Of course, new difficulties arise when adapting these titles - namely, support for single-player excursions. Last February, I spoke with Brian Reynolds, CEO and Creative Director of Catan developer Big Huge Games, on behalf of Joystiq. Among other topics, he talked about the difficulty of applying challenging but fair artificial intelligence to a game as nuanced as Settlers of Catan: "One of my two initial concerns was whether we'd be able to make a decent A.I. for the computer player," he said. Luckily for him, Klaus Teuber - the original game's designer - anticipated the need for single-player A.I. and put time and thought into strategies calculable by the computer. "[Teuber] had these Excel spreadsheets full of formulae, plus a nice write-up he'd done," Reynolds said. "So I was able to blast through all of that stuff in a few weeks, and use most of my time refining the really high-end game for the expert players."
Few developers can rely on the original games' designers to help balance the A.I., however. It's fortunate, then, that tabletop games are known for their multiplayer experiences more than their solo outings, and that they can effortlessly connect players from around the world through Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. Furthermore, the turn-based structure of tabletop games ensures that latency won't degrade the player's experience, unlike more fast-paced multiplayer titles like Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix or Halo 3. It's low-impact and just as fun as the real thing.
The relative simplicity of adapting tabletop games does more than reduce development costs - these games also often have a smaller digital footprint, ideal for services with enforced size limitations for downloadable games. These limitations have plagued releases on Xbox Live Arcade, and Nintendo is already strongly recommending developers remain conservative with their file sizes when creating games for its WiiWare platform. No worries with tabletop ports: The graphics don't have to be mind blowing; the soundtracks don't have to be symphonic; the physics engines don't have to ... well, exist. It's the well-kept secret of these titles: You don't have to be technically complicated to be successful.
Board Game = Casual Game = PROFIT
It's become common knowledge that the market for casual games is growing rapidly. Carbon-copy match-three and falling tile games saturate casual portals across the web, and they're beginning to migrate to XBLA and PSN, as well. From a designer's perspective, however, the term "casual gaming" refers to more than just an endless sea of Bejeweled clones. "Casual" refers to the approachability of a title and its status as a non-threatening gateway drug for potential consumers both young and old, male and female.
Given the second definition, oft-overlooked in this market are the digital adaptations of our favorite tabletop games. They might not look like Hexic, or play like Zuma, but they certainly attract the same demographic, and it's this untapped audience for which developers are most definitely shooting.