How digital boardgames are finding new life on tablets, and altering the medium forever

Carcassone's many expansions fit well with the DLC model

We arrange our forces and then go all in, overpowering the Earth Tyrant before us and sending him spinning into the Void. All that remains to mark his passing is a sweet pile of loot, bringing us one step closer to ultimate victory. It’s a moment that could have originated in any number of console or PC videogames, but what we’ve described is based on a card game called Ascension: Chronicle Of The Godslayer. Specifically, we’re playing the digital version available in the App Store.

It’s just one of the many boardgames to benefit from the growing uptake of the iPad and smartphones. In fact, the boardgame format is experiencing a massive, if quiet and rather unusual, resurgence. Take, for example, publisher Days Of Wonder, whose version of Ticket To Ride on iOS has been nothing short of a runaway success. According to CEO Eric Hautemont, the game of railway route building has “hovered around the top 100-120 grossing games in the US [App Store] consistently since its release in May 2011”. It’s an impressive claim, given a climate of visibility issues and quick turnover at the top. What’s more, over these last two years, the company’s digital revenue has increased from three per cent to 20 per cent of the business.

Ticket To Ride is no one-off either – Hasbro’s evergreen Monopoly and Scrabble both occupy positions in the top 100 grossing apps, and the sector is fruitful enough to support studios such as Playdek, whose whole remit is translating boardgames for the digital tabletop.

Perhaps this rather symbiotic success shouldn’t be surprising. After all, board and videogames and intermingled freely in the latter’s earliest days. Take Will Crowther, who was inspired to create seminal RPG Colossal Cave (AKA Adventure) after playing Dungeons & Dragons with his colleagues, a team making Internet forerunner ARPAnet. Recall Deep Blue, the supercomputer designed to beat a chess grand master, advancing our understanding of ludic algorithms. Ultima, Baldur’s Gate and more all owe a debt to games made from cardboard and imagination.

From our perspective now, it might be easy to believe that the digital format has advanced and left the old medium to dwindle away like a vestigial organ, but both have continued to develop. Crucially, the 1995 game of construction and settlement Settlers Of Catan helped to popularise the burgeoning ‘eurogame’ format, finding a worldwide audience for a new breed of quick-paced tabletop diversion. Fast forward to 2012, however, and it’s digital conversions of games that are reshaping the market, but not how you’d expect.

Clockwise from top left: Reiner Knizia has created hundreds of boardgames; Exozet’s head of mobile development, Matthias Hellmund; Playdek's George Rothrock; Hasbro’s senior VP of digital media, Mark Blecher; Days Of Wonder CEO Eric Hautemont; and Playdek' Gary Weis

So what makes boardgames such a robust proposition on iOS? Hautemont identifies established fanbases as being key. “A percentage of the people who own the physical boardgame are going to come and buy the digital game,” he says. “These people are in addition to the people you would get when you release a digital game, no matter what, right? Those physical people that are crossing over to the digital side, if you want, come in addition to the people you would have garnered from a pure videogame. And just that additional flux of people coming in is enough to make you go up in the ranks.”

Once they’re visible, the App Store also opens these games up to a whole new group of people, some of whom would otherwise be inclined to dismiss them outright. They might be scarred by interminable wet Saturdays spent playing decades-old games, or just perceive boardgaming as for geeks. George Rothrock, Playdek’s director of business development, explains: “You have this incredibly vibrant, really engaging game world over here that unfortunately, at least in the States, is still kind of looked at as ‘Oh, LARPing and Gen Con and costumes,’ that sort of thing. Whereas now we’ve done a bunch of our advertising and our promotion, and some of our greatest contacts have been on app gaming sites. Where the kind of people who get Angry Birds, and [would] be totally happy playing Angry Birds, but would never really consider themselves a ‘gamer’, picking up Food Fight, and going, ‘Oh wow!’ But that’s a hobby card game that comes out of that world… And they’re like, ‘This is really pretty cool.’”

Completing a virtuous loop, the exposure feeds right back into the sales of physical boardgames. Hautemont reveals, “When we released Ticket To Ride on the iPad in May 2011, we saw the sales of the physical boardgame increase by about 35-40 per cent. And that never dropped down. Literally, within the next ten days the increase kicked in, and that never fell down. A bit later on, in November of last year, we introduced a separate version for the iPhone, Ticket To Ride Pocket, and we saw an additional bump of 25-30 per cent. I’m convinced that the way we’ve made the most money from the online game is… the increase in the sales of the physical boardgame that’s resulted from having the digital game.”

Of course, iOS isn’t the only game in town. Well-known boardgames have been converted for home consoles across the generations – a recent highlight being Magic The Gathering: Duels Of The Planeswalkers – as well as for online portals, and PC. Monopoly has long led the way when it comes to hitting every format possible, and Mark Blecher, senior vice president of digital media and marketing at Hasbro, reveals it is available on “21 different platforms, including console (PlayStation, PS2, PS3, Wii, 360, DS); mobile (Android and iOS); and connected handhelds (iPad, Kindle, Nook, PlayBook), as well as online though social networking sites”. Not only that, but successful spin-off videogames, such as Monopoly Hotels are being spawned from the brand.

But there are three reasons why digital boardgame conversions seem to be gathering momentum now in a way they haven’t before, and thus why strong sales over the last two years might only be the beginning of their success. The first is tied to the growing number of touchscreen devices in our homes, a form factor that captures the tactility of physical gaming. Players instinctively know how to handle cards and pieces, a process that a controller or mouse only abstracts. The iPad in particular is a great fit, with its 9-inch screen offering enough real estate to encompass most game boards without scrolling, and house an uncluttered UI around them. As such, it becomes almost invisible to the player.

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