Sunday, September 8, 2013

Solo Tabletop Gaming and Computer Games

Recently, I started playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown on the PC, and so far it is very good. While certain boardgame conversions have failed terribly, this game delivers an interesting strategic campaign with turn-based tactical battles that remind me of playing with miniatures on the tabletop (note: that is also true of the original XCOM games but in my opinion, the additional abstraction in this more recent version brings it closer to a "tabletop feel".)

This brought me back to wondering why I keep playing solo tabletop games when there are computer-based options for strategic and tactical battles. After all, they do not require physical space, miniatures, and terrain; setup time is minimal; it is possible to stop and resume as one wishes; and while the "artificial intelligence" in many such games are lacking, they ought to be more sophisticated than paper-based alternatives. A similar case can be made for computer RPGs.

Despite all of these good reasons, I keep attracted to solo tabletop games and RPGs. So there must be some fun or pleasure that I get from this activity that is different from computer games. After some introspection, I came up with these thoughts about the subject:

1) Mixing the roles of player and author: Most RPGs and wargames are presented as frameworks to play one's stories and battles, as opposed to the designed experiences of computer games. Besides, solo gaming requires interpretation and customization of game rules to suit my needs. Whenever I am playing a solo RPG or tabletop game, I have the feeling that I am also tinkering or experimenting with the rules and narrative. This activity of simultaneous play, analysis and design is currently my main drive to play tabletop games. I think it is also the reason why, if I am not feeling up to the task, I end up not playing them at all.

2) Ease of use vs. ease of modification: Computer games are convenient to play but not so simple to modify. Mixing a game's set of rules with another one's narrative can be nearly impossible. Although several computer games nowadays provide customization tools, they do not provide the same freedom or ease of use of the tabletop counterparts. For instance, editing a map or script for a computer strategy game still takes more time and effort than writing down some notes and placing terrain on the table -- especially in my case, as I use paper terrain and figures.

3) The pleasure of implementation: The previous reasons mean that I could move to digital tools, playing my tabletop games in MapTool or something like that. However, in my experiences doing so I felt like something was missing. So I think that some fun that I have comes from taking part in the implementation of the game, including the manipulation of the game pieces.

So this is it, from what I can gather from my experiences. Writing this has led me to another question: how much digital technology can I incorporate into my tabletop gaming to make it easier without losing something in the process? Automate reaction systems and random tables? Play on a touch-sensitive tablet?


Sean said...

You're right Ricardo. There is something about playing on the table with figures and terrain that can't be replaced with something on the computer screen. The other thing I find with using a virtual table top is that you can spend so much time creating the "sandbox for game play that you probably could have painted the figures and made the terrain. Learning the rules of the game and the software just throws me off.

On the other hand, if it is a board game that has a vassal module and I know I can't leave it on the dining room table for a week, and I'm just playing solo anyway, I;ll use the computer.

Ricardo said...

Hey Sean, thanks for the comment. I agree with you about learning to effectively use a VTT.

Your point about solo boardgames got me thinking as I did not consider them...

evilleMonkeigh said...

I enjoy how I can understand most aspects of a rulebook, whereas I don't know enough about computer programming save on a most shallow level - i.e. I can 'connect' more with physical rules and games.

I think digital rulebooks on pads (for example the Infinity wiki is very handy) are a way forward. I think rulebooks could include short videoclips to "show" how a rule is implemented.