Board Gaming over the Internet

May 12, 2010

Getting 6 people together to sit down and play through a full game of Here I Stand is difficult. With most people working during the week, the weekends are the only option that would allow enough time to fit in a game. But these often fill up fast with family, religious and other obligations.

However, technology allows some new options. There is real-time online play of games through websites, on gaming consoles or other devices. There is also the option is to play a game long distance by sending each move by email. Previous generations may have played a game of chess with their pen-pal by sending each move in a letter through snail mail. Now moves can be sent through email to speed up that process. Having played a few games with a couple of these systems, each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.

Face-to-?
The most obvious advantage is that the games can be played from your own living room. No need to get everyone together in the same place. This will save on travel time and gets you right into gaming. For better or worse, the session is more focused on playing the game. I feel more comfortable playing with strangers over the internet than inviting random people to my house. But when I want to play my with my normal gaming group, the social enjoyment I get out of gaming suffers.

Saving…
I’m sure we’ve all done this with our board games: set-up up the board on the table and play through the game in multi-night sessions. I recently played a game of Twilight Struggle with my wife. We just left the board on the dining room table for a couple of nights. However, with small children in the house we ran the risk of the board getting changed between plays. Usually these online systems allow a way to save the game progress so that you can start where you left off at a later time. A full play through of a long war game can be broken into a few shorter sessions over a longer time period. That huge time commitment is now broken into bite sized chunks that are easier to manage. It may allow you to brush up on rules or rethink strategies before your next play. However, the game can also drag out to weeks or even months before it is finished.

Real Time
Russ has a good post on his experience with Settler of Catan on the XBox. I have played a dozen games using the website Wargameroom. One advantage of playing on a computer is that the rules are all programmed into the system. Only your available options are shown or are allowed to be carried out. This means no cheating, but more importantly it is a great way to help you learn the rules. Usually though you learn them the hard way. You think you are about to assault that fortress when the option to assault isn’t available because you haven’t met all of the requirements. A turn is wasted, but the next time you play you’ll remember that rule.

The real time aspect allows for a quick fix of a game. The board is set-up for you. Calculating dice requirements, card shuffling and rule checking is done instantly. There is very little down time that allows a longer game to be played much more quickly. It is a good option to get some gaming in on a tight time budget. Opponents can be found quickly through a chat room or even instantly with the use of AI opponents. The social aspect of gaming is mostly gone and a game that involves negotiations is greatly hindered. How do you convince or bluff a pre-programmed response?

PBEM
Play By EMail has also been a mostly good experience. Each player has a copy of the board on their own computer and a move file is sent as each person plays. Probably the most common program used is Cyberboard to track the board and generate move files and the website ACTS to track the play of cards and handles the random stuff: card shuffling and dice rolls. Each player checks their email at least daily and takes their turn. In a game that involves a diplomacy aspect, this is also handled by exchanging emails.

The huge advantage of this system is the long time between turns. For someone learning a game, they can check the rules or even ask for help on forums between moves to better understand the strategies and intricacies of a game. I’ve found that my understanding of the 40+ page Here I Stand rulebook has vastly improved. Diplomacy can be fun because is can be done simultaneously and in secret. No one has to know you sent an email to one power where in a Face-to-Face (FtF) play everyone saw you leave the room together.

Of course, the major disadvantage of this system is the long time between turns. Once the diplomacy phase is over, carrying out those plans for just one turn could take months. Waiting for a person to take their move isn’t fun. In a FtF game a minute can seem like an eternity. Try waiting 10 days for your opponent to take his turn because he was on vacation and then got stuck in Europe because of a volcano (actually happened).

Overall Impressions
I think using technology to play your favorite board game is a great idea. There are certainly some great advantages for new players and people who can’t make big time commitments. However, nothing beats staring down your opponent in a good ol’ face-to-face play of any game.

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Settlers of Xbox Live

October 2, 2009

Settlers of Catan is the juggernaut of Eurogaming. I’m pretty sure it has infinity+1 different expansions, versions, and alterations. But one of those versions doesn’t have wooden dice, cardboard cutouts, or playing cards, in fact it is completely digital and found only on Xbox Live.

