Boards vs. Bytes: The digital evolution of board gaming

Board games have been around since the dawn of civilization. Literally. It’s safe to say that the way board games are played, which is face-to-face interaction, hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Players get together and huddle around a shared space to compete for leisure. That face-to-face interaction has pretty much changed with the advent of the internet. Players from across the world interact online through their avatars in virtual worlds. No longer is there a need for people to come together for a shared experience in the same physical space. Virtual gaming has become so ubiquitous and massive that eSports is now a recognized as a bonafide sporting event with lucrative sponsorships, and multi-million dollar tournaments. While eSports remain confined to first-person shooters or real-time tower defense slugfests, traditional board games have not escaped untouched by the digital revolution. Many traditional gaming companies that publish games with boards, bits, cards and tokens are also jumping on the online bandwagon by converting their games into digital format. There are pros and cons to playing board games online and some folks are avid consumers of the digital content while others shy away from it. So, which side of the fence do you sit and how do I feel about the digitization of board games?

At the moment, board games on the internet appear to be in two formats. First, developers have pushed their content onto multiple platforms. You will now find plenty of board games in the form of downloaded apps for iOS or Android devices or Steam for the PC. Many of these apps are professionally done and faithfully ported from their physical counterparts with the digital interface streamlined for easy of play. Some of the popular titles with polished apps include Through the Ages, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Eclipse and many many more. Of course none of this is free as the digital formats are mostly pay-to-play. Naturally, these expansions are also included in these apps as micro purchases. If you want the Splendor expansions, then you can purchase them separately or if you need additional Ticket to Ride boards, then you can pay for them. Since many of these apps are professionally designed and maintained, they feature multiple ways to play including hot seat for local play or connecting online to play with randomly matched players and with friends. Many of these apps also feature well-developed bots for solo play against an AI. The explosion of board games on digital devices is impressive and I do not think it will let down anytime soon.

Another way that board games can be played online are through these dedicated online portals that hosts a variety of games. These sites include Boardgamearena, Brettspielewelt, Happy Meeple and These sites are popular with gamers as the selection of games can be quite extensive. In general, while the interface is not nearly as smooth as those designed for apps, they work well enough and compared to the past, these sites have significantly improved (I tested boardgamearena and In boardgamearena, players can form tables and play with friends or strangers and the interface is basic but very well-done. The game boards are faithfully reproduced and for the most part, intuitive and easy to navigate. Incredibly, most of these sites are free for with some imposing a nominal fee (like boardgamearena which charges 2 pounds/year). How these sites remain afloat is unclear, but advertising content must be sufficient to pay for upkeep.

There is a third frontier in digital board gaming and it is slowly taking shape. Companies such as Tabletopia and Tabletop Simulator have created a sandbox like environment in which companies, publishers or even individuals can use custom-made tools to develop their game online. By providing the basic digital building blocks commonly found in games, anyone can go in and design a prototype or publishers can create an interactive version of their game in a dedicated environment. These simulators are slightly different from stand alone web portals in that the digital platform is commercial product and players are requires either an initial purchase of the developer’s software or a subscription service as with Tabletopia. Theoretically, there is a basic free version for Tabletopia, but the premium games are reserved only for subscribers. I think developers probably have to pay for hosting their games on the site, but I could easily imagine these simulators provide a steady revenue stream from the subscription service.

Digital board gaming is not for everyone but there are clear benefits for playing online. First, and probably the most common reason for going online is that it brings family and friends together even if they are scattered across the globe. Obviously, people are more mobile in the era of globalization and our jobs and responsibilities have taken us far from our roots. For most of us, getting together for a game at the same time and place is challenging enough even if we share a same locale, much less across continents. However with access to computers and devices, one can play a real time or turn-based board game with friends and family in different time zones. Moreover, having games hosted on the internet means not needing to own a physical copy of a game. For some, such as in the military or in remote locations, lugging around games from one location to the next is not really an option and the digital versions maybe the only way to play games. If anything, the recent coronavirus pandemic has shown that digital board gaming can be salve when one is prohibited from hosting live board game events. It is an alternate avenue for gamers to meet and play when the physical option is taken off the table. In short the internet is capable of bringing people together in a way that wasn’t possible 50 years ago. There are many ways to socialize on the web, but online gaming is certainly a way for us to remain in touch and spend time with each other without the physical constraints of being in the same place or time for turn-based gaming.

Digital board games also fills another niche for players who enjoy gaming solo. Many games designed as apps have solid AI opponents. I believe that the computer AI is likely going to be superior than your standard dummy player or even an automata which randomly selects actions or follow predetermined guidelines. Now granted, solo gaming isn’t exactly the same as having a computer opponent, but nonetheless, it does fill the same void of having to search and play with human opponents. In some cases where internet connectivity is not available, playing board games with AI is the only way to go. For some folks, having a quality AI as opponents can also help sharpen and improve game play. This is certainly one way to find opponents with matching skill level for games that are all about strategy such as Chess, Go, etc. I think digital implementation of certain board game makes a lot of sense and moving forward, I see a steady increase in demand for digital board games to include quality AI opponents.

