The Challenges and Rewards of Building Board Game Customizations for My Friends
I love board games. I own hundreds, I know how to play them all, and I play board games multiple times a week.
Four years ago, I saw a digital gaming table by Geek Chic. I found that it was driven by an infrared frame laid atop a television. I immediately ordered a frame, stuck it to my 46” TV, and made a slew of prototypes. I called it The Touch Table.
The main purpose was to create customizations for board games I owned. Take for example the party game “Wits and Wagers” where players answer questions with numerical answers and then bet on which answer is the closest.
I read questions out of the box but use the computer to handle the answers and bets. With a computer moderating, I’m able to implement “impossible” modes that can anonymize the answers and the bets.
When I customize a game with the computer, I always want the same things: rule enforcement, tools to improve the players’ tactics and strategies, and superfluous information removed. Here’s a sample of some of the games.
As a rules enforcer for most of my life this is amazing! My friends make moves confident that the computer will help them, and I can pay more attention to the game. Obviously, there’s no setup or tear down time. We play these more often and have gotten quite a bit better at them. When we must break out the physical copy, we’re a little sad.
I tried contacting board game creators and publishers with virtually no success. I got the rights to make and distribute Hansa Teutonica (currently ranked 85 overall at BoardGameGeek.com). I got permission to use Pixel Glory's assets, too. But that was it; everybody else either mistook my creation as an iPad or wasn’t interested.
So now, I chug along making customizations to fit my group’s play style better.
Because board games are so varied, I’ve come across several challenges. The computer needs to enhance game play or I would rather play the physical copy. (I would argue that’s why anybody customizes their board games.) Sometimes the players need to have hidden information. The nature of some games requires me to allow players to leave. The biggest challenge by far is fitting up to a square meter of dense printing (representing a board game and its pieces) into a measly 1920 by 1080 pixels.
Challenges are fun to overcome! There are plenty of ways to enhance a board game like tallying running scores, performing calculations for the players, and highlighting valid actions. When players need hidden information, I embed a web server into the game and serve up HTML interfaces allowing every kind of device to connect with no app or plug-in. I’ve built A.I.s using every technique I know: neural networks, genetic algorithms, expert systems, and brute force. Not only does this allow players to leave, but also provides opponents for single players. I doodle on graph paper and in Photoshop to outline the interface and then rely on TheNounProject.com and the Asset Store to fill in the rest. (I’m currently using a 46” HD TV; next year I’m upgrading to a 55” 4K TV so that games can show more detail.)
Collectors are Designers
Like most people obsessed with board games, I have tried to implement my own; I just use a computer instead of printing out my game. My best was “Dungeon Raiders”, but the computer barely enhanced the game. After some brainstorming, I significantly improved it to make “Dungeon Raiders 2,” my first digital board game I’m not ashamed to show off (available for Windows, Linux, and Android).
The Danger: A Gem-Stealing Spider
At its heart, “Dungeon Raiders 2” is a press-your-luck style game: points can be yours, or you can forgo them in exchange for a chance at more points. Just a few rules create a surprising amount of drama around the table.
This new version has Adventure Rooms, unique experiences that modify the dungeon and players’ options. I’m currently up to 10 adventures, and the computer picks adventures that haven’t been used recently. To help the players make informed decision, I calculate some statistics involving the current state of the dungeon.
With limited screen space and adventures having between two and five options, I chose a pie menu for the player’s controls. When a player needs to leave, he selects the computer chip from the menu. When a player wants to take control of an A.I.’s position, he simply selects anything else from that menu.
The game board can vary drastically in size as the game can end in as little as three rooms and can theoretically need to show 50 rooms. I eventually decided on an algorithm that builds the dungeon randomly, but weighted to keep the dungeon’s width less than half its depth. I keep the camera as close to the dungeon as possible, moving out as the explorers continue deeper; the ratio constraint packs the rooms within the camera’s bounds. Initially I build my rooms with ceiling sprites about a meter over a floor to create a tiny bit of parallax, but as the camera moved around, you could see the shortcuts I had taken. I ultimately had to add walls and a proper entrance to the dungeon to give the illusion of 2D!
My favorite tool for enhancing board games is Windows’ text-to-speech. I can inform the user of the game’s state with an infinite number of phrases. Unfortunately, I wanted to port the game to Android. I had to undertake the scariest part of this whole project -- recording my voice. I used many filters to help tweak the sound, but I’ll never be happy because who likes to hear their own voice? Finally, the controls on a 7-inch tablet were small. I made a 4-player scene with a smaller game board and larger player areas. You can still play with nine players, but if you have four or fewer, you can use controls that are more comfortable.
One final advantage of making these games for my friends is that I measure success differently. I consider a game successful when we have played with my version longer than the time it took to put together. It doesn’t always happen, but this is a living project and I hope to entertain my friends for decades to come.
(IMPORTANT NOTE: This story sounds like I did it on my own which is far, far from the truth. Many were involved, but I wanted to keep the story clear. My partner Chad Weisshaar and friend Doug Swartzendruber also make public domain games, board game customizations, and their own titles for The Touch Table. Chad tried the hardest to get game publishers involved. Mesa Mundi helped fund some of the early titles so that they would have software for their infrared frames. My business partner N.R. Bharathae did all of the sweet artwork for the first year. My friends indulge me with their time. Thanks for indulging me with yours.)