The Die is Cast: How Digital is Aiding a Cardboard Comeback

Insight from those on the front lines of the board gaming revolution

Board games, according to the best historical evidence currently available, are getting on a bit. As early as 3500 BC, a simple board game known as Senet was being played in ancient Egypt, helping to establish the mixture of luck and skill which still forms the basis of so many modern equivalents. From Senet, and through five and a half thousand years of history and cultural influence, has evolved the industry which keeps many of us clothed and fed today.

And yet these upstarts, these video games, mostly devoid of pieces, boards or dice, have, as so many upstarts do, appear to have almost completely usurped their heritage. We might have played Battle Chess as kids, or Words With Friends on our lunchbreaks, but how many people do you know who regularly sit down around a table to a game of something tangible?

"We're trying to strip away all of those excuses and those reasons that people don't get into the board gaming hobby. We're trying to appeal to everyone who loves games"

John Meidersee, Campfire Creations

More than most I'd imagine, given the audience, but in my experience at least, board games are considered the geeky cousin of video games - even amongst the enthusiasts considered as geeky themselves. In the occasional and haphazard circle of friends which I play with, we all struggle to find new blood, to persuade and cajole others into sitting around a table to delve into the mystical cardboard arts.

Granted, the commitment and comprehension required of something like Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror is not for the faint-hearted, but the advent of mainstream video games, and the Wii especially, seemed to have almost put to rest even the Christmas traditions of angry Monopoly and dynasty-cleaving Risk.

But board games are staging a comeback, both on the tabletop and the screen.

It's been a slow encroachment, this return of the elders. There have been digital versions of board games almost as long as there have been digital versions of anything, and without Dungeons and Dragons we'd likely never have seen the RPG genre at all, but the recent success of games like Ticket to Ride, Catan and Scrabble have seen dice, cards and pieces all making a welcome comeback in digital form. So what's been firing that return to the spotlight?

"There's a huge benefit to board games companies," says developer, consultant and board gamer Will Luton. "With manufacturing costs and the retail chain they might be squeezed to the point where their profit per unit is the same as selling the game on mobile and each mobile sale profits physical sells, and vice versa, without one cannibalising the other.

"If you like playing the Ticket to Ride board game with friends, for a couple of quid you can have it in your pocket to play on your own whenever you want. But it doesn't beat getting the box out and playing with friends. On the flip side of that you may pick up the mobile game, play it, grasp the rules (a big hurdle for board games) and so go out and grab the board game."

For John Meidersee of Campfire Creations - which is bringing eurogame classic Stone Age to iOS - it's touchscreen technology which has fuelled the revival, allowing an intuitive interface to bring people closer to the experience.


The sheer number of pieces and rules can mean that a complex board game will require several play-throughs to get the hang of.

"Touchscreens really changed the game," he tells me. "People have been playing board games on digital devices pretty much since they existed. Before that they were playing them by mail, there's a strong tradition of that. But touchscreens, like board games, are also tactile. The ability to touch the screen and have it respond to you just makes so much sense.

"People have been talking about it since touch screens came out. That's what we're really excited about: not just sticking with phones or tablets but really growing with this market. As those large tables like the original Microsoft surface become more available and commercially viable, that's very exciting."

Keith Hurley, of Arkham Horror and Elder Sign producer Fantasy Flight Games, sees it differently again, with the spread of board games to digital as the natural result of a deepening market.

"I think the mobile game market is simply maturing to meet the growing demands of mobile gamers," Hurley told GamesIndustry International.

"The market has been super-saturated for the last couple of years with a lot of simple, arcade-style games that are great in small doses, but grow stale quickly. So I think we're starting to see a growing demand for more depth and complexity with mobile games. I think digital board games are starting to fill that need and people are hungry for more of those quality, in-depth experiences.

