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Split Screen: Taking games from digital to analog

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Gears of War: The Board Game is remarkably true to its source material.

Gears of War: The Board Game is remarkably true to its source material.

Historically, when a video game has been brought into the realm of board games, it would take one of two forms: a re-branding of an existing board game, such as the upcoming WarCraft Monopoly and StarCraft Risk, or a thrown-together tie-in without any lasting appeal as a game in its own right, like the Frogger and Pac-Man games released in the 1980s.

Thanks to the European board game renaissance, game designers are now taking licensed properties a lot more seriously. Movie and TV tie-ins, for example, have started to emerge as some of the best games available, taken seriously even by notoriously hard-to-please board game connoisseurs, such as the critically lauded Battlestar Galactica.

With the waxing cultural significance of video games, it was inevitable that this new breed of licensed board games would start to be treated more seriously. Quality gameplay is now the core focus of these titles, rather than making a quick buck from a gullible grandmother at Christmas time.

The Pac-Man board game failed to set the world alight.

The Pac-Man board game failed to set the world alight.

It’s no wonder, either: board game companies are squeezed between high prices and well-informed customers. It is not unusual for a top shelf game to cost as much as $100, with typical prices ranging from $60 to $80. This is outside impulse-buy territory for most consumers, so they will do their research. On sites like BoardGameGeek.com, a bad game will get shredded, and sales are guaranteed to suffer.

The solution, of course, is to make good games and keep the price as low as possible, and this philosophy has been extended even to properties that were once seen as marketing-driven cash-grabs.

While a few companies have taken a stab, American company Fantasy Flight Games has become the market leader in the field of video game conversions. They kicked off with the WarCraft board game in 2003, then moved on to Doom, StarCraft, and more. Other companies followed suit, designing highly rated games like Age of Empires and Railroad Tycoon.

Civilization and some of its many fiddly bits. [Photo: daniel-lim.co.uk]

Civilization and some of its many fiddly bits. [Photo: daniel-lim.co.uk]

This week I got to play Fantasy Flight's two most recent forays into video game tie-ins, Sid Meier’s Civilization and Gears of War: The Board Game, released in 2010 and 2011 respectively. What is particularly notable about these two is how highly they have been rated, with BoardGameGeek.com listing Civilization at 33 on its all-time rankings, and Gears managing a respectable 193. If only licensed video games fared so well.

First up, Gears of War. The source game is fast-paced and co-operative, so this is the direction taken by the designers of the board game. Up to four players take on the roles of the series’ four central COG soldiers - Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird – and work together to complete challenging missions. The enemy Locust forces are controlled by randomly-drawn cards.

The board game is extremely true to its roots. The COGs can take cover, flank enemies, throw grenades to seal up emergence holes, and even chainsaw them with the iconic lancer rifle. Each COG has varying special abilities, making each of them subtly different to play. Dom, for example, can move the fastest, so is suited to running quickly from place to place, while Cole can act out of turn and take out enemies to protect his teammates.

What I like best is that the hand of cards that is used to control your character, allowing for movement, attacks, and so on, is also your health. Essentially, the more things you do on your turn, the more exposed you are to enemy fire. At the beginning of your turn you draw two cards to refill your hand, and this is referred to as “healing”. It ties in very well with the original game’s healing mechanic, including the fact that when you get shot up you can hide in cover and do nothing for a little while to get your health back. A COG who loses all his cards ends up on the ground bleeding out, needing a friend to revive him.

I played with the full complement of four players, including one who is a fan of the series and two who had never played it. We blitzed the first mission, in which we had to punch through a horde of Locust soldiers to seal an emergence hole. After a period of explaining rules and stepping through everyone’s turns slowly, we soon got the hang of it and blasted through the mission with little difficulty.

Things got a bit more challenging in the second mission, thanks to the addition of the huge and terrifying berserker. As in the original, the blind behemoth must be lured through the level to bash open locked doors. We ended up being too distracted by swarms of lesser enemies, and the berserker mopped us up. Clearly it is not just enough to know the rules; you need a strong strategy as well.

Overall, I had a great time with Gears of War: The Board Game, and I look forward to playing it again and learning hoe to best work together as a team. My only quibble is that I think it may lack replayability, so I hope Fantasy Flight will follow it up with an expansion soon.

Civilization is effectively the polar opposite of Gears. Unlike its fast and lean sibling, it is slow-paced and uses a huge number of playing pieces. Between map tiles, counters, cards, plastic pawns, cardboard counters, and more, it has over 500 individual bits in the box. Setting up a game can take as long as 30 minutes, and a game can take over three hours to play. Clearly this is not a game for everyone.

To be fair, recreating such a sprawling video game experience on a tabletop was always going to be an epic challenge, and if you can tolerate the complex setup and digest the voluminous rules, it is an extremely faithful adaptation.

Most of the key things that make the Civilization board game what it is are here: exploration of a random map, making war with other cultures, researching technology, sending out settlers to found new cities, constructing civic buildings and wonders, barbarian tribes, and more. There are even multiple winning conditions, with military conquest, scientific advancement, cultural development, and overwhelming wealth all being potential paths to victory.

If you enjoy a slow-paced game with deep long-term strategy, Civilization comes very highly recommended, but be aware that it takes a serious investment of time just to learn the rules, let alone to play the game. Then again, Civilization V on PC takes over ten hours for an average play-through, so three hours around a table with a group of friends sounds just fine to me.

As both a video game fanatic and a board games nerd, I love that these two worlds are converging in such a satisfying way. The two games above, apart from capturing the essence of their source material, are also simply good board games.

