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Board games are great, video games are great, the new Wii U just might be awesome - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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June 9th, 2011

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10:32 pm - Board games are great, video games are great, the new Wii U just might be awesome
(Huh! My old steam-powered LiveJournal turned nine years old today. You get shorter sentences for arson... than some of the ones I've written in that time.)

Some people like board games. Some people like video games. Some people like both. The last video game - and I'm subsuming the term "computer game" into "video game" here - that I really got into was Civilization IV, and even that was for a few weeks, a good few years after release. Nevertheless, I remain interested in them, and their potential, as a genre. In practice I'm at least as happy to watch them being played well as to play them badly myself - the Let's Play archive is great in this regard - which I suppose makes me the male equivalent of a "video game girlfriend"... and I'm not referring to the SAL9000 - Nene Anegasaki sort of girlfriend.

Generalising wildly, most board games, including card games, rely on having two or more players in the same location, do not generally test players' timing or dexterity skills, (exceptions include TAMSK and Polarity respectively) and often rely on the sort of hidden information that arise when you can see the interesting side of a card and opponents can only see the uninteresting, plain, reverse side of the card (exceptions include the whole perfect information family - not least chess, go) and so on. They also work well at facilitating gameplay based on arrangements; cards or game components that perform particularly well when next to specific other cards or game components, and so on.

I'm going to eliminate the very many video games that are based on testing players' timing and dexterity skills, noting that I love the likes of Space Harrier and Out Run at least as much as the next person - and a lot more than most people not born in 1975 - and toast that I have MAME through which to enjoy them. Apart from those, most video games are designed to entertain a single player, with only a large subsection designed to entertain two co-located players, and because they are sharing a single display device, seldom try to permit more than one player to have information that they can keep secret from other players in the game. On the other hand, they permit complex, repetitive and impractical game mechanics, they permit players to have the fun of trying to deduce how an unrevealed game mechanic might work, or at least what it rewards, and they can avoid a great deal of record-keeping drudgery.

By extension: Internet games do other things well in addition, not least that they permit players to play against each other without co-location, may permit players to play asynchronously at times of their convenience, may be particularly good at introducing players to other people that they have not previously met, may be good at enabling players to take part in a particular game when nobody around them wants to play that particular game at the same time as them, may be good at interacting with other aspects of players' everyday existences and thus offering interesting and unusual forms of interaction, may be good at offering up surprising, fresh new content to players and have doubtless all sorts of other advantages as well.

This is not to say that one game medium is good and others are bad. Instead, I'm interested in the interaction between them, why we don't see more of it and what different media can learn - and, skipping to the end, just might have learnt - from each other.

There is a long history of playing board games using computers. One aspect is to provide an opponent of some standard at some game when no opponent can be found, not least computerised chess opponents and even OXO, noughts-and-crosses (tic-tac-toe) written to be displayed graphically on the cathode ray tube of a EDSAC computer in 1952. However, very many video games exist which are straightforward direct translations of existing video games, designed to be played by the same number of players as might play the board game. These do not offer the same tactile experience as playing a physical game, but may be faster, may reduce some of the more mechanistic drudgery aspects of relatively complicated games and may ensure that the rules are properly followed. The latter part is considered making a mistake when the breach is inadvertent or if the rules are not properly understood, but may be considered cheating when the decision not to follow the rules is deliberate and non-consensual. (And when it's deliberate and consensual, it's somewhere on the spectrum of "variant" to "improvement via improper gameplay".)

However, it's possible to go further than this; under some circumstances it's possible to play a board game, and thus play a game with the advantages of board games, while letting the computer do the work to get some of the advantages of a computer game. For instance, there is a series of games called 18xx to do with the foundation of railway companies in, as the name suggests, the 19th century. They are largely about aggressive stock market manipulation as well as track-building and an introduction to them is available; some free (German language?) moderator software is available that speeds up the payments in the game, and is said to cut a game of 1830 between 5 players from about 4 hours in length to about 2 hours. Some people enjoy the recreational accountancy aspect of the game, and to be fair they are probably overrepresented by the player base for that particular game; other people consider the moderator software to cut the time and effort required for the game while focusing it on the time and effort required for the interesting decisions.

