Tabletop's Digital Success is More than Luck

Tabletop gaming isn't a fad, and neither is its success in digital spaces

You can’t roll a d6 without bumping into a group of people who love to play tabletop games. It’s become a cultural phenomenon that extends beyond our childhood nightmares about Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit. Physical tabletop gaming is a mainstay of many a household the world over, especially as people fight to retain those threads that hold us together offline. But digital tabletop is in the process of setting itself up as a heavy hitter in the gaming space, with roots that reach deep down to everything from Magic: The Gathering to Settlers of Catan, all the way out to tabletop darling Scythe and into living card games (LCG) like Fantasy Flight’s Lord of the Rings.

It’s a multi-million-dollar industry that’s just getting started. Publishers like Asmodee Digital (the digital arm of Asmodee Edition, the French board game publisher that likely published your favorite tabletop games) have their eyes firmly fixed on what that means for the future of digital tabletop. I sat down with Asmodee Digital’s Chief Marketing Officer, Phillippe Dao, at the Game Developers Conference to talk about what makes digital tabletop a unique space in the game industry.

Physical and digital tabletop don’t exist as wholly separate, at least not according to Dao. “The way we consider building a catalog of digital adaptations of board games is always with the objective of proposing a complementary experience,” he said. “We know that for a fact that we will not be able to replicate what you play physically with friends, even with all the technology and even on virtual reality. We don't have the magic of playing live.”

But it isn’t to say that playing a tabletop game in virtual reality is bereft of joy and comfort. Experiment7, the studio behind Settlers Of Catan VR, has spent years honing what it means to play tabletop games in virtual space. “We want to make beautiful rooms, so we can bring you and your friends together from anywhere in the world and play board games together,” Geoffrey Zatkin, the studio’s creative director and co-founder, told me over breakfast at PAX East. “All those people you haven't been able to get back together in one room since college, or high school, or anything else because they've scattered to the winds — this is a great way to do it.”

Having a comfortable, inviting space to play tabletop games in is important no matter how or where you play the game. Experiment7 has dedicated itself to not just adapting Catan for digital space, but to ensuring that the rooms that players utilize for play is neither a black hole of empty space nor a cluttered, intrusive collection of items that aggravate the player’s senses.

“I have these meticulously mapped out things,” Zatkin said with a big smile. “Like, we need this much clear space around the table, so you don't ever feel that you hit a virtual object. So, if you look in the Catan room, you'll notice you're kind of in the middle of almost this ingrain stone circle. And we see the room pick up around there. That's the clear space you'll find in every single one of our rooms. That way you never feel like you'll bump into something. There are always things nearby you can look at. There's always a view off the right, [but not too close]. There's always a pretty high ceiling, so you never feel claustrophobic.”

Experiment7 had a unique opportunity with Catan to do more than just craft a generic comfy room. They drew on the collective experience of the team at GmbH, the creators of Settlers Of Catan to conjure up an experience that would be representative of the world Catan operates in.

“One of the nice things about working with the Catan studio guys and the guys at Catan GmbH in Germany is they eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff,” Demitri Detsaridis, managing director and co-founder, remarked. “If we ask them, ‘Where would you play Catan if you were on Catan?’, they have an answer automatically that's not, ‘I guess there.’ They’ve thought over this type of question before. [For example], ‘Okay, well there would be a central hall.’ And since the Catanians are from Scandinavia, but they live in a Mediterranean environment — it would look Scandanavian, but feel Mediterranean.”

Part of the reason for creating an authentic, comfortable, and warm environment for players to interact with the tabletop game is to ensure that players spend more time in virtual reality. Both Experiment7 and Oculus struggled with the question of “how do we make sure that we give people a reason to [stay]?” The answer was creating a “compelling game experience with a social component that feels real [in addition to] an environment that they're not going to mind spending that much time in.”

For Asmodee and Asmodee Digital, it’s about getting new players into their titles, physical or digital. And for players that are lacking a friendly local game store (FLGS) or a local board game group, latching onto the digital adaptation of a beloved tabletop game is the best way to play the game at all.

“We've seen a positive impact on the sales of the [physical] board game when we launched Ticket To Ride digital, [as well as] when we launched Splendor digital,” Dao replied, when asked about how Asmodee bridges the digital divide. “We can reach out to players that have never heard about the physical version and we've got some reviews on the app store saying, ‘oh by the way, I did not know that Splendor exists as a board game.’”

Creating digital adaptations for board games is far more nuanced than taking board game mechanics and porting them into a digital space. There are some mechanics that require tactile interaction or social input to really sell the experience. Asmodee Digital’s approach is to “take the behaviors of the digital players into account when we start designing and adapting the game.” Dao knows that they can’t ignore the removal of social elements in the digital experience, because “most of the time, you’ll want to play solo against the AI. You don’t have players or friends to play against.” And if they focus solely on staying  true to core mechanics, instead of creating an engaging digital game, those digital players will find other ways to fill their Wi-Fi bereft commute time. “We need to be able to satisfy these digital players,” he said. “[And] by composing new content, like a new game mode or additional elements, [we can] make the experience complete.”

