I’ve had some downtime between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, so I pulled out my Kindle Fire and explained to my wife that I was doing “market research” for Games Precipice. Lately, both Alex and I have become interested in electronic implementations of strategy games–both in the sense of adapting existing games from the physical realm to app form and in the sense of integrating electronic mechanics into games with physical components. Rather than focus on in-depth reviews of each game application, I’d like to step back and take a look at attributes that make a game either a good or bad candidate for electronic adaptation.
Of course, electronic adaptations of analog strategy games are nothing new: some of the earliest pioneering work in machine learning happened way back in the 1950s to create a checkers-playing computer. And computer adaptations of board game stalwarts like Risk have been around nearly as long as personal computers themselves. But I think an under-analyzed point is that the current board game renaissance has overlapped nicely with computers becoming more portable and more connected, which has led to a naturally fertile ground for strategy game adaptation and innovation into the electronic space. I’d like to describe what I think makes a game a good (or not-so-good) candidate for electronic adaptation and discuss some challenges and opportunities unique to electronic versions.
Good candidates for electronic adaptation
Quick: what are your least favorite parts of gaming? If you said “setting up” or “tallying points, then you’ve come to the right place! (“Analysis paralysis” and “terribly written rules” are also fine answers but those topics have received attention before and inevitably will again in other articles.) Just as robots are best suited to tedious, mechanical tasks with clear specifications and really terrible at tasks that require common sense or creativity, some of the best electronic adaptations of strategy games are ones where the computer can take care of these tasks for you. Especially in games where points aren’t counted throughout the game, having a five-minute adding session at the end of the game can be awfully anticlimactic. And even games that do feature in-game scoring such as Castles of Burgundy and Through the Ages can feel much smoother with the computer counting points–and that way, there’s no “oh, I forgot to score my adjacent pigs two turns ago” human error to worry about.
Similarly, the more individual components a game has, the better a candidate it is for an electronic adaptation. Tablet Ticket to Ride has all of the satisfaction of stringing colored lines across your country of choice that tabletop Ticket to Ride does, with none of the fine motor dexterity required to put all six train cars into place along the route. Terraforming Mars is a far more smooth experience when you’re never at risk of bumping the table and scattering your resource counts across your player board. Many deck builders tend to fare well here: Baseball Highlights 2045 is a lot more fun when you have your lineup already sorted out and don’t have to keep shuffling those pesky rookies back into your deck.
A third category of games that tends to do well here is ones with idiosyncratic internal logic or complex rules interactions that might be tough (or contentious) to decipher on your own. The app version of Small World, for instance, counts up all of the pieces of cardboard on every tile that you might be interested in invading to let you know how strong your army needs to be to take them over. Although Small World tends to be pretty easy to teach and learn in analog form, it can be easy for a new player (or even an experienced one) to forget to account for a Troll’s Lair or pay full price to conquer a mountainous region as the Giants and then seek a partial refund during the next player’s turn. Electronic versions can even serve as clarifications or errata from a game’s designer: there are a few tricky edge-case card interactions in Ascension that I never understood the proper way to interpret until I saw how they worked in the app.
Finally, good adaptation design can augment a game beyond just making it portable and electronic. I think the best candidates here are pure abstracts, games with unpersuasive themes, or games where the aesthetics and graphics simply took the back seat during the design process. In the early 90s, a cottage industry was churning out computer chess at unprecedented pace, many of examples of which were “improved” with Renaissance-style lute music or horse whinnies every time a knight was moved. In a probably more successful example, it’s a ton more fun to play Battleship when you see the torpedoes you’re supposedly launching and the hole you explode in the side of your buddy’s aircraft carrier than when you put a red peg in a hole.
