Hard Copy, pt. 1

People have been asking what I’ve been doing recently.


Call it video game detox. I’ve been pulling up fat handfuls of the roots of videogaming – board games, pen and paper roleplaying games, “live action” games – and chewing on them like some nerd herbivore.

While mobile gaming’s been continuing its frightening rise, I’ve been carrying 2 kilo board games to friends around London. While Mass Effect 3’s ending was shredded by gamers like so much pulled pork, I’ve been scribbling notes for my own 2300AD campaign. And while gamers are tapping their teeth in hesistant excitement for – what – Dishonoured? Bioshock Infinite? I’m trying to find the time to attend a Zombie LARP in an abandoned Redding shopping centre.

This isn’t me clawing at the jaws of a dinosaur as it goes bubbling down into a tar pit, either. Board game sales are actually increasing, year on year, and have been for more than a decade. Board games, would you believe it, seem to be coming back.

(Zombie LARP, by the way, is where you actually run away from actual guys pretending to be actual zombies, armed only with a pair of metaphorical balls and an actual Nerf gun.)

Now, in this post I’m not going to try and inspire you to take off your shirt and fling all your game consoles from the window. For that, we’d need you to visit my house, a crate of forty beers and a game of Memoir ’44: Overlord. In this post I just want to convey to you what’s exciting about analog game design itself.

Let’s start with me saying something nice and mad.

Technology, which is to say “digital” game design, is the single biggest obstacle game designers have ever faced.

The games industry is, in part, defined by a lust for new tech. Money has always found a home in a new console cycle, a new games platforms, a new graphics engine, a bigger game world, a more detailed game city, a more plausible AI, a new input device. These are all expectations sat on a AAA video game designer’s back before he’s typed the title of his design document.

But let’s take a step down, to the guys who are just working within existing formats rather than trying to push the envelope. There, technology still faces them with a horrific problem- if they can’t communicate their idea perfectly to the team of specialists required to turn that idea into a finished videogame, that idea is dead as sure as if it was suffocated by a beefy dude with some piano wire. If that doesn’t sound so hard, try writing the design document for Gears of War.

But let’s take yet another step down. Recently we’ve seen indie and mobile video games wandering into the spotlight with no make-up and no acceptance speech, having attained their success using only comparatively simple tech. Yet even in these cases the designer must still know how to code or how to transmit his vision to programmers, sound designers or whoever else. And if that doesn’t sound like much of a hurdle, let’s hypothesise that you had an amazing idea for a video game, but no programming experience. Imagine how far away that prototype would feel.

What we call “technology” is really a swimming pool so stuffed with sharks as to look like an undulating grey floor. It is this pool that ideas for video games must cross in order to exist. SNAP! goes a pair of jaws. The guns/punching/jumping in your game doesn’t feel satisfying. SNAP! The finished product is buggy. SNAP! You fail to assemble the finished project within the time or budget available to you. In a burst of foam and gore, your videogame is dragged down, down, through a gap in the shark mattress.

(Which is exactly why the “punk” movement within the indie scene is so exciting. Game designers using programs like GameMaker to make games with zero aesthetic appeal but a certain… heart, and purity of intent. Brendan Caldwell’s articles through that link kick ass, by the way. You should read them.)

But board games? With board games or card games, depending on how handy you are with a pair of scissors you can have a prototype up and running within hours. One of my favourite board games, Galaxy Trucker (which sees players racing to assemble spaceships in a 2D lego fashion before taking off in a heroic, rickety, doomed convoy), literally came to the designer in its entireity while he was taking a shower, and if he wanted to he could have been playtesting it the next day.

But we’re getting off track. The accessibility isn’t the point. The point is that this is lossless game design. There is no shark pit. When you buy a board game, what you take home and play is the original concept precisely as it was in the designer’s head. That’s the mecca for video games. For board games, it’s the norm.

Let’s put it another way. You walk into a video game store and the shelves heave with fuck-ups, almosts, wannabes, disasterpieces, train wrecks, never-gonna-happens and shovelware. Your eyes drift to the charts, the sequels, the games you know, but the actual ratio of directionless embarrassments to successfully implemented visions is horrific.

You walk into a board game shop (not your Cranium or Cluedo, I’m talking proper nerd board games) and every one of the games on the shelves is a human being’s shrinkwrapped idea. There are still disasterpieces, licensed cash-ins and cynical sequels, but for the most part you can walk to any part of the shop, stare dead ahead and find yourself staring at the five lovingly playtested dreams of five human beings.

And they are dreams. The cross that the board gaming hobby has to bear is that there’s no money in it. No fucker plays these things. Depending on the publisher, a board game selling 20,000 copies might be seen as a happy success. But what this does mean is that most every designer is doing it for the love.

