Board game UX: Including technology | by Michael Molen | Feb, 2024

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Many board games have started to include apps and other technologies over recent years. How has this been done? What can we learn from it?

Several hexagonal tiles of different colors adjacent to each other. A smaller, red “2X” hexagon is place on top of the central tile in the image. Tiles depict some bonuses on the bottom of the card and are generally blurred out in the image.
A close-up look at the game Suburbia. Image uploaded to Board Game Geek by the publisher, Bezier Games.

When I first really started sinking my teeth into board games, I remember thinking that some board games would work better as video games. This first came to mind with the game Suburbia, since the player gains bonuses when playing some tiles, which leads to them manually counting through their city to see how the bonuses applied. Things like this felt tedious and like they could be better handled by a computer.

Lucky for me, they created an app, and the app even does the math for you before you commit to placing a tile — that way, you know what you’re getting. Many games have an app implementation, including the board game juggernaut Gloomhaven putting its system into a video game. These video game adaptations are also significantly cheaper than their physical counterparts, which reduces another barrier to entry for interested parties. With these kinds of quality-of-life features built into even lightly automated games, it’s no wonder there has been a rise in online board gaming.

But just as some board games have become video games, the opposite is also true. In fact, the 2023 Spiel des Jahres winner, Dorfromantik, started out as a video game, and a fairly popular deck-building video game, Slay the Spire, is getting its board game adaptation released later in 2024.

Some games take a fairly unique approach, however. They are still classified as a board game, but they include technology in different ways, ranging from supplements to the core game to making them a core aspect of the game itself. Some of these uses are met with mixed reception. And the use of technology can either impede or enhance the user experience, even potentially blocking adoption altogether. Let’s review some of the methods used to include technology in board games and see how they affect the user experience.

An unknown board game on the table. There are dice of different shapes, playing cards, bound books, and a leather journal on the table, arranged aesthetically.
Photographs of games in progress, especially from promotional material, highlight the feeling the game is trying to evoke. How does technology amplify this during the game? Image by freepik.

Most modern board games are themed. Games can take place in a fantasy world, in the center of a collapsing galaxy, or just on a pre-industrial farm. Themes can make the game more approachable for players, provided they don’t increase the workload just for the sake of the theme. But lately we’ve seen how there are more ways to add to theme than some printed images on cardboard, and some of these methods can significantly improve the UX of a game.

Consider that many games are bundled with sand timers, which generally don’t have a printed time on them. Players curious about the time remaining in the sand have a visual indicator that they can use to estimate the time. However, most UX professionals will tell you to quantify the progress bar in most cases, especially if you know how much longer it will take. Timers are quantifiable, so why in this digital age with timers on every phone, are sand timers still used?

Firstly, visibility for interested users. Sand timers are more frequently found in team-versus-team games, such as Codenames. This allows multiple people who are playing for the same side to check on the remaining time when they’re curious, and it allows for a referee on the other team to call the time just in case no one is looking at it. In other words, the active team doesn’t need to worry about the timer as much as the opposing team, so the time is always safely being checked.

Secondly, sand timers are cheaper than professional digital timers. Some hobbyists prefer to keep phones off the table during games, and some prefer to have the game carry all the necessary components to play. The cheaper, in-box solution may not be the peak of UX, but it can help make the game more approachable.

The game Rush M.D. Sand timers are positioned around a board with many small, colored cubes, fake syringes, and wooden hearts. One sand timer is on a cardboard hospital bed.
The game Rush M.D. makes includes many sand timers as pieces to track the well-being of patients in the game. Image uploaded to Board Game Geek by user rascozion.

But for those games that include timers, designers have begun to thematically include timers, elevating the experience. Consider Escape: The Curse of the Temple: players act as Indiana-Jones-type archeologists going through a temple and escaping before the curse sets in. The game stands out against similar themes due to its real-time element: players only have 10 minutes to accomplish their goals.During the course of the game, there are interruptions to the exploration where players need to get back to a safe room within a limited amount of time. Players then need to scurry back, all while watching their dice roll in real time to see if they actually make it back. Due to the tight time constraint, needing to look at a timer and your dice would be difficult and prone to error.

How did the designer and publisher solve this problem? They included a 10-minute soundtrack with ambient sounds and drums, the sounds hastening as they near the end of the allotted time. While the players may not know exactly how much longer they have left, the convenience makes it possible for the game to be real-time, without the need for a human moderator or taking awkward pauses to reset timers for the next leg of the race. And the game itself stands out because of its real-time element, making this a selling point.

