Who Wants to Get Physical

Tabletop games are a wonderful way to bring people together. Any time you read about why people play board games or RPGs in a world where you can play video games you hear many of the same reasons. Board games are tacticle, they’re social, and they physically bring people together. Given that, it’s surprising that so few games actually make that physicality a part of the game. They exist in space, but they don’t necessarily use that space.

All tabletop games have some sort of physical component. Cards, chits, and little plastic pieces spill out from our boxes ready to be pushed around a table. However, at the end of the day all they do is mark things. You could replace Ticket to Ride’s trains with plastic cubes or bits of construction paper and still play the game. While the rise in board game apps is great, it often shows that a game doesn’t need to be a physical product. I can enjoy Suburbia’s clever systems from my couch. While I do miss out on the social engagement, the game isn’t providing that.

There is no problem with this; I absolutely play board games to meet up and hang out with friends in the real world. I’m a fan of games with high-quality components or impressive miniatures. However, I love when a game makes its physicality necessary to the game experience. There are games that would not work the same if played with cubes or turned into pixels. Take Yogi for example – that silly picture below with my gangly arms splayed all over the Gen Con floor is the result of a game that has you draw cards and hold them in ever more difficult positions against your body. These games engage with the space they occupy, and are not all just flick-based dexterity games, though I love those too; the picture at the top of the page is Cube Quest. Your dice are miniatures and you launch them across the table with the flick of a finger.

When I interviewed Rob Daviau about Fireball Island he used the phrase “toyetic quality” to describe games that are more than a system of rules writ in cardboard. They are games you play and also playthings you manipulate. I think few games express this better than Rhino Hero by HABA. It is a bit like reverse-Jenga. Players take turns adding floors to an unstable building, often moving the eponymous Rhinoceros Superhero from floor to floor. It’s a game that makes your heart race. The tower will sway as you add floors or even with the air currents in the room. A light bump of the table causes everyone to gasp and when the tower comes crashing down it’s a moment of disappointment and mirth.

While those two examples are simple, games that use their physicality don’t have to be. Flick ‘em Upuses physical space to tell western stories. The upcoming Dead of Winter edition uses a tower to tumble zombies out onto the board. The random bounce of weighted plastic zombies allows the game to simulate the random-yet-focused movement of an undead horde. There is plenty of flicking, but you’re still playing a strategic game. Limited actions slather dramatic tension on every flick like camouflaging zombie guts. A limited inventory and secret personal objectives make teamwork necessary but nervewracking.  Other miniatures games even instruct you to bend down to see what your miniature can “see” to determine line of sight. These effects don’t have the same impact when translated digitally.

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