And that’s just the start.

COMING UP NEXT, I’ll start getting specific, pointing out a few board games that’ll show how this hobby is a minefield, except instead of mines you’re endlessly stepping ideas that are as surprising as mines, but usually more fun. Then in a third article I’ll talk about the REAL reason you should be playing board games. Until then, probably just have a browse of Shut Up & Sit Down, my board game review site. We’re doing the hobby justice, I think.



  1. Spot-on article, I’m looking forward to the next ones.

    Board games provide the most salient, important decisions of a game in an undistilled form. Video games have to do too many other things for too many other people.

    Not every board game is a hit; sometimes they feel off-balance when there’s nobody to edit and improve the creator’s ideas. But when they hit, they really hit.

  2. Richard Balmer says:

    There’s a new edition of 2300AD? And people are playing it in London?

    I’m ridiculously happy about both those facts. If you’re planning a campaign the new edition must be worthwhile, right?

  3. Board games are less defined by their medium of implementation than their style of play. Comparing board games to video games is a little disingenuous. They represent different levels in the taxonomy. Board games can be video games (just look at all the computer versions of board games).

    You’re also blurring the difference between the skill required to build a board game prototype with that required to make a commercial-quality finished product. Many people would find it easier to build a board game prototype with software tools than with wood, cardboard and scissors. Also, making a commercial quality analog board game requires comparable technical skills to making a digital one, since they both rely on similar digital assets (images and 3D models).

    I do agree that video games, as artifacts distract away from the core of game play mechanics. But it comes down to play style. The “video game” as a category is over-represented by action games. Board games require strategy, not hand-eye coordination. Computer board games don’t require opponent AI or networking to function–that’s a response to market pressure.

    The allure of the wider realm of video games is the capacity for complexity of simulation. This primarily affects first person games and action games, but you can add more simulation to anything. The question is whether it’s appropriate, and that depends on the kind of experience the game designer wants to create. If you want to provide an experience mediated through abstract symbols, you don’t need a deep simulation. But if you want to provide the experience of a lone soldier sprinting through hostile territory, or a party of adventurers facing a demon in its underground lair, the magic of 3D graphics, rag doll physics, surround sound and enemy squad AI is very compelling.

    The latter are all part of building up a sensory and interaction experience. That’s why they need simulation. Even words, which can create the illusion of a sensory experience, still leave a distance between it and you. Whereas a board game is meant to impart an experience more intellectually and symbolically while retaining the importance of the player as the primary actor and decision maker.

    In short, different kinds of games attempt to provide different kinds of experience, and the medium is not necessarily all that important. As your LARP example shows, it’s eminently possible to create a sensory experience without computers, but it still takes simulation, and I’ll wager it takes quite a lot of skill, albeit of a different sort, to make that experience compelling. And you don’t have to simulate the physics or AI! On the other hand, games engines like Unity give you most of what is required, so it still comes down to your skill with modelling in either a 3D package or with real materials (not to mention sound effects and character design), or between prototyping and commercial-quality. If it was so easy to make models out of real stuff, Hollywood would not have abandoned physical props for virtual ones.

  4. Ive been falling down this rabbit hole thanks to you, paul, and Mr. Robert Florence, and i couldnt be more grateful. It’s too bad its getting hard to find these games in argentina, our beloved miss president has been adapting some protectionistic measures, and, well. Sadness ensues.
    I cant wait to get my hands on galaxy trucker, king of tokyo and space alert.

    What is in boardgames for myself, is the bare view of the mechanics. Where in videogames every calculation is under the hood, only showing us the final rendering, plying a baoardgame lets me watch all of its brass cogs in its splendid clockwork goodness. I love it. Anyways, thanks for SU&SD, it is awesome, and covered very well for the leaving of mr florence. I miss him though, dont you?

  5. I love boardgames. The computer back in ’82 was my way of being able to play games that didn’t require finding some one or some people to play the boardgames I owned. Thats still the problem aswell. Finding like minded people to play with.

  6. Would you know if there is any place like this one http://www.debitdejeux.fr/ in the U.K.?
    It’s a non-profit organisation / boardgame club with more than 3,000 members. I miss it.
    It’s nothing like the London boardgames thingie I’ve been to.

  7. Is 2030ad any good? I’m currently trying to assemble my maiden traveller campaign (and maiden GMing), its alot of work if you want to make it open ended.

    Good article. I was converted during your spell on RPS caretaking Cardboard children. The first game i bought was Ascending Empires based on that column. Since Rab’s posts seem to have dried up (presumably due to work load in his real job) could you convince the Jim to give you a perodical boardgames column there? Or at least a front page post each time SUSD drops.

    Keep fighting the good fight precious.

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