Tabletop Games With Computer-based Elements

edited December 2018 in Game Design Help
I've lurked on this website for a long time and learned a lot. I've contributed only a few times. Perhaps I don't deserve anyone's help, but I'd like to ask people for their opinions in regards to tabletop game play that has certain isolated elements controlled by a laptop or mobile app.

I've already seen a few comments in unrelated threads, such as "...the idea of needing a computer and a printer to play a game is nuts...," so I realize some people are going to be visualizing a certain setup that is a pain in the ass.

My vision is Avalon Hill type tabletop games (or with miniatures) that have some extended functionality handed over to the computer, without it being a hassle for the players. That is the focus of this post.

However, DM & GM-facing computer-based tools are interesting, so if you are a GM and this has you thinking, feel free to comment.

What I'm referring to would keep the social group exeperience of a tabletop game. It would not force players to use a computer. A single laptop or mobile device would add some features to the experience.

But the game would be an actual tabletop game that keeps traditional approach to a map or game board, actual miniatures, the dice is still rolled on the table, there are physical paper character sheets.

So what features would players like to see in this scenario?

What can be added without involving players at all:

* music
* time of day/night
* weather

These three elements do not require player interaction for the computer to be able to deliver this to the overall experience.

Imagine a 15-foot long miniplug cord that is delivered with a tabletop game. This miniplug cord goes from the laptop (or mobile device) to your stereo or surround-sound system, or any other speaker setup.

With that one addition of a cord, it's possible to deliver high-quality audio to a tabletop game.

The naysayers would say: "I don't want to be forced into using specific audio." But the reality is that the best movies and computer games have high-quality audio that is hard-wired into the experience, and players will never take the time to assemble some sort of audio soundtrack for a tabletop game (maybe you have if your hardcore into RPG and you put together a music mix for your D&D game, etc., but most people will never take the time to do that).

Then, there are a few other elements that can be added to the computer-engine, that is "loosely coupled," meaning that the players will not have to type or do a lot of clicking. A USB button could be added easily and when this button is pressed, the engine can deliver:

* events
* quests
* or the passage of time without events or quests, which can also build suspense.

At this point, it is possible to manage "world state" for the tabletop game, which has never been done with tabletop games, that I know of.

World state is what the DM traditionally keeps track of when actions change the state of the world. If you kill the dragon, then that dragon will not be available for future events, etc.

Thus, the completion of certain quests can change "world state" and this is managed by the engine, and affects what other events happen or quests are delivered.

(An example of this type of dynamic quest engine with world state can be seen here, if you're interested.)

What we want is to keep people focused on the board game or tabletop game, and not having to mess with the computer or phone all the time.

But to say that technology cannot be used to enhance tabletop games is narrow-minded and short-sighted in my opinion.

I'm interested in knowing what features that experienced players would like to see in a tabletop game engine, to enhance the experience.

As a novelist, I once imagined a D&D-type technology that was like VR, but only in that your characters and the scenery and the monsters were all CGI and dynamic. A dungeon master controlled the game just like any D&D experience. But of course, in the novel, the technology for that D&D game was based on ET tech.

Of course, in the real world we have to scale it back a bit because we don't have alien ET tech to enhance the tabletop games (at least I don't anyway).

However, I am a professional full-time Unity game dev, so what I'm describing in this post is actually possible, and I have a working prototype.

One final thought: I'd like to ask anyone who comments to assume that the "creation" of computer-based tools can be done well, without bugs, and without hassle in setup. Thus, we would not be discussing whether a game designer is able to complete a working computer-engine prototype or product. I would love it if any discussion could be about what features would be cool, and not whether it's possible or not, etc.

Thanks!

David Lieder

Comments

  • I think that's an eminently feasible goal. I like the way you phrase your initial thoughts, as well. Good topic.

    I would like to suggest that centralized, elegant GM control of the whole business would be paramount to making this sort of thing flow well. I say this as an experienced GM who has started with a relatively clean and minimalistic presentation style, only slowly moving into more elaborate tools over time: for me flexible control of the tools is paramount.

    For example, I could totally see myself using background music as a deliberate part of a game - and not just fantasy adventures, but all sorts of things. However, my ideal setup would not be an off-the-shelf D&D clone with in-built soundtrack, but rather some sort of hardware and software combination that would encourage me to maintain and use soundtracks that could be flexibly created by myself or picked up ready-made. This would surely include both a general soundmat solution and various ways of controlling leitmotifs - I would want to be able to establish "theme songs" for various characters and situations, for example, if I went to the bother of planning a soundscape in the first place.

