The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

How to Join Bits & Pieces

Sus Lundgren

January, 2003

What if one could spy on other player's resources during a game, but not be quite sure if the information was correct? What if the board changed during a game, depending on certain events? What if bidding was kept secret so that only the winning bid and player was announced? Well, there are ways to do just that.

I assume many of you reading this enjoy playing board games. However, don't many of you also play computer games occasionally? Now, how come you do both? Well, I do because playing almost any kind of game provides intellectual stimulation, and because most games I play challenge my creativity, be it building the most awesome roller coasters in Roller Coaster Tycoon or trying to find a "killer app"-tactic in Puerto Rico. Of course there are also differences between computer-based games and board games:

  • Board games imply social interaction and may have aspects that rely solely on the body language of players (e.g Poker!). Computer games, on the other hand, may have a lot of quite complex underlying logic that improves the game but that the player(s) needn't worry about.
  • Board games have a number of physical qualities; the board is easy to survey, the bits/tiles/cards/whatever have different appearances and expressions, the box has a certain look, shape, and weight etc. They are stable. Computer games on the other hand, are flexible; they provide animations and sounds and the look/goal/enemies/objectives may change over time.

Now, the $10,000 question (for me anyway) would be: How can all these benefits become a part of the same game? Well, how about using embedded computer technology, building computer logic into board games? Tokens could be given ID-tags, or sensors hidden in various components of the game can communicate their findings to a microchip built into the game. This chip will compute the data about the game state and act on it via various behaviors, light, sound or text on a small display. In this way, the microchip can "know" things such as the following:

  • Where items are on the board and if they are allowed to be there.
  • Which resources or combination of resources a player possesses.
  • Hidden information submitted by players or based on each player's resources.
  • Actual state of non-player "things" such as prices of various resources and how they could change.
  • Calculating, keeping and displaying information, or parts of it.

Since the logic is built into the physical items of the game, players needn't reflect on the fact that they are interacting with a computer! In the examples below, none of the "data" is input in the usual way (i.e. by using a keyboard); tokens in the game are used in a "natural way" to do this. For instance it is natural for a player to have her money and tokens in front of her, and if they are ID-tagged and the area where she puts them contains a tag reader, the game will "know" what resources she has.

During the last spring and summer I've written a M.Sc.-thesis on this subject, and my most valuable result was the new mechanics that are made possible when using embedded computing. Below I present some of them, but of course there are numerous others out there, just waiting to be invented!

Anonymous Trading: A significant aspect of trading is not only to decide what to buy or sell and at what price, but to whom. It can be all right to make a certain deal with one player but not with another. This may be a feature in a game but it might as well be a feature to have some kind of anonymous trading, i.e. you anonymously turn in your trading wishes; what you want and what you can pay, let an embedded computer match the deals and come up with the result.

Complex Commodities: This can be used in any game that features buying and selling of stuff. Imagine that the price of a certain commodity relies heavily on prices of other commodities, and a number of other semi-random factors (e.g. weather). Such complex behaviors would be tedious to determine with die-rolls and calculations, but easy to simulate and display with a simple computer program.

Computerized Clues: Here, the computer distributes clues about certain information in the game, known only by itself. At certain stages in the game all information may be revealed. Imagine a variant of Dragon's Gold where the treasures are entirely hidden, and the computer could display information only about which one of the four treasures that is the largest one, which one of them that contains most green/blue/etc gemstones, which one is worth the most points and so forth. When a dragon gets killed, the entire treasure is exposed.

Secret Partnerships: Players are divided in teams, without knowing who's partnered with who. The combined actions of a team lead to certain consequences in the game (calculated and displayed by the game itself), wherefore it is important to figure out who is on which team.

Active surface: The surface of the board changes its properties during the game; it could be changing colors, or entire sections could move, become hot or cold or lit or whatever. If metallic pieces are used, parts of the board could suddenly become magnetic (using electromagnets), effectively capturing or moving the pieces.

Espionage: Players have the opportunity to get more or less accurate information about another player's resources, but may give away information regarding their own resources in the process.

Ubiquitous Information: Let's say that a game has a certain winning condition (or a condition that triggers a new phase in the game); it could be that the money earned in the game exceeds a certain sum, or that every player has gathered at least X tokens, or that the sum of blue tokens gathered exceeds the sum of white tokens. If it is hard, or impossible for any player to have access to all information regarding the fulfillment of the condition, this mechanic is applicable; the game itself will "know" when it is over, and announce the winner.

Of course there are drawbacks with this technology also. Games will be more vulnerable, and more expensive (but this problem will pass; electronic equipment is getting cheaper and cheaper). A lot more time has to be spent on design; new aesthetics might be needed and if players have to put certain items on a certain place for the sensors to work this has to feel so natural that players don't dwell on it. Consequently, such a game will need a lot more testing to see if the game itself works, if interaction comes naturally, and if the technology is fool proof. Then again, thorough design isn't a bad thing; there are several board games on the market today that suffer severely from bad design.

But! The game designer gets access to a new set of mechanics, and in extension a way to influence gameplay and the entire experience of playing the game. The techniques can be used to make games easier to play; illegal moves may be impossible or at least indicated, mode changes can be made (more) visible and tedious "maintenance" such as die rolling or moving markers (to indicate a changed price for example), may be eliminated. (Then again, some people like to do this!).

So, what's my point?

Well, it is my personal opinion that the benefits of using embedded computing in a board game - thus providing new mechanics and new experiences, making the game easier but yet more intriguing to play - widely exceeds the disadvantages. If you'd like to read more, you can download my M.Sc thesis "Joining Bits and Pieces - How to make Entirely New Board Games using Embedded Computer Technology" at http://www.playresearch.com under Publications, 2002.

- Sus Lundgren

GGA - The game that immediately sprung to mind when I first read this article is Generals. This is a fairly standard Stratego clone with one very interesting feature: The pieces are never revealed to your opponent. Whenever a battle occurs each player places their piece on the electronic "combat analyzer" which reports the winner. Rather clever I think.

Hasbro has released Vampire Hunter which certainly qualifies as the "Active Surface" that Sus describes. In this game there is an electronic tower that casts a light on the board (you need to play the game in a darkened room). At a certain point the tower emits a different coloured light and the spaces on the board change.

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