Sunday, November 19, 2006


I recently heard the acronym, TGOO, which stands for “These Games of Ours” and is meant to describe the general category of European/Designer games that are so popular nowadays. Today, I would like to take a break from that and talk about TGWP, which stands for These Games Wii Play. Those of you who are aware of pop culture may have stopped reading already, as I have shown my hand by using the word Wii instead of We. Today is the official launch date for the Nintendo Wii, the newest video game console by Nintendo (to be contrasted with Microsoft’s X-Box 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3, but the Wii really shouldn’t be compared directly with those other two consoles.) Before you give up reading right now, my thoughts today are not going to focus so much on videogames in general, but I would like to make the case that fans of Boardgames should sit up and take notice of this new release, as there are some technical developments that should rock the world of videogames and be of interest to the types of people who play boardgames.

Even the most die-hard boardgamer or grognard has to admit that computers have been a good thing for the hobby. While some purists may scorn at playing games online, the many resources for discussion and information are simply too useful to overlook. For many, videogames serve as a stop-gap gaming measure for those unable to get out and about to game as much as they would like. With today’s introduction of the Wii console, videogaming has taken another step closer towards meeting a small part of the average boardgamer’s needs. Before you exclude yourself from this list, take a moment to consider your feelings towards filler games or the party game genre. If you’re willing to spend 10 or 15 minutes playing Loopin Louie or some dexterity game like Crokinole, you should seriously think about some of the opportunities provided by videogames.

Yes, there are those games where players sit in front of the television for hours, their eyes drying up and their mouths slackjawed as they single-handedly save or destroy the world, but I’m not talking about those games. You might as well judge the entire world of boardgames by pointing out Tic-Tac-Toe or some of the worse rip-offs of Monopoly. In recent years, there has been a number of videogames that are fun to play in groups, are immersive, and are far from passive entertainment. One of the most popular new styles of videogame would be Dance Dance Revolution, known as DDR in videogame circles. In this game, a player stomps around on a 3x3 game pad to try to match a rhythmic pattern onscreen. This is one example of the rhythm game genre which requires players to perform actions in response to a beat. These typically play quickly (each song lasting just a few minutes) so even though they typically remain two player games, by rotating through players they work well as entertainment for groups of 6. Other games in this genre include Guitar Hero where you play a mock-guitar, Donkey Konga where each player takes a pair of bongos, and Taiko Drum Master where you play a special drum with sticks.

If rhythm isn’t your thing, Sony came out with a very revolutionary gaming interface when they produced the Eyetoy. It is a very simple USB video camera, and the various Eyetoy games are designed to watch your outline (primarily your head and hands – best if they are different in color than the background of the room) and force you to use your whole body as a game controller. This is possibly the best little-kid videogame currently made. Put it into “play mode” and kids can see themselves on television. By moving around they can pop balloons, make feathers float, or even pretend to teleport. Adults have a blast as well when they attempt to perform karate moves, or try to wipe the screen clear of soapy water.

The universal feature of these games is the minimal learning curve. While many game players grew up with a controller in their hands, the general population hasn’t had that same experience. If a game is made simple and fun, it can capture the attention and imagination of a large segment of the population. The first game I came across with this ability was a little game that was part of the Nintendo 64’s Mario Party. In this game, one small part of the game had players standing on bowling balls on a green island in the sea. It was called Bumper Balls. Players simply moved their balls around by using the joystick and tried to ram each other off the island. If I could just get a group of people to try the game out, they could easily stay at that same game for an hour or more. Another great feature of videogames comes into play when you just don’t feel like beating your opponent into the ground. The computer can serve as an opponent for the live humans to trounce. My favorite videogames are games that I can play with a friend or three and all win together, whether that’s playing the role of a superhero as I put the bad guys behind bars, or simply trouncing little computer cartoon characters in a good game of tennis.

This brings us to today, and the launch of the Wii. (Yes, even videogame fans think it’s a stupid name, but bear with me.) The Wii does not have normal videogame controllers. Instead, you hold on to a short stick, a bit slimmer than a telephone handset, and wave it around in the air. The stick (a Wii-mote, uggh), has motion sensing capabilities. Want to play tennis? Simply start the game and start swinging your arms around like you were playing tennis. Go bowling by swinging your arm down by your side and press the button when you’d normally let go. Using the “Wii-mote”, player’s actions are very natural and instinctual. No longer are videogames just for those who have “trained” and learned how to use the little gamepads to the best effect. There is even a plug-in to the bottom of the Wii-mote that connects a second slim rod by a cord. This can be held in your other hand and results in a sort of nunchuck-looking arrangement. In this way, the game can track motions of both your hands at the same time.

What Nintendo has done, has been to focus on the user interface (the game mechanics, if you will) rather than focus on making a more powerful graphics engine. Since the release of the Nintendo 64 – the first game system that was designed for four players at the same time, they have promoted the idea of multiplayer gaming. With the Wii, they continue that trend and make videogaming more accessible to the casual player. The new Wii-mote controller scheme brings yet another innovation to casual gaming with friends.

You may see a lot of hype this holiday season comparing the new Sony PS3 to Microsoft’s X-Box 360. The grognards of the videogame world demand a comparison of the super-duper graphics and capabilities of the two systems, but for the wider public, what is truly interesting will be the new Nintendo Wii system. Thankfully, it should be far more available than the under-produced PS3. If you are willing to play silly games like Loopin Louie or are able to act foolish enough in a game of charades, you should consider the opportunities available in the Nintendo Wii. If you think smacking a lever to maneuver a plastic airplane around in a circle is a hoot, just wait until you get your friends dancing around the room with a little plastic cylinder in their hands – trying to keep a little monkey in a ball from falling off a ledge. The Wii is no substitute for a nice, juicy, deep boardgame, but gamers of all types shouldn’t dismiss its possibilities.


Coldfoot said...

This is #1 on my Christmas wishlist. I love my PS2 but this is such a cool, innovative idea that I think I'll even be able to get my husband playing with me. I can see grandparents playing this with their grandkids and having a great time--that can't be a bad thing.

Pawnstar said...

A well-presented article but...

Sorry, I'm just not interested in this kind of article - if I want to find out about Wii, PS3 or 360 I can look elsewhere and not on a blog I read because I like its thoughtful and in-depth discussion on real games.

Mark Johnson said...

I'm a boardgamer, first and foremost, but I also place a big emphasis on playing games with my kids. Yeah, that includes boardgames (taught my daughter backgammon the other night, planning to try TransAmerica and Dancing Dice with my folks this Thanksgiving), but it also includes some videogames. Especially with my son in junior high school. We got a Wii on launch day, and though we've only had a chance to play with a couple titles, I agree that this is a sea change in interactive user experience. Best of all, it's one that's designed to increase the social gameplay of videogames.

When I get grandma to play games over Thanksgiving with the family, it won't matter whether it's TransAmerica, Time's Up, or Wii Tennis. Either way it's social, it's fun, and it builds memories.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Sorry you didn't enjoy the article, Fellonmyhead.

I love anything that can be called a game. Normally I wouldn't write about non-boardgames here, but I felt the striking features of the new console (Wii) had so many similarities to those features many find enjoyable in boardgames, I just had to mention it. (social aspects, easily accessible to everyone, etc...)