Zero-Download, Multi-Device Link and Play

by Tim Mensch, 2013-05-10 23:39

Image by Tim Mensch

I play board games with friends a few times a month. Since my time at these game nights is limited, I would like to dive right in and play, but set-up and clean-up of games takes a lot of time. Waiting for other players takes a lot of time. General upkeep takes a lot of time.

That's why I like tablet board games. They handle the busywork and save a lot of time. What's more, you can play against the computer, or against a friend over the Internet. But a huge reason I enjoy board games is the real-time interaction around the table. Even with their time-saving benefits, every last one of the tablet-based board games that I've seen has been inferior to the traditional board game for in-person multiplayer.

Existing Tablet Board Games

Typically, if a game requires private information, the best tablet games I've seen will make you pass the tablet back and forth, slowing the game down more than the cardboard & token version. I don't know about you, but I like being able to look at my hand of cards during my opponent's turn. With most tablet games, doing so is either difficult or downright impossible.

Yes, you can sort of make it work. But without a good option for hidden information, you're really missing out on the authentic board game experience.

Authentic Board Game Experience

I think what's needed is for the individual controls to be on your smartphone. Imagine it: the tablet sits in the middle of the table, serving as the game board; your smartphone sits in your hand, letting you look at your cards, count your money, or plot your moves in secret.

I've wanted to have this control scheme for many years, but even as recently as 3-4 years ago the technology wasn't there to get this right. And by "right" I mean, you buy one copy of the game to play with your friends, and no one else has to install anything.

Tablet Board, Smartphone Interface

Now that there are so many smartphones around, most people have one or more they could use to play the game. Have an extra? Let your friend who hates smartphones use it to play. Or they could use a tablet. Or a laptop. Or anything with a moderately recent web browser and an Internet connection, because the player interface is displayed on a web app.

And once you've got a device in everyone's hands, you can not only provide a more authentic board game experience, you can go beyond into new gameplay domains.

This control scheme is a big win for several reasons:

  • Simultaneous turns don't need to interfere with each other. You can design a game where players each work on their own turn privately. This can be good for gameplay reasons, where everyone makes their moves and then you see how their moves actually play out. And it can also be good for game FLOW reasons: If people can make their moves simultaneously, then the game can play faster.

  • Games with traitors can allow covert communication. Imagine a game like Battlestar Galactica where two cylons (the traitors) could secretly exchange messages.

  • Games can allow secret alliances. Convince Alice that Bob is going to win, and collaborate to prevent the win without Bob knowing what hit him.

  • No bookkeeping or upkeep. All of that annoying stuff that you need to do between turns? Handled.

  • Digital board games can teach you to play. I don't know if I've ever played a complex game completely correctly the first time -- the rules are often too complex to remember until I've played a game, even if I wanted to take the time to read the instructions cover-to-cover. A digital board game not only enforces all the rules, but can explain them to you as well. If you flag a player as a beginner, the game could even give strategy hints.

Putting it all Together

We're not as young as we used to be. We don't have entire weekends to devote to a single game of Diplomacy or Axis and Allies. But that doesn't mean we need to settled for a stripped-down version of board gaming on our tablets. By using smartphones as an interface, we can have the convenience of a tablet board game and still have an authentic board game experience.

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