    Another example of a very promising GM-facing tool in this area is the use of sound effects as a storytelling technique. This would again by necessity be a very campaign-specific, GM-centric process, as the GM would need to internalize the tools and plan their own way of using them to improve their presentation. As an example of the possibilities here, consider how easy it would be to use these sorts of resources if the GM indeed decided to establish a computer and some speakers in the play space:

    Horrorli - A simple to use, customizable ambient sound source. Check out the user interface, that's simply fun to use.
    Scary Sounds - There's a lot of websites out there with ready-made horror sound effects; probably something to do with American Halloween culture.

    Moving on, the reason I brought this up is that I could see some of the particulars in your vision being deal-breakers for me personally as a GM. The line between being facilitated, supported and, ultimately, constrained and controlled by computer tools is an interesting one. I am sure that it depends a lot on the particular gaming project and the particular GM as to what they would accept.

    It might be useful to consider traditional non-electronic tools in this regard, as an example of what people will prefer. A very real example for me is the use of miniatures in fantasy adventure gaming: I find it untenable as a GM to base my campaign on a toy presentation that requires me to adapt the content of play to the available toys. Many other GMs are not bothered by this, or they might even thrive under the artificial constraint of only having this many orc figures available right now.

    Adding tools to manage events, quests, random encounters and such isn't that radical once the basic philosophy has been decided on; fundamentally that's just moving already existing fantasy adventure gameplay structures to the computer. The big thing is deciding how customizable the system is, and how much the people involved are supposed to be in control, exactly. Things like whether you want the computer to make forced encounter rolls when travel occurs, or if you want the GM to explicitly trigger them.

    Generally digital play tools so far have had a relatively high emphasis on facilitating the GM rather than forcibly shaping the play experience. It would certainly be interesting if a more aggressive approach would find favour among gamers.
  • Have you ever heard of ViewScream? It's a LARP designed to be played via video chat, and includes screen overlays and audio files.
  • edited December 2018
    I think that's an eminently feasible goal. I like the way you phrase your initial thoughts, as well. Good topic.

    I would like to suggest that centralized, elegant GM control of the whole business would be paramount to making this sort of thing flow well. I say this as an experienced GM who has started with a relatively clean and minimalistic presentation style, only slowly moving into more elaborate tools over time: for me flexible control of the tools is paramount.
    Hey, that's very cool.

    So there are two threads happening now:

    1) my vision to have a tabletop game that has one laptop or mobile device that delivers enhanced experience

    2) GM tools

    My vision was to be used when a GM is not available. But you've opened up my mind about GM tools also.

    My biggest heartache about loving D&D and Avalon Hill type games is that it is often hard (for me) to find a GM, and with tabletop, they lack features that I like in modern computer games, like music.

    A GM-tool for audio is possible.

    However, the main focus of my question is in regards to live tabletop experiences that will have one computer adding enhancements, and the players are focused on the game and not the computer screen.

    What I'm searching for is what type of features players would like to have added to a "live" tabletop experience.

    In regards to a GM-facing audio tool, It's a good idea, but it would be a separate project from what I'm trying to describe in this post, which is not specifically about GM-facing tools, and where I've imagined tabletop games that don't have GMs, including Avalon Hill type games.
  • edited December 2018
    Have you ever heard of ViewScream? It's a LARP designed to be played via video chat, and includes screen overlays and audio files.
    Yeah, Viewscream is an interesting game, but I consider it more of a video game. It requires everyone to use a mobile device or computer. In my opinion, this kills the social experience traditionally associated with tabletop games. One problem with computer games and even AR (Augmented Reality) is that players eyes are glued to a screen and this limits interaction.

    It's the exact same issue in regards to whether Facebook and "social media" is social in any sense, or on the contrary, if "social media" is completely or partially an artificial and bogus replacement for real intimacy.

    So my assumption is that:

    TABLETOP GAMING = SOCIAL INTIMACY

    COMPUTER GAMING = BREAKDOWN OF SOCIAL INTERACTION (sorry for the caps).

