly enter­tain­ing, for exam­ple, which was puz­zling at first until I real­ized that the things I loved about it were the same things that made me love Plants vs. Zombies: the clar­i­ty of its choic­es.

In the sort of games I enjoy, the play­er is less con­cerned with fast twitch reac­tions and more with tac­ti­cal and strate­gic choic­es with­in a fair­ly struc­tured and com­pre­hen­si­ble envi­ron­ment. Assassin’s Creed, for exam­ple, takes place in tight envi­ron­ments which the play­er can strate­gi­cal­ly improve through the res­cue of civil­ians and the scal­ing of tow­ers. Its com­bat, though hard­ly turn-based, allows for plan­ning, strate­gic posi­tion­ing, and impro­vi­sa­tion­al com­bos. Altair has low-profile and high-profile modes, which are clear­ly delin­eat­ed and have dis­tinct effects on the envi­ron­ment. Even the hid­ing spots on the rooftops, as silly as they first appear, pro­vide clear goals for chase scenes.

On the other hand, in a shoot­er like BioShock, although a great deal of cus­tomiza­tion is avail­able and ene­mies can be fought in a vari­ety of cre­ative styles, the game­play remains chaot­ic and based on high-speed tac­ti­cal reac­tions. The play­er never real­ly knows the kind of oppo­nents or ter­rain he will encounter as he press­es for­ward, and so most of his choic­es are made on the basis of per­son­al taste rather than game mas­tery. Mastery, in this case, is the devel­op­ment of real-time phys­i­cal skills like pre­ci­sion accu­ra­cy. In this way, many mod­ern games most close­ly resem­ble a sport.

This sort of game­play has always seemed less game­like to me, pos­si­bly because I just don’t like games mak­ing phys­i­cal demands on me. When some­one head­shots me again and again as I round a cor­ner, the frus­tra­tion I feel comes from a part of me that finds it some­how unfair that one can win this game through phys­i­cal skill rather than intel­li­gence. If some­one destroys me in chess over and over, on the other hand, I’ll con­grat­u­late them on an inter­est­ing and prof­itable game every time. I even enjoy being beat­en by some­one bet­ter than me in a case like this, since I enjoy watch­ing a mas­ter at work and I enjoy learn­ing.

However, my gut feel­ing that most shoot­ers and physical-skill-based games are less game­like also found some ground­ing in a piece by Keith Burgun, in which he breaks down the rela­tion­ships between puz­zles, con­tests, and games:


Now, I’m not claim­ing that shoot­ers or sports aren’t games. They clear­ly are. However, in these games the focus is placed much more on the com­pe­ti­tion side than on the choice side. Or rather, choic­es just don’t take cen­ter stage. Compare this to a boardgame like Settlers of Catan and the dif­fer­ence becomes obvi­ous. Not only does Settlers bring choic­es to the fore­front, choic­es are what the game is com­posed of. Apart from rolling the dice and col­lect­ing resources (which is auto­mat­ed at the begin­ning of each play­er’s turn) every­thing a play­er does involves mak­ing a choice between a hand­ful of clear and well-defined actions. The con­se­quences of these actions are also spelled out care­ful­ly and in turn pro­vide a new set of inter­est­ing choic­es.

The win­ners of games like these are ulti­mate­ly the play­ers who make the best choic­es, not those who are the most agile or quick-fingered.

It’s no sur­prise to me that boardgames great­ly excel videogames in this arena. Without the com­mon crutch­es of videogames: beau­ti­ful effects, music, voice act­ing, and so on, boardgames have been forced to rely pure­ly on mak­ing inter­est­ing sys­tems of choice. That is almost the entire­ty of what a mod­ern boardgame design­er thinks about while design­ing: the choic­es, over and over, ham­mer­ing them into a con­fig­u­ra­tion that will be con­sis­tent­ly inter­est­ing and fun.

The vari­ety that boardgames have pro­duced in this realm is stag­ger­ing. Dominion, Puerto Rico, Space Hulk, Ingenious, Go, Agricola, Dune, Power Grid, Thurn & Taxis, and so many oth­ers are exam­ples of fine­ly craft­ed game sys­tems that offer gen­uine­ly orig­i­nal forms of play­er inter­ac­tion. Think about this: while most videogames require very lit­tle in the way of instruc­tions, boardgames take sig­nif­i­cant­ly longer to get a han­dle on. In my expe­ri­ence, this is sim­ply because, mechan­i­cal­ly speak­ing, most videogames are remark­ably sim­i­lar, while boardgame design­ers pride them­selves on com­ing up sur­pris­ing and inno­v­a­tive rules time after time.

While every so often a videogame does come along that shakes up what peo­ple thought a videogame could be, boardgames over­throw accept­ed con­ven­tions rou­tine­ly. Within the boardgam­ing com­mu­ni­ty, most peo­ple don’t con­sid­er a new boardgame to real­ly stand out unless it tries some­thing star­tling­ly new.

I sup­pose this is why I’m inclined to regard mod­ern boardgames as gen­er­al­ly supe­ri­or to mod­ern videogames, at least as far as they are games (some videogames might offer bet­ter over­all expe­ri­ences than some boardgames, but these expe­ri­ences are often ones that are not par­tic­u­lar­ly game­like in nature). If choic­es are what make an expe­ri­ence a game, it seems to me that the value of a game (as a game) lies in how inter­est­ing, dif­fi­cult, and fun those choic­es are.

The obvi­ous ques­tion at this point is: should videogames adopt the choice-focused prin­ci­ples of boardgames? This does­n’t seem to have a clear-cut answer to me. Videogames do offer expe­ri­ences that boardgames can­not, just from the fact that they can com­pute so quick­ly. In some of these cases, say Unreal death­match­es, adding more delib­er­ate, strate­gic ele­ments would destroy the game’s appeal, so I cer­tain­ly don’t advo­cate over­haul­ing games that are fun and that work. Even if Unreal is more of a sport than a game, sports have their own appeal. So per­haps the most use­ful approach is sim­ply for videogame design­ers to begin learn­ing from boardgames, which pro­vide a unique­ly intense test­ing ground for raw game mechan­ics, and con­sid­er­ing them out­side of their phys­i­cal con­text.

The game­play of boardgames, while often mechan­i­cal­ly bril­liant, remains con­strained by the com­put­ing pow­ers of human beings and their tol­er­ance for huge amounts of card­board. What would be pos­si­ble if their prin­ci­ples were unleashed in the dig­i­tal realm?

Ben Milton

About Ben Milton

Ben Milton makes his home on a hill in Oregon with a wife and the lonesome ghosts of a dozen boardgame prototypes.