In the 80s, popular video games such as Asteroids, Pac-Man and Centipede all found themselves recreated in cardboard at a time when board games still ruled the roost back at home. But then their popularity began to fade. What kid in their right mind would ask for Monopoly for Christmas when they could be wishing for a Nintendo 64 and four-player GoldenEye instead?
Board games have recently undergone a renaissance. Blockbuster German titles such as The Settlers of Catan (1995) and Carcassone (2000) began to inspire American game designers, who began to incorporate clever mechanics in their own games. Some credit these games with sparking what has been called the Golden Age of board gaming. Since then, board games have been getting better and better at the same time as rapidly shooting up in popularity (and sales).
And so we find ourselves back where we started in the early 1980s, as more and more video games are being recreated in cardboard. Earlier this year, the proposed Dark Souls board game smashed its Kickstarter goal of $70,000 to smithereens by raising an astonishing $5 million, and in July a fantastic-looking board game version of the new Doom game was announced. Over the past few years, we've seen board game versions of Gears of War, Bioshock Infinite, Assassin's Creed, Resident Evil and Portal, to name a few.
But are the new video game tie-ins any good? And are they likely to tempt seasoned video gamers into joining the board-game fold?
I decided to try out a few of these cardboard video games myself to see how they compare to their silicon brethren.
Buying fireballs in Street Fighter
At Play Expo Blackpool back in May I arranged to play the Street Fighter Deck-Building Game with the helpful staff in the board game section of the event. Street Fighter enthusiastic Muhammed volunteered to demo the game and explain how an intense 2D fighter could be recreated as a turn-based card game, while staff members Sarah and Richard joined in to make up a four-player table.
As Muhammed informed me, the deck-building genre started in 2008 with the highly lauded Dominion, in which the players are monarchs who attempt to buy land to gain the biggest, well, dominion. Street Fighter uses a similar mechanic, but rather than buying land, players buy moves, characters and locations from the various Street Fighter games.
Each player starts off with a pathetically small hand of cards consisting mostly of punches and 'vulnerabilities'. Each card has a value, and by adding them up, you can see which other cards you can afford to buy from the central 'market' of five cards. Players take turns to buy cards until the deck is depleted, and then everyone adds up their cards to see who's won.
But where's the fighting, you ask? Well, each player has a special 'ultra' move that you can unleash against your opponents when you have the right cards, forcing them, for example, to discard their hand or pick up penalties. Opponents can also counter-attack if they have the appropriate cards in front of them. Several other cards also let you boost your own deck or hinder other people's progress, and the strategy is in working out which cards to go for, as some work much better in combination with certain others.
It took rather longer to play than I anticipated: we spent the best part of two hours building decks and battling. To be fair, we had to vacate the room for a little while in the middle of the match, and a lot of extra time was taken up by Muhammed patiently explaining the rules to me - the manufacturers reckon a game should take around 45 minutes when you're up to speed.
But even 45 minutes seems a world away from the lightning-quick battles of the source material. The early game dragged as we ever-so-slowly accrued more interesting cards, until finally, about three-quarters of the way through, things began to get more exciting as we gained the ability to fling more and more powerful attacks and counter-attacks back and forth.
And then it ended. Rather than some decisive ultra finish, a table full of people silently began counting cards until one person emerged with a slightly higher number than the others (it was Muhammed).
It was a bit of an anti-climax, to be honest.
I think the main problem with the game is that it's attempting to shoehorn Street Fighter into a template that doesn't quite fit. Buying land as a monarch in Dominion makes perfect sense, but buying Street Fighter characters and locations when you're playing as a Street Fighter character yourself takes a bit of a leap of imagination. At one point Muhammed said, "I'm going to play Ryu's headband", and it struck me that thematically, the game was all over the place.
I left wondering why the designers didn't plump for a real-time card game instead of a turn-based one. There are plenty of board and card games that work in real time, and a game that necessitated quick drawing and quick thinking over the space of a few minutes would have been a much better fit for Street Fighter.
Still, if nothing else, the artwork on the cards is gorgeous.
XCOM, or how to lose friends and alienate people
I first got into board gaming a couple of years ago, after reading a glowing review of Pandemic on this very website. I bought it, and absolutely loved it. So much so that it inspired me to start up a monthly board games night with three friends.
The second game I bought was XCOM: The Board Game - not on a recommendation, but simply because I adore the video game. But when I introduced it to my friends at that very first board games night, it bombed so badly that there was a serious danger the inaugural board games night could also be the last. Only a quick follow-up game of Pandemic managed to convince my friends that actually there might be something in this board-gaming lark after all.
Still, I worried that we'd written off XCOM a bit too quickly. So when I started researching this article, I convinced my friends to give the game another go. The first time around we struggled and ultimately failed to play our way through the game's tutorial, getting more and more frustrated and disillusioned as we went. But surely second time around we'd have more of an idea about what we should be doing?
XCOM is a coop game where four players take on different roles - Commander, Central Officer, Squad Leader and Chief Scientist - and work together to defend against alien invasion. It works in conjunction with an app, which tells you where aliens are invading and controls the flow of play in real time, at least for some of the game. After the real-time section, each player takes turns to roll dice and see whether they can successfully research equipment, repel UFO attacks or complete missions with soldiers, depending on their role. The game's neat twist is that as well as 'success' dice, you also role a 'failure' die, and the odds of failure creep up with each successive throw, making for steadily building tension as you judge whether or not to keep rolling.
But it's a complicated beast - just take a look at the photos to see how many components are involved. Despite having played the game before, it still took the best part of an hour to set it all up the second time around, and by the time we actually started playing, the general enthusiasm for the game was already beginning to wane. It gets progressively more and more complicated, too, as more and more research is completed, giving each player more and more cards to read and consider on their move. What's more, every unit you play has to be paid for from the XCOM budget, and keeping track of all the spending - the Commander's job - is an absolute pain in the posterior.
