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Video (screencast): (The Nature of Games) Fundamental Game Format: Functional versus Cosmetic

Abstract: What is the "natural" format of a game? You can program a boardgame on a computer, or vice versa, but the physical format difference is more cosmetic than real. A man dressed as a woman is still a man, a boardgame on a computer is still a boardgame.

(The Nature of Games) Fundamental Game Format: Functional versus Cosmetic
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” Channel on YouTube

Game Formats?
Game format is whether a game is a tabletop board game, a tabletop card game, a TT RPG, a video game, etc.
And we could divide video games by platform, such as console, PC, tablet, handheld, etc.
But I won’t
Insofar as you can program a boardgame on a computer, or a cardgame, and vice versa, this format difference is more cosmetic than real

What is This?
Functional differences are ones that affect actual play
Cosmetic differences only affect appearance
Whether a game is physically a card game, board game, or video game is a cosmetic difference!
It’s like the difference between a man dressed “in drag” and an actual woman
Or a woman dressed to look like a man
Cosmetically, the first looks like a woman, the second like a man
Functionally, the first is still a man, the second still a woman

Example: I have a vaguely Stratego-like prototype space wargame being programmed for PC
It’s a board game, and will be even when it can be played on PC
There are fundamental factors that make this so
That’s the topic today, what are those fundamental factors?
E.g. we’ll find that many so-called board games are really something else, for which I don’t have a common name – Status Tracking games?

Why do Boards Exist?
If you think of classic (pre-commercial) board games, such as backgammon, chess, Nine Men’s Morris, mancala. Go, draughts (checkers), even Tic-Tac-Toe, etc.
Boards exist to depict maneuver or placement, and spatial relationships
There’s no other way to simply and conveniently do this: this is what boards are for
They depict racing or conflict - warfare in other words - in almost every case
Backgammon has conflict, but is mostly a racing game, as is mancala

But now . . .
Modern games often use some paper or cardboard in the middle of the table as a status tracker, not a field for spatial relationships
These are called “board games”, but then again, many card games are generically lumped in with “board games” when people talk
They don’t require boards – there are a variety of ways to track status
For example, you can depict worker placement on a piece of cardboard, but it can also be done via cards or other tokens

Arbitrary Definition?
Some people might suggest that any status-tracking game that isn’t primarily cards, must be a board game
They might say, a board for M/P & SR is just tracking a different status than the other status-tracking “boards”
I prefer not to say that, especially now that status-tracking is the strongest characteristic of video games
And especially when cards are used as status trackers so often in games these days
A resource management game, or a worker placement game, is fundamentally different from a war or racing game

So what is fundamental about card games?
Hidden Information!
Board games naturally reveal all (they’re supposed to, originally)
Card games naturally hide almost all information in a very simple way
Card games also provide more flexibility than board games for varying numbers of players

Number of Players
Think of how many board games (in the functional sense, where the board is used for M/P and SR) are for only two players
Board games are limited by the size and shape of the board
You could play Risk with eight, but the board’s really too small for that
Even if you provide extra pieces
Racing games can often accommodate lots of players, but wargames are more limited

Number of players involves downtime
A differentiator here: card and racing games take little time per player
Conflict games often take much longer per player, so a large number of players (eight, for example) leads to a lot of downtime

Yes, video games, even more than card games, hide information
They hide EVERYTHING except what the programmers choose to depict onscreen (or on printout, or with sound)
They’re also really good at complex calculation
But more important, video games can keep track of many things, invisibly, that would be difficult or impossible to track in a physical game
Record-keeping is part of Status-Tracking
So we could say “record-keeping” is the most fundamental aspect of video games!
With hidden info and calculation not far behind
Record-keeping, status-tracking, same thing – except the status is usually displayed (as on those bogus “boards” in tabletop games), where other records may be hidden
Video games can do both excellently well
In a sense, if costs were not wildly different, it would make more sense for all those status-tracking/record-keeping games to be video games
You don’t have to fiddle around with lots of cubes and cards, the computer keeps track for you
Unfortunately, programming (and computers to run programs on) costs a lot of money
And lacks the tactile feel, the “haptic” aspects of physical games
And lacks the social interaction of face-to-face gaming
Unless every player has a tablet that displays the game to each one (a future if not already a present)

