I’ve been living with an iPad 2, my first tablet computer, for a couple of weeks. Last year, playing a few games on Zarf’s iPad got me thinking about how gameplay on tablets harkens back to the “cocktail games” of yore. Now that I have a tablet of my own, able to play games on it whenever I wish, I find myself possessing a nigh-religious conviction that this is where digitized board games have wanted to be all along.
It suddenly strikes me as laughable that once upon a time (that is, two whole weeks ago) I was okay with the idea of playing a board game by moving a mouse to control a pointer which in turn manipulated the images of playing pieces located a vertical screen somewhere else on my desk. So many layers of abstraction between me and the game! Compare to today, when I can play a digital game by touching the piece directly with my finger, whereupon it leaps in response to my subsequent dragging and poking as I carry out my move.
The finger of which I speak is my real, non-metaphorical, made-of-meat finger, the very same one I use push around bits of wood and cardboard when playing an analog board game. It doesn’t matter that, on a tablet, the game pieces my finger touches are tricks of the light, and under a pane of glass on top of that. Somehow, the simple matter of direct touch makes all the difference between perceiving the thing as simply another published edition of the game, rather than a forced adaptation onto a digital platform.
Clumsier even than PC adaptations are those found on game consoles, which don’t even have the mouse’s trembling metaphor of waldoing flat objects around in a simulated planar space. Back when I was into the idea of publishing board game adaptations on the Xbox, I found the mediocre-to-poor sales of adaptations like Carcassonne, Settlers and Lost Cities quite unfair, and surely the fault of mishandled marketing. But now I see the truth: no matter how complete the implementation or pretty the pictures, the user’s interaction with the console-imprisoned game rules is so far removed from the the world where those rules evolved — a flat tabletop, with tactile components — that it may as well have been ported to the player’s microwave oven.
I choose the word edition to describe how a successful tablet adaptation belongs to a class apart from any other digital port. This comes by way of Nick Montfort’s reaction to a presentation at last weekend’s Media in Transition conference, about how some ancient computer operating systems — such as Nick’s beloved Commodore 64 — live on through emulation:
When the creators of VICE (the emulator I use) produce a program that operates like a Commodore 64, I understand this as being an edition of the Commodore 64. Yes, it’s a software edition. It isn’t an official or authorized edition – only being a product of Commodore would allow for that. (There are official, authorized emulators, but this is not one.) It’s not, of course, the original and canonical edition. But it’s nevertheless an attempt to produce a system that functions like a Commodore 64, one which took a great deal of effort and is effective in many ways. Thinking of this an edition of the system seems to be a useful way to frame emulation, as it allows me to compare editions and usefully understand differences and similarities.
Years ago, I purchased cardboard copies of Gang of Four and Ticket to Ride expressly because those games’ publisher, Days of Wonder, created attractive web-based adaptations of them, convincing me that the real thing would be fun to own. I don’t feel this way about Ra, whose adaptation by Sage Games I purchased a few days ago. While this edition isn’t flawless (remind me to write sometime about those doubly inappropriate shifting-sand visuals), I’ve enjoyed several games with friends around the table. It succeeds enough at delivering a proper sense of presence that, to my mind, I already own the game. Theres no concept of a “real thing” to obtain outside of what I have already, not like there was with the web games.
I don’t know if all tabletop game publishers are approaching the licensing of their titles, and their subsequent sales (often at a third to a tenth of the analog retail price), as new editions of their games, rather than adaptations that serve to drive sales of the “real” games. But my finger says that’s what’s happening anyway.