On our initial playthrough we neglected to sufficiently fund the Squad Leader, and aliens eventually destroyed our base because we lacked enough soldiers to repel them. This time around we were wiser, or so we thought, and made sure we had plenty of soldiers lined up. But then one of the continents reached the top of the panic meter and we lost anyway.
Let me just clarify this: we failed the tutorial. Twice. This game is insanely hard.
Of course, there's also the fact that we're clearly not very good at it. But getting good would require some careful evaluation of all of the many variables over the course of several play sessions, and the initial difficulty will surely be sufficient to bounce most new players off the game before they have a chance to properly figure out what they're doing.
There's also the fact that we just didn't find it very much fun. Some of the roles are far more interesting than others: the Squad Leader, for example, gets to fight off alien hordes and scavenge extraterrestrial equipment, whereas the Communications Officer's main role is simply reading out things from the app.
The coop element of the game seems somewhat lacking, too. In XCOM there are points where you're simply waiting for your turn to come up as everyone finishes their dice rolling. For a game about alien invasion, it's surprisingly boring for a lot of the time.
Whereas the Street Fighter Deck-Building Game tries to squeeze its source material into a format that doesn't quite work, XCOM: The Board Game tries too hard at being utterly faithful to the game it's based on. It takes a stab at emulating the entire video game, from research labs to balancing budgets, and consequently feels intimidating, bloated and unbalanced. Perhaps it would have been better if the designers had reined in their ambition a little and focused on the video game's core appeal - turn-based battles against unseen aliens in claustrophobic settings. Perhaps recreating something like the venerable old board game Space Hulk would have been a more successful way of capturing the feel of the video game without the off-putting complexity and tedious micromanaging.
To be fair, two of the people in our group had never even heard of XCOM before we played - perhaps if you played this with four die-hard XCOM fans, you might have the stamina to stick around and explore the game's strategies over the course of the many, many sessions it would take to get good. But finding the right people to play with is one of the key drawbacks of board gaming, as I would go on to discover.
How I learned to love The Witcher
Esdevium Games kindly sent me The Witcher Adventure Game to review - but actually finding the time to play it, and people to play it with, proved incredibly difficult. After their experiences with XCOM, the board game night members were unsurprisingly reluctant to throw themselves into playing another tie-in of unknown quality. So instead, I took the game to a 'groupless gamers' night at Gameshub, a board-game cafe in my home town of Edinburgh.
Once there I pulled The Witcher Adventure Game out of my bag, like a magician revealing a dead rabbit. "So, I have to review this game for Eurogamer, do you fancy playing it with me?" I asked my fellow groupless gamers, Ismael and Jonathon. They looked a little nonplussed, especially after I confessed to not knowing how to play the game or even whether it's any good. They declined my offer.
"But hey," said Ismael, "maybe you could play through The Witcher by yourself at home? That way you'll know if it's any good and you can come back and teach people how to play the game."
Solo board gaming? It wasn't something I'd considered before... but at least playing by yourself solves the problem of having like-minded mates to hand.
And do you know what? It turns out that solo board gaming is incredibly soothing. Ultimately, it's pointless, in the sense that you always win. But on the other hand, just moving the pieces around and watching the game unfold has an almost meditative quality about it.
The Witcher Adventure Game has a similarly complicated set-up to XCOM: The Board Game, and it took me around an hour to get it all ready and read through the basic rules. But playing the game is much simpler - and a lot more fun. You take on the role of one of four heroes - Geralt (natch), Triss Merigold the sorceress, Yarpen Zigrin the dwarf or Dandelion the bard - and the aim of the game is to be the first to complete three quests and score the most victory points. Each quest sees you journeying across the Continent to investigate various phenomena, slaying monsters as you go, and the main quests also feature optional side quests that can earn extra victory points.
On your go you have the choice of doing various actions, such as travel, investigate, develop or brew potions, but some of these can be blocked if you get injured by a monster, so you need to periodically rest to heal your wounds. The game constantly asks you to make choices and weigh up options: do you stop to heal and risk falling behind in the game? Do you draw an investigation card and therefore bring yourself closer to completing your main quest? Or do you develop your character, learning spells and attacks to better protect yourself against the monsters you face at the end of every turn?
It's the develop option that really stood out for me. Training up your character gives a real sense of progression, but it always comes at the cost of making headway in the quest for victory points. Yet that extra spell or shield could make the difference between a mortal wound and successfully slaying a monster later on.
At two hours in, I hadn't even finished my first quest - but I was having a whale of a time just shuffling my characters around the map and accruing stuff. Much of those 2 hours was spent consulting the rules - a second, 'proper' playthrough would no doubt come in at the manufacturer's estimated 2-4 hour mark.
For all its questing fun, I can see the game has a few flaws. For a start, there's not enough interaction between the characters - this wasn't a problem for me, as I was playing all of the characters by myself, but I can see that it could be a little boring to simply wait for the other player to finish their go if nothing they can do affects you. There's also the worry of balance - Geralt seemed a little overpowered with his three attack dice and ability to top up all of his potions in one move, although perhaps if you know how to use the other characters well it might mitigate this.
Overall though, I enjoyed The Witcher Adventure Game far more than XCOM or Street Fighter - and it made me want to play the video games to discover more about the world it's based on. Shamefully, I've never actually played any of the Witcher games or read any of the books, but if I had this much fun playing the board game with no prior knowledge of the series, then just imagine how much fun it would be if you're a diehard Witcher fan.
I might even subject Ismael and Jonathan to it at the next groupless gamer night.