Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Wizard Oil
  by Carol Pinchefsky
August 2007

Hello World: Leaving MMOs for tabletop games

There are dozens of collectable card games in the world, but Ricardo Piper chose the pink ones.

"I'll play anything that catches my interest," Piper says as he held his Yu-Gi-Oh cards, which happened to be enveloped in individual pink wrappers, a contradictory image given his hip-hop style. He says he likes all games, from ones played on a board to those played with 52 cards. And once upon a time, he even liked MMORPGs.

But after spending a year and a half swallowing the blue pill of The Matrix Online, Piper shut off his computer.

Now he duels monsters when he gets the chance. He says he likes playing with friends rather than against a computer screen "to prove [to them] how good I am."

Piper is not alone. Despite a variety of computer platforms and compelling multiverses -- each of them pouring millions of dollars into vast advertising campaigns -- the quieter board and card games still have their fascination. And players are still playing.

In fact, some gamers are turning their backs on MMOs in favor of traditional tabletop games.

Piper has played three MMO games, and each of them dissatisfied him in a different way. Guild Wars did not engage him for more than a month. The Matrix Online had few updates. And Star Wars: Galaxies had one major update, but "they made it too easy, so I had to stop playing." Card games challenge him in a way that MMOs do not.

Greg Magnus found himself uncomfortable with MMOs after a griefing incident. "Some brat [was] mocking me and my gear, calling into question why it is that I don't spend twenty hours of my day getting to a point where I have this armor class and this weapon class…. But I got laid. It took me away from my PvP time." He deleted his WoW account, consigning his character to digital oblivion.

One of the advantages of card and board games is that players have some control over who they're gaming with. Rather than play with hundreds of people, most games take place in smaller, intimate settings. In fact, camaraderie is the biggest reason players choose tabletop games over computer games.

Magnus says, "If you're flopping cards or playing miniatures, there's a social aspect. After the tournament, you may go get a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza with a friend. When you're online … if you become close to your friends on WoW, they're on your MySpace. To me, that's nothing real."

Jenny Rappaport (who also writes for the Medicine Show) devoted her spare hours spread over three years to an MMO called Puzzle Pirates. She likes that the game "fostered a sense of community…. You could be anywhere in the game and you could still chat to anybody else in your crew, even though they were scattered across the ocean." Though a lack of updates soured the game for her, the deal-killer occurred when PP started charging a quarterly fee and her friends walked away.

In retrospect, Rappaport said she regrets not spending more time playing board games in college. "The advantage of board games over console games is that I get to hang out with a big group of people while having fun….  There's something about being around real people, sharing food and drinks, and laughing together that makes board games more fun…. As clichéd as it may sound, I really just like being in a room with a bunch of other people, and knowing that we all like similar things and that we're having fun together."

"Board games and card games bring family and friends together and are socially interactive…. Computer games, although enjoyable, are typically geared toward solo play with minimal 'face to face' interaction," says Ellen Heaney Mizer, toys & games buyer for Barnes & Noble, Inc.

Businesses are beginning to take notice that board games are currently experiencing a resurgence in sales. Specialty games have become more available than ever, prominently displayed in stores like Barnes & Noble, even some of the larger Starbucks coffee shops, and are no longer tucked away in the back of children's stores.

Heaney Mizer says, "We've only been in the board game business for eight years now and have experienced double-digit growth each year."

Still, although Rappaport and others prefer board gaming, they are unable to carve out the time needed for games or organize the logistics of several people meeting at the same time from separate locations (a feat on par with the military maneuvers of some strategy games). Because of this, and other problems, not every gamer feels as dedicated to tabletop games.

Gamer Rollie Watson believes computer games are ultimately cheaper than "buying retail games at $50 a pop every couple weeks." He abandoned the MMO EverQuest but found himself playing WoW two years later. "All my friends were there," he laughed.

Its far reach is what makes MMOs preferable in some players' eyes to tabletop games: you can always find someone online, no matter what time of day or night.

Non-MMO computer games have other advantages, such as they can be paused at a moment's notice and returned to hours, even days later, with no consequences to the action. They are also convenient, requiring no other players (though in some cases, extra players can jump in and out of gameplay without penalties to the remaining player).

And computer games are becoming more inventive and innovative, with complex storylines -- once solely the realm of role-playing games. Plots and character development that took a group of people months and months to play out as a campaign can be done by one person in twenty hours, albeit with restrictions.

But board game devotee Gavin Kenny insist that certain games depend on physical presence. "There are some games you just can't play online. I challenge anyone to play Jenga or Pitchcar online. They require real manual dexterity."

Rappaport says, "[With board games] you get to play off of each other's emotions and feelings, particularly in games like Risk or Diplomacy, which is not something you can get through an electronic medium."

Kenny says, Machiavelli-like, "Very often a bit of misdirection in table talk will make a player think again about moving against you. For instance you can't promise to go and get the player a drink if they don't attack you this turn…. The whole inter-game politics are entirely missing from computer games."

Playing face to face has another benefit: it removes doubt and uncertainty with whom you are communicating. Behind the screen, players tend to mask identity, choosing different names, preferences, physical attributes, and frequently, genders. As Kenny says, "The beautiful elf maiden called Lorrolyn may in fact be [an overweight] man from Cincinnati." In tabletop games, what you see is what you get. (Conversely, online gaming provides a leveler: players are not judged by their appearance.)

Players who begin with board and card games often gravitate toward computer games and back again. Game journalist Bill Abner says this flexibility exists in some computer gamers, but not all. "People who only play on the PS2 or Xbox 360, that's all they do…. I've noticed that someone who is strictly a console gamer is a younger demographic, and board gamers tend to be older for the most part."

Abner has re-embraced the old-school games after introducing them to his six-year-old daughter. He now introduces his computer-gaming friends to board games. "They're always surprised at how much fun it is. There's a real cross-section computer gamers who, if you expose them to board games, they just fall in love with them."

Board games company Fantasy Flight Games has taken advantage of this blurring of lines when it introduced World of Warcraft, the board game based on the computer game World of Warcraft.

With billions of dollars in sales each year, computer games have become the heavyweight champion of the gaming world -- but thanks to its social aspect, board games will always have a place in the gaming world.

According to Jeremy Stomberg, marketing associate for Fantasy Flight, "I wouldn't call it a backlash, but [board gaming is] more of a response to people have been locking themselves in their rooms and playing [MMOs]. They're still playing these fun, geeky games, but they're playing them in a way that is more social than just chatting over a headset…. Meeting for a board game is a good reason for people to get together. It's a good destination."

For over fifteen years, Kenny's friends have met monthly for a weekend-long session of board- and role-playing games. Each weekend is fueled by beer and snack food and quick, snarky wit. They've seen each other through college and career changes, and they've attended each other's weddings. Kenny and his cohorts are proof that gamer friends can be friends for life.

Game journalist Brett Todd plays computer games every day, but he manages to fit a tabletop game in once or twice a week. "As an adult, you can generally only get together for a board game on the weekends…. Sometimes I really long for the days when I was in university, and it was nothing to get five or six buddies together for an all-night marathon of even a simple game like Axis and Allies or Shogun."

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