Editorial: Rolling Dice on the Digital Tabletop

Oh, look! Fingerprints! Just like my smartphone!
Peter Jennings’ Microchess version 1.5. Or, Space Invaders, maybe.

The digital tabletop is certainly not a new idea. After all, we have been able to play software adaptations of physical games on a multitude of devices for well over three decades. As computing grew increasingly sophisticated, allowing titles like Microchess to clash with staunch players possessing the ability to decipher some questionable graphics, we have been treated to a steady trickle of discs and cartridges containing the bits and pieces of games that once held the family kitchen as an exclusive domain. With the wizardry of smartphones and tablets, that trickle has developed into a fairly steady flow as board games and video games continue a raunchy mating ritual that results in many adorable offspring for players to coo over. Bringing tabletop gaming to our digital devices is not just the natural fusion of two attractive markets, but also serves to open up options for both players and developers alike.

One of the biggest hurdles in tabletop gaming is gathering the group at a specific location and time. Tabletop fans have found various ways to mitigate this issue over the years, the most notable being playing through the mail which evolved to play-by-post format on sites like Lusipurr.com friends Myth-Weavers.com. As the Internet blossomed into existence, wait times for distant communication between players was drastically reduced while an increasing number of people were exposed to the hobby. Today, any number of digital tabletop games can be found with challengers from all over the globe waiting, and players can get involved without breaking the bank.

Closing the physical gap by extending the reach of players looking for groups was not the only benefit of merging cardboard and technology. One Night Ultimate Werewolf, part of the Mafia family tree, is a deception party game intended to be played by a group in the same room. Each player draws a role card from a shuffled deck to be kept secret. When the round begins, players use their intuition and interrogative prowess to suss out the werewolves among them while trying to convince all that they lack any lycanthropic appetites. One Night is designed to be played quickly, and moderated by a player. This prompted the creation of a companion app for smartphones to relieve players of managerial duties so they could focus on the game, since calling opponents out on lies and misinformation demands some attention. The app narrates the game with a lot of flair, provides a variable timer so a game only lasts as long as players wish, and offers easy setup. It is a perfect example of a digital augment to a physical game.

For a mere ten dollars, you can become Ben Kingsley with a crazy beard!
The Witcher Adventure Game. It’s okay, guys. I’m terrible at titles, too.

When it comes to a full digital port of a tabletop title, we can look to the recently released The Witcher Adventure Game. No awards will be dished out for game play or mechanics, however, I point it out as a decent example of how collaborative these industries can be. We have familiar characters and settings from The Witcher video game universe rolling the dice on on a tabletop, with that version being recreated for online play via PC, Mac, and now Android.

There is a price disparity at work here, as well. A physical The Witcher Adventure Game has a retail price six times higher than the digital version. Tabletop games are not exactly known for being cheap due to printing costs and other factors specific to the medium, though there are always exceptions to that rule. Thus far, every tabletop port I have seen has been significantly more affordable than its corporeal counterpart. This opens doors for anyone wishing to check out a tabletop title and lacks either the funds or the space to invest in costly printed versions.

Finally! Football worth watching!
Blood Bowl. The Real Fantasy Football.

Blood Bowl made its way onto Android this past summer, adding to an already rich history of making the jump from tabletop to digital. A DOS version was released in 1995 and has seen multiple versions since then, despite some rocky business between publishers. A tabletop football game may not sound terribly interesting until one populates their defensive line with orcs and dwarves, yet that is not necessarily the case. Tabletop football has seen reasonable success with games like 1st & Goal. With an existing sports video game market, many of those fans also enjoying fantasy genre games, it is no surprise to see Blood Bowl make its way back on to the field.

As with any other video game that is not released on a static console, it is important for one to do their homework when it comes to the hardware needed. Quite a few of these games can be played on mobile phones with smaller screen sizes, while others will suffer immensely. That is not to say developers are not putting serious effort into making the game workable on limited screens. Lords of Waterdeep has an iOS version with some clear attention to accommodate the iPhone’s screen size, yet the game still winds up feeling cramped, and this is the case for the majority of the titles out there. Purchasing them on iOS or Android often demands they be played on a tablet or phablet where the user interface is more comfortable.

Because who doesn't want to raid a dungeon while sitting in a creepy industrial hallway?
Tabletop Simulator prior to a table flip.

Screen size is far more forgiving when it comes to playing on a computer while their ecosystems also allow for the availability of extended options toward player amenities. A recent and worthy addition to the digital tabletop family is Tabletop Simulator from Berserk Games. Rather than being limited to a single style of game, Tabletop Simulator boasts player flexibility in a physics sandbox. Choose from fifteen classic board games like Chess or Dominoes with no automation or enforced rules, allowing for a cornucopia of variation. The controls for moving pieces is clumsy, and might detract from using the software for some because of the demand for patience and practice. Authenticity is a nice goal to shoot for, but recreating fine motor skills with a keyboard and mouse is nothing short of a daunting task. However, I suppose if we can learn to operate on patients with the finesse of a raging drunk, we can learn to deftly maneuver a pawn without flipping the table.

Tabletop Simulator offers more than just classics. What really makes it interesting is Steam Workshop support and an RPG Kit that provides the freedom to render custom tiles, miniatures and pieces to support whatever game the community chooses to bring to the table. Couple that with the online connectivity, and now distant friends have shared visual representation for playing a miniatures game of their choice while sitting thousands of miles apart.

There are, of course, a beastly number of other titles and companion apps I could prattle on incessantly about. I can already hear some keyboards ready to clack against my lack of mentioning Magic: The Gathering or Ticket to Ride, or perhaps the Vassal Engine, all of which I also enjoy. It is a fact that they are also excellent examples of this unification in gaming as are so many others. A much younger version of myself would have something quite different to say about the sullying of his technology with “tired and boring” board games, but frankly, he had no idea what he was talking about. The digital tabletop is a great addition to gaming, offering convenient gateways to yet another exciting aspect of the gaming hobby and I, for one, am excited to see what future releases will bring to our screens.

4 comments

  1. I remember, and have actually played, Peter Jennings’ Microchess! Bring that back!

  2. Source code and executable binaries are in the ether for such atavistic endeavors. Let’s do it!

  3. I’ve played Magic online against friends in a sort of round about way, before there was a robust official game. It served as a fun casual way to test deck composition when we couldn’t meet up in person.

    Alas my digital tabletop gameplaying experience is even more lacking than my normal tabletop experience . I’ve played the usual suspects, the low brow simple affairs, and I’ve dipped a toe into things of moderate complexity but nothing too crazy.

  4. If you are ever in need of suggestions, shoot me a message. My group plays at least one night a week, and at least two games per night. Usually one of those games is a new one, and our opinions on them differ enough that I tend to get a good sense of who might enjoy what game.

Comments are closed.