    Thus, my use of the computer would be only to enhance a traditional tabletop experience, and not to replace it. This is not a video game. It's an enhancement to the traditional experience. Players are focused on each other and the table top. My assumption has been that the big appeal of tabletop and RPG table games is that you can have some real social interaction with family or friends, drink some whiskey, and even throw in silly stuff or chat about non-game events. So that's the normal tabletop experience, and I'm not trying to replace that, I'm just enhancing it. I don't want to force players to glue their eyes to a computer. Tabletop is about interacting with each other, IMO.
  • edited December 2018
    Would the game you envision end up looking something like Republic of Rome or other similar complex board wargames, except with the computer providing multimedia and heavy lifting on tracking and resolution? Or, perhaps something like Talisman or Arkham Horror, casual beer and pretzels type adventure boardgames with lots of components and procedures that could be digitalized out of the way? I could see something like that working well. In fact, I rather expect computer-assisted boardgames to hit in a big way in the near future. There are already some where the computer-assistance is integral, e.g. Space Alert.

    I was initially thinking about this as a roleplaying game problem, but it sounds like you're envisioning something with less raw fiction-based play and more of a regular boardgame structure. (No problem with that, and it's not like there aren't all sorts of hybrids between the mediums anyway. Just trying to figure out where you're coming from with this.)

    EDIT: Yes, you answered my question neatly in a cross-post. Excellent. I think that this looks like an amazing project that could very well find an excited audience. As with all things, a solid implementation is a lot of work, of course.
  • edited December 2018
    Would the game you envision end up looking something like Republic of Rome or other similar complex board wargames, except with the computer providing multimedia and heavy lifting on tracking and resolution?
    Yes that's exactly what I mean.

    What you (and I) are talking about could be used for a variety of games. What they have in common would be that the APP would be matched to a specific game. For example, my app would be matched to the game I've created, which has it's own map (game board) and it's own system

    But any game could have an app associated with it. My theory is that it will only work if it is very easy and if it is not a hassle or pain in the ass to set up and use. It must also be "in the background" and not take away from the social experience of tabletop gaming.

    In my own case, I created a world in a few novels that I wrote, and I then just made a game world from it. I have not published the novels and the game is more interesting to me.

    I write music and have done that all my life, and I am a Unity developer (not to brag), so I'm sitting here thinking "why can't I write music for my game, or have time of day and weather, because that would be easy to do with an app." I mean that I spent 25 years studying and doing music production and went to college for music composition, so I'm sitting here thinking "why can't I add music to my tabletop game?"

    I mean, it's my game, so it seems that would be cool if I wrote music or had audio. That just seemed like something I wanted to add to a tabletop experience.

    There are also a lot of reasons to create an "enhanced tabletop" game, and not an actual video game:

    1) tabletop is a completely different experience from video games
    2) tabletop is having a renaissance in this age of Facebook and fake intimacy online
    3) an actual video game is extremely complex and requires huge financial commitments, without knowing if the end result will be accepted, but a tabletop game is easier to create and implement. I mean that a video game costs literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it right, but with a tabletop game it's realistic for one person to work their ass off for a few years on their own and have something great.

    As you have said, theoretically, a dedicated app could be made for a game like WarHammer with a ton of miniatures, to add an OST. But the app would match the game. One question is whether people would use it or not for already established games. I can't see RISK or WarHammer tabletop gamers suddenly setting up an app when they play. So in my case, I have created an actual new tabletop game with a new original world, to go along with the enhanced innovation. It's a forward-thinking project that might not embrace the past.

    Thus, in my game, the quests and events are specific to the board game. It's also possible to use the same engine and have "downloadable" expansions that work the same way but create a new map and gaming experience, new music, new quests, etc. That is easy to do with an app, but not easy to do with a box game.

    But if players don't have a GM and they want to play a tabletop game, this brings "game state" and "world state" and "dynamic quests", as well as the audio we discussed.

    Obviously, my mind is trapped in the perspective of a developer, but I think I have got this one thing right: that I want to maintain the "live" and social experience of tabletop gaming and not force players to have to be messing with the computer all the time.
  • Yeah, that all sounds doable. You should obviously take a gander at the prior art, and the way people actually use computers in various types of tabletop gaming today. It's starting to pick up in all kinds of ways nowadays.

