36 Chambers – The Legendary Journeys: Execution to the max!

June 25, 2014

Board games vs. video games: which are better?

Filed under: Beautiful and Sublime, Gaming — Tony Demchak @ 6:42 pm

The correct answer would be, of course, “both are equally awesome, you fool.” I would agree, naturally (maybe even with the “you fool” part), but there is a certain level of discussion to be had here, and since Kevin is suspiciously absent from the blog (I’ve never seen him and B.J. Blackowicz in the same room before — that doesn’t mean he’s killing Nazis and Mecha-Hitler, but that doesn’t mean he’s not killing them either), why not have it here?

To begin with: my answer to this question, like the answers to all of life’s most important questions, is “it depends.” There are genres of video games — first person shooters come to mind — that generally make for lousy board games. I owned, at one point, DOOM the board game. It was an attempt to make a Dragon Strike/HeroQuest sort of RPG out of DOOM. It failed, sadly. (Nostalgia note: Dragon Strike was my first, albeit indirect, introduction to tabletop RPGs. The Dragon piece alone was massive and badass.)

Here are a couple of other genres that work better as video games than board games:

Sports games. My father, who retired in February, loves the shit out of Strat-o-Matic. Calling it his life’s all-consuming passion, I think, is not a stretch. But we are in the era of Out of the Park Baseball and, in 2015, Beyond the Sidelines Football. There are so many more variables a computer game can take into account that a board game can’t that it’s absurd.

– Platformers. Has anybody actually tried to make this work on a board game? I’m assuming they wouldn’t bother, but you never know.

– Rhythm games. Again, has anybody bothered to make a Guitar Hero: The Board Game? Is it actually just a guitar?

For any other genre I can think of, execution matters more than format. RPGs can be awesome tabletop and as video games. It depends on your DM or the story, respectively. If you don’t actually like people, maybe tabletop isn’t your bag. That’s fine. Here are some specific examples that show what I mean:

– Magic: The Gathering vs. Magic: The Gathering. I very slightly prefer the real life version over the current electronic versions simply because there’s no deck builder in the Steam versions. What makes Magic brilliant is the whole, y’know, customizable aspect. And the present Steam versions don’t allow you to customize very much. There was a PC version many years ago which had you fighting wizards for cards around the countryside. That was awesome. It had a fully functional deck editor, and I spent many an hour designing insta-win decks that would cost me thousands of real life dollars to buy if I did so in real life.

– Axis and Allies vs. Hearts of Iron III. I enjoy both games. I really do. We’ll leave setting up aside, since that’s the worst part of many a game, and go straight to the heart of the issue: Axis and Allies, if played consistently with the same group, comes down to dice rolls. That’s awful. In my experience, the team format does not encourage experimentation — hey, why can’t I spend my IC on carriers as the USSR? — because people are jerks and like winning. If your teammate does something stupid, you lose. Unfortunately, the dominant strategies (the Soviet meatgrinder, for one) are fairly obvious and once you establish them, it’s about dice rolls.

hate games based entirely on dice rolls. I refuse to play Risk because, 99% of the time, that’s all that matters. Unless you have six complete n00bs, strategy is all but meaningless. Let’s contrast this with Hearts of Iron III. Yes, there are elements of randomness — but, by and large, whether you play singleplayer or multiplayer, luck will not determine who wins. You can add complexities — supply is a big one — that most board games don’t handle well, if at all. This doesn’t make Axis and Allies bad: it just makes it inferior.

– EU: Rome vs. Republic of Rome. Here’s the thing. I vastly prefer Republic of Rome, as an idea, to EU: Rome. EU: Rome is not without its charms: it’s one of the few games I’ve played that gets civil wars right, makes them dynamic and interesting. But Republic of Rome is about stabbing people in the back, about competing for dominance through sheer wits and your ability to bullshit people. That’s awesome. I love games like that. The problem is, the rules were written by a homicidal, drunken, ferret. Why is the ferret homicidal? Maybe it’s drunk on terrible booze. I am not a ferret expert.

I’m not complaining about the grammar — I’m complaining about the entire concept of the manual, how the rules are laid out, etc. The attempt to provide a 2 player game is an admirable one, but it lacks in execution. If I have a question about a specific situation, where do I go? Fuck if I know.  The learning curve, thanks to this awful piece of shit rulebook, isn’t even a vertical line — it’s slightly inclining at the top to the left, indicating it actually gets harder as you get through it. The number of times you need to stop play to check the rules, especially with two people — it’s not good.

– Twilight Struggle vs. every computer game and video game known to man and put together (possibly including the Twilight Struggle computer game). If I have one friend over, and we have time for one game, I will pull out Twilight Struggle every. damn. time. It is genius in a box.  It perfectly captures the spirit of the Cold War. The sides are not equal, but they weren’t equal in real life either. You can win by tricking or manipulating your opponent into nuking the planet. Twilight Struggle is sublime. You need another human being to play, which is mildly troublesome, but you can always lure them with food and/or alcohol. Once they play, they won’t want to leave. EVER.

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