On Technology in Tabletop Games

towerThis past weekend we connected with some old friends for a game night; the main event was my maiden voyage into the cult classic Dark Tower. My buddy had recently gotten a refurbished electronic tower to replace his old broken one, which had prompted us to the occasion. Of course, by the time the date finally arrived, his family had gotten all of one play out of the replacement tower before it malfunctioned as well. Alas, we were left to play with the app simulator anyway, but I was glad to have experience this well-loved game either way, having never had it as a kid.


Our replacement “tower.”

So here’s the thing: the game doesn’t really stand up to modern expectations. It’s way too random for most gamers’ tastes, and there’s extremely little player interaction. But these issues aren’t surprising, nor are they the point of this article. Issues like these are to be expected of just about any game from the 1980s, especially one whose primary function was to showcase the capabilities of computers and their possible applications in gaming. We are given to think of a number of experimental or trendy technological features in games, such as the incorporation of audio tapes/CDs/DVDs into tabletop games, all variants of electronic Battleship and their ilk, and probably a hundred different attempts from Nintendo, including R.O.B. and the NES Zapper. Essentially, all of these toys have their hey-day, and then, sooner or later, they retreat into the nostalgic recesses of memory. Nevertheless, this line of thinking on the day in question had me considering the now current “innovation” (trend?) in tabletop gaming: the integration of mobile apps—not simply as a replacement or supplement, but as an integral part of the game. I proposed to my buddy that some day, these, too, would fade into obsolescence and be looked upon with a kind of pedantic humor. He didn’t completely agree, but the conversation that ensued between us lead me to this conclusion: When it comes to tabletop gaming, there are gimmicky and needless ways to integrate computers, and there are also clever and helpful ways to integrate computers, but neither application will ultimately stand the test of time.

Dark Tower (1981) is a perfect example of a gimmicky and needless use of a computer in a tabletop game. The tower serves utterly no purpose other than to track turns and stats, which the players can easily do on their own, and as a random-events generator. Again: no hard feelings—they were showcasing and playing around with what a computer could do, which was all very novel at the time. But the fact remains that the novelty of the tower-computer is the only thing that makes the game interesting, and as soon as that novelty wears off, there’s no game left. In essence, Milton Bradley constructed the scaffolds of a game around the computer, rather than first creating a game and then subsequently finding a way for a computer to enhance that game or ease the burden of calculation on the players.

A computer application that I would consider more helpful, and contemporary to Dark Tower, would be the Monopoly Playmaster (1982). This electronic device was not only a novelty, but it sped up the game considerably and helped mitigate some of the fundamental problems of Monopoly as a game. You didn’t need it to play; there was already a game there (all gripes about Monopoly being reserved for a separate discussion, please). Functionally, the Playmaster was an expansion to the game, but the essence of the game did not depend on the electronic device. (I haven’t played any of the modern electronic variants of Monopoly, so I don’t know where any of them might sit on the spectrum.) Whereas the Dark Tower was a calculator upon which someone imposed a game, the Playmaster was a calculator designed to facilitate or improve an already-established game. In the case of the former, the game cannot be played without the computer (or a dramatic re-tooling of the components and/or rules). In the case of the latter, the game can certainly be played without the computer, with only minimal changes to the game play.

In short, what makes the technological accessory “gimmicky” in my mind is the inverse ability of the tabletop game in question to thrive and be playable without the technological accessory.

(Notice how the Monopoly Playmaster and the original Electronic Battleships are things of the past, but both have been replaced by a slew of new computerized variants, and both persist as viable games on the market. Meanwhile, notice how Dark Tower isn’t in print at all anymore.)

This debate continues in modern gaming as we see the increasing prevalence of mobile-apps being used both as supplements and as integral components of various tabletop titles. The first game I ever discovered in this vein was XCOM: The Board Game. I admit that I have not played it, but that I was immediately reluctant to try it at all, owing to the fact that the app is an integral part of the game. I also admit that, since I haven’t played it, I have no idea that XCOM isn’t a perfect example of what I would consider clever and helpful integration of computers (but it IS an adaptation  of a video game, so…). I’m just confessing that I was reluctant to try it at the time of my learning of it, and because of fears that I did not fully understand until the fruition of this very article. To cite a different modern example, I have played Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, and on account of this game’s ridiculously complicated set of unique dice and the difficulty in making sense of them, I was more than happy to use the custom dice-rolling app on our buddy’s tablet. Here is a perfect example of a helpful computer application for a modern title; one in which the game can completely stand on its own without the addition. I haven’t honestly played any others in the growing family of app-based tabletop games, but I fear that a significant number of them are more likely gimmicky than they are examples of solid games.

