The Human Malfunction


There’s been a lot of talk (and action for that matter) lately regarding digital versions of boardgames.  We’ve got Smallworld, Catan, and even Ticket to Ride on the iPad now (and in some cases, our phones.)  We’ve got online versions allowing you to play against other players, as well as versions designed for playing against the computer.

Listen, I’m not really against digital versions of board games.  They can certainly be convenient, especially if you want to play with a friend across the country but can’t exactly fly them in for the evening.  They also increase the exposure of board game franchises, hopefully to the point of increasing sales of the physical product, which would in turn grow the industry and hopefully result in even more exposure but more importantly, continued production of high-quality games.  (This is all speculation, by the way.  I don’t think there’s any solid evidence so far that iphone apps increase the sales of a corresponding physical product).

But here’s the thing.  I’m not really a big fan of digital versions. It’s not that I have a thing against video games.  I actually generally enjoy video games in addition to this more-prevalent boardgame hobby of mine.

Digital version of board games that set players against a computer are the worst.  These games are designed to force players to work within a confined set of rules and limitations.  The challenge of working within that limited framework is exciting when you’re testing your mettle against other players, and that feeling doesn’t completely disappear when you play online with other humans.  But a computer, no matter how intelligent or strategic it is programmed to be, is still just a program.  It lacks unpredictability, it has no emotional investment.  A computer that wins does not have a real victory dance.  It does not taunt on your next game, at least not with any spirit.  It doesn’t demand rewards such as the express delivery of snacks and soda by the other players.  It doesn’t concede defeat or congratulate you in your victory with any meaning.

See, to me, one of the best parts of playing a board game is interacting with people.  I’m generally a very shy person and an introvert in real life, but I do think that real interaction with real people is important to a healthy lifestyle.  Board games are a key element I use to have enjoyable times with other people.

Online you just don’t get the same experience, no matter what kind of voice chat or webcam you use.  There’s something about physical proximity, about sharing the same oxygen, being in the same room.  You can pass the bowl of chips, you can get each other sodas in turns.

Even more than that, though, you have an imperfect game.  People are human.  They make mistakes.  They “malfunction.”  Sometimes they play their best game, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes you can distract them, or goad them into doing something stupid, or at least beneficial to you.  You can argue and negotiate and sense what the other person is thinking so much more than if you can only see their screenname or even their image on a webcam.

And that kind of thing helps keep the whole hobby of boardgaming fresh.  It’s not just a matter of returning to the same cardboard pieces over and over.  It’s about the memorable experience of being with people.  Every game is different if only because people are in different moods, they gain experience, they make new mistakes.  It’s that human element that I think can appeal to anyone, not just a hardcore gamer.  Everyone can understand the concept of having a good time with friends.  It’s why I can play games that aren’t my favorite or that I might not even necessarily like and still have fun.

I think board games can teach us a lot of different things, but this is possibly one of the more important ones.  Being with people, in physical proximity, to truly interact and engage with each other, is far superior than simply having people to function as a means to enact the mechanics of a game.

What do you think?  Leave your thoughts in the comments or tweet at me @futurewolfie

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion6 Comments

  1. Good article. AIs usually don’t adapt, so even if I’m playing a digital boardgame to learn strategy, I’ll learn how to beat the AI. I won’t really learn how to beat actual people in an actual game.

    Most importantly for me, and I imagine for others like me, is that boardgames are an escape from technology. I work with digital this and that all day for my job. Boardgames allow me to engage my brain in tactile and olfactory ways that the computer just can’t do right now.

    -Jefferson (@skaldheim)

  2. Completely agree, wolfie. This topic about digital board games makes me forgive Mayfair for not releasing Carcassonne for Android 🙂 (they said they have no plans to)

    I just wrote up a very similar article that will be posted hopefully soon, expressing how community is what I really look for in a game. Another important factor is theme for me. Depending on the theme of the game, sometimes a narrative can be pulled from it that can also stir discussion and table talk. That’s where storytelling and roleplaying games can really thrive.

    @Jefferson – I’m that way with tabletop games too… I use it as an escape from tech, to not only rest my eyes but slow down my the influx of information to a pace that my brain can take the time to really process and chew on it.

    – Ryan @indoorsgaming

  3. I stumbled across this blog by accident but had to comment bacause I completely agree. I’m a big PS3 fan and have no problem with playing on a screen.

    But I see board games as the chance do something different – to connect with real people, across a tabletop, preferably with snacks on hand! I also find them great icebreaker when meeting new people.

    Of course, you can also throw the board in the air in frustration when you’re losing badly – trying that with an iPad could cost a fortune…

  4. Great post wolfie! There’s a dynamic that comes from playing face to face that marks the very soul of boardgaming for me. Learning the rules together, screwing up the rules together, sharing food and drinks together, the look and feel of the game and its pieces, the company of good friends… playing digitally may have it’s place for learning a new game or whatever, but it’s no replacement for the real deal.

    – Mike

  5. good comments, guys! I definitely agree that video games are just fine and dandy, but sometimes its nice to get away from the electronic screen for a while.

  6. I agree for the most part. But I prefer the digital Axis & Allies. The game is awesome, but it needs some of the extraneous stuff removed (let the computer do the rolling for you!).

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