The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Simulation & Computer Integration in Board Games

Mikko Saari

March, 2004

Simulating real world behaviour in games isn't simple. How authentic the simulated reality seems depends on the amount of detail and variables the simulation contains. A game that mimics reality is always a simplification and limited in some fashion. If the simulation is too simple and limited, it doesn't feel real.

Obviously, it's just not possible to continue adding detail until the simulation feels real. All that detail must be processed and computed before it can enrich the game experience. Thus, the amount of detail and the level of simulation is limited by the processing capacity.

If we're talking about board games, that capacity is low. Detailed simulation of reality needs so much calculation and book-keeping that the game soon becomes work and ceases to be fun. A lower level of simulation reduces the workload and increases the time spent on playing the game instead of crunching numbers.

Computer games can be more detailed, because computers are by their nature very good at computing. They can manipulate a large number of variables without trouble. When designing a computer simulation, the level of detail depends on the authors' capability to model reality through mathematical formulas. It appears that game designers can be quite enthusiastic in seeking perfection.

However, computer simulation can be unsatisfactory, despite its superior detail. Board games have one advantage over computer games: players know the rules. Computer games are a sort of a black box, where players enter some input and get some output in return, based on rules they can't be sure of. In complex computer games the documentation usually gives only vague pointers. With enough experience, players may get some idea of the game's inner workings (and mastering the game usually requires this), but unless one has access to the source code of the game, nothing is certain.

Details of War

Let's take a look at some examples. Wargames come in many forms. Computer wargames can be incredibly realistic, including minute details that provide a more realistic playing experience. Players might not have a clue what's going on under the hood. (We can then ask if the detail is really necessary?) Clearly computer wargames are the way to go if one is looking for a proper simulation of warfare in a game.

Despite the higher level of detail and other luxuries computer wargames offer, heavy and detailed board games such as Advanced Squad Leader still attract a fanatical following. My personal experience with real wargames is limited to the World War 1 game Home Before the Leaves Fall. It's the only board game I have ever found to be too difficult for me, it was too complicated and detailed (for me) to figure out how to play. I've since discovered the Columbia Games block games. Hammer of the Scots and Liberty achieve a good balance between detail and playability—if I want a more thorough simulation, I'll play Combat Mission on my PC and let the computer handle the math.

Variables of Commerce

Trade games are another good example. Kogge (Andreas Steding) is a rather crude simulation of Hanse trade. Players don't have to worry about buying low and selling high, because all trade between the cities and the players is done with a two-for-one ratio. Give one cube of goods to gain two. The focus of the game certainly isn't on the economics.

Die Händler (Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich) features a simple mechanic of supply and demand. Cities offer a trade bonus for goods that aren't produced in that city. The bonus slowly grows higher until the city is provided with goods at which point the bonus falls back to zero. This simple mechanic simulates supply and demand in a satisfactory way. The general price mechanic of the game, however, is erratic and more inspired by chaos theory than economical laws.

The third game is Asceron Entertainment's Patrician 3, a highly detailed computer trading simulation. Prices of goods in cities depend on consumption and production, supply and demand. Consumption of goods depends on the population structure of the city, as different social groups have demands for different goods. Players can recognize the laws that affect the prices and use them (don't sell goods until the demand beats the supply and prices soar), which requires some understanding of the laws of supply and demand.

The three games share a common theme, but have different mechanics and foci. Kogge is the most abstract of the games, while Patrician 3 is the most detailed and Die Händler has a significant negotiation element. Patrician 3 would be unplayable as a board game, because the amount of book-keeping would take hours. The two board games, on the other hand, would make boring computer games.

Which approach is the best depends on taste, I guess and I like Kogge and Patrician 3 the most. Both of them capture the excitement of trading, looking for good opportunities and using them to gain large profits. Both work well as games but in different circumstances. Kogge works best when played with other people, as the interaction between players makes up for the lack of detailed simulation. On the other hand, Patrician 3 wouldn't be as captivating without its detailed modeling of economics.

Possibilities of Computer Integration

I see some potential for board games with integrated computers. (see Sus Lundgren's article How to Join Bits & Pieces for more detail on the subject.) Adding greater computing power to board games would make more detailed simulation games possible. Book-keeping could be reduced or removed while the level of detail could increase. This seems attractive, however, there's a risk involved. Will a board game's attraction suffer, if part of the rules is hidden in the circuits of the computer? After all, there are people who enjoy the decision-making in board games because they understand its inner workings. There's a level of understanding that computers take away.

I think there are two different cases involved, as shown by my examples. In wargames, the detail is in the number of variables that affect whether or not a unit will hit another unit. Hammer of the Scots takes into account only the general strength and skills of the unit. Advanced Squad Leader uses more variables, while Combat Mission uses a mind-boggling amount of data. The more variables there are, the more realistic the simulation is, but it also affects the players' ability to predict the results of their actions. That may or may not be a good thing.

On the other hand, trade games might want to use the laws of supply and demand, the principle of which is familiar to people who play those kinds of games. A board game is forced to use a more or less crude simplification of the economical model, while a computer game can provide a more realistic system. In this case it could be argued that the more detailed version will actually be more predictable and will make more sense to players.

Thus we could see computers used in different roles in different games. In wargames the good old Combat Result Tables could remain the same as ever, allowing grognards to understand the games they play. Computers can be used to help book-keeping and as an easier rules reference. Computers can also be used as a tool to help to learn the game. All this is best done with an old-fashioned computer than with some kind of integrated device. On the other hand, the chaotic fluctuating prices of Die Händler could be replaced with a more predictable economical model. The computer could track the prices of individual goods in each of the cities and adjust them depending on supply and demand. I think that kind of computer integration could be useful.

The Disappointment In The End

However, there's one major problem. The games that could benefit from this kind of computer integration tend to be on the heavier end of the scale and thus quite far from mainstream board games (I couldn't come up with any popular board games that would really benefit from computer integration). Thus, they are not made in such quantities which would make computer components cheap enough. This might change, of course, if the price of computer components gets low enough. Still, I believe development and manufacture of such a game would be quite costly. Perhaps a reduced need for manual number crunching might make heavier simulation games more accessible? It's hard to say, but I'd like to think this might be a way to go in the future. Meanwhile, I'll keep on thinking about opportunities...

- Mikko Saari

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