“Demise” of Board Games?
So when I spoke, in another screencast, about the “demise” of board games, I was talking in the fundamental sense
The sense that a board is used to depict maneuver/placement and spatial relationships
Again, that includes most wargames and many racing games
Video games that keep track of maneuver or placement, and spatial relationships, are often called “boardgamelike”, aren’t they?
A board game is a board game because you need the board to show the spatial relationships, not because it’s convenient for showing status, not because it’s cardboard and sits in the middle of a table

Clarity of Semantics
We would be better off by saying something like:
“A boardgame in tabletop form” OR
“A boardgame in video form” when it has been converted to video
You could make a case that Civilization IV is both a boardgame and a status-tracking/record-keeping game in video format
But definitely a boardgame, as maneuver and geospatial location are very important
Perhaps record/status would be better than the longer name
But when so many people say “board game” when actually referring to a card game, semantics are a low priority with players . . .

Recent Example
At Prototype Com (Kissimmee FL) I saw a three player WW II prototype tabletop board game by Mark Gelston
While I’ve seen prettier prototypes, I’ve never seen one that required so much time and effort from the designer to make it (photo next)
Lots of cubes with stickers on them, hand-made displays with insets to hold cubes of many sizes down to small wood – lots to keep track of
I talked with Mark for a long time, and found the game models many significant aspects of WW II that are often ignored
But it would cost more than $200 to produce in the small print runs typical of wargames today
This is “naturally” a computer game, for all the work in this prototype

Functional versus Cosmetic. You have to think about the purpose of things to understand the fundamental functions. Don’t let appearances deceive you.


Great Video...

It's always nice to hear your thoughts on such "precise" aspects of the Board Game industry. Function vs. Cosmetics... Very informative!

Typically I am more "drawn" to Card Games.

I believe Card Games need more novel mechanics. With a board, you have that spatial aspect your mentioned which is largely "Cosmetic".

Card Games really need some kind of "twist". Take "Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule!" (BGDF member: gameogami). The constant flipping mechanic keeps players on their toes and adds unpredictability (or Chaos) to the game! :D

And my own game is a Deck-Builder. Which is almost all cards, except for a few dice (for variability) and some tokens (to keep track of score and HP).

I think it's because DESIGNING (As a component) a Board is a challenging and sort of difficult thing to do. IDK... Back in the day I used to love playing Rumoli: watch the pots grow of 7-8-9 or Ace-King. Sometimes with a couple dollars in each one. Would add a huge amount of tension - because even if you had the cards, did not necessarily mean that you would win the pot. Someone could throw away the "entrance" card like a 6 or a Queen... Making it more difficult to win the pot.

That's not to say that I don't find Board Games cool. I am usually amazed by the boards people design. Take wazzajack's Taxi game:

Very impressive and something very UNIQUE.

Maybe if sales of my game go well, I might be able to make the 3rd expansion which is some kind of "board with miniatures"... We shall see. Maybe with different styles... who knows.

In any case, great presentation. With such a *special* topic.

Q: Do you think Board & Card games will disappear into their Digital counterparts?

Board and card games have a

Board and card games have a "haptic" aspect (tangible feel) that digital games cannot reproduce. It's also a lot easier to carry around card games - small ones, not big ones like Dominion - and play a game almost anywhere. In the long run, though, likely electronic games will have a bigger and bigger influence, when it's possible for 4-5 people to play the same game on their phones while sitting at the same table/ in the same room.

Already, in college tabletop game clubs, the members spend more time in their lives (not at meetings) playing video games than tabletop games.

"Haptic" aspect

"Tradewars - Homeworld" will be sold in Game Sets, where each player has their own setup, cards and components, I think this adds a little bit of "personal attachment" (like this is MY game). And since cards do not mix with the cards of the other player, each Box Set is solely for one player...

I think the "haptic" aspect, being a "tangible" product, adds to the perceived value of the game. Because you have YOUR OWN box, cards and components, it emphasizes the duel or versus aspect of game play.

While I can't picture everyone on their "cell phones" playing a game "together"... perhaps some people will try to develop such games.

IDK having a "physical" product somehow adds to the *feel* of the experience. Each player using his/her own cellular phone seems "dumb"... But likely that someone will design such a game. Because it's a "small" device and limited to what is displayable.

Okay maybe an IPad could show you the "board" and you may "zoom in"... IDK. Still seems rather unpractical. And each person owning a IPad seems costly and REDUNDANT: it seems like a device you should be able to share with your family. It does not seem like a "personal device" ($800.00).