- James "DexX" Dominguez

 twitter If you want more DexX, you can listen to the GameTaco podcast or follow him on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

18 comments so far

  • The last board game i played was probably hungry hungry hippos, but these sound pretty good.

    Initially, i thought that a game of Civilization going for three hours would be a bit long - but I'm sure that if there's drinks and competitive people involved, it sounds like fun! (a 30 min set up sounds intense though!).

    How many players can play civilization?

    Commenter
    beatdan
    Date and time
    April 27, 2012, 8:59AM
    • I didn't want to gush too much in the article proper, but Gears is _amazing_. It skates that fine line between too easy and too hard, and it's great fun. Random events can sometimes have too much impact (poor old luverly_5pam had some shocking luck on the dice) and you really need to stay alert to avoid getting overrun, and use every trick available.

      Civ is good, but it's going to take me a few more games to really get a handle on it. There's a LOT going on, with up to three cities per player all producing their own buildings, resources, and wonders, plus army movements, scouting out sites for new cities, fighting barbarians and other players...

      I played half a game with four players and we ran out of time before we got to finish it, and nobody quite had a grip on it by that stage. My second game was two players, with my wife, and that ran a lot more smoothly (she snagged a tech victory a turn before I did the same).

      Civ is 2-4 players, plus there's an excellent expansion that adds a lot of new features and components for a fifth player.

      I want to get hold of FFG's StarCraft board game now. It's ranked more highly than Gears on BoardGameGeek.com, and Gears is fantastic.

      Commenter
      DexX
      Location
      MCDexX on XBL, PSN, Steam, and iOS GameCentre
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 9:18AM
  • Gears of War sounds fun, but the Civ board game sounds like a bit too much effort, seems like it would just be easier to stick with the electronic version.

    Anyone watched "Tabletop" with Wil Wheaton on the Geek and Sundry channel on Youtube? Basically a bunch of celebrity geeks playing board games, they played Settlers of Catan on the last episode. Pretty entertaining actually, I reckon I could get into board games if I had weekly special guests to help out.

    Commenter
    Swordfactor
    Date and time
    April 27, 2012, 9:18AM
    • I like it that board games are becoming video games and video games becoming board. Some of the ports from board to video have been ok but not wonderful (Settlers and Ticket to Ride), but at least it gives me a chance to play them when not playing the real game with others.

      Commenter
      Joka
      Date and time
      April 27, 2012, 9:28AM
      • That board game version of Civ sounds most unappealing. Why not just play on the computer with no faffing around with hundreds of pieces? Just trying to replicate the digital game is clearly not the way to go with a board game, same goes when its the other way around.

        Commenter
        Jason Hill
        Location
        Screen Play bunker
        Date and time
        April 27, 2012, 9:30AM
        • Not necessarily Jason some people love all that fiddly stuff that comes w/ board games. Like me =P

          I kinda tend to treat some board games like playing a "lite" version of table top wargames which require a lot more investment in models, rules, painting etc. It's a lot more convenient and technically easier to set up

          Commenter
          RocK_M
          Location
          I want chinese take-away!
          Date and time
          April 27, 2012, 10:51AM
      • Had the fortunate opportunity to play Battlestar Galactica for the first time over the Anzac day holiday. It was an absolute blast and after a short while I got the hang of what it's all about (I've not watched BSG before; shock, horror).

        Having played (and loved) Civilizations I through V, I'm really interested in trying out the Civilization boardgames (yes, there are actually two versions). The important thing is to find a group of players who are serious about investing time to complete it from start to finish, and to also find a good half day without interruptions to play it proper.

        Commenter
        Kenny
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        April 27, 2012, 9:49AM
        • I've looked at the GoW game a couple of times and put it down as probably just another cash in - I'm glad its not.

          As one that enjoys a good board/tabletop game I can recommend Tannhäuser for someone who likes fast paced, squad-based, multiple-objective, classic quasi-scifi, neo-arcane-Nazi v tech-savvy Ahmerica boardgame which plays out a lot like a videogame

          Alternatively - Descent is great for those you liked Hero's Quest all those years ago. Basically the same only more detailed and added some deeper rpg elements

          For those that like zombies
          Last Night on Earth is pretty cool, and so is Zombies!!!

          Commenter
          AarghZombies
          Date and time
          April 27, 2012, 10:35AM
          • Gears of War was indeed pretty awesome. That beserker sure harshed our mellow man...

            Still really keen to do a proper playthrough of Civ. These games are odd. You look at the number of pieces they have, the thickness of the rule booklet, and the general obtuseness of it all and think it is probably all a bit much. But when you play them, jeez they are fun. The Battlestar Galactica game is indeed pretty damn awesome.

            @Joka

            I definitely agree with you about the Xbox version of Settlers. The negotiation between players is basically the key gameplay mechanic in that game, and it loses so much without face to face body language information. Xbox Ticket to ride however is superb. Anyone who is friends with me on Xbox has probably seen how deep and crippling my TTR addiction is... Incidentally if anyone wants an online game, add me-> luverly5pam

            Discussion Q: Which video games do you think are most ripe for a board game conversion?

            (p.s. don't forget to get your votes in for the poll. Top 5 gaming systems of all time, sent to screenplayvote@gmail.com)

            Commenter
            luverly_5pam
            Location
            I appear to have formed some sort of a chrysalis..
            Date and time
            April 27, 2012, 10:41AM
            • I would say Space Hulk and Space Marine!

              FOR THE EMPRAH!... oh wait! =P

              Commenter
              RocK_M
              Location
              I want chinese take-away!
              Date and time
              April 27, 2012, 10:57AM

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