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Are Tabletop Games Destined To Go Digital?

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I know, I know – the very title is blasphemy. Tabletop games in digital form have been tried before, and while they can be perfectly enjoyable, they kind of miss the point. These games are about gathering together, enjoying a tangible game board (with pieces and/or cards), having a few drinks together, or even dressing up for the event. It’s about community and friendship as much as the game itself, and there’s a depth of experience there. For crying out loud, it’s even become the foundation for Stranger Things, which is one of the most popular shows on the planet right now!

Translating these games to digital form loses a lot of this stuff. Perhaps most of all, a lot of us who play tabletop games specifically like the idea that there’s something kind of retro about it; it’s almost a rebellious alternative to playing video games.

So, yeah, hopefully I’ve covered all my bases there. I get why this is generally an unpopular concept, and I’m not suggesting digital versions of tabletop games will be inherently better in any way. What I am trying to do, however, is look at changes in the gaming industry with a realistic eye.

Taking tabletop games to the digital world

As you may have guessed, I’m talking about augmented reality, which has recently made its way to popular Google and Apple smartphones via a few cutting edge development platforms. Now, the same guys who make your average mobile games can design AR experiences that simulate 3D elements using a phone’s camera and its screen. As long as you’re pointing your camera at a given area, you can look through the phone and see that area – and the aforementioned 3D elements.

I’m not looking too closely at the games that have already come out since these technologies emerged in the fall. Those are mostly puzzles, animated storybooks, and one or two truly awful sports games. Rather, I’m looking at what’s around the corner.

There are a few pretty obvious genres biding their time for AR. Consider casino games, which don’t often top the charts but remain incredibly popular both in mobile stores and online. Did you know that 3D animations already exist in this simplest of gaming genres, and is changing popular experiences by the day? Animation can introduce storylines and narratives to otherwise dull slot games and, for lack of a less cheesy phrase, bring them to life. There are now casino games with little cartoon adventurers at their cores. Have you any doubt that these same characters will soon be darting around our coffee tables and kitchen counters in AR?

Or, probably even more obviously, think about the shooter genre. This has actually been one of the harder areas of gaming for virtual reality developers, because gamers using headsets that cost several hundred dollars expect full-fledged AAA games. On AR, the expectations are smaller and simpler. A phone can be used as a sort of scope, roving about a real room until – look at that! – there’s some sort of monster or bad guy emerging in 3D space, to be gunned down via a few taps of the screen. It’s actually a miracle that there aren’t already AR shooters topping the app store charts.

tabletop games digital

You get the idea. It’s pretty easy to look around and figure out which types of games are well suited to AR, or which ones are already part way along the path to development. And mightn’t tabletop strategy games be sort of the perfect source materials for AR developers?

Presenting a game board with moving, animated pieces via AR seems not only easier than some other early examples, but potentially more engaging as well. A game board sits still, and theoretically at least, multiple players from different areas could interact with it at the same time. What you do on the board on your coffee table could manifest in the board I’m seeing on mine, even if we’re not physically together.

Surprisingly, we haven’t really seen examples of this just yet – though there is a Kickstarter project for a game called HoloGrid: Monster Battle, which looks fairly promising. As one blurb on their page stated, the developer has possibly caught lightning in a bottle. But how long will it be until we start to see true classics of tabletop gaming twisted into AR and “brought to life” for multiplayer? I’m betting not that much longer.

Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen. It won’t solve most of the issues hinted at above, regarding the communal and retro feel of playing these games. But it may also be convenient enough to appeal to a lot of people who love these games for what they are.

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