This 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.
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 it 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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