Games are one of life’s simple pleasures. We all love the big outside escapes – travel, movies, museums, arts and culture events, things like that. But those things tend to cost money and take time, and so games provide everyday escapes from the skullduggery of work, chores, and daily news. Games are fun to play, they take your mind off the rest of the world for a few hours, they can bring people together, and you can use them to learn about basic principles of sportsmanship.
The kinds of games available can be drawn into two different categories: Tabletop games and electronic games. Tabletop games are basically games that can be placed on a tabletop so everyone playing can have equal access to the equipment. They are probably better known as board games, but calling them board games tends to leave out various card and dice games. Electronic games are games that are hooked up to a television or computer. Many of them can be played online.
As many people know, I grew up pretty well-versed in the ways of both, but had a clear preference for electronic games. I spent seven years as a critic of electronic games, but tabletop games were recently reintroduced into my life and I started thinking about which type of game is better. So let’s do this! Tabletop games vs. electronic games. One day, I’ll learn.
Remember that I said games can be used to teach the basic principles of sportsmanship? Yeah, if you play a lot of tabletop games, that’s something you’re going to be learning plenty about. Tabletop games require you to have a good sense of humor about defeat, because even a lot of games where you get a significant amount of control over the game’s universe require good, hard luck. It doesn’t matter how much you understand about the laws of probability – if you’re playing a card- or dice-heavy game, you’re going to fall victim to some weird masterstrokes of fortune. The more complex the game, the more odd luck can get. Games like Dungeons and Dragons add an extra dimension with the sheer details they throw in – Dungeons and Dragons itself is famous partially for the number of 12-to-20-sided dice it includes in a package. While little novelties like that are intended to tip the odds, you’re still not allowed to find your favorite number and plop the die down with it facing up, and that can result in things like a dwarf with two hit points charging through a small army of ogres. (That was something that happened to me once playing Dungeons and Dragons.) Electronic games can also require a certain amount of luck. Back when video games were first starting out, one hallmark was the fact that developers were constantly throwing in little glitches and obstacles made to ensure the game always had the advantage. That meant gamers had to deal with traps in scrolling games meant to throw off any sense of rhythm, which could place a gamer in a precarious situation. Other games were loaded with dead ends and unfair traps which the people playing had no way of knowing about in advance, and to make those matters worse, some sadistic developers would randomize those things, which meant a gamer would put a lot of hard work into getting into the game only to get locked in some inescapable room on a deep run. Electronic games also utilized keyboards and controllers instead of dice.
Electronic games. Although unfair little gameplay quirks will always be a trademark of electronic games, they’re not showing up nearly as often now, while tabletop games are always depending on the luck of the draw or the roll. Besides, having direct control over a video game character through a controller can mean that someone truly skilled will always have a chance. That’s not the case on tabletop games. Yes, there are degrees of skill required to play tabletop games well, but unless you’re sticking to one of the old school staples like checkers, chess, othello, or go – which don’t depend on luck – you’re always going to be reliant on elements of gameplay that are out of your control.
Despite their competitive nature, a good game can help cement a bond with people you know and create one with people you don’t. This can be especially apparent with tabletop games, because any tabletop game worth its salt requires that you have other people around to play against. (Unless you like to play solitaire.) Unfortunately, that can also be a great weakness for the shy and introverted: In order to really enjoy a good tabletop game, you have to be able to coax others into wanting to visit you to play. Electronic games can also be a source of fun for friendships; even after the game is turned off, a great game can have friends talking strategy and tactics for hours afterward. And while their solitary nature allows them to be enjoyable for a single person, our increasingly online world actually opens up the outside for those willing to take the time to learn online gaming, because it allows people to connect with others anywhere in the world. It’s not unusual these days for real-life couples to say they first met in the online world during a game of Everquest.
Tabletop games. Yes, it’s possible to meet people online, but there’s the reverse of that as well: Online gaming has become a source of bullying and sometimes crime. There are a thousand different stories of friends and couples who met online, but the faceless nature of electronic gaming has given rise to forms of blatant sexism, racism, and other bad -isms which have discouraged potential gamers who were dabbling in a new hobby. The Gamergate movement exists because of people who believe electronic games are the exclusive domain of a very particular type of person (think a Y chromosome and a low melanin level); they’ve taken to attacking, insulting, and threatening anyone different from them – roughly half the population – for the crime of having an opinion. You never heard of behavior like this developing from tabletop gamers.
