The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Ra, Mu & CPU

Dave Shapiro

May, 2003

Long, long ago, way back in the Seventies when G.I. Joe was 12 inches and Luke didn't recognize his sister, someone (TI, Atari, Apple?) introduced the first "home computer" and the face of gaming changed. The repercussions of this introduction sent waves of board gamers to keyboards and was probably a major factor in the demise of such stalwarts as Avalon Hill, GDW and SPI. Blips, bips and boops were replacing the cardboard counters and drawing many boomers away from their cherished boards. Having four children (two in diapers at the same time) and a spouse that worked second shift, my game time had been greatly curtailed. The computer was a boon; it allowed me to game while the kiddies pretended to sleep when they were actually plotting what to spill, break and lose on the following day.

Eventually I bought a 2400 baud modem (to put this in perspective for those born in the Eighties, downloading a 3 meg MP3, had they been available, would have taken hours - many, many hours). With the modem I discovered on-line gaming. In particular, I enjoyed a game called Global War, an obvious Risk clone, where turns were limited to once per day. After repeated losses I realized that the time to submit a turn was around 11:55 pm as this allowed you to submit a second turn just after midnight and gain an advantage - but that's another story. What is of note here is that I was able to play "real" people again; not some AI (artificial intelligence) that usually became quite predictable or worse, had been programmed by someone who had, at best, rudimentary knowledge of the game itself.

Jump to the late Nineties (G.I. Joe is now half his size and has changeable weapons but no wardrobe), the internet is roaring along and the number of sites with board gaming is growing significantly. Most sites were now offering "real time" play; no need to submit turns for review the following day. Thousands of people playing on the Zone and Yahoo along with a plethora of personal sites offering just about anything you could ask for. Chess, card games, Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, all were real time with real people. Dungeons and Dragons grew into Everquest with untold numbers of addicts populating the imaginary, fantasy world. In the past few years, German style games have been added to the mix. 

Brett Spiel Welt welcome screen The majority of sites offering German style games are real time sites. There are a few that include robot players (Web of Power, Taj Mahal) with fairly competent AI. At this time the best of the sites is BrettSpielWelt which, for those who believe English is the galactic tongue, is somewhat daunting. (Fear not - if 10 years ago you wanted to play German style games you were limited to obtaining your own translations after you imported the game. Mayfair Games broke that barrier and Rio Grande surged onto the scene. How long before Big Brother Bill (Gates) or someone else discovers the potential in even this small market?)

The question for those that have not attempted on-line gaming is: is it any good? There are many positive aspects to on-line gaming, some that are not available face to face. The five significant assets are:

1. Time—You are able to play when your usual opponents are unavailable, when the kids are sleeping, etc. (I found that when I play at 2 am my wife never suggests that my time would be better spent cutting the lawn.)

2. Opponents—The sheer variety of opponents is unbelievable; people from all over the world log on and play. Recently I have taken to playing Gang of Four on Days of Wonder's site. Yesterday, as I write this, I played a game with players from London, Paris and Sydney. (Hey, it was too dark to cut grass anyway.) If not for the internet, I would never have had this opportunity. As with any group some people are adverse to any "chatter" during a game so if I ask a question and don't get a response, so be it. Conversations with others have continued long after the game was over.

The Days of Wonder site is particularly interesting in that they are running dual forums in both French and Galactic (English). Many of the players speak French only which is difficult for me having been guided to Latin in high school (It will make a come back). The first time I encountered a game in which I was the only Galactic speaking player I was somewhat uncomfortable; it nudged a small paranoid feeling of isolation to surface, but then it passed. It still amazes me that people that are unable to communicate directly, people from all over the world, can be playing a game together.

3. Value—In most cases, ownership of the game is not required. Gang of Four for example, includes the rules and player aids right on their site. Taj Mahal and Web of Power offer links to their rules. The majority of sites are functional but a special mention for the Taj Mahal site is required; it is a gem. Not only is it extremely well constructed offering real time play on a beautiful representation of the board including an icon that darkens with each turn as the sun sets over India. It even offers bots to fill in missing players so anyone can play a four or five player game at anytime. The programming of the AI is superior; I have played a 5 player game against 4 bots and found each to be competent at the game. This is the best of the best. Attention programmers: this is the way it should be done; it proves that it can be done.

4. Game Play—On-line games tend to be pure play type games. There is a significant lack of advice, trash talking, or off topic discussions (and no one is humming old Neil Diamond tunes while waiting for you to complete your move, well if they are you can't hear them). I find this somewhat sterile but the trade off is whining about bad luck is minimal. It just doesn't have the same impact when presented in black and white.

5. Rules—There are never arguments about rules interpretations. Once you "click" your move is locked in digital granite. As Caesar once said: "Jacta alea est".

Now this all said, there is a drawback to on-line gaming; a significant drawback. (Warning: I am about to generalize here.) For most people gaming is about social interaction within the confines of controlled competition. It is the sharing of those special moments, moments such as the "Oh s----" event when a player rocks back on his chair, hands clasped behind his head and you know - he knows. It is about the trash talking, posturing, bluffing, shouting and laughing that accompanies game play. A bad board game can still produce an enjoyable experience; the same cannot be said of on-line gaming. (This is beginning to sound like a comparison of real versus virtual sex!)

Camaraderie at the game table is totally absent when on-line. The web offers a great opportunity for a quick fix game but pales in comparison to face-to-face gaming. The one missing component from on-line gaming that bothers me most is that the computer never laughs, but I still play. Don't pass on the on-line opportunity. Yes, it can be sterile but the variety of opponents can only be matched by the numbers found at a large convention and the number of people connecting is growing exponentially.

I can see it now... Microsoft announces Web of Power for Xbox Live...

- Dave Shapiro

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