Board games have exploded in popularity, appearing everywhere from South Park to The New York Times. But their most fascinating impact is on a recent surge of excellent video games.
The charitable co-existence between tabletop and digital is not altogether new. Dungeons & Dragons certainly was a primary influence for early video game role-playing games such as Ultima and Might & Magic. What’s more, many electronic strategy games borrowed the use of the traditional hexagonal grid popularized by wargames such as Advanced Squad Leader. But these early examples of influence feel distinct and isolated, altogether dissimilar to the current moment. Something is happening, and it feels historic.
The Culmination of a Trend
This current movement of board games influencing video game design germinated in the mid-2010s. One of the most significant titles in this wave is Megacrit’s Slay the Spire.
Developed in 2017, Slay the Spire’s influences are explicit, pulling its very design pillars directly from the tabletop realm.
Megacrit’s Anthony Giovannetti managed a board game store in his younger days. “I was very familiar with the deck-builder genre and had actually taught Dominion and games like it to countless people. These games really scratched an itch I had as a card game player, and certainly were a huge part of the inspiration behind Slay the Spire.”
This indie roguelike combines deck-building with turn based combat. The tactical decision space is contemplative and engaging, while utilizing a relatively simple core. You start with a character-specific starter deck, but you acquire new cards from a random pool as you work your way through the spire and defeat foes. Through multiple attempts, your knowledge grows and you’re able to better harness the potential of your evolving deck. The core loop is addictive, as you use that insight to adapt to the randomized elements and challenges, and ultimately slay the final boss and achieve what feels impossible.
Slay the Spire’s genius was in capitalizing on the success of roguelikes and marrying it to a tactically robust tabletop deck-building mechanism. It forged an entirely new sub-genre including titles such as Monster Train, Griftlands, and later, Polygon’s 2021 game of the year, Inscryption.
Whereas Slay the Spire succeeded in embracing the mechanical aspects of board games, it was an altogether solitary experience. It lacked the social aspects that can make tabletop sessions magical. Among Us, however, did not.
Released in 2018, Among Us took the principles of hidden traitor tabletop games and brought them to the digital space. In real-time, players must navigate around a confined spaceship, moving from room to room and accomplishing various mini-game tasks. But hidden among the crew are two imposters bent on murdering the others and sabotaging the journey. The result is a delightful close-quarters thriller that bursts with drama.
It produced a cultural moment, and added the word “sus” to our vernacular. Part of the strength here was in capturing such a wide range of players. My seven year old daughter knows Among Us, even though she’s never heard of its cardboard influences Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, The Resistance, or Avalon. It even captured the attention of 435,000 viewers who hopped on Twitch to watch U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put on her best poker face.
While it was always a design marvel, Among Us experienced a hard transition to superstardom under the shadow of a particularly impactful event. With the advent of the pandemic and our newfound existence of confinement amid lockdowns, Among Us surged in popularity. It became a way for people to interact socially and find a connection. It changed the current climate and crystalized the intermingling of game industries and their players.
The isolation of the global pandemic was the catalyst for the next milestone. Lockdown forced us into either abandoning our board game groups entirely, or shifting into a remote mindset. Online tabletop platforms such as Roll20 and Board Game Arena garnered a tidal wave of new users in a very short timeframe.
With this migration came a change in perspective. Players who previously shunned technology in their hobby were forced to adapt. Barriers were toppled and lines became blurred.
Gloomhaven is at the center of this osmosis. This is one of the most popular hobbyist board games ever designed, and it’s now available as a digital port that’s extremely faithful to the tabletop experience.
“With the digital version of Gloomhaven, we developed the game with both the fans of the board game and new video game fans in mind,” creative director Mike West says.“This meant that not only did we need to stick as close to the physical game design as possible with regards to the ruleset and campaign, but also create modes and systems to streamline the gameplay, but also in some cases reduce the complexity if we could.”
Gloomhaven does present a substantial contrast between a game merely influenced by board game design — such as Slay the Spire — and one more directly translated. West points out that the first thing he did “was open every single secret box and envelope and start breaking the game down for the code department.” Managing the tremendous amount of content, along with all of the complex interactions of such a large board game, presents no shortage of challenges.
But the reward has been exceptional, and a groundswell has formed. Games like Wildermyth and Inscryption are mining the endless narrative possibilities of the tabletop space to great effect. Likewise, straight ports from cardboard to digital are thriving; board game hits such as Root and Terraforming Mars have found great success.
The Thin Line
We’re now in the meridian of this creative relationship. In the wake of this digital trend is a new type of game, one of cardboard and digital hybridization. We’ve transcended the early days of this initiative when the half-miniatures, half-app Golem Arcana spectacularly failed. Now, we’re in the era of success stories like Chronicles of Crime, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game, and Descent: Legends of the Dark.
These games utilize technology alongside board game components to manifest a new type of experience. Whether you’re searching a virtual reality crime scene in Chronicles of Crime, clicking through electronic evidence in Detective, or exploring an electronically composed dungeon in Descent, it’s an entirely novel experience.
“I think that right now tabletop and video games are probably overlapping more than they have in the past,” Giovanetti says. “You can see this in board games that incorporate digital elements directly into the game.”
Descent: Legends of the Dark in particular has achieved a new level of integration. While your table is swarmed with dungeon tiles, miniatures, and cards, the digital application is handling the most interesting elements of the design space. It does the heavy lifting of managing weapon modifications and attacks, facilitating exploration, and delivering the game’s overarching story. The smooth transition between digital and physical environment is nothing short of radical.
“There’s a lot to be gained through a conversation between the two media,” says Gloomhaven designer Isaac Childres.
Video and board games are more intertwined than ever before. The industries have intermingled, resulting in an offspring of innovation. And the movement is accelerating. We may be on the cusp of something different, possibly even radical. It’s likely the blurred line will disintegrate in the coming years and we may have a new type of game that defies platform boundaries. The potential here is enormous.