We can take this further. Suppose a board game designer designed a game in which there were sound gameplay reasons to implement impractical game mechanics (roll 750 dice, some of which have 17 sides and others of which have 18 sides, then count up the number of ones...) or to track as much information for each of fifty non-player characters as for each player in the game. This would almost certainly be outwith the patience of most players, but are ripe for electronic assistance. There have been board games with such electronic assistance built in; the most famous one is probably Dark Tower, but the principle is tried again from time to time when high-volume manufacturers want to take a high-stake shot at it. A more recent example, though purely in the German langauge, is King Arthur, regarded as one of Reiner Knizia's rare misses.

Taking it further still, a computer game manufactgurer called CDS Microsystems released a small number of games in the late 1980s which straddled the board game / computer game divide squarely, for the home computers of the day. The least unsuccessful one by far was Brian Clough's Football Fortunes. Football team management games have been pretty popular in the UK since, pretty much, the inception of the home computer revolution, particularly in the days when home computer graphics were weak. The genre remains strong, with the leading examples being the Championship Manager series, both in its titular incarnation and its reincarnation as the Football Manager series, linked with the early-'80s predecessor of the same name only by title and by genre.

Brian Clough's Football Fortunes was a board game where computers were required to do the heavy lifting of resolving what the match results would work out to be, keep track of the scores and league tables, keep track of the non-player teams and so forth. The board game was pretty rudimentary roll-dice-move-counter stuff, but the merger of the two resulted in a unique and compelling game experience. Of course games cannot entirely be judged on their own merits and this one might have come along at just the right time for me, age 12, but it is still a mixed media game that has not really been attempted since - and, with the wider availability of devices with sufficient computing power, often as conveniently as in a mobile phone.

Now I mention this in part because two or three days ago, I discovered the existence of European Super League: Football Fortunes II by the same authors, CDS, three years later; I'm not sure if the game was ever released, but a file of at least the Commodore 64 version of the computer software part of the game exists in the wild. It seems that the board game aspect is the same, or at least substantially similar, though we will never know for sure until a scanned manual ever surfaces. The computer game aspect seems to be, perhaps, a reinterpretation of the original game design. The most obvious addition to the game is the existence of multiple divisions, then promotion and relegation of teams from one division to another, but this doesn't work terribly well as a gameplay feature in practice (e.g. the decision to "authentically" require players to have won Division 1 in order to play in the European Cup, as was, is not a fun sort of delay when players' teams all begin in Divsion 3) and suggests that its omission may originally have been a deliberate decision.

I'll tell you what I have been playing this week, though: an emulated version of a very obscure Commodore 64 football management game called Soccer Rivals. It too is based on a football management themed board game conceit, but the board game is purely electronic; the board is graphical and there is no physical equipment to manipulate. The football management aspect of the game is pretty rudimentary - we would have likely considered it pretty tatty in 1991, and the "TV highlights" sequences are way down on those of Football Manager and the like almost ten years previously - and I don't really regard having to land on certain squares of the electronic board before you can buy or sell players as a constraint that necessarily adds to the fun. Nevertheless, there is a certain something to it - it's adequeately quick, by virtue of cutting out nonessentials such as cup competitions, it's mindless and the authors have seen fit to over-represent the North-East of England in the 32 teams included in the game.

One other development that I have read about but never tried for myself is The Eye of Judgment, a trading card game which requires a Playstation 3 and a PlayStation Eye camera in order to be played. A 3x3 rectangular grid is placed in sight of the camera; players place cards of their choice on the mat, and the camera also uses visual recognition of codes embedded in the cards.on that mat. In this way, players don't even need to tell the Playstation what they have done other than by doing it. Apparently there is some additional gesture recognition in there as well. You can get away with all sorts of arbitrariness in a fantasy battle game, simply because magic is such a good excuse. I'd be intrigued to know how well the game works in practice.