    As an arbitrary example, I spent much too much time playing Gloomhaven last winter for social reasons. It's one of these fantasy adventure boardgames that provide an experience somewhat similar to modern D&D (or similar video games, of course). Lots of bits and bops in there, you want to have a large table and take your time setting up. After a few sessions we came to greatly favour using fan-made computer assist tools for dealing with certain upkeep and tracking tasks in the game - monster tracking in particular. It just took less table space and required less handling of cardboard tokens to do it on computer. Still not as elegant as a full rpg treatment of the same thing, but better; boardgames tend to have a lot of state tracking that's actually handled through some pretty clumsy user interfaces; the modern German style boardgame product design avoids using e.g. pen and paper like it was the plague, so we end up with these cardboard token hellscapes in the more complex games.

    So there, that's a practical example of a boardgame with computer integration of the kind you're thinking of. There are a bunch of these, I imagine that looking for "boardgame digital support tools" or something like that in search engines would uncover all sorts of interesting stuff. Plus talented people interested in working on that sort of thing, of course. There's certainly a lot of people out there who are quite willing to create digital tools for their favourite boardgames as a hobby project, not to speak of joining a serious enterprise of some sort.

    And if you're doing a digital component for the boardgame, then yeah, by all means do a soundtrack as well. Why not, at that point it's sure to add to the experience in all kinds of ways.

    One more stray thought around this topic: those who aren't familiar with the Dark Tower boardgame should perhaps take a gander. It might be the first commercial boardgame with a major computer-assisted element - I don't remember an older one off-hand, at least. Interesting stuff, even if it only amounts to a gimmick in the end.
  • After a few sessions we came to greatly favour using fan-made computer assist tools for dealing with certain upkeep and tracking tasks in the game - monster tracking in particular. It just took less table space and required less handling of cardboard tokens to do it on computer.
    Very cool. There seems to be an evolution going on. Actually, what you're describing is perfect. Players creating exactly what they need is worth a good look. Great input; thanks.
  • edited December 2018
    Clearly it's needed. Right now people do it themselves, but a professional could do better.
    Character creation tools are there since the Internet.
  • edited December 2018
    I could totally see myself using background music as a deliberate part of a game - and not just fantasy adventures, but all sorts of things.
    Not to change topic, but in my study for this post I have found two audio solutions you can take a look at for your own GMing:

    The best one is free and even has broadcast ability for online playing: Tabletop Audio - an awesome free GM audio solution

    Syrinscape has the official support of WOTC and a large and growing library, although it is a little pricey: Syrinscape starting at about $7 per month, is a massive and amazing audio tool for GMs
  • edited December 2018
    A data point you might find of interest is this game Golem Arcana.
    (Second link I could find: http://golemarcana.com/tutorials/)

    It's Warhammer, or maybe more properly Battle tech, mediated entirely through an app.
    The game comes with a magic stylus so that I can do things like touch the base of my guy, touch the map square I'm in, and do the same regarding your guy.. it'll then calculate range, cover, blah blah, and roll the digital dice.

    I don't know if it's a fun game, but the novelty caught my attention. I wonder whether the experience is engaging your human opponent, staring at your tablet, or what.

    Throwing this out as perhaps a limit case regarding computer use in a game.

    -Matt
  • It's beautiful but ... so much integrated. Like in "pay to be a captive".
  • edited December 2018
    I haven't seen that one Garbanzo, but I do recall hearing about a bunch of early attempts to employ computers in mid 80s/early 90s miniatures wargames. It's seems to have been especially popular among a niche of naval miniatures wargamers.

    Textman, you might go looking for info on that. Mind you, that's decades old stuff at this point.

    At a guess, it was pretty much what you've guessed at and Eero has been describing, a combo of state tracking and a way to simply offload calculations.

    Given that it seems to have been popular with naval wargamers, that certainly seems like the sort of thing they'd want in that period. Naval minis games of that period are a bit infamous for being maths heavy, with repeated uses of fairly complex calculations to resolve pretty much everything.

    BattleTech is somewhat a part of that family tree as well, so again, no surprises.
  • I handle custom soundtracks all the time. They're usually more score than music cues, though.

    At some point someone is going to realize there is absolutely no reason to publish a $60 book when you can sell a $10 app that does everything the $60 book (and the $10 dice) does except better.
  • Except that $60 price tag is a feature in itself, so not likely. It's not as if the added value it gets you today (what, paper, hard covers and shiny color?) is worth it outside a conspicuous consumption context. If the current model of what a premium publication entails were to lose its luster, it would merely inspire the invention of new gimmicks to maintain the price distinction. That $60 price tag exists because that's what the middle-class market affords, not because of anything to do with the production costs.

