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Melburnians declare game-on during lockdown
Melburnians declare game-on during lockdown avatar

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With game night still on hold as Melburnians tentatively emerge from a long winter stuck at home, the virtual "big night in" offers us new ways to stay in touch with old friends.

Rather than just hibernate on the couch binge-watching Netflix during lockdown, many of us have also rekindled our passion for playing games. This has seen a boom in sales, not just of video games but also of traditional "tabletop" board, tile and card games.

More than a distraction to while away the evenings, games offer a valuable lifeline for staying in contact with the outside world. Just as Zoom reimaged classrooms, work meetings and dinner parties in the age of COVID-19, it also spawned virtual game nights that blend the physical and digital as we look for ways to get a small taste of our old lives back.

Even before the pandemic, board games were enjoying a renaissance that kicked off with a new generation of so-called German-style board games led by popular family-friendly titles such as Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. Focused on simple rules, short-to-medium playing times and co-operative gameplay, they won back people scarred in their youth by epic Monopoly games that dragged on for hours until the bitter end.

Even before the pandemic, board games like Settlers of Catan were enjoying a revival.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

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Having sold millions of copies worldwide, today these three are considered "gateway" board games for those looking to broaden their horizons. Along with them has been a new generation of card games such as Cards Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens and Munchkin, which appeal to those ready to explore beyond Rummy and Uno.

Our renewed passion for physical games during lockdown is not simply a push back against the intrusion of screens into our lives, although that can be one reason parents instigate family game night. Nor is it merely the nostalgia for analogue, tactile experiences.

Our love of games is also driven by our fundamental need for social interaction, says Dr Melissa Rogerson, board game researcher with the University of Melbourne's school of computing and information systems.

"When you ask people why they love board games, at first they might talk about the physicality and spectacle of the game – the feel of the pieces, the look of the board, the sound of the dice and even that new-game smell," Rogerson says.

"But when you dig deeper, it often comes down to the social aspect of playing together around the kitchen table and spending quality time with family and friends."

Rogerson has previously organised the tabletop gaming section at the PAX gaming expo held in Melbourne each November. In a sign of the times, this year the Melbourne, London and Seattle PAX events were rolled into a single continuous nine-day online event running 24-hours a day across the different time zones.

This year's Melbourne International Games Week is also running completely online. Focused on both video and tabletop games, the nine-day program starts October 3 and features international guests, panel discussions, conferences, showcases, workshops and interactive events.

One highlight is the Big Games Night In on Sunday, October 4, held online in conjunction with ACMI, to encourage Melburnians to explore the new generation of video and tabletop games as well as revisit the classics.

Friends who normally gather for pizza and games on the weekend are also moving online during lockdown, says Blake Mizzi, director and co-founder of Melbourne-based game development studio League of Geeks.

Blake Mizzi: gathering online with friends

Blake Mizzi: gathering online with friendsCredit:

Many online games feature built-in communication tools, while apps like Discord – basically Skype for gamers – let gamers interact via chat, voice and video while they play.

"I love having my friends over to my place to play games, especially Dungeons & Dragons-style tabletop role-playing games, but right now playing online is the next best thing," Mizzi says.

"Sometimes I've gathered online with my friends in a game like Sea of Thieves where you can roam the world as a pirate but we don't really play the game, we just muck around in the tavern and chat about the kinds of things you might chat about at the pub."

League of Geeks' most popular video game, Armello, is actually a digital tabletop role-playing game which is built around onscreen elements like a board, dice and cards.

During lockdown, Mizzi has started playing "pen-and-paper" tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) with friends over Zoom. Rather than relying on a central board with physical pieces, each player keeps track of their own character's attributes like health and dexterity on a piece of paper. One player acts as the dungeon master to guide the others through the game and oversee combat, rolling the dice for enemies like goblins and keeping track of their health.

"It kind of harks back to the days of the first RPGs in the 1970s, where the most important thing was your imagination," he says.

"Online you lose some of the chaos and atmosphere of sitting around the dining table but, in some ways, it actually works better over Zoom because you can't just talk over the top of each other, which enforces that etiquette of taking turns."

When it comes to more complex tabletop games that rely on physical components, software like Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia can come to the rescue. They're not games but rather a virtual tabletop – a bit like Star Trek's holodeck – where you can recreate practically any board or card game to play online against friends.

These services were swamped by new players during lockdowns around the world. This will forever change the way tabletop gamers view virtual gaming, in the same way people who finally embraced online shopping during the pandemic are now more comfortable with the technology, says Kim Brebach, game designer and director of Australian board game publisher Good Games Publishing.

Kim Brebach says gamers are becoming more comfortable with the technology

Kim Brebach says gamers are becoming more comfortable with the technologyCredit:

"There can be a bit of a learning curve using things like Tabletop Simulator but, now many tabletop gamers have been forced to cross that hurdle, I think once things return to normal they'll be much more comfortable playing tabletop games online," Brebach says.

"People will obviously still buy and play physical games, but they'll be more open to online experiences such as road testing a new board game virtually before buying it."

During lockdown, Brebach's family has played party games that only require simple interaction with friends over Zoom, but he has also seen people try to bridge the gap between the physical and digital realms to play more complex games from afar.

"I've seen people set up multiple cameras pointed at physical board games, with players on the other end setting up their copy of the game and moving everyone's pieces to keep all of the boards in sync," he says.

"It hasn't really taken off because it takes a lot of work, which can become tiresome when you just want to have fun with friends."

This idea of creating "distributed" games to overcome the limitations of lockdown, spread across physical locations and connected via communication tools, is encouraging some game designers to focus more on the niche area of "hybrid digital board games", says the University of Melbourne's Rogerson.

The concept of playing games by correspondence is not new, with people playing postal chess against friends for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, the first basic electronic board games date back to around 1910, while physical games with a video element hark back to Nightmare on VHS in the 1990s.

In the past 10 years, game developers have paid more attention to what can be achieved using tools such as the internet and smartphones, Rogerson says.

"Touching the pieces is important to people, so the challenge is making the gameplay work remotely without being too clunky," she says. "Perhaps the answer is to use projectors on each end to show everyone the entire board, or perhaps the answer is to design distributed games where different players control different pieces or sections of the board."

"These kinds of modular distributed games could offer the best of both worlds, letting you share the physical pieces with your friends so you play from afar and then bring the game back together when we can all sit around the kitchen table again."

Melbourne International Games Week runs online from October 3 to 11, including the Big Games Night In on October 4.

Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian technology journalist and co-host of weekly podcast Vertical Hold: Behind The Tech News.

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