Fairway Thoughts: Why I’m So Over Digital Board Games

There’s no shortage of digital editions of board games. Almost every popular board game has a mobile version readily available.  After returning from a long Australian vacation, Fairway is taking a break from them. 

Ready to be really sad for me? I spent two weeks in Australia with my family. Australia was amazing and the trip was fantastic. We even had pretty uneventful flights.  One thing stood out as disappointing, though: digital board games. Even though this long term, long distance trip seemed like it’d be the perfect use case, I was left wondering whether any really were worth it.

Digital board games

What I’m mostly talking about are mobile app implementations of analog games.  There’s lots of them. For most any popular game, there’s an app for that: Carcassonne, Pandemic, Sentinels of the Multiverse, Splendor, Potion Explosion, Small World, Ticket to Ride, Suburbia, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and on and on. Check out this really good list. Most are reasonably priced somewhere South of $7 with many less than that.

Splendor app by Asmodee Digital

These apps take the analog game and implement the rules and components and package them up like any other mobile app. They typically include a bunch of ways to play: solo versus one or more AI opponents, hot seat play in which you pass a device back and forth, or online play against other players around the world.

What I was originally thinking

Let me start with this: I didn’t get games just for the trip. I’d picked up a few over time. I’ve had Carcassonne and Catan apps for years.  These digital implementations seem great for a bunch reasons.

  • Portable. Seriously, there’s no way I could bring something like Splendor or Small World or Pandemic on a long vacation to Australia. It just isn’t practical. So, yeah, an app version is really appealing.
  • Online play. There are a bunch of people I’d love to play something like Potion Explosion with, but can’t because of geography. Flying 9000 miles around the planet wasn’t going to make that better.
  • Solo-able and pass-and-play games. I wasn’t going to have an internet connection for that 15 hour long haul from LAX to SYD (at least not on the device with the games). I was going to be playing these either by myself or with my son in the seat next to me.
  • Automatic scoring! Okay, this is basically why I got the Carcassonne app in the first place: I hated the scoring at the end of the game. I was terrible at it. I’m no accountant. I’m a lawyer!
Small World app by Asmodee Digital

My trip to Australia was a test of those first three points.  And they did solve these issues, sort of, but I became painfully aware of how short-sighted those justifications were.

The issues

I became really disillusioned with digital board games on this trip. So much so that I was playing seat back versions of terrible games on my flight!

Let’s face it, it’s really hard to replicate holding cards in your hand on a mobile device. It’s hard to get a good view of the board, or the size of the remaining deck, or quickly understand the public information of another player’s collection. Yes, many (all?) of these are “accessible” in the apps, but it’s not easy. Translating this information to the screen is clunky. At best, annoying. At worst, downright frustrating.

Pandemic App by Asmodee Digital

And this says nothing about the size of things.  Even on an iPad, there is too little screen real estate to show a hand of cards in a readable manner. Information has to be clicked, zoomed, etc. Sometimes icons represent the same information and are tucked away in the corners of the screen. It’s not the same.

This has consequences for the actual play too.  Playing hot-seat versions of games with someone next to me is a weird experience. It’s almost like they’re playing their own little video game a few minutes at a time that they “share” with me. But you’re not “sharing” the same experience. You’re not looking at the same thing at the same time. You’re not two players standing over a board examining the same information from different perspectives. Nope. It’s an isolationist, forced-perspective version of a game.

The other thing is digital games are unforgiving. The rules are imposed. There’s no “undo.” There’s little opportunity to use your fingers and hands to imagine a play before making it.  In the Potion Explosion app, accidentally touching a marble completes your turn. Even if it wasn’t what you want.  It’s never how we play in real life.  The number of times people ask to change a play is frequent. Those changes may not permissible by the rules but they’re definitely permissible for fun.

The experience made me realize something:

There’s a reason I like board games

Potion Explosion app by Asmodee Digital

It wasn’t really obvious at first.  But, there’s a reason I like board games. And the reasons I like board games are often at odds with the reasons I like certain video games. And translation of those board games to a mobile game typically does a disservice to both.

I like the interaction. The laughs. The taunts. I like watching people think and ponder.  I like seeing players experimenting. I like the idea that the mostly-2D board world is viewed from 4 different perspectives and everyone sees something different.

I like the tactile feel of rolling dice, shuffling cards, holding fanned out cards, drawing things from bags, placing cubes… I like pulling the marbles out and watching them clatter against each other in Potion Explosion. I like stacking cubes in my supply and sorting money in piles. Those experiences don’t make it into the apps.
I like that I’m my own rules master. I get them wrong. Sometimes more frequently than I should. But it’s a learning experience.  Having the game impose the rules is nice, sometimes. But mobile apps don’t know the difference between when to be lenient and when to be a stickler. They can’t see the face of a player who accidentally made a move they didn’t want.

I like that board games leave something to the imagination. I don’t need my marbles to evaporate into a liquid to place into a potion bottle to know that’s what the game represents. I don’t need swirly animated icons representing infections when cubes will do.

And if it’s not clear: I can derive different fun from video games. I like Stardew Valley and Civilizations and Skyrim. Same thing with mobile apps like Triple Town and Polytopia and Alphabear and Plants v. Zombies.  But they’re not trying to replicate an analog experience. They’re games in their own right. They use their own mechanisms to elicit the same senses, but in a native and different way.

What they do well

I’ve picked on a bunch of Asmodee Digital app in my screen shots. They do a lot of things great: they’re beautiful, they seem to think of everything, they have nice animations and transitions, they have immersive soundtracks, and so on. I think they do a commendable job on all those fronts. And it’s that allure that got me to purchase the apps in the first place.  I definitely get that part.

I also like the fact that some games take the scoring and placement steps out of my hands. I’m terrible at end game scoring in Carcassone, for example.

Carcassone app by Exozet

But, at the end of the day:

I’m done with board game apps… for now.

I feel like I need to break up with digital board games. It’s not them. It’s me. If I want a board game, digital representations just don’t fit the bill. There’s just no substitute for the tactile feel and the interaction of a board game.

If I’m looking for a game to play on my tablet or phone, I’m turning to games whose natural home are those devices.

2 thoughts on “Fairway Thoughts: Why I’m So Over Digital Board Games”

  1. How do you feel about games like Hearthstone or Hex that are simulating a physical experience (in this case, a trading card game), but in a way that would be extremely difficult or impossible to do in a physical way? While I certainly have my own issues with these types of games, I do appreciate that there are some things (like permanent damage) that would be extremely tedious to do in a physical world, while on an app the computer can automatically track them? And do you think that the issues you pointed out are insurmountable, or do you think that with the proper design these types of apps can work? Thank you, and thanks for the article!

  2. To avoid the feeling of not playing the same game, use two device and ask for a LAN setup, rather than an internet one.

    I believe that you’re perfectly right in your assessment though, for now the experiences aren’t there. We need proper VR setups that are cheap, fast and work with our hands and a flat surface of our choice to start building proper experiences where we can actually see eachother think, ponder and feel ourselves towards our decisions. There’s also a bunch of mechanics that simply can’t be translated to a pass-the-device experience. Try texas hold-em that way, for example – it’s crap xD

Tell us what you think!