Outside of work hours (or work assignments), I'm finding myself playing as many board games as I am video games these days. I'd long assumed the reasons for this was the obvious: that sitting around a table, beer in hand, was an infinitely more social experience than sitting on my couch shouting at strangers (if I was talking to anyone at all).
But on Saturday night, I think I came to a realisation. I wasn't playing board games for the social interaction. I mean, I was, but that wasn't the main reason I was moving little pieces around a table instead of sitting in a room playing FIFA or Madden or Mario Kart, all video games that could be just as social as anything played hunched over some cards and pieces.
The reason was physical.
I spent Saturday night playing Wings of War. It's a fantastic game, originally designed as a card game but later adapted into something you play on a table using wonderful little plastic models of fighters. Part of the physical appeal of this is, yes, the fighters themselves. They're very collectible, and one of my buddies does just that, buying plane after plane not just for use when we play the game, but just so he can add them to his menagerie.
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It's a pleasure pushing them around a table, lining them up for shots, making little "pew pew pew" noises as they get into combat. Just like an avatar in a video game helps with immersion and identification, so too does having your fighter in this game represented by a detailed model instead of something more abstract.
The main appeal of this physicality, though, was the mess it made of things. Wings of War is a game that takes place with no grids, or dice, or anything else that guarantees accuracy and conformity. You move your planes around on an open battlefield, and wherever they're pointing at the end of a turn is where your shots will be fired.
This means that the slightest bump — whether intentional or not — can change the game. A shot that had been out of range is suddenly dealing damage, all because you bumped a fighter when reaching for a beer. A movement that looked to one set of eyes to have been illegal is, to another, totally fine.
Wings of War also includes some cards and rules that, to us at least, seem a little much. It's not unusual for a player to be out of the game early thanks to a couple of unlucky damage card draws, only to sit there for 30 mins while everyone else dukes it out. That's unfair, so we took those cards out. The rules say they're meant to be in there, but fuck it, we didn't like them so we changed the rules.
This might sound horrific to you if you crave the absolute arbitration that video games can offer. In a video game, there is no grey area. No bumps. Every angle, movement and decision is calculated down to the smallest detail, and there are no grounds for mediation. You take the computer's ruling and you either like it or quit.
I love the conflict, though, that can arise between the player and the rules. That battle of wills, where the spirit of the law goes up against the letter (and the other players). Contested moves and decisions become more than just a move, they become legal debates over laws and their purpose, and a contest between players as much as it is between players and the rulebook.
It adds so much more drama to a game. It also adds depth and interest to it; I remember some of the better moves and shots from my game on Saturday night, sure, but the things I remember most were the hotly-contested decisions and accusations of tampering, of missed card draws and fudged damage counting. Or those times where a rule seemed unfair, or stupid, and so was cast aside. Elements of the game that had a human side to them, that told a story, that weren't just cold calculations.
Imagine if, instead of simply suffering through lag in a multiplayer shooter, lag was something that could be argued? Or a lost battle in Civilization replayed because you had a suspicion the computer's dice fell off the table and had to be re-rolled?
I could say I wish there was more of this exciting inconsistency in video games, but no. That would be beside the point (and also weird; why would you specifically program something to be less specific?). Instead, it just serves as the latest reminder that for all the advancements made in networks, game design and visuals, there are some things video games may never do better than board games (unless we're talking PC games and mods, which is a whole other story).
Cute little model planes being one, but arguments over human error/cheating being another.