There are other reasons why we are seeing a digital revolution for board games. Companies realized that these digital games provide a continuous revenue stream without the logistical nightmare that accompanies a printed edition of the board game. Producing, shipping, storing and selling games is an incredibly laborious process. The effort to get a game from designer to publisher to consumer is a multi-step process with lots of pitfalls and low margins. This is not to say that a digital game is easy to design, but I would imagine not having to deal with the supply chain is already a huge win. That said, digital board games are implemented only from top hits in the board game market. Folks who have tried and love the physical game often get the chance to purchase a digital version of their favorites. Thus far, I have yet to encounter a board game hit that exists only in the online world. Perhaps that reality is just around the corner and I would not be surprise to hear of “online” only versions of board games. Right now, there are an increasing number of games that integrate a digital component as part of the playing experience. Games such as The Awakening, Crime Stories, X-Com, etc. all require a digital resource to play and while they are not the same as a digital board game, it is probably a step in that direction. From the consumer standpoint, digital games potentially reduces waste and can help trim board game collections. While collecting games can be fun, having hundred if not thousands of games sitting in storage can be a burden for some. Board game prices have increased tremendously in the past two decades. The average price of games must have at least doubled if not tripled and as resources become scarce and inflation continue to bump prices of all things, keeping a small physical collection supplemented by a digital board game library sounds a whole lot more practical.

After extolling the virtues of playing digital board games, is there any downside to hopping online for a quick game of Can’t Stop? I think how you approach the digital world and whether you enjoying gaming online is entirely a personal preference. For me, playing board games has always been an enjoyable activity with friends or family. It is a break from the daily grind and allowing me to look away from the screen. The human element engaged in friendly competition (or cooperation) over a shared space is one of the most important aspects of the hobby for me. The interactions we have, the texture of the components, the look and feel of the game, the wooden bits and plastic tokens scattered on the board, the revealing of cards from the deck, the satisfaction of clever play followed by despair from opponents, the subtle taunting and humble gloating are all part and parcel of the entire shared gaming experience which cannot be easily replicated with online play. It’s not just the conversations that happen during gaming because there have been intense gaming sessions where very little conversation takes place and everyone is peering at the game boards. It’s the totality of discovering new games and playing board games together as a group activity that matters and that is why I enjoy playing games. I think the pre-game setup and post-game clean up is also a place where meaningful interactions take place. Post-game analysis often happens during clean up and half the fun in gaming is also understanding the decisions we make during play. Admittedly, playing games online can cut down on some fiddly book keeping and overall game length which are both positives. Honestly, most games we play take no more than a few minutes to setup or tear down. However, technology is slowly catching up to the real life experience as video and audio feeds are now integrated on some of the online portals and it makes a difference. Being able to see and hear your opponents turns isolated game play into a more communal event.

I have had several bouts of online gaming experience on different digital platforms. I started getting board game apps on iOS platforms when the first wave of games appeared on the iPad. Back then, games were pretty decent though a little less polished than what is out there today. I also delved occasionally on Brettspielwelt and even though the connectivity and interface felt clunky. I enjoyed the idea of playing online, even though I played infrequently and eventually stopped playing them all together. In short, my drive to play the digital games just wasn’t there. I think the biggest reason was boredom. I would play a game intensely for a short period of time and then quickly “burned out” from the repeated plays. I think this has more to do with my style of play which emphasizes diversity or mastery (see my gaming philosophy in the main menu). This meant I like having a rotation of games and owning a digital copy of any game usually meant I could play back to back games in a fraction of the time it required for the physical game. Moreover, without the need for human opponents and the near- instantaneous moves by the AI, I would click through a series of matches in short order, thus draining all my desires for future plays. What’s worse, the games that I burned out from impacted the enjoyment of playing the physical copy of the game. This happened to me with Yspahan, Keltis Oracle and Dominion.

I doubt physical board games will go away in the near future. However, it is increasingly clear that digital versions of board games will continue to grow and perhaps even become a central part of the board gaming experience. Certainly, situations like a global pandemic or other unforeseen maladies have accelerated the acceptance of playing board games online. For myself, digital board games won’t supplant the real thing anytime soon. Something remains missing when playing online and the feel of playing a physical copy of a game just cannot be replicated. However, I do see it as a good way to keep in touch with friends and to play a game every now just to remain connected. While I will always favor playing in person, as web portals and apps become increasingly sophisticated and video/chat streams becomes a common feature, I could see the benefit of adding digital gaming to my repertoire, however infrequent that might be.

I suppose the ultimate digital board game experience would be a holographic projection of friends and family to recreate a shared space. Of course this remains firmly in the future realm of possibilities but I would not be surprised if simulators evolve from their current state on the internet to include dedicated hardware that can project or display an interactive board on a flat surface. These assemblies could include cameras and microphones to link players in the room and to project their image on a dedicated screen. Indeed, augmented reality tables or dedicated touch screen surfaces comes closest to this concept and while still not widely available, they could be a preview for the future of board gaming.

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