To quote the good Dr . . .

To quote the good Dr . . .

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Writer_smallerWhat’s the worst that could happen?

For the purposes of illustrating the argument, myself and Aileen take opposing views on the topic of this week’s comic. In reality, though, our views on the matter are in sync: apps in board games are a positive development. The integration of digital elements is taking board games to some exciting places, and I’m certain what we are seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg. Digital integration is another implement in the designer’s toolbox and I can’t wait to see what uses and mechanics are going to be found for it. The amount of innovation we are seeing board games right now is incredible, and the bottom line is that digital is going to help this, not hinder it.

Of course, not every board game needs an app, and contrary to some people’s concerns, I do not think that this is where things are headed. Far from it. We will of course see a proliferation of apps in the coming years as the trend takes hold, but that is what it will be: a trend. There will be a period where it will be shoehorned into games that won’t need it, there will be gimmicks and nonsense, and it will appear to be everywhere for a while. But it will find its level, and best use, in games. The reality is that in a few years time, some games will have apps, just as some games have dice, or miniatures, or expansions.

To address another argument, I do not feel that the requirement of a smartphone is overly prohibitive. As Aileen points out, the likes of XCOM and Alchemy are playable on phones and tablets, both iOS and Android, and both have browser versions – meaning they are playable on a laptop or desktop with an internet connection. Sure, technology will change in the coming years; our level of technology advancement has arguably never been this great, but I have confidence that the same level of advancement that risks outmoding current apps will find a way to preserve them in playable form. The fact that I can now play Commodore 64 games on phone says a lot here.

Probably the most vociferous of arguments against apps is the notion of phones and screens invading board games. That this equates to everyone sitting around a table just staring at screens. And true, everyone staring at screens is the antithesis of what board games are about. They are a social medium. Board games are about spending time with friends, creating stories, memories, whether working together or competing. But to say that introducing screens kills this interaction is not true. It is not a binary proposition. A phone at the table does not automatically mean the players are no longer socially engaged: nor does it magically turn a board game into a video game. The apps are there to assist or enhance the board game.

If everyone is spending the game not looking up from their screens, that’s a different problem, one that already exists, and one that is completely distinct from digital integration in board games. The problem there is people, not what they are playing. Unless what they are playing is just not an engaging game in the first place.

All of this is not to say, of course, that all criticism of digital integration is unfounded, unwarranted or unnecessary. A healthy conversation on this matter will help avoid pitfalls and hopefully steer things in the right direction. If you want to watch a thorough and balanced look at the topic, watch Rodney Smith’s Table Talk Back, and if you want to let us know directly what you think, you’ll find our comments section below. We’ve kept you a seat, and the kettle is already on. We would love to hear from you. Just leave your shoes at the door, the carpets still new.

10 Comments on To quote the good Dr . . .
  • Ben Thorp

    I think digital integration could be excellent, as long as:

    1. It’s actually *integration* – it should ideally be thematic. XCOM seems to fit the bill here.
    2. It provides something of useful benefit to the game – something that without the digital interface would be complicated, overly expensive, or needlessly time consuming to do in a board game. (Although it would break rule 1, an app that did the score calculation for Carcassone might make me like the game….)

    • Those are both fair points on integration, although I’m sure in the next few years we are going to see a glut of games that don’t fit these points. But after riding this out, I’m certain we’ll be left with some excellent, strongly thematic games that feature digital integration and the rubbish will be quickly forgotten.
      The idea of theme is really interesting, actually. XCOM’s use of an app is really thematic, and I can’t wait to see what other games might fit apps in really thematic ways. I love sci-fi, and I think there are great opportunities for apps in sci-fi themed games.

  • Talismania!

