The Magic of Cardboard

There’s a certain feeling one gets from a well-designed board game that video games cannot replicate: a child-like delight at the way things work. Video games can delight with worldbuilding, atmosphere, characters, plot twists; they can be well crafted – but they do not display craftsmanship the way board games do. An interactive fiction book such as Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy works just as well in an electronic format. In either case, one may enjoy the author’s or designer’s work, but only the actual book would make you marvel at the ingenuity of its maker. Board games are inherently a very limited medium: what you see is all there is. No calculations under the hood, no way to “cheat”. A smart board game is like a clockwork mechanism, fascinating in its own right, much more impressive than a digital analogue performing the same funciton because you see all the moving parts. It’s authentic.

Board games are physical objects, that’s what makes this not just possible but often necessary. All the information has to be present at a glance. There’s a similarity to video games here, and a critical difference. A good user interface conveys all the necessary information as well. In a board game, all the non-decorative elements are the user interface, and many of the same principles apply to their design. This UI has to be so good, though, that players are able to follow all the rules of the game based on it – the game can’t do it for them. Video games simply don’t have this restriction.

Any surprises a board game may hold have to be not just prepared before hand, but concealed within its structure. This sense of discovery, of “I didn’t know you could do that”, is one of the main draws of Legacy games. Putting stickers on your cards, drawing on the game board? That’s mindblowing. Changing the map or improving abilities in a video game? Business as usual.

Ingenuity and craftsmanship obviously goes into the making of video games as well, but it’s unseen and unimportant to the player. From memory allocation tricks to differential equations that determine the damage an ability does in an MMO, we the players don’t interact with it in any way. Instead, we get to enjoy the magic happening on the screen. With board games, we get to be magicians (this is the second post in a row I “name-drop” my nom de plume, but it still works, whatever). Cardboard and dice produce meaning before our eyes.

Eclipse player board (image taken from the Asmodee website)

Examples? Take Eclipse, a 4X space board game. As you use your influence (round tokens) to do things and populate planets (with square tokens), the administrative costs of your growing empire increase. Not an unusual concept for a 4X game. Instead of having to calculate or look them up, however, you simply look at the number revealed when you took the token off your board. There’s nothing you have to do but place the token in the first place. To borrow computer science notation, that’s O(1) time complexity.

Or 7th Continent, a CYOA-like survival board game. Once your characters learn how to use local resources to their advantage (by gaining a card like the one on the right below in their “journal”), they gain new capabilities on terrain tiles simply because these resources are drawn on them. Not as a separate resource icon, as a part of the illustration. In a similar situation in a video game, this bush would suddenly become an interactable object. From within the black box of the computer, we are presented with a new trick, fine. Here, though, the bush was always there. Nothing has changed, nothing up the game’s sleeve. Meaning out of cardboard.

7th Continent cards (image taken from Board Game Geek)

And a last example, One Deck Dungeon, a dungeoncrawling board game. As the title suggest, there’s one deck of cards that represents not just monsters and traps but also items and skills you may gain along the way. Once defeated, a player takes the card and tucks it under their character card. Want stats? Tuck it so only the symbols on the left side (blue magic sigil in this case) are visible – that’s where characters’ stats are. Want a new skill? Tuck it so the bottom scroll sticks out (the one saying ‘armor crush’), that’s where the skills go. And if you gain more stats or skills later on, they’ll just sit neatly next to one another. Or just take it for xp, the lantern symbols up top. That’s some information density.

Tzolk’in gets an honorary mention here for including actual cogwheels in its gameplay. Unfortunately, I haven’t played it myself, so a mention is all it gets.

Not every board game bothers. It’s easy to make another deck of cards, slap another scoring track on the side of the board, include a look-up table. And that’s fine, that works. Not everything can amaze. But that’s the point – board games can amaze.

Roleplaying games potentially can do so as well, but they rarely aspire. RPGs share some of the constraints of board games – everything also needs to be easy to calculate, look up, determine. Unlike board games, the focus is typically not on the dice and figures but on the fantasy they facilitate. There’s even various stigmas associated with overemphasizing mechanics in RPGs.

The fantasy of taking over the world in a board game is a nice bonus while you’re busy deciding on the best way to maximize your points. The maximization of whatever passes for points at a given time in a roleplaying game is a means to the end of, well, roleplaying. Sometimes. Many RPGs have an essentially board game-like mode – rules for combat resolution. In these games, combat is its own purpose, a source of fun. But even in them, the crafstmanship a good board game displays is rarely expected or demonstrated. This is largely due to the expectation of pencils and paper being already in use. Hit points? Write the numbers somewhere. Conditions? Scribble them in the margins. Initiative? Uhh, just figure out what works for you. There’s a certain abdication of responsibility, relying on the players to find their own way of following the complex rules. RPGs also, by their very nature, involve creative interpretation of circumstances, utilizing rulings when rules fall short.

Some RPGs do try to go the extra mile. Don’t Rest Your Head barely has any notekeeping, relying on dice pool manipulation to convey the escalating tension. Mythender essentially has the game about handfuls of dice, and a roleplaying part you are encouraged to perform at the same time. The most common criticism of D&D 4e was it being “too much like an MMO”. Which is utter nonsense, 4e’s crime was impementing the traditionally board game-like combat aspect of the rules with the rigour of a board game.

13th Age is the standout to me, as it is brimming with mechanical ideas that make me reevaluate what I thought was possible or “allowed” – from flexible attacks that pack meaning into simple d20 rolls to undead librarians in the Eyes of the Stone Thief campaign book that do psychic damage when players speak louder than a whisper. In my own design work for the system, I’ve tried to pursue this feeling of amazement, from rust monsters that eat your Icon dice (normally a purely narrative element) to intellect devourers that literally live inside your head, meaning you’re the only one who can fight them.

And then there are mobile or desktop adpatations of board games. They tend to be clunky, as the way we interact with physical objects is unsurprisingly different from the way we use a mouse or even a touch screen. What’s worse, they miss the point enitrely. Board games are designed from the ground up to function with all their limitations in mind. They are magic because they have to be. A video game version meticulously replicating their rules is not unlike a virtual clock that simulates every spring and cogwheel of a real watch, or a movie that runs the text of the original book on the screen. Every medium has its strengths, I’d rather play a video game if I’m going to play on my computer, Steam knows I have too many.

The sense of magic board games instill fades after a while. There’s only so many times one can be amazed by the same thing. Soon, it’s just the way the game works, and we spare it no second thought. Perhaps this is why I keep getting new board games. Not just mindless consumerism, not an endless pursuit of the new hotness. While playing a game is nice, discovering its fleeting magic is what I’m truly after. And that means I’ll never be satisfied. What a strange self-realization at the end of an essay that started out as “aren’t board games neat”.

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