Game Design

Don’t Beat Me up for Saying That We Can Learn From Digital Board Games

I’ve recently got back into Hearthstone—Blizzard’s lovable digital deck-building game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I played it a lot when it first came out and then lost interest after a year or so of play. But as I work on improving the PE (Player Experience [I refuse to use the letter X to abbreviate the word experience unless I have to, dammit!]) of my own game, I can think of no better resource to draw upon than a) deck-building games and b) digital tabletop games.


My two main study resources are the Carcassonne app for iOS (because I already bought it) and Hearthstone (because it’s free).

And, professor, what were your findings?

Boy, are you fucking pampered when you play digital tabletop games. No rolling down of die to keep track of stats. In fact, no rolling of dice whatsoever! No worries about illegal moves, the game will stop you when you attempt to cross the threshold from wholesome, naive angel over into dirty cheating scumbag territory. Need to add up points? Don’t worry about it, the game calculates them for you. Need to see what cards or chits or meeple other players have? They can’t pull the wool over your eyes (unless that’s in the rules). It’s all right there.

Now that might seem like an entire paragraph that shouldn’t have to be written—

Wow it’s like you can read my mind!

—but the reason I write all of that seemingly obvious hyperbole is because I want you to compare that experience to your normal, physical board game experience. Take a game like Carcassonne. When someone flips over a tile, what’s the first thing they do? Make sure no one sees it and holds it close to them as they figure out where to put it. NO, that’s not how the game works! We’re supposed to be able to see the tile that you drew at all times. We’re supposed to be able to see your meeple and other assets from the various expansions at all times. Do we get to see that? Fuck. No. Some people guard their meeple like prison cafeteria food. Good luck trying to do that with the digital version of the game!

Shh! Don’t tell David Price that I stole his image.

Are we nearing the point some time this year?

We can learn a lot about how digital games bring a tabletop game into the world of pixels. Everything from the design of the cards—Hearthstone places “minion” artwork in ellipses like a vignette, spells in an arched box, and weapons in a circle—to the board itself—highly interactive artifacts from the Warcraft universe that exist for no reason other than to look cool.


The point of a tabletop game, to me at least, is to get away from a screen and to interact with other people in a unique way. But digital games are designed with UX (ugh, I had to use the X) first and foremost in mind. When it comes time to actually design the version of your game that you want other people to play, take a look at digital board games and observe their approach to a complicated mechanic. Will you be able to automatically calculate victory points for someone? Probably not. But you can at least lighten the mental burden so the players can get back to enjoying the tactics of your game.

By Neutrino Burrito

A writer and board game designer currently puttering about the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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