    Agree with Ben. Things like a Munchkin point counter app are just silly, but there are now games where having the App act as a neutral announcer or as a game timer is very useful. For example, One Night Ultimate Werewolf (and Resistance, and Resistance Avalon) has a free app which will keep track of what roles are (potentially) in play, and read out a script based on this – then time the discussion round. If you don’t have this, someone has to try to remember the script with their eyes closed.
    What I don’t agree with is making the App essential – am I going to be able to take X-Com out of the back of my closet in 20 years and play it? No. I won’t own it. Because even if the application is still around/supported, I won’t take the risk of reliance on external application distribution, to devices which might or might not exist in 20 years. The equivalent today would be to have it compatible with Zune, Palm and Windows 98 . . .

    Space Alert is a good example of a game where the technology has already been obsoleted – it comes with a CD with a number of scripts on it which act as a timer and instigates activity through the 10 minute session. You can evidently get the files as MP3’s, and at least in this case the game allows you to play from a script (or create new sound files from the script.

  • Talismania!

    Put a different way, Catan, Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne are timeless classics. X-Com probably wouldn’t have been considered as such anyway (although by all accounts is a very good game), but by attaching an app, they’ve ensured it’s not.
    X-Com will be supported for the immediate future, but buyer beware on the first game on Kickstarter that relies on an app as an inherent part of game play.

    • I would certainly be wary of a KS game that featured digital integration, but then wariness is a good rule of thumb when dealing with Kickstarter in the first place.
      I think only time will tell if a game that relies on an app will manage to be ‘timeless’. I like to think that it is not a major barrier, and that when it comes to preserving the apps required to play such a game human ingenuity will prevail. As mentioned above, I don’t think we should stumble blindly into this, and caution is good. I just sit on an optimistic side of the argument – but not blindly so, I don’t think.
      I have already switched from using the CD that comes with Escape: Curse of the Temple to using audio files (FLAC), so that’s the first obsolescence hurdle cleared for that game. I have a large number of devices that can play FLAC files in my house. I don’t think this format will last forever, but I do think that I will be able to again transfer the audio to whatever replaces it.

  • Marissa

    During my last big Game Day, someone came and found me because they needed an extension cord. Their iPad was about to die and they were in the middle of XCOM. Definitely a problem I hadn’t had before. Generally, I just don’t like the idea because board games are one of the few times I spend away from my phone. I played Dice Masters all last night and never looked at it once. That’s probably more of a “me” issue, than a “game” issue, but I like not having to use it.

    • wr00t

      I was thinking about this too. Gadgets tend to run out of battery or glitch. It creates a bit of anxiety, when you have to rely on one. “Will it work, should i charge it more now, should i have a spare one?”. Sure, you can lose some key wooden piece of a physical game. On the other hand, someone can lend his device, if your ran out of power. But as we were playing last week and i watched my collegue’s iPhone buzzing on the couch all the time with calls and other stuff (we weren’t using it for games), i’m now thinking that one have to use some neutral device for this (or put it in the silent mode, but then again, you wouldn’t want to miss something important).

    • In thinking of the broader issues like obsolescence, I hadn’t even considered the more immediate and obvious issue of battery life. And it is definitely an issue with phones and tablets.

      • Talismania!

        after the solar flare apocalypse, my Agricola will play just fine, and I will laugh at you all.

  • D. Skyknight

    I think apps can be great as long as they’re optional. If it’s not really needed to play everyone can decide themselfes if they want to use or not. That said, one of the worst developments in gaming I’ve ever seen were those credit card things in some of the newer Monopoly versions. That really pulled the game in lenght even more, because it needed several minutes to complete each transaction compared to just handing over paper money. Only played versions without those things ever after the first try!
    But apps that keep track of your experience, what cards and modifications you have and who’s the starting player this round in games like Zombicide or similar style games, I’m a big fan as long as they’re optional.

    Regarding the comic, I know the end is purposefully over the top, but did you know that the SKYNET scenario is much more likely to happen than any Zombie scenario? I find that thought really terrifying. There are people that let computers control the heating, air conditioning and the locks of doors and windows of their homes. If any AI ever took control, those were the first to die, locked inside their rooms and frozen/cooked alive in their sleep. Good thing my PC doesn’t control anything besides itself so I’ll be one of the people that actually will see the hijacked wardrones coming for them. 😉
    Don’t mind my crazy talk. I’m just paranoid!