Modern board games suffer from the difficulty of onboarding new players. More often than not, players rely on one patient friend who has either played the game before or read all the rules prior to the gaming session.
As the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on, board game nights became virtual, but the same issue persisted, now with that patient friend trying to describe things ineffectually over Zoom. Then, more virtual versions of board games started popping up, and on a friend’s recommendation, I sat down to a game of Root in front of my computer.
Root is an asymmetric board game that pits four animal factions against each other in a bid for forest domination. Each faction has its own methods of playing and winning. The Marquise are about supply management and engine building. The Eyrie create and follow a decree that specifies their actions each round. The Vagabond plays as a single unit who completes quests of their own. And the Alliance… does some sort of recruiting and setting up bases that I still don’t understand.
In this post, I will discuss some of the pros and cons of the virtual version of the board game Root. These lessons could apply to the game design of other board games in video game format.
Advantages of Virtual Board Game Format
1. Teaching players the rules through quick, custom levels
At first blush, you’d think that the biggest problem for an asymmetric game like Root would be balancing the different factions. But in fact, Root falls into the trap of nearly every sophisticated board game. It’s incredibly difficult to pick up for the first time, because it requires learning four different games at once.
Even though you only play as one faction, you need to know how the other three operate and score in order to defend against them. This is where the digital version has the biggest advantage.
In the video game for Root, learning about all the factions is easier because there are tutorials that cycle you through playing each faction in a bare-bones simulation. This way, you can try the Marquise, Eyrie, Vagabond and Alliance with the helpful in-game instructions in levels designed to teach you about each of them. Having players play through these levels will provide a foundation of knowledge before they play with their friends.
In virtual format, designers are able to create custom levels to teach specific rules of the game through hands-on experience. Onboarding players on to complex board game systems is a lot easier when there are short tutorials, like Root does for each of its factions.
2. Automatic turn management and scoring
A natural benefit of the virtual version is having the ability to automate certain processes. It can walk players through parts of the game and force them to perform required actions.
In Root, this is most advantageous with turn cycles. Root’s asymmetry means that you are not able to learn how to play from watching other players take their turns, because each faction is so different. And since you’re the only one playing your faction, no other player can provide examples of your faction’s strategies once the game has started.
Root’s interface simplifies turns for the player by highlighting the important areas when decisions need to be made. The UI also makes information like the number of units in a certain area, and the points for each faction, more visible. Additionally, it calculates and updates each player’s points automatically, making things even easier for the players.
3. AI, solo play and online multiplayer
Another benefit of video games is the ability to play against AI. Playing board games solo is impossible, but having a virtual edition of the game allows players to play it even if their group of friends is unavailable. This can be expanded to online multiplayer if there’s network support and a large enough player base.
Disadvantages of Virtual Board Game Format
1. Reduced interaction with other players
One of the negative effects of the virtual version is the reduced interaction with other players. It’s difficult to replicate the camaraderie of sitting around a table and chatting together. Plus, players in the virtual board game are looking at their own versions of the board rather than the same one as everyone else.
In a sense, increasing immersion in the world of the video game simultaneously pulls players out of the social interaction that is a key element of playing board games.
Because the board game takes care of turn cycles, players don’t need to announce what they’re doing on their turns. This means that turns can pass quietly and players can miss what happened. For Root, this is especially confusing because each faction can do different things, and even the combat animation is not shown to players who are not directly involved.
2. Unable to create house rules
It’s also a shame to not be able to change the rules while playing in the virtual version of a board game. When something isn’t fun or isn’t working, modifying gameplay, awarding a different number of points, or allowing players to take back their previous turn are all out of the question.
3. Reliance on automated processes
While the automated turn cycle and scorekeeping are both convenient, they also prevent a deep understanding of the game. Playing Root, I was often just following along with what the game told me to do on my turn, without really absorbing the rules of the game.
As a result, I don’t think I’d be able to explain the rules of Root to anyone else. In my experience having things easy in the video game, I doubt I’d want to play the regular board game format either.
Should all board games create digital versions?
Digital formats of board games open up possibilities. They have functionalities that improve the game experience, such as tutorials, automated turns, scorekeeping, and UI. However, this has to be balanced with the goal and type of the board game, and what kind of interactions designers want to encourage.
Digital board games, or even just quick online tutorials, can help with complexities of playing a board game for the first time. However, a video game version of a board game might not make sense if the primary goal of the game is players deceiving each other through conversation.
It’s also important to make the video game resonate with the mood of the board game. For Root, the cute art and animated animals work perfectly and reflect the spirit of the “game of woodland might and right”.
Root is better in digital format
For Root, I think that the gains from the digital format outweigh the negatives. In particular, Root takes advantage of technology to overcome its main pain points: onboarding and understanding the game. The friction from its asymmetrical gameplay is eased by curated tutorials and a UI that tells you what to do and when to do it. Overall, the virtual board game makes things easier for players. It lowers the barrier to entry of a complicated, but ultimately fun game, allowing players to get to the fun part faster.