I’ve been playing a lot of Small World from publisher Days of Wonder recently. Here at the store, customers expect us to be able to give a reasonably concise and lucid explanation of any particular game, including optimum number of players, age and experience levels, and duration of game. We also need to know, however, what the game is really like. How does it work? Does it play like any other board or card games (how many straight roll-and-move games do you need, after all?)
One of the best ways to learn something, of course, is through practice. And one of the best ways to get that practice time in (I’m not aiming for Malcolm Gladwell’s 10 000 hours, just familiarity) is to make it fun. Any eight-year-old video-game Jedi Master could tell you that. But you can’t always get people together at the drop of a hat to play a game — at your convenience — just so that you can get your skills up. What to do?
Enter the app. Board game companies have profited hugely, both monetarily and in terms of brand recognition, by creating or licensing versions of their products for use on portable devices, on computers, and on Steam (more on that in a moment). I learned to play Days of Wonder’s Ticket to Ride by buying and using the iOS app on my phone. It gave me the ability to get a game going (with robot opponents) anywhere, anytime. I could make lots of dumb mistakes and there was no one to see (or hoot with laughter). And, because playing against bots tends to produce speedy games (robots don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about their next move), these games also gave me the chance to try out many different strategies.
Small World was another game we stocked that — to be honest — I really didn’t understand very well. The back of the box was uncommunicative, telling me only that the game was “fun” and “zany”, and that players “vie for control of a board … simply too small to accommodate them all”. Not much help there. The game mechanic is hinted at: “players must know when to push their over-extended civilization into decline to ride a new one to victory!” Huh? I read a bunch of reviews (not much help). I watched the relevant episode of TableTop (you can watch it here: Wil Wheaton and friends appeared to be having a good time, but I still didn’t really understand what was going on). I resigned myself to memorizing some sort of canned spiel about Small World in order to wow customers.
Then, two things happened almost at once. We finally received a play copy of the original Small World board game (we have to buy them, and somehow we just hadn’t got round to ordering one till then), and I purchased an online copy at Steam for myself. What is Steam, you ask? Here’s the answer, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Steam is a digital distribution, digital rights management, multiplayer, and communications platform developed by Valve Corporation. It is used to distribute games and related media online, from small independent developers to larger software houses.” What this means is that these games are all totally legitimate: sold (or given — some games are available at no cost) by their developers to the users, who then own a digital copy that they are able to play on any device that is supported by the game’s software, and that can connect to the Steam server.
Here’s a screen shot of the very first turn of a new game of Small World on Steam. I am Player One and have just placed my Underworld Humans onto the map, “conquering” four regions and obtaining one bonus point, for a grand total of five points that turn (awful). I confidently expect to get my clock cleaned by my robot opponents: the game consists of some 14 different races (Humans, Trolls, Wizards, and so on), each of whom have particular strengths and weaknesses; and 20 Special Powers (from Alchemist to Wealthy). Races and Powers are randomly combined, so that there are always six sets available to the the players. With so many different combinations, only lots of practice will help a player identify the best available pairings. So far, my choices have not been the greatest. (Note: I finished fourth, out of four, in the game above. Sigh.)
So, do electronic games mean the death of old-fashioned board games? I think not. If anything, I believe that electronic versions of board games encourage people to get out there and play, to practice and to learn. Electronic versions let us while away some down time, while simultaneously honing our skills on our favourite games.
So now I’m using Steam to learn how to play Magic: the Gathering. And according to Mr. Gladwell, I only have 9996 hours of practice to go until I’m a champ!