It will be a surprise to absolutely no one that technology is slowly creeping into the world of tabletop games, just as it has in every other facet of life. What might actually be surprising is how slowly the creep is. Especially considering the wild success of mobile games and the ubiquity of smart phones, you might expect more tabletop games supplemented with apps. Why are tabletop games lagging behind so many other areas where technology is embraced without looking back?
Today I’m going to discuss how digital technology fits into tabletop games. I’ll look at what’s currently holding it back and where I expect it will go once the flood gates finally do open.
Stuck in the Age of Cardboard
With digital technology rapidly being adopted in nearly every part of modern life, why are tabletop games slow to embrace it? I believe there are a number of reasons.
But before that, it is worth noting that digital technology is beginning to make an impact in the hobby. I’ll go over a few examples later, but perhaps the most significant way digital technology makes an appearance in the industry is through digitized versions of tabletop games. Games such as Carcassone and Star Realms have extremely successful digital versions, and while players don’t combine them with the actual tabletop experience, they serve an important complementary role for the tabletop games, helping to teach the games as well as advertising them.
So what’s keeping digital technology from being integrated into the tabletop experience?
Luddites. Gamers are a surprisingly conservative bunch. For many gamers, the table top is a sacred space where digital distractions are not welcome. Just see how quickly this thread on Board Game Geek about Birds of a Feather derails into an anti-app rant. There is an immediate resistance to the app, even though the experience of using it is extremely similar to using a score sheet and it actually prevents smart phone distractions because it completely occupies players’ smart phones. The very idea of an app is enough to inspire a grumpy and negative reaction.
Honestly, you can’t blame these Luddites. Digital technology has infiltrated much of our lives, and many people have to use it all day for work whether they want to or not. Tabletop games are an escape for these people, so it’s easy to understand why they’d want to defend that escape.
Will this change? Definitely. But it may take a shift of generations. Kids that grow up today cherishing their smart phones will be happy to incorporate them into their tabletop games, and once they have become the dominant consumer force in the industry, publishers will be much more willing to release a game with a digital component.
Unreliability. Phones have gotten a lot better over the years, but they’re still less reliable than cardboard in a couple of ways.
First off, even though they seem to keep getting more expensive, their batteries seem to last less and less time. This is a huge turn off for a lot of people. It’s very frustrating when you’re in the middle of an exciting game, and all of the sudden some real world inconvenience, like a low battery warning, interrupts your experience.
Second, digital infrastructure is constantly changing and splintering. Theoretically, it’s always improving. But in practice, it’s frequently obsoleting old software. For well funded, fast moving software companies, that’s not an issue. But for slow moving tabletop publishers, that often means that apps that used to work really well suddenly stop working for months, or possibly permanently. How frustrating is it when you want to play an old favorite game, only to discover that the steady march of technological progress is preventing you?
Cost. In some ways, apps are cheap. You don’t have to manufacture them or pay to ship them around the globe. But in other ways, they’re expensive. They require expertise that many tabletop publishers lack, and they take a lot of time to produce well. Perhaps most significantly, apps require maintenance as software evolves and new devices are released. Compare this to cardboard, which costs very little to maintain after it has been produced in the first place. Given the extra costs and the lukewarm reception by many gamers, it’s no surprise that publishers are apprehensive to develop games that have supplementary apps.
Design. When mobile devices first became widespread, many designers simply tried to port existing games to the new platform. This led to awkward games. It took time for designers to understand how to make use of the new platform, to make games that worked well with the constraints and affordances of the new medium.
The same is true for tabletop games that make use of digital technology. Obvious ways of combining them may not work particularly well, but the possibilities are nearly limitless. It will take time for people to discover effective ways to use the new technology.
In a Future Age
There are obstacles to digital technology being integrated into tabletop games, but they are not insurmountable, and I believe that we’ll see more and more games incorporating digital technology. Here are a few of the ways it’s being used effectively today.
Alchemists. Perhaps the most famous example of a supplemental app is Alchemists. In Alchemists, players combine different ingredients to unlock the secrets of alchemy. The app helps in two ways. First, there are countless possible ingredient combinations, and the app will instantly look up and report the results of any particular combination. Second, the results of combinations are randomized each game, to help keep the game fresh each play. So the app acts as a giant lookup table and randomizer. If players don’t use the app, a sucker (sorry, I mean player) will need to look up all of the combinations for the other players.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Anyone who has played hidden identity games knows that someone has to GM the whole experience, especially the beginning when certain players learn about the identities of other players. And that GM better know what they’re doing, because any minor slip up could spoil the entire game and force the large group to restart the whole experience. The supplemental app for One Night Ultimate Werewolf takes care of this, narrating the game and stepping the players through the setup. This app is useful because it automates a lot of the monotonous and finicky set up of the game, especially important for a game with many possible identity combinations where remembering the order for them all is quite a chore for a human.
Birds of a Feather. Our recent bird watching card game, Birds of a Feather, plays like a trick taker with a few important differences. One of those differences is that multiple players can score off of the same card. This means that players can’t use the cards themselves to keep track of score. Instead, players use a score sheet… or an app. The app works just like a score sheet, keeping track of the cards you’ve scored and doing a little math for you. Don’t let the fact that we call it a score sheet replacement confuse you… the app for Birds of a Feather is a memory aid more than anything, keeping track of the game state so the players don’t have to remember it themselves.
Based on these successful apps, what do I predict for future apps? A few things.
Optional. The first thing is that, at least in the near future, apps need to be optional. Requiring an app will just turn off too many players. If players can play the game without the app, then try the app and realize it will make the play experience smoother, the game has a much better chance at success. This may not be a requirement in the distant future (say 10 years), but for the time being I would advise not requiring an app to play your game.
Computational. Years ago I wrote about the advantages a computer has over a human in terms of running games. For an app to actually be useful, it needs to make use of at least one of those advantages. All of the apps I described above harness such advantages: they assist in memory, or they automate monotonous tasks, or they internalize rules that are difficult for a human to enact. If an app doesn’t do something similar, it’s unlikely it will contribute enough to be widely adopted.
Easy to use. If an app is inconvenient, it’s not going to be used. Whatever it does, it needs to cure more headaches than it causes. Good UI and a focused purpose are both important for this. Don’t get tempted to bloat an app with lots of features if it makes it more difficult to use.
One area I believe will really improve ease of use is computer vision. If players can simply point their phone at the game components of interest, they are far more likely to use an app than if they have to manually enter information.
Focused on non-digital fun. When people think “app” in tabletop games, they usually think “gimmick”. While there is room for some gimmicky uses of apps, I think that ultimately apps will fit more of a supplementary role, supporting the aspects of board games that are traditionally fun. If the app is the real center piece, you have to ask yourself, why have the non-digital component at all?
Forward… to the Future!
I’m excited to see how tabletop games embrace digital technology moving forward. I believe it is inevitable that there will be more and more overlap, and I’m proud that Birds of a Feather is helping take the industry in that direction, even if it has inspired negative reactions from some people. While some obstacles to tabletop integration of technology are outside of our control, as designers and publishers we can still push the envelop by taking chances and experimenting with the unknown.
I would like to thank my generous Patreon patrons for the support and inspiration that made this article possible.