    This phenomenon can be seen in how computer games still cost - who would have guessed - $60, despite lacking paper, hard covers and shiny color printing. That's just what the middle-class wants to pay for its mid-size entertainment parcel these days.
  • Physical books last virtually forever. Computer apps last about ten years. It would be hard to play games older than ten or 20 years, but lots of people have books (especially gaming books) from the 70's or 80's.

    The benefit of technology is power and accessibility (can spread info or apps around the world), but because of the constant change in electronics, the purpose would not be for longevity.

    Thus, game books and printed materials have a lot more benefit. You don't need an expensive machine (mobile device or computer) to view it or use it.

    So there are good reasons to publish $60 books.

    My desire to use technology is because of the short-term power it offers, not because it replaces anything.
  • edited December 2018


    This phenomenon can be seen in how computer games still cost - who would have guessed - $60, despite lacking paper, hard covers and shiny color printing. That's just what the middle-class wants to pay for its mid-size entertainment parcel these days.
    $60 for a computer game is because it is easy to spend a few million dollars creating one title, even for an indy studio. I've spent $40,000 on the project I've been working on full-time for a few years now, and that is a huge amount for me to invest in a single speculative product.

    If I made a book, I would be looking at a file in InDesign or Word and a whole lot of time and energy put into it, but the cost would be minimal.

    So $60 for a computer game is reasonable when you consider the actual cost. But if you look at Steam, most games are not $60, they are between $15 to $30. If you sell a game for $5 then people are going to be a lot more open minded and supportive and forgiving.

    To finish my current video game project, I need a staff of full-time artists. And I can't fund that. So having a live game board with some minor tech enhancement is possible, and might be all I can actually do in the end. Plus the planning for a physical book and building up a base around your physical game can be a good foundation for a Kickstarter towards a larger project, or a customer base that would buy a video game once it's completed.

    So the book has a lot of benefits, including the aspect of planning...

    The biggest flaw of most video games is that they lack planning and depth, which is the biggest strength of tabletop games (planning and depth). I'm just saying that if planned correctly, there is a logical flow in production, IMO.

    Book ---> Tabletop game ---> Video game alpha test ---> Kickstarter ---> Steam Early Access ---> multi-platform and multi-language release.

    But without the book, the rest would lack depth, usually.

    The real question is if we love something enough to follow through all that. I love what I'm doing, so I probably would.

  • edited December 2018
    A data point you might find of interest is this game Golem Arcana.

    I don't know if it's a fun game, but the novelty caught my attention. I wonder whether the experience is engaging your human opponent, staring at your tablet, or what.

    Throwing this out as perhaps a limit case regarding computer use in a game.

    -Matt
    I looked up Golem Arcana and that looks very cool.

    HERE'S THE ACTUAL LINK FOR GOLEM ARCANA

    It looks like they had a working prototype done when they made the Kickstarter. Aside from anything else, it raised over $500,000 so there were people that liked the idea.

    I don't like that Golem Arcana is so rigid.

    One benefit of a live game board or even GM type play is the flexibility. In Golem Arcana, what if one of the pieces or a pen breaks? Then it's over.

    With what I'm thinking about, the tech would add cool enhancements, but the action would still be happening on the table, and it's impossible to break a dice (or if you did, then it's easy to replace a dice or even a standard miniature.

    In fact, one cool thing about miniatures is that theoretically you could replace them, paint them, or whatever. You could drop LOTR miniatures onto some game board and adjust the rules, if you wanted to.

    So that flexibility is very cool, and I can't see that removing it helps.

    Perhaps a lesson here is that the tech should not be a "game breaker". Maybe an "enhanced" game should be playable without tech (as a standalone physical game), but if you use the tech it adds more content and adds depth of experience.
  • Audio means nothing to me when it comes to table-top gaming, actually, it sounds rather annoying and is a distraction. I'd rather have infinite smart maps, character sheets, and board games that are pet and/or wife proof. Ones that I can play face to face or online with my friends (and perhaps both at the same time.)

    https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1351049/digital-tabletop-keep-lights

    Software-wise, I use TableTop Simulator and Roll20 a lot.
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