The Digital Line

During the last few weeks I’ve been spending a lot of my gaming time with Descent. Specifically, with its app-driven cooperative variant, which turned out to be both a blast, and a possible peek into the future of tabletop gaming.

I’ve written more than once about the integration of apps into board games, and if you’ve been paying attention, you know that I’ve been lukewarm on the idea to say the least. Regardless, I got a copy of Mansions of Madness (2nd edition) when it hit the shelves, and I tried out the free Road to Legend app sometime after it became available for free download.

The former left me in a bit of emotional turmoil. I loved all of the possibilities it opened up: having in-game conversations with characters you meet (where you actually get to choose what you want to say), and I really liked how (relatively) small a footprint a game of that magnitude can have on the table. What I was (and am still) not fond of was the time I spent with my face in my laptop or tablet. Sometimes it felt like all of the cardboard and plastic on the table is merely some barely necessary paraphernalia.

Road to Legend on the other hand excited me to, so much so that once we played it two nights in a row – and that’s really big coming from someone whose collection includes over 300 good, great or spectacular games. Digitalized Descent seems to zero in on exactly what I would expect from a Dungeon Master app, still leaving most of the game on the table, and literally in players’ hands.

The difference between Mansions of Madness and Descent comes from how they were designed. While Mansions was built from the ground up with the idea that it would only worked when using the app, Descent had been a fully analogue game for years before FFG decided to fuse it with a digital component for a new mode of play – and it shows. Working around existing materials and mechanisms made the whole experience more disciplined in focusing on the actual table, which – in turn – made it a better experience for a gamer such as myself.

Nonetheless, Fantasy Flight Games most probably is now seeing the potential in games driven by their digital component, and might be targeting new gamers ready to delve into Descent skipping the one versus many aspect altogether: the most recent update of the Road to Legend rules saw them swell from 15 pages with only the rules for using the app, to 25 pages, which provide all of the rules of the game used when facing the automated overlord.

I cannot tell if this is a step in the right direction. I like the idea of apps opening up new ways or modes to play games, which is probably another reason I came to like the Road to Legend app so much. On the other hand, using the digital component as a crutch (and a sales point) might be the wrong way to go. After all, the almost universally hated 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to offer a new experience with Wizards’ Virtual Tabletop, but ended up falling on its behind after the digital component was cancelled.

What’s even more interesting about that particular case, was that the Virtual Tabletop was merely supposed to be a help tool. It would allow people from all around the world to play a session together (much like current tools such as RollD20 or Fantasy Grounds), and serve as replacement for maps and miniatures, but after it disappeared many almost immediately turned against an otherwise fine game (yep, I said it), labelling it one of the worst things that happened to RPG in the 21st century.

There’s a thin line between what makes an app-driven (or enhanced) game enjoyable, and what threatens its longevity (or life in general). In fact, it’s a line most of us place somewhat differently. The recent success of Mansions of Madness is a sign of gamers being interested in those hybrids, but the future is still uncertain, as the D&D scenario may still repeat itself one day.

Either way, I’d stick to the more optimistic projections – and (once again) that’s a lot coming from a person who used to treat putting digital stuff in their board games the way and old curmudgeon would treat kids playing ball in his yard.

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