"Physical tabletop games are getting more exposure each year as well. You see board games cropping up more often in popular culture all the time, and I feel that audiences are gaining a far better understanding that there's a whole world of games beyond the traditional family game staples out there."

Hurley's got a point. Whilst many of the first games to take advantage of the touchscreen revolution offered by smartphones and tablets were fairly traditional, easy to learn games like Trivial Pursuit, increasingly we're seeing more complex games coming to the medium. With these games, learning how to play is a big part of the process, but when a vocal community of board gamers has already exhaustedly tested, balanced and examined your ruleset with a fine-tooth comb, isn't the conversion process just a matter of adding the graphics and bit of AI?

"You could do a good board game from any video game, if you find a good game mechanic that makes it fun"

Aarnd Beenen, Settlers of Catan

Camilo Soto, lead designer at Campfire Creations, points out that there's a bit more to it than that.

"There are a number of different challenges to creating an electronic version of a board game," Soto explains.

"The technical side of it isn't that much different to creating any videogame, the style factor is a little simplified by the fact that it is a board game. A lot of the balancing and all of the game design decisions have already been made and the rules have been proven to work already.

"So it becomes a challenge of converting it to a good digital experience, but that's not an easy feat, it's not just a translation project. The bigger challenge, and what we mostly take pride in, is that we go to the core concepts and mechanics that make the board game good and transfer those to the digital era.

"Board games are supposed to be easy to pick up, you should start having fun right away. The good games are the games that give you a deeper level of complexity and reward the more you play them, without necessarily getting more complex themselves. Stone Age is going to be the same game every time you play it: you don't get new weapons or level up, the game doesn't change, it's you that changes. The player gets better and gets a deeper experience because of that."


Even the venerable Risk has seen successful digital adaptations.

So, with a wealth of pre-tested, balanced and established IP waiting to be converted from the physical to digital, we can expect the process to gather pace. However, if they're making their product cheaper, more portable and more readily available, aren't developers running the risk of cannibalising the board game audience itself?

"There is something inherently magical about getting a physical box filled with nicely crafted pieces that make up a game," Luton tells me. "They are very often lovely things to own. As nicely as a video game may be presented, they won't ever match that. The revival of board games is the same that is happening with the revival of vinyl in music - a nostalgia for the physical in world of throw-away digital.

"Secondly, one doesn't kill the other. I was at a Magic: The Gathering tournament at a comic shop and played the store manager. Asked where all the popularity had come from and he said, very quickly: 'The PlayStation game'. Most people come in asking for packs after playing the video game. The room was filled and turn out had doubled in six months."

That 'feedback loop' is something which several other developers back up. Ticket to Ride, produced by Days of Wonder, has seen a spike in physical sales since releasing the successful iOS version of the railway management game. Once people buy into the concept, they want variations on that theme - not too differently from the split between console and mobile gaming.

"I don't think that board games will be ever replaced by video games in general," agrees Aarnd Beenen, part of the team which curates the digital version of board game classic Catan. "Board Games have a big distinction against video games and that is the haptic factor. Board game players will always want this feeling of playing with real playing pieces. But what will be available more and more are a fusion of board games and video games, where you use elements from both worlds for new gaming experiences.

"The game that taught me more about design than anything else has been Dungeons & Dragons."

Will Luton

"We know that we can never reach that level of social interactivity that a game with real players sitting around a table has, so we see the electronic versions as a way to enjoy the game even if you do not have players around. A good AI or network game can make fun, too, but in the end a game at a table with your friends or family is always the better deal."

For Keith Hurley, each medium has its advantages and should be biased towards those, rather than directly emulating each other. Digital games might lack the face-to-face engagement offered by sitting down around a kitchen table, but they do offer a totally different form of sensory immersion.

"Both platforms have their strengths," says the Fantasy Flight designer. "There is a human element to tabletop gaming that I don't think will ever be replaced in an electronic format. Games that are rich with diplomacy, intrigue, and bluffing are incredibly difficult to reproduce in a digital medium for example.

