Tabletop gaming is seeing a huge resurgence, particularly with the continued success of crowdfunding sites. Last year they utterly hammered their digital counterparts on Kickstarter, raking in $136 million compared to a still impressive $17 million on videogames. This has opened up the market to conversions in a way that seems to be melding perfectly with digital stores like Steam and the app store.
Some companies, previously known for being giants in the tabletop world, are even setting up their own studios and publishing digital versions of their board games. Asmodee Digital are a great example of this, having spent the last few years pumping out ports of classics like Carcassonne and Colt Express. At the time of writing they have 26 separate games on the Steam store, as well as a further 39 DLC packs, all conversions of their own tabletop excursions.
This symbiotic relationship is hardly surprising. After all, what game developer hasn’t rolled at least a few D20s in their time? In fact, some of the earliest computer games were enthusiastic attempts to convert the rules for Dungeons & Dragons onto the local university’s mainframe. I’d wager that most devs consider themselves at least casual fans of tabletop and many of them are absolutely die hard. It’s members of the latter category that I spoke with, in the hopes of gaining some insight into the trials and tribulations of taking something intended for use on a dining room table and sticking it on a hard drive.
“Board game players are a slightly different breed to hardcore, digital gamers.” This statement really struck a chord with me when Nina Adams, production manager at Auroch digital, sat down to talk to me about her studio's conversion of Ogre, the classic tabletop game from industry legend Steve Jackson. The reason I found myself nodding in appreciation is because of her use of the word ‘slightly’. Being someone who spends his days rolling dice at the local tabletop cafe, playing everything from Call of Cthulhu to Settlers of Catan, before returning home to fire up the PC and place some much needed wards on Dota 2, I can attest that both of these hobbies scratch a very similar itch.
For those of us who like to lob dice, Ogre is the archetypal old-school war game. It’s been around since the ‘70s and the earlier editions were essentially a test in putting black and white bits of card on top of other bits of card. It depicted a grim future, in which a giant panzer-like tank advances on an army which can only defend itself by throwing wave after wave of poor souls at it. It has, quite deservedly, earned a sacred spot in the hearts of many wargamers. It was this large, passionate community of Ogre fans that I mentioned first when talking to Nina.
“They’ve ended up fighting our corner for us” was her response, which I found somewhat surprising. It won’t shock you to know that many tabletop gamers shun the world of digital ports as a kind of sacrilegious corruption of the purity of tactile gaming, so I was expecting there to be some backlash from the fans. After all, the Ogre PC game was something of an afterthought, being a stretch goal on the Kickstarter project for the latest edition of the tabletop game. The truth, however, was that Nina and her team’s challenges lay in the mechanics themselves.
“Some things just don’t translate” she explained, before adding “we had a budget, it wasn’t open-ended, and so some things had to go.” Nina is referring to the overrun rule, which in the advanced rules for Ogre enables battles to take place on individual hexes of the board. As Nina points out, “this is all well and good when you’re playing it on a tabletop, but for us to do that within the game would have added at least three months of development time.”
This seems to have been the biggest challenge facing Nina’s team. Board games are simple by their very nature. Even the most complex of tabletop systems can never be as intricate as the combination of code and hardware that interacts when you fire up a game on Steam. This lead to the initial release of Ogre being a little buggy, causing the game’s Steam page to garner some negative reviews. The team’s response was swift and the community responded well. “We fixed the bugs in an update and those people then changed their reviews to positive” says Nina. The team at Auroch were fortunate. The fans got behind them and provided them with enough breathing room to deliver on the goods. However, the next guys I spoke to found themselves surrounded by cynicism.
For those of you unfamiliar with Texas-based BlankMediaGames and their social deduction game, Town of Salem, it’s essentially a conversion of the classic party game Mafia. What’s Mafia? It’s a game designed for five or more players (with one moderator) in which a small fraction of them play as the titular mafia. The game is played with separate phases for day and night. During the day, players discuss who might be members of the mafia, perhaps voting to lynch someone, while at night the mafia ‘wake up’ and murder an innocent. It’s a classic game that’s easy to play and comes in many forms. Nobody owns the rights to it, so it has been reproduced over and over, often with the baddies being named as some other sinister cabal such as werewolves, vampires or cultists.
Speaking to lead designer Brandon Burns, it becomes apparent that they did not receive the warmest of welcomes from the community. “Josh took his game to different Mafia, Werewolf, and other hidden role game forums and generally got dumped on, saying it was a dumb idea, he was dumb, and his ideas were dumb” explains Brandon. He’s talking about CEO and co-founder Josh Brittain, who was inspired to create Town of Salem upon realizing that it was a game he could play with his girlfriend, despite her enjoying casual games and him preferring more hardcore, tactical experiences.
It’s easy to see how Josh came to this epiphany. Anyone who’s played a game like Town of Salem will attest that while it does allow for some delightfully devious conniving and backstabbing, with multiple roles to understand and manipulate, it’s also simple enough that you can play it with small children or drunk people at parties.
Contrary to Nina’s experiences with Ogre, Brandon and the rest of BlankMediaGames actually found the conversion to computer to be beneficial for Town of Salem. “It allowed us to take out the moderator role and have a computer do it” he begins, before adding “it allowed for more complex things to happen”. Ironically, it was the team’s recent attempts to convert it back into a physical card game that threw a wrench in the gears. “Some roles were just impossible to work or were too complex for it to really be worth it” says Josh. He’s referring specifically to the jailor, a role which can essentially hijack any player at night and demand to know who they are. Obviously, this works great when you’re all playing from behind a computer screen, but when sat in a room together, there’s no easy way to do that without giving your role away.
The Town of Salem team might have found a practical reason for converting the physical into digital, but Alexis Kennedy, developer of Fallen London, Sunless Sea and the recent Cultist Simulator has made that a part of his whole design ethos. “I'm notoriously bad at the moving-image bit of videogames” he admits. “I have a very verbal-abstract focus and leaning into a board game’s aesthetic goes with the grain of that.” He also acknowledges budget constraints, stating that “we operate at the lo-fi, disciplined-budget end of the industry. Minimal, static, evocative assets are a great way to make a game look elegant without looking cheap.”
Elegant is definitely the right word and fans of Alexis’ work will immediately know what I mean. Fallen London was very much a visual novel, whereas Sunless Sea played like an elaborate board game, with reams of descriptive text and dialogue being handed out to the player. His latest title, Cultist Simulator, is effectively a single-player card game. Yet for Alexis, leaning on board game aesthetics is about more than just playing to his strengths. “It fits very well with a game about the occult” he explains, “and I love mechanics that support and enhance the theme”.
A common issue for most of the developers I spoke with seemed to be the difficulties inherent in representing board game mechanics on a PC, or vice versa. However, with Cultist Simulator, this was a deliberate stylistic choice but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, as Alexis points out, “the first prototype didn't involve cards at all”. Yet by the second prototype, he knew that he wanted to make a card game. He describes seeing a card burn up in his game for the first time and the emotional effect it has as a fan of tabletop. “It's wrong! it's menacing! it's like the moment in a legacy game when you first tear up a card.”
Throughout my conversations with these three very different dev teams, from different parts of the world, I discovered that they all have something in common. Whether it’s Nina and her team approaching Steve Jackson Games for the opportunity to build a conversion of their favorite board game. BlankMediaGames creating a standalone version of a party game that they love. Or Alexis Kennedy employing his tabletop sensibilities as a conduit for PC game design. Their love of board games has driven their career choices, as well as their artistic leanings, and we’re all reaping the benefits of it!