What Asmodee’s digital tabletop titles do well is leverage the games they’ve been adapted from while complementing the physical experience. Playing Ticket To Ride on iOS isn’t the same kind of experience as when we bust out the full physical board game. As Dao said, digital doesn’t have the same kind of magic. For physical tabletop companies that are struggling to make that jump to digital, Dao was adamant that there’s little to no “cannibalization of the board game versus digital game when the digital version gets out.”

Digital tabletop isn’t a miniscule sector of the video game industry, either. “Digital board games are already at about a half-billion dollars of revenue [as of] last year, on the global level,” Dao explained, when asked about what he envisions for the future of digital tabletop. “And based on our market research, that’s going to be increasing. It's relatively small in comparison to video games, however. Board games [yield] $10 billion a year while video games [bring in] $120 billion. We see more and more publishers like us developing digital board games, either on PC or on mobile. But also you will see new games on other platforms or consoles like the Switch.”

Accessibility is one of many reasons why digital tabletop titles are readily being adopted by  a mainstream audience. Dao remarked that players have been engaged with “evergreen” board games for decades. They don’t fade away like video games have had a tendency to. And while this doesn’t take into account the growing number of games-as-a-service (GaaS), Dao has a point. Most games, even GaaS titles, have a tendency to fall out of gaming rotation after a few years. There are enough games on a platform’s release schedule each month, let alone each year, that it’s difficult for developers and publishers to retain interest for longer than that.

Games like Ticket To Ride, Pandemic, and Settlers of Catan “have been viable for 30 years,” Dao said. “Every year, sales are growing, [namely because] it’s very trendy to play board games and [there’s] permanent recognition about the board games themselves.”

Beyond digital adaptations of the recognizable, “evergreen” board games is a subset of digital tabletop that exists as a supplement to the physical game. Fantasy Flight has embraced this streamlining with a number of their physical board games, including Mansions Of Madness, XCOM, and Descent: Journeys Into The Dark.

“No single part of the companion app is terribly complex, but the sheer number of pieces of the game that it affects made it a huge undertaking,” Nikki Valens, a developer on Fantasy Flight’s Mansions of Madness app, told Mashable in 2016. “Not every part of the first edition could be transplanted into the new edition. Many mechanics needed to be adapted or removed entirely.”

A game like Beasts Of Balance, an indie board game from Sensible Object, doesn’t work without the app. Beasts Of Balance is a stacking game that has 3D printed animals, objects, and representations of elements to build bizarre towers of nature. The app doesn’t just score the game, it shows all the different kinds of animals that the players are creating through mechanics like “evolution.” And then there’s Harmonix’s latest music-centric creation, DropMix. DropMix threads the needle with their digital tabletop game, harmonizing card battling with an app that plays the music you’re creating on the game board. And like Beasts Of Balance, DropMix is only playable with the companion app.

Merging digital tabletop with physical play is an important step toward socialization in digital spaces. But what about virtual reality? Settlers Of Catan VR launched on March 23, but after what feels like a mainstream standstill for the industry, I questioned Dao as to why they pursued the platform. “The rationale for VR in tabletop is very simple,” Dao remarked. “For Oculus, Samsung, and PlayStation VR — if they want to democratize VR and they want to increase the adoption, the content needs to be social.”

The social aspect of VR is absolutely necessary to ensure that the player doesn’t feel as though they’re isolated in their experience. Immersive VR cuts off the outside world, after all. Ubisoft’s tabletop VR experience, Werewolves Within, hooks into that virtual-reality sociable twist. Catan VR doesn’t just port the game to virtual reality, either. It creates a visual landscape that keeps the experience from feeling bland, because those little touches matter in virtual space. There’s a lot to like about Catan VR, especially because you can play with friends. But those friends need to have the same VR headset in order to play together. Nothing like being that one friend who bought a Vive instead of the Oculus (or vice versa).

VR adoption isn’t quite what it needs to be in order to go fully mainstream, of course. But according to research done by the International Data Corporation (IDC), the combined market for augmented reality and virtual reality headsets will grow to 81.2 million units by 2021, with annual growth of 56.1 percent over the next three years. Asmodee Digital considers VR a good long-term investment for the company, based both on the forecast and the compatibility of tabletop in VR.

“[Publishers] look at the different types of games and say, ‘Okay, so there are board games, which by their nature are social games.’ And they say, ‘Okay, which board games are we going to take?’ So, we take a huge one, one which is a modern classic: Settlers Of Catan. If we want to make a big impact and we really want to increase VR adoption, we need to have a big IP like Catan.”

The digital tabletop sector is fast becoming a force of nature. As tabletop gaming continues to broaden its reach beyond niche audiences, we’ll continue to see digital adaptations and app-enabled board games eking their way onto smartphones and tablets in larger numbers. And hopefully, even with all of the board game Kickstarter projects out there, tabletop won’t eventually echo the massive discoverability issues that continue to plague video games. These complementary titles don’t supplant their meatspace counterparts. They enrich the community by bringing new people into tabletop and enhancing tabletop for those who have been playing games like Catan for decades.

Managing Editor

Amanda has been meandering around the game journosphere since 2010, mostly covering indie games, culture, and industry news. These days, she talks about the business of making games through a critical cultural lens. She adores RPGs, weird narrative indie games, and strategy games that take forever to learn. Amanda is also the managing editor of SuperParent. You can find her on Twitter as @AmandaFarough or you can email her at amanda.farough@gamedaily.biz.