More examples of electronic timers exist with their own solutions (e.g., Break the Safe, Space Alert), but there are also other ways to include technology to help set the mood. Forgotten Waters includes a web app that has narration for a story in the game, Sirens intends to include an optional app that will play the music created from cards in the game, and some board games have music playlists built for them on YouTube.

How does this relate to web design? The underlying architecture of your website or app may not change much from something that seems like it’s only cosmetic, but it can turn an experience into something sweeter. Ask what you can do to make the site guide the user with more than written cues or manual progression.

One of the tallest hurdles to jump over when learning a board game is understanding the cause and effect of each action you take. Sometimes it’s a simple opportunity cost, and other times it’s accidentally giving a benefit to another player. But trying to keep track of too many things is going to result in additional stresses, making the mental puzzle too much to handle within a reasonable span of time.

Six different rulebooks and three logistic-tracking sheets used in the game Campaign for North Africa. Very little can be read from the sheets at this distance other than the game’s name and titles for the rulebooks (e.g., “Land Game Rules of Play,” “Air & Logistics Games Rules of Play and Scenarios”).
Different guides and rules for the game of Campaign for North Africa. These are all included with the game and are used in most matches. Image uploaded to Board Game Geek by user dlminsac.

Consider the infamous Campaign for North Africa, one of the hardest to learn games on the market. Here is a snippet about the rules: players need to manage the logistics of their troops and their supplies themselves: evaporation can drain fuel, some types of food go bad faster than others, and so on. If you want a realistic simulation of the events the game tries to depict, here you have one, but the game is an effort in tracking logistics. It’s no wonder the estimated play time for this game holds the record of longest game on Board Game Geek.

Luckily, few hobbyists would say that Campaign for North Africa is the gold standard for playability. Most games are significantly lighter, but there are still some parts you need to manage. When I wrote about error prevention in board games, I shared a few ways game designers help players keep track of their next actions. But this usually comes in the form of cardboard within the game.

However, when it comes to technology assisting players keep track of things, we find most of our examples are not included in the published game. Fans have developed many projects for Gloomhaven, to help track its fiddlier parts, much like what was automated in video games. Deckbuilding games frequently have randomizers for setup (even though similar analog randomizers exist in a game’s components). And there are generic game assistants that can help you determine the ever-difficult question of who goes first. When a game doesn’t offer something that feels needed for it to operate, there is usually a tech-savvy maverick who steps in to make their favorite game more playable.

Virtual assistants like this allow for some cognitive offloading and can improve the ease of play. While they shouldn’t always be required to play every type of game, they bring a lot to the table. Accessibility is important, after all.

How does this relate to web design? Virtual assistants in board games were designed to address the tedium of the unfun manual labor in a game. There will always be some level of complexity that can’t be reduced, so in the parts that are more complex than the rest of the site, ask what kind of assistance you can provide to help the user through.

When you get on a flight, you put your trust in the pilot to get you to your destination. The pilot manages the controls of the plane, gives you status updates, and keeps you comfortable. If planes are downed for some reason, there are other ways to travel that may take longer and that you may play a larger role in (e.g., driving). And, if truly necessary, you can always hire someone to act as a pilot for you or you could learn to act as a pilot yourself.

While the hobby doesn’t have an exact term for applications that are required for gameplay, I prefer the term “pilots” since it generally fits into the metaphor. Many games have applications integrated that are required to play, but there are sometimes viable substitutes, even if that substitute is another human. So these apps can be considered pilots for the game.

Consider the game Awkward Guests, with its complex setup managed by an application. The game’s theme is similar to Clue, where players are trying to solve a murder of their party’s host, but the game employs the “Brilliant Deck system,” which is where it gets complicated: a deck of 70 cards must be custom built from the 243 available cards in a way that there is only one possible solution to the murder. The variety of clues on the cards, the number of clues, and the number of suspects, motives, and weapons all make this task very difficult for a human. As someone who owns the game and has played it many times, I still have no inkling about what kind of algorithm could allow a human to put the deck together on their own. It is, as the name suggests, a brilliant piece of design.

But the application doesn’t handle everything. First, players need to pull out a specific set of 70 cards from the 243 available. Cards are encouraged to be stored in numerical order based on a small number on the back of the card to help with this, but setting up the deck and deconstructing it at the end of the game are lengthy tasks. Second, this set of 70 needs to be dictated by some pilot, which can be the game’s application or a select variety of pre-built games on the back of the rulebook. Of course, the latter expires: you have a limited amount of games before you need to download the app to continue playing. The app is a pilot: It controls the game and makes things a bit easier.

