Sunday, February 25, 2007

Trains, Math, Computers

I’ve been fighting computer-aided Boardgames for years, ever since I started playing the 18xx series. Numerous 18xx players advocate using one of the various ‘moderator’ programs for the game, which handle any number of aspects of the game, from tracking money, share prices, income, or all of the above. After my first game of Silverton last month, I began to think about computers again, as I looked at the excel sheet someone has put together to calculate goods price changes.

I keep asking myself “Do I really want a computer at my game table?”

It’s not like I oppose the infernal machines, or even that I dislike gaming on computers. Instead it just feels wrong. Like bringing Doritos to a dinner party, a computer next to a board game feels out of place(1) . But my conviction is shattering, broken down by fun, intricate games that suffer from an excess of tracking and math.

I would blame it entirely on the 18xx series, which is a brilliant game series that includes route management, business finance, stock simulation, and lots and lots of math, but Silverton and Indonesia also involve time consuming tracking and calculating. Even Empire Builder(2) can devolve into counting and recounting how much was just spent. Ultimately, these games suffer because the math draws the players away from the real decisions and gameplay (3) .

So I’m almost convinced to bring a computer to the table. It’s actually not 18xx that has brought me there – it’s Silverton. Silverton, for those of you without an immediate working knowledge of every rail game ever, uses a mathematical formula to calculate price changes at the end of each turn. Each formula (4) uses a die roll, and there are up to 13 prices changes. So that’s 13 die rolls and formulas. Automation is starting to appeal to me…

At least with Silverton, the tools are simple and straightforward. The 18xx automation programs are more cryptic than trying to look up a rule in the Return of the Heroes rulebook (5) . This is partially the problem of fan creation, and mostly the result of the documentation being written in German. I’ve been told several times that you can’t learn the 18xx programs on your own and need to be taught. A little experimentation has proven that mostly correct. I think the first time I tried to use the moderator, I’d add an extra hour to the game. And when the game is already four hours long…

None of which address the principal question – “What is that computer doing in my board game?” and I still don’t have an answer. I feel like I shouldn’t oppose it, but I’m not convinced that it won’t be a distraction and do more harm than good to the game.

Anyone have any experiences with computers at your game table (6) ?


(1) For those who also RPG, I feel the same way about the current trend of laptops in games, for the gamemaster or the players. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a table getting set up for a roleplaying game, and all four players plus the GM had a laptop out on the table. I’ll admit, I was crying inside.

(2) Why do they all seem to be train games? What is it about the idea of trains that inspires counting out lots of stops or points that provide or cost money? Even stock and finance games tend to not cause as much counting and math, or at least it doesn’t bog the game down…

(3) Gratuitious Example: Scrabble. Nobody has written a computer program to calculate the score of your scrabble word. (or maybe they have. Don’t tell me about it). Scoring your word is part of the –fun- of scrabble. You get to count how many points you just got and crow about it. Or quickly say “C-A-T, Four points. Your turn.”

(4) Like “2d6 + (Goods Sold / 2) - IDN” I did that from memory. I’ve only played the game twice.

(5) Usually people just give up. Get the rules from the ‘geek. It makes a nigh-unplayable game into a good one.

(6) And what happened when someone spilled beer on the keyboard?


Pawnstar said...

I have played Silverton using the spreadsheet instead of the board; it's a lot less work. It didn't stop the game lasting over six hours (five of which I did almost nothing because of the way the cards were drawn - we must use the variant next time). Personally I would have thought you would fare just as well using the quick play chart somebody devised for Silverton; you can download it from BGG (here)

Shannon Appelcline said...

There are definitively some games which computers can help out a lot. As you mention, many of them are train games.

My general feeling is that those games should neither be designed as nor played as board games. They instead should be designed as computer games.

Computers do some things better than people. Trying to design a board game that should really be a computer game is just putting a square peg in a round hole.

Gerald McD said...

Two of us have played three games of Silverton in the past two months. We use the full manual chart process and have no problem with it. In fact, it's a bit of a nice break between turns, sort of a chance to clear our heads and get ready for the next batch of decisions regarding claims, tracking laying, and deliveries. It is a very challenging game that we enjoy very much, both of us being interested in Rocky Mountain railroading history.

Aaron_ said...

One of the neat things about silverton is how historical it is - as far as I can tell, there really were mines in each of the places used in the game, and the railroads did use the routes you are forced to choose between.

Though I've never had a six hour game of it. It's always been in the 2-3 hour range (2-4 people though.. a six hour game sounds like it had 5-6 people in it...)

Fraser said...

We play games at lunchtime at work and each week Gamers@Dockers meets at our work. We have found the fact that all the meeting rooms have whiteboards very useful for some games. If the game doesn't have a scoring track we just use the whiteboard. No more pencil and paper!