Bad candidates for electronic adaptations
Here too, we can take some inspirations from the non-gaming world and think of what tasks we wouldn’t necessarily trust a robot to perform, and extensive social interaction and negotiation is at the top of that list. Even if you’re not explicitly including an AI player, recreating the excitement and tension of highly interactive games on a screen is tough. Several years ago, one of the first mobile adaptations of a popular game that I played was Settlers of Catan. It quickly became apparent that, while the business case for creating a digital version was obvious based on its incredible popularity, the game’s mechanics just didn’t translate to the electronic medium. One of the worst offenders was the trade mechanic, particularly if you were the one proposing trades, and especially if you were proposing them to AI players: so much of the natural flow of the trade negotiations is lost on the screen between having to dial in numbers of resources to give or get, passing the tablet to the person who you wanted to trade with, and serially accepting or rejecting trades.
Another area where electronic Catan doesn’t stand up particularly well is because it has lots of off-turn triggers. We like these because it keeps everyone involved and paying attention throughout the game, even though it’s nominally only one person’s turn. One of the reasons that in-person Catan is fun is the craps-like mechanic where you’re desperately cheering for the person next to you to roll a 9, even though you know it’s pure luck. Computer craps is one of the worst digital gaming experiences that exists because it’s literally just a random number generator with none of the beautiful irrationality attached to someone having a “hot hand”. Instead, in the Catan app, your neighbor rolls that 9, and the number next to your wood icon just goes up.
It’s a problem not only from a game experience and pure fun perspective but also from a logistical perspective. Someone roll a 7 when you have nine cards in hand? Time to pass the tablet around in a circle and immediately grind the action to a halt as everyone decides which cards to discard. In essence, you’re taking what was once a simultaneous action and making it into a sequential one, which is a design choice that we are not on board with. And Catan, obviously, isn’t the only game with off-turn triggers; something as innocuous as “when this card enters play, each player may draw a card” in Ascension (or really any deck-builder) now necessitates pausing the game and having everyone affirm that, yes, they would like another card. Secret information presents a similar problem: lots of pass-and-play interruptions to keep information secret are not fun, especially when the “secret” information doesn’t actually affect how anyone else is going to play their turns.
One quick caveat to these points: most of them apply only to local multiplayer games. Most of the downtime or the interruptions in flow isn’t an issue when you’re playing against AI, or a real-time networked game.
Yet another thing to think about along the lines of hidden information is to what degree players need to be aware of the board to be able to play well. Highly reactive and information-dense games often rely on each player being able to monitor what’s going on with everyone else’s game state to succeed: to identify trading partners in Bohnanza, see who’s about to win Race for the Galaxy, or check if the Royal Rooster has made an appearance yet in Sheriff of Nottingham. Too many digital interfaces shove that information into sidebars or corners. Yes, you can look at it if you remember to, but you’re naturally going to pay the most attention to the information in front of you. This takes public information and makes it an afterthought, and turns trackable-but-hidden information (not my favorite paradigm in gaming anyway) into even more of a memory game. Maybe this is what makes digital Carcassonne so darn good: there’s one board, everyone can see it all the time, and information is never hidden.
Finally, one aspect that strategy-minded analysts can be guilty of is ignoring all of the aspects of design that make a game good beyond the mechanics. My first experience with Splendor, which I know to be a very well-received and critically acclaimed game, was on a tablet. I picked up the mechanics and some basic strategy quickly enough, and the interface was just fine, but the game wasn’t grabbing me the way I think it was supposed to. I wondered if I had an unusually negative experience with the game. Browsing BoardGameGeek reviews, nearly all of the positive ones mentioned the components–and, in particular, the premium-feeling gem tokens–as being an integral part of the joy of the game. The lesson for designers is that even if a game’s play style lends it well to a digital adaptation, there may be other more subtle aspects of the game to consider before diving in to making it into an app.
While not all of the five senses have made their way into the popularity of tabletop, it is hard to ignore that some games have garnered extra attention because they have emphasized the visuals as a key part of the experience. Two visuals that come to mind are the gears of T’zolkin and the tree board of Everdell that can capture your attention the first time you see them on the table. Neither of these games appear to have an app at the time of this writing, but both are popular enough to warrant one.
Games with a strong table presence can miss out on the benefits of an electronic adaptation which is really more of a compliment to their in-person experience. Games that use three dimensions in which players stack tiles or build vertical structures can lose some of their charm when the tangible nature of combining components goes virtual.