It’s hard to find a good story in a tabletop game, but not impossible. Hell, when I was a kid, I loved a role-playing game called Hero Quest, which became a sort of gateway to Dungeons and Dragons later on. Hero Quest had defined good guys and bad guys who were thrown into various scenarios for reasons told in the fashion of a linear story by a game master who knew the ins and outs of the scene. The game master always had the most access to the story, and would slowly reveal it over the coarse of the game. Electronic games operate on much the same principle, except there aren’t any players there to reveal the narrative – it’s done by the game as you advance. In both formats, the players make choices which are supposed to affect the story, but electronic games were a bit slow to catch on to that aspect of it; the earliest electronic role-playing games were set strictly on rails. You simply walked through the game as any other and tried not to die. Tabletop role-playing games offered a bit more flexibility because it would be possible to find the right piece of information through communication with the game master. Electronic games didn’t have that – you got the information the game felt like giving you, which would only loop itself if you tried to press the issue. If you didn’t have a strategy guide, you were shit out of luck. Of course, not every tabletop game had a story. A lot of the classics just brought people together to play. Electronic games might seem to have an advantage here then, but they didn’t have a lot of story either. Games like Pong, Frogger, and Pac-Man never even bothered. What little bits they had as stories were nothing more than objectives.
I’m going with tabletop games on this one. Yes, electronic games are evolving and very much improved on the way they tell their stories and interact – Fable II has become a favorite of mine. But you’re still at the mercy of a game which isn’t going to tell you any more than it’s programmed to know. Tabletop games can be easier in reveals and puzzles if you’re able to figure out the right way to communicate. Also, I should note tabletop games don’t make use of arbitrary and unobtrusive bits of debris to prevent you from reaching your goal, either. That’s one of the great banes of being an electronic gamer for a few reasons, not the least of which is because it’s so fucking stupid. But the bottom line here is that your personal decisions have a greater impact in the world of a good tabletop game while even many of the best electronic games stop updating the current events halfway through.
A complex tabletop game can turn into an OCD sufferer’s worst nightmare. Boards, cards, dice, and figures are often parts of the most basic game setup. That’s no frills here – I’m not even considering the many pieces of equipment that can get thrown into games with 3D settings. Lots of the little accessories needed to play a good tabletop game are small and easily losable. And every time you want to go out and buy a new game, you get a whole new set of more losable equipment meant to go with that game and no other! So you would think the victory for electronic games here would be automatic. And 20 or even 10 years ago, it might have been – you get one CD or cartridge which contained literally everything on it. No need to worry about losing a piece or 13. But with the technology advancing, it started getting a bit more complex than that. If you play your electronic games on computers, you have to make sure the specs are just right, then go through the pain-in-the-ass process of downloading it. That’s called “installing” the game. Taking the time to learn the various keyboard and controller functions can also be a bit of a chore, and the games themselves try to rob you of the fun of learning yourself because they’re increasingly involving mandatory tutorials which can’t be skipped. If you want to play on the internet, you have to buy an expensive piece of equipment that enables it.
Electronic games. For all the bullshit you have to go through of buying all the equipment and installing the game, most of it is a one-time purchase. And you don’t have to worry about all your little knickknacks being inside the box once you decide you’re finished playing. It’s just a little on/off switch. Yes, electronic games cost more, but it’s worth the price to make sure you don’t lose anything because some poor loser swept the entire board off the table.
So you finished a game and thought it was good. That doesn’t necessarily incentivize an immediate second play through. There have to be enough different ways to go about playing through a good game to warrant replays. And tabletop games shine at this: You can always find new people to play with who see things differently and force you to innovate and invent new ways of playing. Luck can always swing from one player to the next, and how the player on the hot streak plays can turns everything in a whole new direction. Video games also offer incentives to replay them: Some have secrets to find, some have different levels to challenge you, and some have variations in the gameplay. Of course, the differences in tabletop game replayability depends on who you have playing, and electronic games have it based on the gameplay itself – some games offer direct decisions on exactly what you can do.
Tabletop games. Electronic games can only have so much replayability. Games where your actions really affect the surrounding world are a very recent development, and even many of those get a lot of flack for not changing enough. And before them, electronic games were basically rote memorization of patterns. The early attempts at being nonlinear were noble, but all they offered was the same scenery in a different order.
There will always be a place for electronic games, but tabletop games are throwing them off the hotel balcony.