At that price you could buy "inexpensive" laptops... Anyhow maybe in the future PRICES will be different and IPads more "affordable". But given the HIGH DEMAND on such a product, I'm not sure how demand will affect the overall price of the device.

As far as "College TableTop Game Clubs", it would seem to me that the members spend their free-time as they enjoy. And that might include Video Games. As far as "Get Togethers" (which are NOT meetings), this should revolve around the "TableTop" industry not Video Games.

Meetings could be in determining what the club should "invest in next", "how to spend their budget (as a committee)" and figuring out what games they want to try next... Or it could be more "experience-oriented" doing some classical Role-Playing and designing D&D campaigns... Another creative pass-time. I don't think they should be "playing" video games during the time allocated to "TableTop Games"...

That's just my 5 cents!


Another comment

We all know that "Golemn Arcana" uses Table PC Integration. It helps in doing all of the "housekeeping" using your own device. And the device is used smartly in the sense that you pass the device to the active player.

It can randomize rolls or you can roll two d6s and input the results of that roll... Again smart use of technology (not being too intrusive).

I have not played the game - so I can't say "in reality" what a game FEELS like... Does the PC integration work? Can you play without it? Things like that. I watched a few videos on the game and do not have first hand experience with the game.

BUT IF it's able to COMPLEMENT as game for hiding and crunching all of the game's data... I'm certain people will like the experience. The problem is the cost to develop software for each Device: IPad, Table PC, etc.

So maybe if the device is LESS intrusive, sort of like a GUIDE... Could be interesting to see more games with this kind of technology. (And I'm not even talking about the Microdot technology used - pen; just Tablet integration with a Board Game)...

Update: If ADDING Table PC integration means that we can develop and design games with "richer content" like more statistics and number crunching... I think this could be an OVERALL progress of the TableTop industry (in general).

Does this mean that Board Game Designers will need to LICENSE a PLATFORM for their chosen devices? Perhaps, this is like buying the Unreal or the Quake III Engine and creating your own game based on the capabilities of that platform.

But I feel that "TODAY", this would mean CUSTOM implementation for each game - making producing "prohibitive" and added to the overall COST of making a TableTop Game...


In my book, the Table PC acting like a "Dungeon Master" is the NEXT BIG leap for this technology.

Let's forget "microdot technology" and focus STRICTLY on the control of the way the game gets played out.

In the FUTURE, I am willing to BET that you will be able to BUY bundles of RPGs adventures you can upload and use with your Table device. I think the RPG industry is ready for such a "revolution".

It would be probably by a GIANT like "WOTC" or "FFG", but one of those two will make the first "Table PC Integrated RPG". And it will be able to keep track of each player's statistics, in addition to having physical copies (IMHO). So the concept is to blend existing procedures and COMPLEMENT them with the Table PC.

To me this sounds like the NEXT version of RPGs...

As far as TableTop Games - I believe that this is FURTHER away. Just because TableTop Games are very different from each other. Whereas RPGs are similar in the managements of players (statistics) and allowing a DM to control the overall experience using Table PC integration.

This is just my take on WHERE the industry of RPGs will be going NEXT.

I could be wrong - but simplifying the platform of RPGs into something you could play along-side your IPad or Table PC seems like a plausible future for the RPG industry.

(IMHO) that's what I see as the NEXT big leap...

Comment on comments

Having attended five college game clubs in just the past two months - and many others over the years - I can tell you that no one cares about the budget except in that very small sliver of time when you decide what games to buy. (Some small clubs have no dues and no $$$$.)

Fortunately, even today at college clubs, most players not only don't play video games during the meetings, they don't have their phones out of their pockets. But I've surveyed two of the larger clubs, and players on average play more video than tabletop altogether.

I was talking about using smartphones (which are common now), not tablets, to play group games. Or if someone has a big tablet (12.2"?) the game could be passed around for each person to play.

Keep in mind the experiments (sorry, I have no reference) where young kids, given a choice of reading on an electronic device or on paper, preferred the former. Those kids are getting to high school age, certainly.

If I resort to computer-assisted tabletop design, the computer will run the opposition in a co-op game. Fairly simple computer programming can provide more options, smarter options, quicker than programming via cards can do.

There are already several sets of software to keep track of everything for tabletop RPGs, designed in this case for online play rather than FTF. I don't see why they couldn't be used for FTF as well. So far it hasn't been a Big Leap, but who knows.

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