Teaching the game
As we’ve talked about before, it’s always important to keep in mind how easy a game is to teach to a new player. In practice, one of the best ways to learn is to have an experienced player explain the rules and a bit of strategy. For electronic adaptations, that’s not necessarily possible–but it is possible to include a tutorial mode. Many game apps do this, to varying degrees of effectiveness.
One point that needs to be considered whether in physical or digital form–but I’ve found to be particularly salient when it comes to electronic adaptations–is how much of the game we’re actually trying to teach. In other words, is the goal explaining how to play (essential elements of the strategy, good opening moves, benchmarks for competitive scoring, and so on) or just teaching the rules? I often say that I know the rules of chess (in that I know how to, say, move a bishop) but I don’t know how to play chess (in that I don’t know the Sicilian opening from the San Franciscan one, much less would I be able to actually craft a winning strategy).
Again, this is a larger issue relevant to teaching games and instructing new players in general, but tutorials in electronic adaptations can either be a great opportunity to explain the game and its intricacies or be a rote exercise in playing through a scripted few turns. Ideally, a sample turn or sample game should explain not only what to do but why you’re doing it, and give a decision point but explain to the player the pros and cons of both choices. Holding a player’s hand through an entire game is as unproductive as having no tutorial at all. (And, sorry Small World, you’re still one of my favorite gateway games after all these years, but including a link to a YouTube video as a “tutorial” adds exactly zero value to the game experience.)
In a similar vein, it’s important to decide ahead of time who the target audience for the adaptation is. Is it targeted toward someone who is picking up the app on sale for $2.99, and ideally likes it enough to then grab some DLC or expansion content? Maybe a connoisseur or collector, promising original content or a streamlined interface available only in the app? It could also be directed toward hardcore enthusiasts who don’t care about any of that and just want to crank out dozens of playthroughs to become a more competitive player.
Strategy and emergent gameplay
Obviously, the chance to play your favorite strategy game on the go, with a friend in a different place or just by yourself to make that 3-hour plane ride from Boston to Atlanta a little less miserable, is the single biggest opportunity in adapting games to digital formats. That assumes that the game is amenable to AI in the first place: games that involve a lot of creativity like Dixit would not work at all, and I like to think I could guess the computer’s true identity in Coup every time.
Speaking of AI, one of the cool things about modern AI is that it can play games against itself, carefully tracking which moves succeed and which fail, to unearth new optimal strategies that a designer may never even have thought of. Practically, designers adapting their Euro-style games to Android or iOS aren’t going to run Google DeepMind for days or weeks, but we’re reaching a point where built-in computer players can provide a real, interesting challenge for players without being obtuse trolls or straight-up cheating. The opportunity here is to market deliberately to that enthusiast audience and legitimately being able to say you’re offering a challenge greater than any human opponent could provide.
The point that’s stood out to me most while thinking about the idea of adaptations is that a strategy game can be objectively good while still being a terrible candidate to go digital. We’re big fans of simultaneous actions and off-turn triggers to make downtime bearable, yet these are some of the toughest mechanics to incorporate electronically. Similarly, some of the purest fun in strategy gaming can come in intense interactions (I’ll never forget the time when my old coworker Zach declared a trade embargo against my then-roommate Tom in Settlers because Zach was frustrated with how lucky Tom’s dice rolls were) and it’s just not the same on a screen.
The other side of the coin is that games that may not be particularly compelling on the shelf could be beautifully rendered on a computer in a way that elevates the game from average to excellent. Inkle’s Sorcery comes to mind: these apps took a series of choose-your-own-adventure books, added dramatic music cues and sound effects and cartography and turned it all into one of the best games (though closer to an RPG than a strategy game) available for mobile devices.
But where we think the real innovation is happening is in thinking of computers as not just tools to implement games or mindless opponents to play against, but actually integrating them into the mechanics to create a unique experience that you couldn’t have with an analog or digital game alone.
I’ll conclude by asking our readers a question: