Last month, I finally went to see what people were talking about with this whole “play free turn-based online” thing on Yucata (and have since also started using Boîte à Jeux), which has prompted me to consider an conversation among board gamers: Do board games played online “count” as board games?
Certainly there are many who see no reason to make a distinction, or to be concerned about whether there is one, and they move on. To many of us, though, it does matter. There are very real differences. Online play is more efficient in terms of set-up and rules regulation. The increased efficiency allows for a faster game if the game is played in real-time, with both players sitting right at their computers, taking their turns immediately. If play is turn-based, or asynchronous, however, it could be days before your opponent logs back on, takes one turn, sees you’re not online at that moment to make your immediate retort, and logs off to play again another day. I just finished a game of Tally Ho! on Yucata that took nearly three weeks! In my experience, this last is by far the exception, but even if a game takes a couple of days, the nature of the game has to have changed. When you are living your life, sleeping, playing other games, drinking cranberry juice, all between two turns of the same game, I wonder if some of the essence of the game isn’t lost along the way.
Another huge difference to me is the aesthetics, both in terms of the visual aesthetics, and tactile. I like a pretty game, an interesting-looking game. I like twisting a piece in my hand as I contemplate its future. The visual aesthetic of the online board games varies hugely. Some of them are very basic, so that they are scarcely recognizable as being the game that they’re meant to be, while others emulate the game board nearly perfectly. Just this morning, I decided to compare the renderings of Torres on Yucata and Boîte à Jeux. They’re different, competent in their renderings of the abstract rules of the game, and both almost completely divorced of the theme of the game. It’s a bit sad. The Yucata version uses squares for the towers, with numbers in the center to show height. Color-coded circles show the knights and the king. The border around the board depicting a castle is the only nod to the theme of the game. The Boîte à Jeux version is little more thematic, but at least the king is a crown, rather than a circle of another color.
I get that it’s a 3D game, and hard to render on a simple platform. I’m not criticizing. I’m just wondering if it’s still Torres, then, or an abstract computer game called Torres. It would be unfair of me to neglect the counter-example that is Yucata’s picture-perfect version of Yspahan, which is essentially an animated scan of the game, and looks different only in its number of dimensions.
A difference that may be more particular to me is that I find the online games more difficult to learn. My learning style with games is very interactive. I love to have an experienced player to ask questions of, but if I don’t, I like to be able to at least consult with my fellow new player on points of rules to be sure I have things right. When the computer instantly executes things for us, I can’t ask anyone what just happened, and that can be irritating. Once in a while, I use the chat feature to ask the other player a question, and sometimes they are helpful, but it’s not an ideal way to do it, and I can’t ask many questions that way.
For some people this lack of interaction is a key issue, whether bug or feature, with online board gaming. For the most part, there is no personal interaction at all, in my experience. Some people will give a generic greeting in the chat box, but this is not a place to comment on movements in the game. People come to play, and they make friends on their own time. This is, in my view, very similar to the “anonymous” phenomenon I talked about in an earlier post with respect to Games Day events. Sometimes people just need people to play with, and they don’t want or need to make friends with them. Not everyone shares that utilitarian view of gaming events, but I think it’s valid, and I think it’s very similar to online board gaming interaction, or lack thereof.
So why does any of this matter? Logistically, it matters to me because I log my plays, and I have, so far, not felt it would be somehow fair to count my online plays equally with my face-to-face plays. I feel less than comfortable not counting them at all, though, because many of the games I play online are games that are never going to be available to me any other way, so these are the only plays of these games I will ever have. In my own case, online gaming doesn’t take away from my board gaming life. I spend the same amount of time doing actual board gaming. In the meantime, though, when I am not able, for one reason or another, to sit down and play a game with someone, I might play an online game in the same time I might otherwise have used to read another game review, or similar.
I think online board gaming is a positive thing. It gives us access to a huge library of games on a number of sites, including the two I have discussed. This list on Board Game Geek purports to be exhaustive on the topic of board games one can play for free online, and it has 650 games listed, many of them on multiple platforms. It gives us the opportunity to play games we might not have access to otherwise with partners we might not have access to otherwise. Turn-based gaming fits into the time we have available to play. I’m excited about the possibilities, especially in terms of playing games I haven’t played before, and plan to continue to explore them. My only conundrum now is how to keep track of what I’ve played.