A couple of times a year, my friend and colleague Julian Murdoch crams his house full of friends, beer, and board games. The moment that I walked in the door, I was yanked into a game of Shadows over Camelot. As I sat down and listened to an explanation of how the game worked, I realized that I was nervous. Not because I had just met twenty near-strangers, with the promise of more, but because I’ve been a PC strategy gamer all my life. The simpler, more sociable gaming that marked that weekend was outside my comfort zone. I’m glad Julian and our friends helped me get over that, because the future of strategy gaming is a return to what people like me once considered its past.
The ascendance of board games and their design philosophies might be one of the healthiest things that has happened to gaming in a long time, an overdue corrective to a cult of complexity that grew up alongside PC hardware. A platform that initially allowed the joys of hardcore board gaming without the frustrations also served to remove limits on designer’s ambitions or grognard’s appetites. Writer Bruce Geryk suspects this helped hasten wargaming into near-irrelevance.
“But the biggest obstacle to making simpler computer wargames is that a lot of people don’t like simple games, period,” he wrote in 2005. “Almost the first thing you’ll read on any official forum where a new historical strategy game has been released is someone asking for a patch to simulate some minor detail, without which the poster asserts the game is worthless.”
I will cop to being like the people Geryk is describing here. The last board game that I played seriously was Advanced Squad Leader. It shaped my expectations and marked the upper limit of complexity that was feasible with a board game. With games like that as examples, it seemed like the next evolutionary step was to let computers handle all the complexity to make even more detailed, vivid, and realistic games. To gamers like me, all of that added up to better gaming. But as Geryk has pointed out, there is a line that gets crossed between a game and a way of life.
“If you’re playing a competitive game, you have to account for all this detail in order to have a chance to win,” he said. “The problem is that a lot of people don’t see computer games as competitive games in the same way they would if they were board games. Instead, they’re projects, almost like extended role-playing games that you lose yourself in for hours at a sitting.”
At its best, this baroque approach to strategy design has led to brilliant examples of historical simulation like Europa Universalis III. But it’s also a philosophy that leads to unfocused orgies of minutiae. It also abandons board gaming’s virtues.
“Most board games have a vastly smaller ruleset than your average videogame,” EA2D‘s Soren Johnson says. “The advantage of this is clarity – the player can essentially fit the whole game in his or her head at the same time. Plus, the best board games show that this simplicity does not necessarily preclude strategic depth. And, of course, game designers tend to be avid board gamers as playing a new board game tends to be the quickest way to learn a novel system of game mechanics, as most videogames tend to rehash one another.”
The variety of systems, mechanics, and subject matter in board gaming can be awe-inspiring to jaded PC gamers like myself. During the Memorial Day gaming marathon, my head spun from the combinations of mechanics and themes on display. Once my mind could get a firm grasp on the mechanics, the fields of play slowly yielded secrets and hidden strategies. Best of all, I got to know my fellow players as we argued strategies, hurled accusations across tables, and endlessly rehashed our favorite moments from Battlestar Galactica or Last Night on Earth. Some of these things are only possible when you’re sitting at a table with your fellow players.
Some, but not all. Strategy designers are finding new ways to adapt board games and their sensibilities to electronic formats. In the last few years, XBLA has played a host to a number of well-received board game conversions, like Big Huge‘s adaptation of Klaus Teuber‘s Settlers of Catan, and some of those titles have made their way to other platforms like PSN and the App Store. The line between board games and the videogames is getting blurred as gamers and designers cross it.
Consider Brian Reynolds, who went from designing Civilization at strategy powerhouse Firaxis to creating what might be the finest RTS in the history of the genre (Rise of Nations) at Big Huge Games, to designing Zynga’s newest Facebook offering, FrontierVille. Before that major transition came a smaller one, as he took the opportunity to design the celebrated Settlers of Catan conversion.
“It was one of those ‘right project at the right time for the right guy’ situations,” says Reynolds, “and certainly one of the most fun projects I’ve worked on in my 20 years making games. That was also my first jumping-off point into working on more casual games, and so I think it’s fair to say that it was an important step along the way to becoming Zynga’s Chief Game Designer!”
Petroglyph Studios have taken the unusual step of developing for XBLA and board games simultaneously. When Chuck Kroegel and Ubisoft agreed to make a new Panzer General game, he designed it as a board game for the Xbox 360. Once it was finished, Petroglyph decided to go the whole nine yards and published the board game version as well.
Community Manager Mathew Anderson explained that the whole project made a great deal of sense to the company, and it’s a model Petroglyph are further developing with Panzer General: Russian Assault and Guardians of Graxia. Since most of the components were designed by the production assistants during the course of prototyping, and because only a small fraction of the studio is required for projects like this, Petroglyph is able to complete its board games without disrupting development on bigger titles.
The vitality of the modern board gaming scene right now is one reason for interest in bringing its strengths to other platforms. Reynolds finds “Eurogames” (European board games, often German, that tend to be a bit more systematic and less cutthroat than American games) to be a reliable source of insight and inspiration.
“I tend to be playing or thinking about one kind of game or another all the time. Eurogames are mostly very elegantly designed with streamlined rules, fast pacing, and high quality parts – and that’s pretty much what I’m aiming for in all of my game designs these days,” Reynolds explains.
Further spurring the movement is that players are connected in a way that was hard to imagine when strategy games began migrating to the PC. If the PC allowed greater complexity than a board game, designers also had to make games under the expectation that an AI would be one of the players. Even where games offered play-be-email and direct-connection multiplayer, the human was still playing a role that could also be filled by an AI. After all, not everyone could play online or would even want to. In the era of dial-up modem speeds, it could be more of a pain than it was worth. But that has changed as broadband became more ubiquitous.
A game like Iron Helmet Games‘ Neptune’s Pride perfectly illustrates a lot of strategy trends in the era of data clouds and social networks. It’s a simple (perhaps to a fault) browser-based strategy game, and its central mechanics are negotiation, cooperation, and betrayal.
“In my games, I’m always looking for a very simple set of mechanics or rules that lead to these complex situations,” says Creative Director Jay Kyburz. “I enjoy games where everybody understands how the game works, and has a simple set of decisions to make, but find themselves with lots of interesting problems to solve because of how the players are interacting within that simple rule system.”
The striking thing about Neptune’s Pride is how it overflows its browser window and starts invading Flickr accounts, Twitter feeds, and email. A game I played earlier this year started popping up in my Twitter feed as other players began conducting snap-negotiations in public, in order to deceive each other or intimidate other players, while a flurry of private emails, direct Twitter messagess, and in-game missives traveled between and within power-blocs. By the time all was said and done, some of the near-complete strangers I played with had become friends, and one of them is now a routine guest at my apartment for afternoons of board gaming.
Neptune’s Pride used all the simplicity possible in a basic board game, put it in a server that could operate the game continuously over a long period of play, and included mechanics that encouraged players to utilize every form of online communication as a part of their play experience. It is a bit like a board game, a bit like a traditional computer game, but it mostly feels like the start of something new.
Rob Zacny still contends that Memoir ’44 would be better if it included armor penetration tables and factored in muzzle velocities. Read more unhinged armchair design at http://robzacny.com.