Phone screen depicting a simple menu in Polish for options used with the game The Search for Planet X. The phone has a starry night background. The menu itself looks a little basic.
The Polish version of the app used for The Search for Planet X. The app doesn’t need to be incredibly visually appealing to have it act as a good pilot, especially since the game on the table is pretty. Image uploaded to Board Game Geek by user patt23r.

Other games implement a similar pilot, most frequently found in deduction games (e.g., The Search for Planet X, Alchemists). Some of these games — including the two examples listed earlier — can allow a human to act as the pilot instead of relying on something in the background or limited selections. And more examples than just Awkward Guests prevent human players from piloting the game (e.g., Unlock!).

Pilots are generally more controversial than other forms of technology integrated into board games since they can limit the lifespan of a game if the application stops receiving support. Some would argue that the lifespan of a game doesn’t matter if you’ve had enough enjoyment of the game. But failure to support the application either way makes the game become a box of waste if there isn’t a suitable replacement pilot.

How does this relate to web design? Maintenance of sites is important to make sure that they are still valid, especially where waste is concerned. A notable example of how failing to do this frustrates users is Adobe discontinuing their install verification sites for programs purchased on CDs. Changes in business models such as Adobe’s force users to rely on something they may not have wanted to sign up for and, if they choose to abandon instead of adopting the new method, create waste as a result.

Perhaps the rarest use of digital technology in board games is when technology is an active game component. If needed, most board games can be played with analog parts: if you need to increment a value, rotate a die. If you need to calculate damage, the math tends to be simple enough to be done in a player’s head, and if not, counters are usually provided.

However, some games have used technology as components. One notable example is The World of Yo-Ho, a pirate game from 2016. Players download a free app and then use their mobile phones as their player pieces, moving them around the board and interacting with other players’ ships in the real space.

A smartphone is placed on a game board depicting an island on an ocean labelled “Le Pacifique” that is divided into rectangular spaces. The phone screen appears to match what is beneath it on the board and shows some other icons, including a ship that represents the player. The phone is overlapping the space it is on, possibly due to its case.
Gameplay still of The World of Yo-Ho. The phone does a great job of tracking its location on the board and displaying the correct image, though it is pushing the border of its container a bit. Image uploaded to Board Game Geek by user musicalanarchy.

In theory, this is a good concept and sounds fun, but why hasn’t it been done more?

For starters, the app has a few problems. The app is not compatible with previous versions of itself being used in the same game and requires updates to be maintained. Since the board tiles are a fixed size, the app will only display things within that size, not fullscreen. These kinds of issues are typical with software in general, and though they’re not ideal, they can be fixed over time.

Beyond that, the optimal experience requires that all players have a smart device that’s online during the game. This means that each player will need to download the app and have a device with enough charge to last the duration of the game. While the game’s page purports it to be up to 90 minutes, box times are seldom accurate, so players should prepare for the potential of a longer play. Additionally, there’s the opportunity cost of not having your phone available to you during parts of the game, which is not desirable for some people.

Lastly, the size of the game board is fixed, and the size of the tiles is based on smartphone sizes from 2016. This isn’t as significant of a problem as it appeared to be back in 2016 when phones were gradually getting larger, since most size variations since then have been within an inch of 2016’s sizes. But it is still worth noting that smartphone companies do not plan their devices around the size of this board, so the board should be the one that adapts. This could be corrected with a second edition of the game at a later date if phones begin pushing the boundary of these tiles further, but you can tell they planned ahead with the available margins on the spaces.

Looking at our example, the game The World of Yo-Ho does not require every player to have the app or a phone to play. However, it is fairly clear from the game’s marketing that separate phones were meant to be used by all players.

Some video games that could have board game adaptations, such as games made by Jackbox Games, opt for a similar approach. A web app is available for the games, but still requires all players have an internet-connected device to play. This grants the ability to play the game remotely as well, which is an advantage over a similar board or card game requiring physical components. Making sure the form follows the function is a key part of using technology as a game component.

How does this relate to web design? Not every aspect of a design needs to integrate other technologies. Just like how all board games do not need to be fused with video games, all websites do not need to be blended with magazines or print-based design. Metaphors in design only go so far without going full into skeuomorphism, but they can be a helpful starting point. Breaking new ground also means that the designer should understand the industries they interact with well enough to anticipate changes in the future.

Web app for the game Lost Ruins of Arnak. Depicts two cards prominently in the middle of the screen, the one on the left with a left-facing arrow, and the one on the right with two icons from the game. Buttons above and below the cards allow some interactivity. There is also a scoring tab listed at the top of the image.
The web app for Lost Ruins of Arnak. While this functions similarly to an automa and most components are found in the box with the game, it also includes additional, more challenging options that are not included.