Having vetted all this, I’d like to make two final statements. First, I suspect that even the best technological applications will not stand the test of time, and that only the games that do not depend on an electronic component will see continued play across years and generations. For one thing, even with computerization being cheaper to produce and proliferate than ever before (an app is certainly cheaper than all the plastic and hardware that goes into a thing like the Dark Tower or the Monopoly Playmaster), there remains a tremendous cost for digitizing a game, in part or in whole. Designers, especially indie designers, a more likely to focus on simply making a good game first, worrying about a possible digital port only much later (like when they reach their stretch goals). Cost aside, media forms become obsolete so soon anymore that shriekscreaks_gameboxit would almost be financial suicide to make a tabletop game that was dependent on any one form. Manufacturers would need to endlessly reproduce their digital game components on a variety of competing and changing platforms, while consumers would be forced to cling to old and failing machinery and/or to endlessly buy new machinery. None of these is at all appealing to either side.

This brings me to my second concluding point: I am a purist, and I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t really like the idea of contaminating my tabletop game experience with computerization of any kind, even when applied in the most clever and helpful way. This is simply not the kind of experience I am looking for when I sit down for a tabletop game. I keep my tabletops and my video games in two separate chambers, and I believe many gamers out there do the same. Many will attest that we are experiencing a kind of “board game renaissance.” If so, then I submit that it is precisely because we have too much computerization in our lives already. We go to the table, in part, to get away from these machines, not simply to see them applied in a novel way. While we do enjoy, from time to time, a computerized version of a game or a computerized accessory to the game, what we want from the experience is the game, not the computer.

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5 thoughts on “On Technology in Tabletop Games

  1. I agree with everything you wrote, except the following: “Meanwhile, notice how Dark Tower isn’t in print at all anymore.” Dark Tower isn’t in print anymore because it was litigated out of existence shortly after it’s release. The implication in your statement is that the game is no longer around because it was gimmicky but this is ultimately false. The game was never around long enough for us to see if this would be its ultimate end. In fact, this premature death of the game is one of the reasons it is so highly coveted by geek collectors like myself. It is freaking RARE.

    That being said, I agree that going out of print would have been the game’s ultimate fate. Take away the absurd scarcity of original copies and the game itself would have gotten enough exposure that people would have realized those points you laid out and gotten over it pretty quick. Most of the people that I see buying it today state, “I wanted this game so bad when I was a kid but never got to have it because…”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bastiaan Reinink says:

    I’ve played alchemists, which requires an app our a “game master”. I really enjoy the game and wouldn’t mind mute of its ilk

    Having said that, the app only takes over a small (but essential) part of the board: hiding information.

    When the computer makes something possible that want before then I don’t mind it being there. But I do really want to play a -board- game😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Bastiaan. I’m also going to repost a comment made by another reader on a different forum, which offers a truly interesting suggestion for a hybrid innovation. Coming right up…


  4. [What follows is an insightful post made on a separate forum, playdiplomacy.com, by user Carebear, in response to this same article.]

    And now, for another point of view…

    I guess tabletop gaming is a more generic term designed to encompass both traditional boardgames and cardgames? (Yes, I am Germanically putting words together)

    I much prefer playing boardgames in person than anything online because of the direct human interaction. I play Diplomacy online only because there is not much opportunity where I am for FTF. I recently played an online game in catanuniverse only because a friend had moved away and we wanted to include him in a game. And, while I agree there is an aesthetic appeal to physical game components, I think there are several reasons why having an electronic replacement is beneficial. This includes:
    In some games, there is a lot of die rolling (or rolling a lot of dice). It becomes tedious.
    In some games, there are calculations (sometimes complex) that need to occur about what value is needed on a roll. Mistakes happen.
    In some games, there are a lot of components. Tracking movement can be tedious and prone to mistakes.
    Sometimes, game components get lost. If they are out of print, getting a replacement is often not trivial.
    Games take up space. I have friends with literally rooms full of boardgames.

    I have worked on embedded systems and appliance (not stoves and such) technology. So, I have some idea about their limitations. While much of the gadgetry discussed in the article were custom appliance technology, I think there is potential for generic technology once the price-point makes it feasible. A good friend of mine and I discussed the key features about 10-15 years ago.

    The interface needs to be a flexible material touch screen that is able to be rolled-up like a scroll or map, able to be laid flat or hung on a wall. This makes it portable.
    There would be a generic engine, like Vassal, upon which many games can be built. This reduces development costs and improves quality of individual games.
    It could have its own CPU, but may be better to have a platform independent engine to drive the interface from any laptop or notebook computer.
    For games like diplomacy, players could register their smart phones for submitting orders.

    With the fundamental piece being the screen cost, I can see this happening in the not too distant future. Technology eventually becomes commodity priced.

    As new game concepts and rules are created, adding the functionality is only a software download away. People can create new games and not have to worry about component or unit costs.

    You could easily have the same game shared across two boards in one place for large/complex games or have two boards in two different places for virtual gaming to bring in a distant friend (or maybe your friend is on a PC).

    With many boardgames already implemented online, it would not be beyond the realm of reason that the popular ones would be ported or rewritten to this new generic platform.

    So, I think we can have that FTF interaction while also incorporating the benefits of technology.


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