The most obvious shortcut you can take as a game developer is to make a game out of something that is already a game. Chess programs have been used to sell people on the idea of home computers since the 1970s, every version of Windows has shipped with Solitaire built right in, and casino games and other gambling sims have always enjoyed a robust market among would-be high-rollers who’ve never set foot on the Vegas strip. Think about how much sense this makes: board games come with all their rules built-in by somebody else. Whether you’re porting the most complicated Avalon Hill bookcase game or Candy Land, another somebody (or several somebodies) took care of all that heavy lifting. License a board game and 75% of your work is already done. By contrast, let’s say you license something non-game related, like The Simpsons or one of the Alien films. Going that route means you still have to work out the logistics of what type of game you’re going to make, how the characters interact with their world, and at least some kind of half-assed story to justify a customer playing your game instead of watching the film. Unique board games rarely debut in the digital realm because it’s much more cost-effective to pay Parker Bros. a few bucks for the rights to port a pre-existing game to a digital medium.
Digital board-gaming naysayers have a litany of arguments they pull out when it comes to this desecration of their hobby. Board games are inherently social after all, and it’s hard to think of anything sadder than somebody sitting alone in his house playing Monopoly by himself. Then there’s the fun that comes with the tactile interaction of pieces: pressing a button to generate a random number between 2 and 12 is nowhere near as entertaining as picking up a pair of six-siders and slinging them across the table. Passing money around, swapping equipment, forming alliances only to shatter them later when it suits your nefarious plans for world domination–digital games sacrifice these things and more upon the altar of convenience.
But you know what? The altar of convenience is pretty damn big, and it brings its own pros to help counter the purists. Think about how hard it can be, especially as adults, to gather three or four friends together in the same place for a few hours. Heck, just setting up the board so you can start playing can be a time sink in and of itself: passing out money in Monopoly might take a few minutes, but setting up a game like Axis & Allies can take an hour or more, and that’s if you’re familiar with the process.
And that’s all before the online age. Today’s versions of digital board games come with robust online support, and even in a pre-internet world these games offered multi-player options beyond that of just the CPU. Going back to Risk on the Genesis we see six-player simultaneous support, in any mixture of CPU and flesh-and-blood human competitors. Monopoly on the NES lets you face up to seven additional opponents. Axis & Allies has the computer take over the leadership of any of the five different groups that don’t have a human commander at the helm. Diplomacy, a board game requiring seven players willing to pretend they aren’t going to screw one another over when it’s convenient, screamed for a version with computerized adversaries if for no other reason than to preserve otherwise fragile real-life friendships so they can later be ruined by political postings on Facebook.
That’s not to say digital board games are without their down-sides. Part of the fun inherent in getting people together is the amount of trash-talking, nay-saying, and high-fiving which goes hand-in-hand with any competitive environment. While staid games such as Chess or Go don’t normally provoke this sort of behavior, there’s nothing like taking a five-minute recess to create a temporary alliance in an effort to knock the current champion down a peg or two.
Digital games are also at the mercy and limits of their programmers: if you have a favorite house rule or two for a particular game, chances are it won’t be available. The NES version of Monopoly won’t let you get money off Free Parking because (believe it or not) that’s not anywhere in the official rules. Depending on the player skill levels and the game in question, you might want to handicap one or more players to make a match more even. Chess games commonly offer the ability to spot pieces to an opponent in this fashion, but if you have a house rule that says nobody can attack until after the first full turn around the board, you better be playing with all human players, because the CPU will honor that restriction the same way politicians honor campaign promises.
Then there’s also the question of the ability to expand the game beyond its defaults (when this is possible or even practical). Clue and Scrabble aren’t terribly ripe for new scenarios, but more complex games like Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader have been supported for years with mission set-ups, unit layouts, and victory conditions created by enterprising players to simulate virtually every low-level infantry engagement from World War II. Unless the company doing the port is truly dedicated to offering things like unit editors and scenario builders (and the company they’re licensing from allows them to do this), you’re going to be stuck playing the vanilla version of your favorite game every time you boot it up. That’s assuming you get a competent port in the first place…the aforementioned Squad Leader from Random Games and published by Microprose in 2000 wasn’t an adaptation of the board game at all, but rather a minor update to a game they made three years earlier called Soldiers of War. There’s probably a reason Random Games closed a year later, but I can’t seem to put my finger on it.
As absurd as it may sound, games making the transition from digital to tabletop are also a thing. I’m the proud owner of several of these clunkers as a result of a syndrome known as “being a child in the 80’s”, and I can say the majority are a complete waste of time. A home board game based on Donkey Kong or Zaxxon makes as much sense as looking at a hornet’s nest and thinking, “I bet I could fit my dong in that hole.”
On the other hand, sometimes what seems absurd turns into an incredibly epic celebration of genius. Case and point, the guy who turned Doom 3, a fast-paced single-player FPS about killing everything, into a more calmly-paced but no less stressful multi-player board game where up to four space marines go head to head with the sadistic game master in a race to finish the custom-built level before all of them become demon chow. It’s extremely complex, with tons of models, dice to roll, stats to keep track of, and rules to learn for both the marines and the player controlling the monsters, but get enough people together who know what they’re doing, there’s one hell of a fun Friday night to be had playing this sucker.
Parents looking to introduce their offspring to board games could do worse than picking up a copy of the Pac-Man board game, which features two large, plastic Ghosts, white and yellow marbles for ‘dots’, and special Pac-Man pieces which ‘eat’ the dots up as they travels around the board. As an adult, this is entertaining for about ten minutes–as a kid, I spent hours sprawled out on the floor playing this with neighborhood friends, my grandparents, and anyone else I could get to join me.
So what’s the last word on digital board games? Hell if I know. People will keep making them as long as other people keep buying them, but I’m of the opinion you should always investigate something that looks promising. At this point in my life, it’s far easier to throw Risk into my PS1 than it is to find several other people willing to face death at the tip of my sword, and at least the CPU doesn’t just turtle up in Australia like a little bitch when I’m kicking its ass, Carl.