I started thinking about this post after my dungeon crawl in Tabletop Simulator. More specifically, I was surprised to find myself thinking of actually manipulating the pieces, although they were only virtual models. I attribute this to the physics simulation (collision detection and simulation of mass) implemented in that software.
At the same time, there are all the computer versions of board games that have been released lately, for computers and tablets. Differently from Tabletop Simulator, they tend to offer a user interface that mediates the manipulation of the game pieces. This article from Edge already discussed those conversions and some implications to the market.
Lastly, this post on Delta Vector got me back to thinking about why I play tabletop war games. That is, since I play mostly solo, why not stick to the vast offer of real-time and turn-based strategy games on the PC? I have written a bit about it before, and my argument was centered on the experience of playing a tabletop game. However, part #3 of the argument (the pleasure of implementation) was weakened by my experience with Tabletop Simulator.
All this led me to ask two questions:
1) Is there something that tabletop war games offer that computer strategy games cannot match?
2) Is it possible to predict that tabletop war games will be converted to digital versions in the near future, much like board games?
After some thought, I believe the answer for question #1 is positive, and it is related to they ways players get involved with this kind of game. Similarly to role-playing games, tabletop war games rely on the commitment of the player to suspend disbelief from the get-go. While playing a tabletop war game, players expect consistency of the rules and some sort of correlation to actual battles. At the same time, they are accepting that the game has some amount of abstraction, although not as much what is found in board games, for instance.
One example of what I am writing about is movement in tabletop games. Many miniature games have free movement because players expect this, and miniature games based on square or hex grids are often deemed too abstract or "board game-like." The major exception is that of spaceship combat (often played on hex grids) and I guess this is because the scale of space is abstracted and reduced so that it can be played in reasonably-sized tables.
Another example of feature that works in tabletop but not in computers is flexible time scale. For instance, a game turn may represent from a few seconds to a few minutes. Compare this to computer turn-based strategy games. The usual approach is to allow each unit a specific number of actions. Sometimes they have action points. In either case, it is like playing one time step (or a few) of a simulation.
Flexible time scale allows miniature games to use different activation systems. In many cases, only a few units are activated in a turn. If that happens in a computer game, the result looks very "board game-like": one can see each piece standing there, doing nothing. Maybe it is the simulation aesthetics that create the expectation that all elements should be moving. On the other hand, with miniatures and flexible time, players are willing to accept that they represent a general view of the battlefield. Miniatures are not just standing there, they might just be taking ineffective actions. Players accept filling the gaps.
In summary, I believe that tabletop games lie somewhere between board games and computer games, in terms of abstraction and complexity. Further, something in them invites the players to take part in the fantasy that is going on at the table. Therefore, they offer something that is significantly different in terms of gameplay experience from board games and computer games.
I am not so certain about question #2. Adaptation of role-playing games to the digital medium has resulted in a few game genres -- from those focused in interactive storytelling to those focused in planning a strategy for character development. I think that conversions of tabletop war games might follow a similar route, and an interesting example is the Dawn of War series. Relic Entertainment took the source material and fused it with the real-time strategy engine from the Company of Heroes game. The result is an entertaining strategy game that is far from the tabletop version (from a rules standpoint.)
A conversion in the style of Tabletop Simulator, i.e. having virtual figures and terrain to play in a physically-simulated sandbox may offer a number of advantages, in terms of cost, space and time to set up a game. Maybe improved displays and input devices might bring it even closer to the "real thing." However, I am not sure if this would remove part of "magic" that makes tabletop games different from board games and computer games -- particularly so for new gamers. I would love to hear about people who got into tabletop gaming playing only on virtual tabletop software (e.g. never bought a miniature.) My own experience with virtual tabletops is not relevant for this discussion, as most of the time I am comparing the experience I have with them with the one I have on the tabletop.
Well, this was a sizable wall of text to dwell again on computer games versus tabletop games. It is quite possible that this is all justification to my sticking with solo tabletop gaming as a hobby. However, I cannot help thinking about it from time to time, and I think it is a worthy subject for people interested in game design.