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From tabletop to screen and back again

More and more properties are dancing between the digital realm and the world of tabletop gaming.

  • Text: Mike Holmes
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Given your enthusiasm towards video games, there's every chance you're also acutely aware of the growing scene that's building around the board game industry. Whether we're talking about beautiful miniatures supported by complicated combat systems where the action plays out on detailed 3D battlefields or snappy card games with stunning art that squeeze into tiny boxes, the industry has been spreading its wings of late and is enjoying what many would call a resurgence. Simply put, it's a great time to take your games to the table.

Over the years we've started to see a lot of crossover between the respective worlds of tabletop and video gaming. With Games Workshop leading the charge with increasingly frequent digital adaptations of its games - some more faithful than others - we're now starting to see the numbers swell across the board (pardon the pun), with other big players in the scene picking up the pace and taking new and interesting tabletop titles into the digital realm.

It goes both ways though, and while we've seen plenty of digital versions of fan-favourite board games, we're also starting to see board games and card games that riff off ideas first championed on titles based on PC, console and mobile. One timely example is the extremely successful Kickstarter campaign for a card game called The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls. This multiplayer card game has thrived on the IP's grotesque art style, in the process raking in over $2.6 million USD.

Kickstarter is an important platform for video games developers looking to step out of the publisher-driven development cycle, even if the number of major successes has dwindled in the last couple of years. When it comes to board games, however, the crowdfunding website remains the go-to platform for a huge number of designers. And we're not just talking about independents looking to self-publish either, big companies use it as a place to build community at the same time as generating cash and reducing the risk of bringing certain projects to market.

The Binding of Isaac is a case in point, and you don't have far to look back before you see another, the board game adaptation of Crusader Kings. One of Paradox's most successful grand strategy games, it joins games based on Civilization (well, there are board games based on the game, but Sid Meier's original was initially based on a board game, so it's swings and roundabouts in some cases) on the tabletop, with Through the Ages among the history-spanning titles that are coming in the opposite direction.

While strategy games make sense, and of course card games work great both in person and on the screen, there is surprising variety in terms of the types of experiences that are turned into board games. Bethesda greats such as Fallout and, even more so, Doom don't immediately translate to the tabletop, and neither do the likes of Portal, Street Fighter, and Gears of War, yet all of them have been adapted and, as far as we know, they've all done good business.

Card game crossovers are obviously quite common, given their relative lack of complexity from a coding perspective, especially compared to something like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (which, incidentally, comes complete with its own in-game card game, the now standalone Gwent, and there's a Witcher board game too). But it's more than that: it's something many of us grew up with. Many an archaic operating system launched with the likes of solitaire and after the turn of the century, we started seeing a lot of poker games floating down the river too.

While digital adaptations are commonplace, we're actually seeing a lot of digital card games on various platforms that don't make the leap back into the physical world. Hearthstone is a great example, as you'd think given that game's insane popularity a physical version would be a no-brainer, yet Blizzard prefers the quicker turnover of content allowed by staying digital. Printing cards is an expensive undertaking, and when you factor in shipping and everything else that goes along with distributing games, for a lot of designers the hassle just isn't worth it.

Some games, however, find the sweet spot in-between, blurring the lines between digital and physical. We played DropMix over the holidays and, despite the music not being particularly to our tastes, we certainly saw the appeal in playing a tabletop game with a beat. Another game we're rather fond of is Xcom: The Board Game, a cooperative adaptation that can be played solo or with up to four players. Not only does it come with all the branding you'd associate with the series, it also uses a companion app to really evoke the spirit of its video game counterpart.

Sony has been looking to bring a bit of analogue flavour to PlayStation via PlayLink, a clever system whereby players control their on-screen actions using an app on their smartphone. Tabletop classic Ticket to Ride is one of the games taking advantage of the system, but there are also a handful of party games that use PlayLink to similar effect, helping different experiences to appear on your big screen, as well as allowing non-console owners to enjoy themselves by interacting with games in a more accessible way.

Speaking of classics, naturally, games like Mahjong and Chess have made their way over to various digital platforms. Chess has been popping up in virtual form since forever (our first introduction was Battle Chess on the old family PC - sweet, sweet memories), but more recently we played household names Monopoly and Uno on the Switch, itself a great fit for board games thanks to its detachable controllers and portability. Monopoly's enduring popularity ensures that there are also physical versions reskinned with video game features, and we clocked one edition the other day containing Mario and some of his friends from the Mushroom Kingdom.

One great way of playing board games on PC that we've not mentioned yet is, of course, Tabletop Simulator, a fine resource on Steam that lets you create your own games and share them with your friends (or even just tip over a table full of chips - we've all felt like doing it once or twice). You can buy DLC themed around a handful of games, but it also offers game developers a chance to prototype their creations without spending huge amounts of money and/or time printing out work-in-progress versions of their games.

As the board game industry grows, and publishers are increasingly seeing just how much overlap there is between the two audiences, we're starting to see even more tabletop games go digital. Asmodee is among the companies at the forefront of this transitionary period, and they're working on adaptations of games such as Scythe and Terraforming Mars, and it'll be interesting to see how these titles fare once they leave Early Access. Will there be enough people interested in picking up a digital version of a game they enjoyed at the table? Will newcomers find a title on Steam and then go out and buy the physical game thereafter?

Perhaps the more pertinent question is: should you be thinking about buying digital versions of things you've played physically? Regardless of the quality of the copy, there's something undeniably different about playing on a screen with a mouse or a controller. You lose the tactile connection to the game, the physicality of playing each card and rolling the dice, the general housekeeping, the unknowing mistakes that in the real world slip by unnoticed but in digital form halt the flow. The trick comes from knowing where to draw the line, and from designers recognising when a completely faithful recreation of a mechanic doesn't translate well to the new medium. It's a nuanced challenge but it lies at the heart of the matter when it comes to bringing games from the table to the desktop.

For fans of board games, this is arguably a golden age. We're seeing new levels of creativity and innovation in the space. As their popularity continues to balloon we're going to see more crossover between the two industries, but as long as that means more people coming together to play together that's no bad thing in our book, regardless of whether they're talking over a table or through a microphone.