A few weeks ago, E. Ortiz wrote an interesting article over at Big Blue Die (Which is no longer Live) is about why board games aren’t going to be killed off by video games, noting the emphasis on in-room socialization and tactile engagement with the game.
That got me thinking about why I still frequently play (and buy) board and card games, so I thought I’d build on his article here by further considering the social aspect of why board games still have a spot in my gaming activities.
The foundation of the social fun of in-person games is that you’re spending time in close proximity to people you (hopefully) like. Something like Cards Against Humanity (CAH) would not be nearly as fun online – the whole game is built around the tactical (or not-so-tactical) decisions of what sorts of terrible combinations to play in front of your friends. Seeing and hearing the reactions live (and reacting to other people’s cards) is the whole point of the game. It’s great, and it wouldn’t work nearly as well online where reactions are filtered and delayed (as the online app for the game admits, “What is better than partying at home, getting drunk off your ass, and playing this game? Nothing!”).
Aside from the reactions factor, many board games let you get to know the people you’re playing with better. CAH lets you know what twisted things your friends and family find funny, and a game like Dixit lets you know what kind of creative associations people tend to make (and can also be played in a more wicked, CAH-style way – I know of a group of teachers who played it with students’ names while waiting around on report card pick-up day). Beyond Balderdash offers a mix of the two, since the answers players submit can be wicked, creative, funny, realistic, or all of the above. Since with strategy board games like Risk, much of the strategy involves informal talking around the table (an activity not governed by computer-enforced rules), there are opportunities to learn which friends will make a deal and then break it to betray and crush you, for instance. The dynamics of gaming are different, so while board games have their drawbacks, they also provide experiences that video games can’t do as well.
The Resistance, perhaps my favorite board game I’ve come across in the past couple of years, takes this social element to its extreme. The Resistance is similar to the party game Mafia (that you can play for free), but it’s worth the fifteen bucks or so that it costs because the mechanics make it, in my opinion, much more fun than Mafia. The premise is that you’re in a resistance group trying to overthrow an empire (or something), and you have to vote on who goes on missions to do that. The problem is that some of you are spies for the government. You have to use deduction and the information from the voting (and how many fail cards turn up on missions infiltrated by spies) to figure out who the spies are before they fail enough missions to sink the resistance. The fun is wildly slinging accusations around the room, possibly while lying through your teeth about being a spy yourself.
Part of what made the Wii so popular on release was that there was suddenly a console and a batch of games that took the focus of gaming out from behind the screen and placed it in the room – Wii Bowling or Tennis or Mariokart Wii were fun in part because of your awareness of playing with or against the people in the room with you, and because you were actively in that room, not just focused on an avatar onscreen. Board games have survived because they do this very well. Also like the Wii, board games tend to be less intimidating to people who aren’t comfortable with multi-button controllers and tech interfaces. Most people consider themselves up to the task of handling cards, wooden blocks, tiles, and boards, so even though many board games are complicated and many video games relatively simple to learn and control, you can often engage certain friends and family in a board game who might balk at a social video game.
Even the slow pace cited by Ortiz as a disadvantage of board games (when it’s a matter of having to do computations a video game could do for you more quickly and easily) can be an advantage in some ways. A strategy board game like Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, or The Downfall of Pompeii (the premise of which is, awesomely, to get as many people as possible into Pompeii before the volcano blows so you can gain points for getting them out once it does. Spoiler alert: not everyone gets out) is fun partly in the way that watching baseball is fun – because the slow pace lets you split your attention between the game and the people you’re hanging out with. Board games are hybrid experiences – I play both because a game is fun and because it provides a platform for hanging out (and something to concentrate on if the conversation dies a bit from time to time).
Video games do a lot of things that board games will never do as well – immersion, massive networking, intensive computation, incredibly written, acted, and directed (linear or forking path) narratives. I don’t have the cash to be an early adopter of the XBOX or PS4, but I’m excited to see the ways their new tech enables video games to do those things even better (and there are plenty of last-gen and retro games on my to-play list). But it’s also nice spending time with your friends, and board games facilitate this in some ways that video games can’t match.