A couple of times a year, my friend and colleague Julian Murdoch crams his house full of friends, beer, and board games. The moment that I walked in the door, I was yanked into a game of Shadows over Camelot. As I sat down and listened to an explanation of how the game worked, I realized that I was nervous. Not because I had just met twenty near-strangers, with the promise of more, but because I've been a PC strategy gamer all my life. The simpler, more sociable gaming that marked that weekend was outside my comfort zone. I'm glad Julian and our friends helped me get over that, because the future of strategy gaming is a return to what people like me once considered its past.
The ascendance of board games and their design philosophies might be one of the healthiest things that has happened to gaming in a long time, an overdue corrective to a cult of complexity that grew up alongside PC hardware. A platform that initially allowed the joys of hardcore board gaming without the frustrations also served to remove limits on designer's ambitions or grognard's appetites. Writer Bruce Geryk suspects this helped hasten wargaming into near-irrelevance.
"But the biggest obstacle to making simpler computer wargames is that a lot of people don't like simple games, period," he wrote in 2005. "Almost the first thing you'll read on any official forum where a new historical strategy game has been released is someone asking for a patch to simulate some minor detail, without which the poster asserts the game is worthless."
I will cop to being like the people Geryk is describing here. The last board game that I played seriously was Advanced Squad Leader. It shaped my expectations and marked the upper limit of complexity that was feasible with a board game. With games like that as examples, it seemed like the next evolutionary step was to let computers handle all the complexity to make even more detailed, vivid, and realistic games. To gamers like me, all of that added up to better gaming. But as Geryk has pointed out, there is a line that gets crossed between a game and a way of life.
"If you're playing a competitive game, you have to account for all this detail in order to have a chance to win," he said. "The problem is that a lot of people don't see computer games as competitive games in the same way they would if they were board games. Instead, they're projects, almost like extended role-playing games that you lose yourself in for hours at a sitting."
At its best, this baroque approach to strategy design has led to brilliant examples of historical simulation like Europa Universalis III. But it's also a philosophy that leads to unfocused orgies of minutiae. It also abandons board gaming's virtues.
"Most board games have a vastly smaller ruleset than your average videogame," EA2D's Soren Johnson says. "The advantage of this is clarity - the player can essentially fit the whole game in his or her head at the same time. Plus, the best board games show that this simplicity does not necessarily preclude strategic depth. And, of course, game designers tend to be avid board gamers as playing a new board game tends to be the quickest way to learn a novel system of game mechanics, as most videogames tend to rehash one another."