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Video (screencast): (The Nature of Games) Fundamental Game Format: Functional versus Cosmetic

by Lewis Pulsipher on 03/29/16 08:39:00 pm   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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This one is longer than usual, about 18 miutes.

Below is the text of the slides - which is just a part of the entire presentation, of course.

(The Nature of Games) Fundamental Game Format: Functional versus Cosmetic
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” Channel on YouTube

Game Formats?
Game format is whether a game is a tabletop board game, a tabletop card game, a TT RPG, a video game, etc.
And we could divide video games by platform, such as console, PC, tablet, handheld, etc.
But I won’t
Insofar as you can program a boardgame on a computer, or a cardgame, and vice versa, this format difference is more cosmetic than real

What is This?
Functional differences are ones that affect actual play
Cosmetic differences only affect appearance
Whether a game is physically a card game, board game, or video game is a cosmetic difference!
It’s like the difference between a man dressed “in drag” and an actual woman
Or a woman dressed to look like a man
Cosmetically, the first looks like a woman, the second like a man
Functionally, the first is still a man, the second still a woman

Example: I have a vaguely Stratego-like prototype space wargame being programmed for PC
It’s a board game, and will be even when it can be played on PC
There are fundamental factors that make this so
That’s the topic today, what are those fundamental factors?
E.g. we’ll find that many so-called board games are really something else, for which I don’t have a common name – Status Tracking games?

Why do Boards Exist?
If you think of classic (pre-commercial) board games, such as backgammon, chess, Nine Men’s Morris, mancala. Go, draughts (checkers), even Tic-Tac-Toe, etc.
Boards exist to depict maneuver or placement, and spatial relationships
There’s no other way to simply and conveniently do this: this is what boards are for
They depict racing or conflict - warfare in other words - in almost every case
Backgammon has conflict, but is mostly a racing game, as is mancala

But now . . .
Modern games often use some paper or cardboard in the middle of the table as a status tracker, not a field for spatial relationships
These are called “board games”, but then again, many card games are generically lumped in with “board games” when people talk
They don’t require boards – there are a variety of ways to track status
For example, you can depict worker placement on a piece of cardboard, but it can also be done via cards or other tokens

Arbitrary Definition?
Some people might suggest that any status-tracking game that isn’t primarily cards, must be a board game
They might say, a board for M/P & SR is just tracking a different status than the other status-tracking “boards”
I prefer not to say that, especially now that status-tracking is the strongest characteristic of video games
And especially when cards are used as status trackers so often in games these days
A resource management game, or a worker placement game, is fundamentally different from a war or racing game

So what is fundamental about card games?
Hidden Information!
Board games naturally reveal all (they’re supposed to, originally)
Card games naturally hide almost all information in a very simple way
Card games also provide more flexibility than board games for varying numbers of players

Number of Players
Think of how many board games (in the functional sense, where the board is used for M/P and SR) are for only two players
Board games are limited by the size and shape of the board
You could play Risk with eight, but the board’s really too small for that
Even if you provide extra pieces
Racing games can often accommodate lots of players, but wargames are more limited

Number of players involves downtime
A differentiator here: card and racing games take little time per player
Conflict games often take much longer per player, so a large number of players (eight, for example) leads to a lot of downtime

Yes, video games, even more than card games, hide information
They hide EVERYTHING except what the programmers choose to depict onscreen (or on printout, or with sound)
They’re also really good at complex calculation
But more important, video games can keep track of many things, invisibly, that would be difficult or impossible to track in a physical game
Record-keeping is part of Status-Tracking
So we could say “record-keeping” is the most fundamental aspect of video games!
With hidden info and calculation not far behind
Record-keeping, status-tracking, same thing – except the status is usually displayed (as on those bogus “boards” in tabletop games), where other records may be hidden
Video games can do both excellently well
In a sense, if costs were not wildly different, it would make more sense for all those status-tracking/record-keeping games to be video games
You don’t have to fiddle around with lots of cubes and cards, the computer keeps track for you
Unfortunately, programming (and computers to run programs on) costs a lot of money
And lacks the tactile feel, the “haptic” aspects of physical games
And lacks the social interaction of face-to-face gaming
Unless every player has a tablet that displays the game to each one (a future if not already a present)

“Demise” of Board Games?
So when I spoke, in another screencast, about the “demise” of board games, I was talking in the fundamental sense
The sense that a board is used to depict maneuver/placement and spatial relationships
Again, that includes most wargames and many racing games
Video games that keep track of maneuver or placement, and spatial relationships, are often called “boardgamelike”, aren’t they?
A board game is a board game because you need the board to show the spatial relationships, not because it’s convenient for showing status, not because it’s cardboard and sits in the middle of a table

Clarity of Semantics
We would be better off by saying something like:
“A boardgame in tabletop form” OR
“A boardgame in video form” when it has been converted to video
You could make a case that Civilization IV is both a boardgame and a status-tracking/record-keeping game in video format
But definitely a boardgame, as maneuver and geospatial location are very important
Perhaps record/status would be better than the longer name
But when so many people say “board game” when actually referring to a card game, semantics are a low priority with players . . .

Recent Example
At Prototype Com (Kissimmee FL) I saw a three player WW II prototype tabletop board game by Mark Gelston
While I’ve seen prettier prototypes, I’ve never seen one that required so much time and effort from the designer to make it (photo next)
Lots of cubes with stickers on them, hand-made displays with insets to hold cubes of many sizes down to small wood – lots to keep track of
I talked with Mark for a long time, and found the game models many significant aspects of WW II that are often ignored
But it would cost more than $200 to produce in the small print runs typical of wargames today
This is “naturally” a computer game, for all the work in this prototype

Functional versus Cosmetic.  You have to think about the purpose of things to understand the fundamental functions. Don’t let appearances deceive you.

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