Blurring the Lines

My love of video games stopped in about 1992. Most of the recent video games I’ve loved have fallen squarely in the footsteps of franchises established in the 16-bit generation. I still really love Mario and Zelda, and so forth, but a lot of the stronger story-based video gaming has eluded me. Not that such games aren’t good, I just never really got into them. Because of that, I never really identified with the video gaming culture. Instead I hitched my wagon to hobby board gaming, which is decidedly less cool. It’s interesting, because the two fields were kind of parallel 30 years ago. But since then, video gaming has become really big business, and board gaming has remained stuck in its niche. I don’t really have a lot of reasons for that, but it’s definitely the truth.

Of course, there’s been some crossover. Blizzard has licensed both Starcraft and Warcraft into board gaming form. Those were tackled by Fantasy Flight Games, in enormous coffin-sized boxes that cost $90. I really enjoyed my one game of Starcraft, but it’s hardly anything that could be a mainstream hit. It’s way too full of rules and pieces to ever be anything besides a hobbyist game. The truth is, video games are able to hide that level of administration behind the interface. When you play a video game RPG, you don’t need to keep track of what level your character is. The computer does it for you. So video games have always been able to get more complex without automatically alienating the mainstream player. When a board game gets complex, it demands a lot more of the player.

But what if a table game could replicate the addictive accessible nature of a video game without becoming a rules monster? Until recently, I hadn’t seen it. But in the last year or so, at least one designer has accomplished this feat not once, but twice. David Sirlin, of Sirlin Games, released a terrific game earlier this year called Yomi. I’ve talked about it already on this blog. Essentially, Yomi is a Street Fighter/Tekken game in card game form. The crux of the game is to anticipate your opponents moves, counter them, and use the upper-hand to blast through some sweet combos. The game has literally one page of rules, and it totally replicates the feeling of those late nights spent in front of Street Fighter II. It’s a triumph not only because it is so much fun as a card game, but because it actually feels like a video game.

Yomi box

Sirlin has also released another video game-inspired board game, this one based on the more obscure Super Puzzle Fighter. Puzzle Strike is a little less original than Yomi, since it takes a large portion of its DNA from the popular game Dominion. But it adds another level. I’ve you’ve played games like Tetris Attack, you know the pleasure derived from sending blocks or gems to your opponent. That’s the fundamental idea behind Puzzle Strike. As the game goes on, you accumulate gems that can be combined and then smashed and sent to your opponents. It’s a very primal, fun kind of competition, and once again, it transports the addictive quality of many video games into a cardboard box, without drowning the user in rules.

Puzzle Strike

Addictive doesn't begin to describe it.

Neither one of these games has broken through into a really mainstream place. They don’t have the distribution that will allow them to really be breakout hits. And the both are pretty pricey, even for hobby games. (although there are other options for the cost-conscious.) But they represent something pretty revolutionary to me. It’s the first time I’ve really seen a game designer take on video games directly, and succeed in making a comparable experience. Not only do they succeed, but they do so with flying colors. I’d love to see some more of these lines get blurred, because I think it could be something that breaks board gaming to a larger audience. If you ask me, the mainstream acceptance of board gaming lies in this direction, by taking cues from video games.

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