018 – Designing for the Tabletop

As you may know, for the past month or two, tabletop games have delighted and inspired me to the point that the virtual realms didn’t interest me. Yep. I had converted to the dark side. But all that time, I had been trying to figure out what it was about tabletop gaming that was so different from computer- and videogames. So here are my findings.

Firstly, just to make sure, I’m not talking about the massmarket boardgames like Monopoly (which I realised many moons ago was a pile of rubbish), Risk (has its moments, but far too luck-based) and Cluedo (takes far too long). I’m talking about “hobby” games like Agricola, The Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, Dominion, Descent, Twilight Imperium, Space Alert, A Few Acres of Snow, Gloom, Citadels, Small World, 7 Wonders, and a million others. Google a few of these to see the massive amount of variety in the field – just like in digital games. And you know what? Roll-and-move mechanics are nowhere to be seen. Dice don’t even feature in half of them.

Most of those names above are the biggest and most popular hobby boardgames out there. But, for a boardgame to be considered a success, it only sells a fraction of what a digital game sells. The market is so much smaller, that a few thousand copies is reason enough to party for a week. This means, that altogether across the world, you could count the number of people who make enough money to be a designer full-time, on your fingers. This industry is /small/.

Okay, I started rambling there. I just kind of wanted to explain that the games are complex, and interesting, and more than just rolling a die and counting how many spaces to move. So here are the reasons why I think tabletop games are so awesome.

1. The physicality! Moving around little cubes is much more exciting than clicking and pressing buttons. Rolling dice gives random number generation a soul. And just looking at your table as your poker chip pile grows is much more satisfying than a number on a screen.

2. The companionship! Your opponents are real people, sitting across the table from you. They aren’t computer-controlled attempts at humanity, they aren’t American boys sitting shouting into headsets thousands of miles away, they are real live friends you can offer a drink to while you play. And if they aren’t already friends, then they soon will be, because the games offer some serious fun and memories.

3. The transparency! This is the main one I think. The game systems aren’t shrouded in smoke and mirrors. You can tell exactly why something happened the way it did. On the computer, you have no idea why your army lost. On the table, you can tell exactly why. Maybe the die roll wasn’t high enough. You can see that with your own two eyes, but in digital games you’re never shown the result of the random number generator. All of this transparency is necessary in tabletop games, because the players need to move the counters and add the meeples and count up the tokens themselves. Computer games have the following structure: they show the game, they take the input, they change the game based on the input, and then repeat. The changing of the game based on input is the important bit, and the player doesn’t see any of it. But in tabletop games, they perform that bit themselves, so they know exactly what to do to get a certain result, so the whole game is more… understandable. Attainable. Enjoyable.

4. Related to above, the Polish! Everything in the game needs to be done by the player. Even if you want random events, the player still needs to draw the card or roll the die. There is no computer to keep track of things. If you don’t want the player turns to take several hours, the game needs to be streamlined. One of my favourite quotes is the following:
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This applies more in tabletop games than anything else. The game needs to be as streamlined and cut back as possible, because even small additions can add a half hour to the gameplay time. That’s not to say the games have to be simple, oh nonono. The games just have to be well-designed. The designer needs to be able to make a lot of options out of a much smaller set of mechanics.

One of these days I’m going to get an urge to get back on my computer and make a digital game, I would guess. But if and when I do, I want to keep these things in mind, and see if I can use them to make something interesting. Approach digital game development from the mind of a tabletop designer.

At the very least, my forays into tabletop gaming have broadened my mind, and made me notice how important the people are in the equation. It can be an amazing game, but if it’s an idiot playing, the game won’t be enjoyable.

(I use idiot affectionately, seeing as I’m usually them)

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