Jumping back to the main thread, Nintendo announced their new Wii U console, set to be released at some point in 2012, a couple of days ago. As was the case with the original Wii, they have designed a console around an interesting new controller which might engender interesting new gameplay experiences. As displayed in the trailer video, after an annoying advert, the Wii U will feature a controller with its own integrated touchscreen. Accordingly, the console can display on a TV, whether high or standard definition, and also on the touchscreen. About eight or nine tech demos were available at the E3 conference, as described at the Guardian. The most interesting-sounding one, "Mii Chase", revolves around the concept of one player hiding in a maze, displaying their location covertly on the touchscreen controller, whereas the four other players run around the same maze using regular Wii controllers, displayed on the TV.

The reason why this is particularly brilliant is that it threatens to bring the "concealed information" advantage of board games to the video game experience; if every player can have their own touchscreen controller then they can have their own information, with additional information common to all players displayed on the TV. In board game terms, this is equivalent to each player being the only player to see their hand of cards, but all players being able to see the board displayed on the TV. I delight to think what the best game designers might do with this facility in the context of a video game.

There is precedent for this. At one level, the Sega Dreamcast controller tried something similar with its cheeky little VMU that slotted into the main body of the controller; however, you can't get much interesting information into a 48x32 LCD. (Then again, that was not much smaller than roughly the graphical resolution of a ZX81, and that had 3D Monster Maze, or Quake fifteen years early.) At another level, the Pokertek automated poker tables give people little screens showing their hole cards and permit them to play poker tournaments. Again, this might seem a retrograde step to some when so much of the appeal of poker is tactile and poker chips are so lovely to play with, but these automated poker tables may go towards counteracting some forms of malpractice and some forms of dealer error, as well as avoiding the cost of employing a dealer.

In terms of action games, another precedent is Atari's 1989 arcade game Cyberball, a sort of robotic gridiron football; two players, or two teams of two players, each faced their own monitor and made their own play selections. Accordingly, you can't see the plays that your opponent has selected, and just have to react to the way they have lined their players up. I don't know whether or not there's an issue in high-level Mario Kart with players not just looking at their own view, in their own corner of the screen, but at other players' views as well; it's easy to conceive players looking at their own first-person views on their personal tablets, with nobody else being able to look at their own view, but the central TV showing a third-person view of the race as a whole. Doubtless there are analogies for every sort of action game. At worst, it's a way to bring the thrill of one-person Internet gaming against unseen opponents into a room where you can see all your opponents, but everyone has their own view.

Now, that said, it is not absolutely clear that the Wii U will support more than one of these touchscreen controllers; GamePro suggests that the current plan is only one touchscreen controller per Wii U, and Kotaku's report suggests Nintendo are only "looking into" games that support more than one of these new controllers. It's certainly relevant that these touchscreen controllers aren't going to be cheap; people may well baulk at paying a triple-digit price for the console, then another triple-digit price on top for each new controller, regardless of its ability as a hand-held console standing alone. I can't imagine that Nintendo would want their unique new game experience to look radically more expensive than the current generation of consoles.

However, I'm very bullish that hidden-information multi-screen gaming will be at least a sizeable minority interest in the world of video games by, perhaps, 2017 to 2019. If Nintendo don't do it - and I dearly hope they do, not least because I trust them to have a better chance of doing it interestingly first time - then someone else will, and not necessarily Sony or Microsoft's Xbox. If you want to get a jump on programming for multi-screen video gaming, it's capable with current technology; imagine several players with their own iPhone, privy to the information it holds, all sitting around an iPad which displays information common to all players, all the devices connected to each other by - say - Bluetooth. (Android equivalents are possible, of course.) And that's all before we start getting into the interesting possibilities of placing recognisable, distinct game pieces directly onto touchscreens!

Please redirect any comments here, using OpenID or (identified, ideally) anonymous posting; there are comments to the post already. Thank you!
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