Splendor, Multiplayer Culture and Digital/Physical Boardgames22 Oct 2016 5
Tabletop adaptation Splendor earned itself four stars here when it released in 2015. That's a big score for a game without an online play option. Network code is hard, and it's common for strategy games to launch without any. But it adds so much to the longevity and enjoyment of a game that some go back and add it later. Splendor is one such, currently rejoicing in a splendid asynchronous multi-player update.
If you played Splendor before the update, you likely got the impression it was good but fairly sedate game of middling depth. Players are chiefly interested in building their own little gem engines to suck up the big victory point gems faster than anyone else. The constraints of screen real estate make it hard to take in other player's cards at a glance. So, if you played Splendor after the update, you likely got exactly the same impression of a low interaction game.
Those who've played Splendor in real life, however, will know the reality is quite different.
In games of Splendor the vagaries of chance tend to mean that certain colours of gem are rarer than others. Sometimes these colours are critical to the strategic path you want to make, sometimes not. Either way, it's a valid and common tactic in the game to spot a gem other players need and steal it before they've got the resources to buy it themselves.
Doing so always elicits curses and howls of outrage from the thwarted gem dealer. Indeed I've played quite a lot of Splendor and playing it has become a colourful hour full of swearing and bitter recriminations. I've likened it to stealing routes in Ticket to Ride. If someone swoops down on your target you can still work around it, but it feels like a personal insult. Why the gem you needed, instead of the player on your left? In tight games, it's enough to break friendships for good.
Learning that games play differently online compared to face to face isn't a great shock. However, the scale of the disconnect can be. There's a whole bunch of games like Splendor that seem static online but which can be brutal face to face. Lords of Waterdeep is another example. On the basis of online experience, I loaned my physical copy of the game to a friend to take on holiday and play with his family. When he came back, none of them were talking to each other, or to me, all thanks to the seemingly innocent mandatory quest mechanic.
How much you care about this depends, of course, on how you like your games. Wargamers have been playing via email for years to no ill-effect. But if, like me, you're fond of the verbal sparring that accompanies face to face games then it's a sad loss.
What's to be done? One thing to be learned from play by mail gaming is that most of the fun in human communication can be restored simply by including comments. Diplomacy, arguably the most interpersonal board game ever devised, plays very well by mail. Most play by mail tools, such as Vassal, allow unlimited comments to be interspersed between moves.
This isn't an ideal solution for mobile with its clunky on-screen keyboards. Yet it's much better than nothing. It's a shame so few game apps include it. For people who prefer the silent speed of playing through multiple concurrent games as quickly as possible, the option can be disabled. Likewise for anyone unlucky enough to find an opponent using this as an excuse for abuse. But those account could be reported and banned and the game continue in silence.
Perhaps the best lesson of all comes from the app version of Galaxy Trucker. If you're unfamiliar with the board game, the initial phase is effectively a dexterity game. Players grab unseen tiles and try to fit them into their ship design in a race to be fist to build a complete craft. It's great fun, puzzle solving at speed, and something you'd think would be impossible to translate to mobile. Which it kind of is: the app version does have this mechanic but it's nowhere near as entertaining as real life.
However, the app also offers an alternative mode of ship building. Rather than the free for all, the game introduces a new turn based version where you pay points to draw and add tiles to your ship. It proved so good that real life players who didn't like the dexterity element starting using it in physical games. It's hard to think of a more compelling complement one could pay to the design.
All it took to solve this dilemma for Galaxy Trucker was a little imagination and a modicum of playtesting. That effort remains the reason why that game remains the best tabletop adaption I've played on mobile. Converting board games is a niche market which generally demands close to premium prices. People are prepared to pay. It may be that they're prepared to pay a little more to see variants that recreate the feel of face to face play over the sterile environment of the screen.