Recently the Fantasy Flight XCOM Board Game caused something of a stir by using a digital app as not just an optional extra but rather a key integrated component to the game. The app, available on phones tablets and laptops, is vital to the game functioning as a timer and prompting players when new threats are appearing across the board.
Many welcomed this integration of digital and physical gaming while some were skeptical of the hybrid. Everyone though seemed to agree that it was new. I’m not sure everyone got this right.
In the early to mid nineties there were a number of “interactive” video board games featuring both original creations (Atmosfear, geddit, being the best selling) and popular licenses. When I was a wee boy I had the Star Wars game in which the imposing figure of Darth Vader would appear on screen giving his plans away in classic villain style.
I recently had the dubious pleasure of playing the Star Trek equivalent. There is no other way to say this, but it was really really bad. Simple roll and move mechanics were about the extent of the game, with some very minor adjustments. However waves of nostalgia and the hilarity that goes with the restrictions of the technology carried it onto a weird but highly entertaining experience.
The thing is when you’re dealing with a video cassette interactivity is obviously impossible. Even the illusion is a hard thing to conjure so tech savvy is the average 2015 brain. All of us who had played similar games in our youth universally agreed that they had been, on the whole, pretty fucking scary. They ran on timers, they shouted at you and threaten you. The pressure was on.
Now though they seem pathetic to the point of absurdity. But the designers were, I think, clued up to this fact and the little flourishes they stuck in are remarkably thoughtful and inventive even if they were just papering over the cracks.
The Star Wars version features Vader, doing his best to be menacing, informing you that if your first name begins with any of the letters featured in the words DARK SIDE then you’re already well on your way to becoming a Sith. I imagine even the disgraced George Lucas probably dug his own grave just so he could spin in it. But little Liam, back in ‘96, was so relieved that I wasn’t somehow about to turn into a baddy. Though the second letter of my name is an ‘I’ so I wondered if I might not be a little bit evil, and I kind of liked that (see about 5:07 bellow)
In the Star Trek game each player has to, of course, wear their comms badge (a flimsy little sticker) at all times. When the villainous Klingon captain Kavock addresses the players they must touch their badge in the instantly recognisable Trekkie style and reply “Yes Captain Kavock”. The danger in this, because it’s a video tape, is that players will reply to quickly and the big Klingon bastard will scream “ANSWER ME WORM” and you can’t get a word in edgeways. Not that it matters because it’s a video. He can’t hear you.
If you fail to complete the game in the specified time it informs you via the video that you are now trapped in a time loop, and you must begin your quest again and try this time to break the time loop. We didn’t have a VCR, instead we were using a youtube substitute, and so were denied the pleasure of watching this renegade Klingon moving backwards in blurry double time.
As I’ve said before this game was bad. It’s not even close to some of the modern classics people are enjoying all over the world. But what was amazing and what made this a worthy experience, albeit one I wouldn’t be too excited to repeat, was the little touches that the designers laid over the game to try to make it more engaging. From the coms badges to the bizarre medal ceremony post game and the rather ingenious rewind timeloop conceit there was a lot of thought that went into the trappings of this game if not the mechanics themselves.
Tabletop gaming always has it it’s heart the manipulation of card or plastic with the aim of creating a puzzle or challenge that will absorb it’s players for a while. They’re pretty much all variations on that central premise. There’s no doubt in my mind that designers and publishers have been getting more and more inventive with the variations they’re coming up with.
But even then, even in a dusty dated old roll and move game, even then there were some ridiculous asides that just made it work.
There’s no grand conclusion here, though I did come away from that game thinking just how spoiled we are these days. I’m certainly not saying I’d have it any other way however it’s clear that the idea of play and fun are subjective and in many cases you get what you give. The game’s rule were so ephemeral I couldn’t really write an eviscerating review of them if I tried. That doesn’t matter though because I, and my tablemates had fun. God knows how, but we did.