Catan was the first board game to appear on Microsoft’s digital download service for the Xbox 360 Arcade. And thanks to a promotion a couple years back I was able to download it for free. Now, it will run you 800 MS points which is approximately $10.

The game boasts the most sophisticated artificial intelligence of any Catan game to date and last night I fired it up to give the game another test. I played a 4 player game against three AI opponents–Alexander, Elizabeth, and Fredrick–on medium difficulty. I used the quick set-up option where the game places your first settlements in the optimal places automatically. From there it was time to press “A” to roll dice.

The early stages of the game included a lot of trading. The AI opponents, all named after historical figures, where happy to trade to get into a position to build whatever they needed. I used my early resources to connect my two villages with a road, gaining the “Longest Road” victory points, and upgrade them to cities thanks to all the stone I was collecting.

However, this launched me into an early lead and the once friendly AI turned on me like a pack of rabid raccoons. Every time a seven was rolled, the robber was placed on my territory and another card taken from my hand. But, I still wasn’t out. Thanks to buying development cards, I was able to play soldiers and move the robber off my land. This in-turn gained me the “Largest Army” VP and put me further out ahead.

But, as if robber trouble wasn’t bad enough, the new VP made me a bigger target. I now felt like a third world dictator facing an embargo, no one would trade with me. I tried offering 3 or 4 cards for just a single wheat, but was faced with a stern rejection on all fronts. I had to resort to port trading to get whatever I wanted.

Soon Alexander leaped forward with the “Longest Road” stealing VP from me. But I had an ace up my sleeve. Thanks to an abundance of brick and a brick port, I could buy and development card and turn my last village into a city, provided no one rolled a seven.

Luck was on my side. I dodged the robber and got a development card worth a VP. This bumped me up to ten, winning the game. The computer opponents were fairly good, but they came across as homogeneous. I felt more like I was trying to beat the game rather than beat three separate opponents. However, it was an enjoyable game and an easy way to get a fix of Catan.


Hiding the Resources/VPs

September 3, 2009

I apologize for the lack of activity here on the blog lately. I’m in the process of moving right now (stay tuned for pics of my new game room!). Once things settle down, we hope to create a backlog of posts we can draw on during busy times.

After playing a relatively high number of Euro games this summer, I’ve been thinking about hiding resources and victory points. Three games in my collection have this written into the rules: Power Grid, Settlers of Catan, and Small World. In Power Grid, you are told to keep your cash secret from the other players. As we’ve learned the game at home in recent months, we’ve usually kept money faceup so the other players can see if someone is sitting on a big stack of cash. Playing with the hidden money rule at the WBC tourney gave the game a very different feel; tabletalk was significantly cut as a result and we could only guess at people’s bank accounts. In this game, I confess I don’t understand why this rule exists. If you’re really playing a power company, then your resources should be public knowledge, right? Also, trying to keep track of other people’s cash flow is just another distraction in a game that already involves a lot of mental math.

In Settlers of Catan, you keep your resources secret. Again, we have often played with resources faceup, but that’s primarily because we’ve got new players at the table. When playing with Joe and other more experienced players, we’ve played with resources hidden. Again, I’m not quite sure why this should be the case. If it’s a game about resource trading, then you’d think it would be beneficial to see what people have so you can make offers or know who to target with the robber. Like Power Grid, hiding the resources adds a layer of complexity that doesn’t enhance the game any; it just makes things more complicated. However, I can see keeping development cards hidden. They do represent choices you get to make, and are much like the strategy cards in Conquest of Paradise or other games that involve buying cards.

In Small World, you keep your victory points hidden until the game ends. Considering how light the game is, I rather like keeping them hidden. Because you must count up your VP at the end of every turn and take them from the bank, it’s pretty obvious who is having a good turn (14+ VP, for instance). You can easily discuss it at the table and then turn on the current leader. It’s not a very complex game, and unlike the two mentioned earlier, hiding the VPs doesn’t add an annoying level of complexity.

I’m curious if there are other games out there that have you hide resources or VPs. This is a big component of Euro games–even  in Ticket to Ride you’re hiding your routes. Do you find this an interesting mechanic in some games, but not in others? Why?