Board games used to be a synonym of boredom to me. It’s not that I don’t like games, it’s that when I feel like playing I would rather use a computer or a console (dice and pawns are so eighties, you know). And simple board games seemed to lack concepts of skill, exploration and progression, things I enjoy at lot in my games.

But at some point in my career I changed jobs and ended up being the new guy in a company where I did not know anybody. I got assigned to work on a board game conversion for XBLA, and at the time a few employees organized weekly board games nights. So I decided to start attending those gatherings to kill two birds with one stone: practicing board games and getting to know my new colleagues.

And after a few weeks my views on boardgames completely changed, not only was I playing them, but I was also examining their rules in great detail in the context of my work. And just like an algorithm does not need a computer to shine through its simplicity and elegance, gameplay mechanics of some board games are striking on their own.

Just to be clear about it, I am mostly talking about the so-called “German-style board games”. There is a whole article defining them on Wikipedia, but the core idea is that those games have simple rules, low amounts of luck and emphasize balancing so all players tend to stay on course for victory through the whole game. Germany still accounts for most of the production of such games, but they are not exclusive and “German-style” games are coming from everywhere.

Board games have to put up with a huge constraint: their rules are to be applied by humans. Computations and manipulations should be kept to a minimum while staying entertaining and challenging for players. Efficient simplicity is hard to achieve, but this puts players in total control of their games and allows them to focus on their strategies.

One might say that the challenges in board games are the other players, but this is only part of the picture. A lot of board games are all about getting the most out of what the game provides to each player, and the confrontation usually stems from the scarcity of resources rather than direct aggression. The beauty of these games is that they are challenging, and in the end there is a winner, but all players have a feeling of achievement and fairness through the clear understanding of what was going on. This is a delicate balance, make it too much like “everybody wins” and it gets boring, make it too confrontational and it gets frustrating.

Now let’s be honest: ninety percent of everything is crud, and board games are no exception. Just like video games there are many board games that only sell based on the way they look, or because they got some licence, and there is a lot of rushed low cost “shovelware”. Poorly translated, inconsistent and nonsensical rules are common, and a lot of games have an entertaining theme but are no fun to play. That being said…

Building together in a low competition environment is just plain fun. This is what social gaming is about: together instead of against each other, and that implies a lot of communication (more often that not peripheral to the game, that’s part of the fun), but that does not exclude pretty heavy strategical planning. This might be where the current social video games are falling short, communication between players is more about spamming each other rather than real coordination. Nothing seems to be able to replace the physical proximity that this kind of gaming requires. I think we still have a lot of work to do to properly bridge the gap between video games and social gaming, but I am sure there is a wonderful goal to be reached there, a whole new world of intelligent entertainment and social interaction awaits.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot… No wait, wrong one. If you want a picture of the future of social gaming, imagine game centers with giant coffee tables being surface computers physically interacting with pawns placed on top. People all around talking with each other, playing the game in concert. And maybe the game table is part of a larger semi-persistent game world, where other games are currently played and can be interacted with. Every once in a while somebody would stand up and yell “we need one more player over here, is somebody willing to join?”, and you would end up playing and chatting face to face with people you never met before. This is social, sign me in. Until then, I’ll stick with board games.

(The picture at the top of the article is from BoardGameGeek user Chris Norwood and attributed under a Creative Commons licence, the game pictured is the wonderful cooperative board game Pandemic from Z-Man Games, go buy it!)

(Thanks a lot to Bjoern Knafla for proofreading)