We find ourselves in the midst of a board game resurgence. The last decade has seen massive growth for the industry, thanks in large part to exposure in leading chain stores like Target and Walmart, and web shows like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop.
As time ebbs and flows, and technology continues to advance at a pace faster than we can keep up, tabletop games remain welcome artifacts of an innocuous time when entertainment didn’t require a USB-C adapter and a wifi signal.
Except, like any medium, tabletop games are a product of their time. Like film and music, they must adapt and evolve as our tastes as consumers change. Today, in 2017, we absorb entertainment in a huge variety of ways, from phone to tablet to virtual reality and beyond. It makes sense then that board games keep up with the tide of technology in their own right. The smartphone is the most common method of adaptation utilized by board game designers and publishers. It’s no longer uncommon for a game to include a companion app, or even use an app as a key aspect of the experience.
Today, in 2017, we absorb entertainment in a huge variety of ways, from phone to tablet to virtual reality and beyond. It makes sense then that board games keep up with the tide of technology in their own right.
Arguably the most important uses of a phone app comes thanks to Alchemists, the 2014 game by designer Matúš Kotry. In Alchemists, players take on the role of potion-makers who are experimenting with various components in an effort to concoct the most valuable solution. The rub is that players don’t know what each combination of ingredients will result in, meaning that they must perform a series of trial-and-error tests in order to arrive at a positive outcome.
Each game of Alchemists contains a randomly generated set of potion solutions so that each play is different. The table of potential outcomes is large and complex thanks to the game’s eight core ingredients that all interact with one another differently. Thankfully, Alchemists includes an app that does all the heavy thinking for you; it will automatically generate the results of each potion, freeing you from all the permutations and combinations required to manually determine the result.
The table of potential outcomes is large and complex thanks to the game’s eight core ingredients that all interact with one another differently.
Another prominent example of app integration is 2015’s XCOM: The Board Game by Fantasy Flight games. In this adaptation of the hit PC strategy game, players are tasked with protecting Earth from an alien invasion and quelling global panic. XCOM uses an app to randomly determine the scenario players will be working through, and acts as a sort of de facto dungeon master.
The app presents players with a vague outline of what to expect from the invading aliens, giving them the chance to prepare their defenses. The wrinkle is that players must react in real time to the changing situations. Thanks to the in-app timer, XCOM is a tense experience that forces players to react on the fly. It’s a truly unique game that shows an impressive marriage of technology and some old-school tabletop RPG sensibilities.
It’s a truly unique game that shows an impressive marriage of technology and some old-school tabletop RPG sensibilities.
As the smart phone continues find its footing at the table alongside cardboard chits and wooden pawns, game design will undoubtedly increase in complexity. Because of the autonomous nature of applications like those found in Alchemists and XCOM, designers are free to layer game mechanics on top of one another without worrying about the limitations of what a human brain can realistically recall. This trend also allows for the potential of support beyond release—similar to DLC in video games—without publishers having to foot a bill for additional components.
Watching technology evolve to enhance existing entertainment, or accommodate new forms of entertainment, is an exciting characteristic of the time we live in. In regards to board games, a decidedly old-school media, new technology means a refreshing influx of creativity from designers. There is no telling where board games will be 20 years from now, but, here at the start of a fascinating new trend, the possibilities seem limitless.