"However, our philosophy with digital games has always been that if we can abstract decks of cards, timing tracks, or generally make the game less like a board on a table, we should. Why treat a card like a card when we can make it a 3D character, a full-screen art piece, or some other dynamic representation? This is where digital shines."

Latest comments (7)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
4 points.

When kids tell me they want to be a video game designer I always tell them to try making game mechanics using bits of paper. If they can get good enough to make games that work well then it will help their future career no end.

At Kwalee we have made smartphone versions of two board games with Gobang Social and Pussy Flip. These are actually harder to market then original game mechanics because there is far less buzz about just interpreting something that is well known. Even making the best iteration on the App Store doesn't help much.

All our games are social against other humans. They have no single player mode. This has taken a big investment in developing lots of social tools that sit on our server. We have now got to the stage where this creates its own impetus and virality as players want to play against their real world friends.

Playing cards have been round for over a thousand years. So the process of evolution has given us very many games using them. And the interesting thing is that the vast majority of these games are multiplayer. Social gaming is built into the human psyche.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Bruce Everiss on 28th November 2012 7:28am

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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 5 years ago
Pussy no I can't go there it's too easy!
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Stainless are glad to have been of service here (Risk Factions and Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Patrick Buckland on 27th November 2012 4:59pm

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Anthony Chan5 years ago
In addition to board games, I am very interested in the direction Tradeable Card Games are going digitally. TCGs have immense potential to generate microtransactions. Currently I am playing Applibot's Legend of the Cryptids on iOS and have tried Mobage's Rage of Bahamut. But in all honesty, I am really looking for Wizards of the Coast to step up their game digitally. (Not bashing Stainless' game above lol)

MtG online was in essence a great concept, however fell because of the cost and the limitations to play. Bring back MtG online on multiple platforms that are all connected (eg. ipad players can matchmake with ps3 players), allow users to "go digital" with cards they have collected physically for a nominal administration fee (similar to how Walmart now converts blu-ray and dvd to cloud based digital data), and bring sanctioned tournaments to the digital world; and you might have a solid winner. Remove the whole concept of being able to convert digital to paper as that adds costs. However converting paper to digital without taking away the paper, will encourage avid players to continue buying physical packs and brick and mortar stores.

Digital and Physical tournaments can be held off times so players can play in both tournament types as their cards exist both physically and digitally at all times.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 27th November 2012 7:20pm

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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 5 years ago
Turning boardgames into electronic games destroys the boardgame. A boardgame does not have a black box the way an electronic game does.

It is essential to the character of a boardgame that the players control and understand the rules, and do the work of resolving them.

Electronic games reduce the game to one of exploiting the programmed behaviours.

The strength of a boardgame is not that it is played with a board. That's just merely circumstantial. It is that it is controlled and understood by the players, and executed by the players according to the legal language of the game. Electronic games, on the other hand, are digital (i.e. numeric, not legal) constructs. Boardgames are symbolic constructs.

A boardgame with overly-complex rules is badly designed. The solution is better design - not freezing those poorly-designed rules into an electronic black box which is even more inaccessible to the players.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 27th November 2012 9:02pm

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Panagiotis Kouvelis Founder & CEO, Blueface Games5 years ago
What about using digital storytelling tools in order to enhance the physical board game?

I was always in favor of fusing both the physical and digital tools, for example and I'm not saying that to spam, we have good success with board players with our product DMDJ

Many storytellers are writing to me, with great comments on how a simple mobile application changed the immersion for them and their party while playing!

I believe that a game is a situation we face with specific rules in order to overcome and be the best we can be, in the mean time we get entertained by the interactivity of the system. So digital games, physical games, tools on both sides, its all in the table, its a great time for new ideas and new ways to immerse the players and create fun for everybody!
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
What would be brilliant would be playing physical board games with augmented reality, such as Google's Project Glass.
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