The lights are on
Above: A scene from 2011's Gen Con, the largest tabletop convention in North America
In recent years, we’ve been trying to share some of the great crop of recent tabletop games with Game Informer readers. For many, these articles are likely unneeded – you’re already playing tabletop RPGs like D&D and Shadowrun, card games like Ascension or the Pathfinder card game, or board games like Eldritch Horror or Mage Wars. For others, I hope these articles are pointing you towards new entertainment options you might have missed. However, I’ve seen some readers wonder why anyone would want to spend time on a tabletop game when there’s such a great mix of awesome video games to explore. I’m here to tell you exactly why.
While tabletop games appear in a physical format rather than a digital one, many of the fundamentals of quality game design are shared across the two mediums. Well balanced mechanics, beautiful art, elegant conflict resolution, and fun competitive or cooperative ideas are often universal. However, where video games sometimes allow a player to engage in a more passive role in understanding these game systems, tabletop games usually require players to take a glimpse behind the curtain and wrap their minds around the rules that underpin the game. In doing so, you can’t help but develop a deeper appreciation for design, testing, and production of a game. When a musician crosses over to a new instrument, they may be forced to learn new ideas about how to play, but the basics of musical notation, melody, and rhythm remain the same. Similarly, the principles that you grasp in tabletop gaming carry over into a deeper understanding of video games, even though the output of those systems is in a dramatically different format.
Even if you’re not interested in developing a deeper understanding of game design, there’s no arguing with the rich social opportunities of tabletop games. Gathering around a space to play games and tell stories is one of the foundations of human civilization, and tabletop gaming is an activity that draws on that almost primal need to be together and commune around an organized concept. Great friendships are formed around a fun board game or rich role-playing campaign, because friendships are founded in shared experience. The stories and competition that are fostered by playing games in-person with one another are rewarding in a way that’s very different from online video games. That’s not to say that online multiplayer has nothing to offer in terms of social fun, but tabletop games are almost always a path to deeper relationships with others. We remember the games we play together, and those experiences can feel like grand adventures, even though they only played out in our minds and conversations around the table.
Some video game players share my enthusiasm for rich fictional worlds and narrative, and love the variety of characters and fictional histories that make those worlds come alive. Games like The Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy had their roots in an emulation of tabletop games, and if you’re a fan of these rich fictions, there are whole new realms to investigate in the tabletop world. Many board, card, and tabletop role-playing games live in fascinating settings, many of which have their own histories, technologies, and characters. In addition, unlike in the video game world, where licensed products are sometimes a sign of low quality, many of the tabletop adaptations of popular movies, TV shows, and even video games have turned out to be excellent in their own right. For fans of those universes, tabletop games set in the same fiction provide new outlets for excitement and exploration.
Finally, tabletop games are simply another branch of the gaming hobby, and you owe it yourself to find out if you like what they have to offer. Many video gamers start their hobby because they fall in love with a particular game or series, like Mario or Halo. But over time, most gamers discover that rather than limiting themselves to one genre or franchise, the best way to enjoy the hobby is to try out the entire rich tapestry that is the world of video games. That same principle applies to tabletop gaming; why limit yourself to one part of the gaming hobby without finding out if you like a whole other part of it? Undoubtedly, lots of gamers enjoy first-person shooters, but don’t like sports games. Similarly, I have no doubt that certain hobby board games just aren’t going to strike everyone’s fancy. But it’s almost certainly worth a try.
Tabletop games offer nearly endless levels of replay for what is often the same cost or less than a single video game purchase. If you left behind board games in childhood, and haven’t played anything since Monopoly and Clue, then your knowledge of tabletop games is like those folks who think every video game is like Pac-Man; countless innovations have shaped the tabletop gaming world in the last few decades, and the last ten years in particular have seen an explosion of fantastic ideas. The next time you and your buddies are trying to decide what to play this weekend, I’d challenge you to settle in around a great tabletop game, and find out what you’re missing.
Email the author Matt Miller, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.