Dan Thurot says:
Space-Biff! was responding to a Polygon article which implies that all gaming will geaux digital someday. Hmm. Now we are faced with two absolute statements: ‘The Future of Tabletop Games is Digital’ and ‘The Future of Tabletop Games is Not Digital’.
Contrarians, unite. Absolute statements such as the above should always be responded to in the negative. Sure, technologies advance and human civilization inexorably marches upwards and onwards. But, did you know that even today, with internet devices as ubiquitous as nose hair that you can still send a personal telegraph to someone?
I realize that I am fighting the hypothet, but isn’t the better question to ask whether digital tabletop gaming has finally arrived? I ask, because I have anecdotal evidence that digital tabletop gaming, in fact, has both arrived and not arrived at the same time.
Walk with me for a second back to the middle of 2020. When COVID-19 shut down our live gaming group here in Acadiana (and scuttled SoBo not once but twice), we naturally moved to the digital space, with mixed results. Digital SoBo? It stunk for the most part (although my individual experiences with gamers playing virtually were fine.)
And digital gaming isn’t even all that new to many of us. I’ve been playing Board Game Arena and Boiteajeaux and Yucata forever. I’ve always mixed in some Tabletop and Tabletop Simulator and even some Steam games. I’ve finished three different Charterstone campaigns all online.
Admittedly, now that the world is opening up again, my taste for digital gaming seems to have subsided. Subsided is a word that is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence, though, because to be honest I always have somewhere around 15-20 active online-turn based games. I submit that playing games live around a table with your friends is infinitely more enjoyable than most online gaming sessions. But I have board game buddies that I’ve never actually played live in person, yet we have enjoyed hundreds of games together.
The more important question in my mind is whether digital gaming in the tabletop space has arrived, and for my money, the answer is an unequivocal Yes.
Of course, the whole discussion is a roundabout way of talking about my favorite skirmish game of all time, UNMATCHED from Restoration Games, coming out in a new format on Steam. We were lucky enough to get a steam code for the preview of the Digital Edition.
UNMATCHED is a quick playing, easy to teach move-and-fight deck based skirmish game that pulls heroes from legends and pop culture to battle it out to elimination. This first implementation has the entire game mechanics built in, and has the heroes from the original Battle of Legends, Volume One, including fan favorites Alice and Medusa, and some of the original maps. Restoration Games has already announced plans to add in the Little Red Riding Hood and Beowulf characters in the full release, and to have expansion content available for favorite heroes like Big Foot & Robin Hood, and all the greats from the Cobble & Fog expansion set.
Note that we played an “early access build”, so some things may change on their way to full Steam release, and the developer (Acram Digital) promises implementations not only for Steam, but also for iOS and Android and Nintendo Switch soon.
In my first game, I fired up the AI and battled Alice versus the computer controlled Sinbad. Generally, when I geaux up against Sinbad, I definitely want to try and finish the battle quickly, because he gets immensely stronger the longer the game lasts. Alice can bounce between big hitting (with random boost cards) and defensive moves in her smaller size (drawing cards or running away as needed), so it’s a good matchup.
The digital edition even in this preview form is super smooth. I’ve had some bad experiences with other digital formats where the controls are not intuitive. Not here, the tutorial takes seconds, and all the controls are really just clicking on the onscreen prompts or clicking on a hero or sidekick and choosing the space to move.
One of the UI elements I don’t like about digital implementations is when the developer forgets that the joy in digital gaming, especially turn based or solo, is taking time to study the game. Make choices, see what happens, and then hit that ‘undo’ button. It’s the best way to learn from your mistakes, right? And let’s face it, sometimes we are just distracted by life and make a simple error that can be fixed with one little ‘undo button.’ I hate when the developer doesn’t give you enough control of overcoming those mistakes. (Not developer mistakes, I mean operator error).
No such worries here with UNMATCHED: Digital. There are plenty of prompts after each action, and a “do over” button that works as long as you haven’t drawn any cards. That gives you plenty of opportunities to learn the interface, and implement your strategy, without worrying that you might accidentally hit “done” when you didn’t mean to.
I’ve tried a few characters. One of the classic battles that I have had on the real table top is Alice versus Sinbad. I wanted to try out a new strategy, where Alice takes it right to Sinbad in BIG mode, dealing out as much punishment as she could every round. I’ve had trouble with Sinbad, but only when I let him geaux too long in the game. Those voyage card effects can really stack up! The AI played well, and I had an enjoyable experience kicking its butt — although we both only had about four or five cards left when I finally wiped the last hit point.
All in all, I’m enjoying exploring the digital implementation. Sure, no matter how smooth the interface is, I would much rather play with Jerod on the tabletop at the end of a gaming night, trying out a new combination of characters and heroes facing off. Sure, the camaraderie of social gaming is better live in person, but with the advent of Discord and FaceTime, playing games digitally with people across the United States in a fantastic version like UNMATCHED: Digital Edition is almost the same.
When the Dukes of Dice were wrapping up their very last episode of their podcast, my buddy Alex Goldsmith asked me and The Name Father (Steve O’Rourke) to jump on Discord and play a game of Teotihuacan with him. It’s a game I’ve never actually played live. Drinking some root beers on Discord, cracking jokes about the Dukes long run, getting trounced by Alex in the game — that would never happen normally because we all live thousands of miles from each other. Instead of watching yet another dopey television program, the three of us got to enjoy a great game, great conversation and great adult beverages all through the miracle of the digital tabletop space.
I can definitely see that happen with the new UNMATCHED cross-platform edition. Sometimes, life gets in the way and I can’t make it to the FLGS or have to cancel a stream night or can’t get together with the family to play. It would be nice to jump on Discord and just play a couple of games of UNMATCHED to end the night instead of watching mindless television.
So, I say, the future of tabletop games is digital.
And it’s cardboard, too.
How’s that for a hot take?
Until next time, laissez les bon temp rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
Note: the publisher provided a complimentary review Steam key.