There has been a rise in solo board gaming, and there are many games designed for just one player. A lot of games still try to appeal to the solo market by including solo rules, often using automa opponents to simulate another player in a more streamlined fashion. Some have even been converted into fan-made applications. These modifications allow players to enjoy the puzzles behind their games without needing to try and organize a game night, or to spend a relaxing night in, playing a game in solitude. It offers the player options.

Most of these simulated opponents act in a straightforward manner: flip a card and follow its instructions, proceed down a to-do list, remove some resources from the general supply, etc. Some have more robust logic, such as flow charts, a set of shifting priorities depending on the game state, and so on. But games that have these separate modes will require that the player do something in the place of another player (barring some examples of cooperative games).

Technology has stepped into this sector with more opportunities for solo play. Many games on Board Game Geek will include an unofficial solo variant on the site, accessible to anyone with internet access. Designers may even notice some unofficial variants and grant their blessing by turning them into an actual product (with credit, of course). Other solo modes have been officially released on the site but not printed or acknowledged on the publisher’s site (e.g., Santa Monica, which has a variant on Board Game Geek but not on the publisher’s page). Solo gaming has become a little democratized as a result.

Official solo variants may not be included in part due to production costs. Solo rules need to be playtested to guarantee value if you’re bundling them with your product, many solo modes require additional components (or at least part of a page in the rulebook), and selling a solo mode as a separate expansion is usually frowned upon. Outsourcing solo modes to fans of the game is helpful to keep the publisher’s costs low.

But publishers have also used apps to allow for solo modes. Consider Clank! Catacombs, a game in the Clank! series of board games. The publishers included a solo mode for the game in an optional app, where the game mode includes instructions for setup and a story to keep the player more invested. Most of the app could be turned into components to determine the course of play, but the rules overhead for doing so may make the game less enjoyable.

Using technology to streamline a game is always appreciated, especially if it offers other modes of play. Expanding board game content with physical components is quite common, and instances like this suggest that it may be done more regularly with digital content in the future. Even some games with components included for solo play can offer more online, which helps players interact more with the publisher and can yield helpful marketing data.

How does this relate to web design? The Pareto principle or 80–20 rule applies here. In a board game, the publisher may not include a solo mode since not as many players would use it, and the players committed to using one would be willing to look somewhere else to find it. In web design, making the most from your money is essential, so knowing what factors could be outsourced to your user pool through things like plugins can save your development resources.

As technology increasingly becomes a larger part of our lives, we need to consider if it’s an improvement or a complication. In board games, applications can be supplementary or they can dominate the whole experience. There comes a point when including something in a design pushes the design entirely into a new sector. Careful judgment is required when including something foreign into something standard.

We can draw some parallels between these methods of how board games use technology to how artificial intelligence is beginning to be used more seriously in the business world. AI can be used to help set the mood: musical environments, recommendations for updating a website, and more. It can help provide help with basic queries and act as any employee’s personal assistant. It can guide decision makers with data summaries. AI has even been considered to replace human workers, a key component of any industry. And it opens up options for new forms of business to be created or managed.

Like with board games, we don’t need to separate the technology from the concept entirely. There is a peaceable middle ground. But judicious use of any technology is critical for the overall improvement of our lives.

There are many topics I discussed in this article, and there is still much more to discover about the topics here. For more on how computers and other technologies are used with traditionally physical products and how board games are designed, I would recommend the following articles.

  • Czech Games Edition (CGE) is a large board game publisher that has put out a series on how board games are made. They have released a video on video game adaptations of board games. While this topic was not fully discussed in this article (and I may discuss it later), adaptations are a good way to increase usability and improve the overall UX of a game.
  • Cora Diz has written about additional considerations for board game applications here. Diz’s brief discussion on accessibility is especially important to consider when making a pilot app for a board game.
  • Throughout the book Lurking, McNeil discusses how internet technologies have evolved and how some have been phased out without the user’s explicit consent. This is an important consideration for technology use as a whole, but fits well into the discussion on game pilots and using technology as a component.
  • There are many other ways to include technology into the board game hobby outside of the board game itself. This hobbyist suggests a few ways to use technology both in a game and out of a game.
  • Jamey Stegmaier is a prolific game designer and publisher who freely shares design diaries about his efforts in the industry online. In this short article, Stegmaier discusses some of the costs and benefits of including apps as assistants, which may be helpful for others looking to get into the industry. Of course, costs will vary depending on complexity.

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