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Seeing IT in the Strangest Places – A Sort of Introduction to me (Paul)

When I was asked to think about some content for blogs, stuff sort of IT related but not necessarily directly about the business, I was a little puzzled. I mean, yes, I have IT in my day to day; a laptop, a phone, just the normal stuff we have on ourselves without really thinking about it. Although I must admit, I am still amazed by the humble mobile phone. Remember the barely functional bricks we had 25 years ago? How far we have come!

OK, first off; yes, I am a bit of a geek. I have a wardrobe full of T-shirts making reference to orcs, or dragons, or confirming my alignment as Chaotic Good (my most recent T has a small gelatinous cube saying “Hug Me” on it. It made me laugh). I have shelves full of small plastic figurines from Wars, Trek, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Ghost Rider, Iron Man, Indiana Jones, He-Man, Dungeons and Dragons, Avatar the Last Airbender….(breathe in)…….Lord of the Rings, Dune……. I own a Darth Vader helmet, a Stormtrooper one, Boba Fett, and Luke’s X-Wing pilot helmet. Also, two lightsabers. And 4 Marvel helmets. A Pinhead Costume. Mjolnir, Cap’s Shield, the Infinity Gauntlet, the Eye of Agammotto, and Egon Splengler’s Proton Gun. My collection of comics containsDC and Marvel stuff, but also Image, Wildstorm, Boom!, Dark Horse, IDW, and a piece of my heart will always belong to the sadly departed Vertigo. What’s the reason for me to be saying this? Just so you know that when I say I have a “few” board games, I am considerably underselling the point.

Anyways, while I was thinking about what to write, my little lad came up and asked to play a board game. This is a rare occurrence, so I can only assume his Mum banned him from absolutely everything computer related and anything else he would rather do than play a game, but never look a gift horse in the mouth, so they say.

“What do you want to play?” I ask.

#“Outsmarted.” He said.

Ding! Goes my brain. You see, Outsmarted is a trivia game, think Trivial Pursuit but less pretentious. And, more importantly, both to this meandering blog and my boy, it uses an interactive app to ask and answer the questions. Little music clips, or picture rounds, that kind of thing.

I started wondering about something I had never really thought about it before. I had played the Who Wants to be a Millionaire pub quiz machine and other similar things, but I couldn’t think if I had ever played an app based quiz board game before. It made me turn around and look at the rest of the board game collection currently in the flat, and it made me realise just how many of them now contain some kind of digital or interactive mechanism.

So I flung my memory back, trying to think when this may have happened, since when did the digital world invade my world of dice, cards, and standees?

The first thing I could remember? Chess

My uncle bought me a chess board with a little computer built in that you could play against. You moved your piece, punched in the move you made with the little keyboard and the machine would, eventually, spit out its own move, then you move the piece it said and so and so forth, and with the ultimate result being, if you were me, that the computer wins. I was never very good.

A quick Google search will tell you that the first chess computer was created in either 1956 or 57, but with some types of chess “computing” engine existing in the 18th century. But this is chess, not really what a lot of people would think of when you talk about board games.

So, on went the remembering. Anyone recall Atmosfear? The board game where you played along with a VHS playing where a man in dreadful make-up with a grating voice would occasionally scream instructions at you? I believe they updated the game when DVDs came out. I remember having a Star Trek: Next Gen game with similar game play but a much better budget!

Again, though, can you count VHS or DVD as IT in the modern sense? What about fake phones, where you call someone? (I don’t remember this, but people I have spoken to swear it exists- comment if anyone can name it!). Or games with calculators, such as Monopoly Electronic Edition? Or timers, like the app for Pointless the Board Game?

One that jumped out at me from the shelves was Pictionary Air. Now THIS was IT! You open the app on your phone, point it at the person “drawing” who uses a “wand” to “draw” in the air (that’s a lot of inverted commas!) and the “picture” (and that is a sarcastic “ “) appears on the app. You then attempt to guess what it was supposed to be. It sounds fun, but it is so inconsistent in accuracy as to be nigh on unplayable. So yes to it being IT, but a no to it being any good.

So, what I had left to look over, in my collection at least, I am sure others may have different examples they could give, was app-based adventure games. My Father’s Work, which can only be played with the app, Journeys in Middle Earth (same). Mansions of Madness and all its expansions where the app both advises on the campaign in play and the actions within it, but also acts as an interactive rulebook helping you to learn the game as you play. Some games have apps that allow you to play solo by acting as a sort of blocking player, an automata, such as Dune: Imperium.

There is also HeroQuest. A dungeon crawler game that I had in my youth and adored. For years I looked for a second hand copy, just so I could have it to look at and sigh with nostalgia. But with those second-hand copies going for anything from £100 for an incomplete, damaged copy up, I was unable to sate my childish wish. Until Hasbro released a new, updated HeroQuest Game System. Oh, how I coveted. And, oh, how I bought, of course.

Now, as I inferred earlier, my family aren’t as keen on board games as I am, so while I finally possessed my childhood favourite, I was still unlikely to get it to the table very often. So you can imagine my surprise and joy when I realised that there was an app involved. As those who played the game in their youths may remember, when playing HeroQuest one player must take the role of Zargon (some regions had different names, Morcar was one I think) and run the game as, essentially, a Dungeon Master. With the new version though, the app can run the game, meaning everyone can play the game itself allowing the app to control the enemies. It might not sound like much, but it meant, if I so wished, I could play solo, using two characters and allowing the app to DM my game.

These types of games haven’t been around very long, and it is interesting to see how far it will go. Could we eventually see AI integration into DM apps, being able to run more complex, dynamic campaigns, adapting the adventure and storyline as the players make their decisions? Would that add to or detract from the experience? Would it just end up being like playing a computer game rather than a DnD campaign over a table with friends. What does it add? What would it take away? I may play a fair few games, but I really am not sure myself what the answer to any of these questions are.

The way IT is impacting on every area of our lives is both inevitable and startling in its speed. Earlier I mentioned mobile phones, and I think back to my old Motorola, the size of a shoe that barely had enough memory to store 10 phone numbers. Now, this Samsung next to me probably has the same processing power as the laptop I’m writing this on, but sometimes it’s good to look back at how things used to work to give us an idea of where things are going.

I was discussing this blog with a friend and when I mentioned the idea of AI DMs, he said something interesting. He thinks that the earliest piece of “IT” in any board game should be obvious to anyone who has picked up one of these pieces of technology. He said, quite simply, the most sophisticated piece of technology that has ever entered the sphere of board games was a set of dice. Depending on the rules of the game, depending on how many are thrown, and what the result is, the outcome could be one of several; success or failure, win or lose, all with the roll of a die. “Well,” he asks me, “What do you reckon the most important computer or randomiser in board games is? An app or a D20?”.

So, I ask you, what do you think? Does IT have a place in board games, or can nothing beat the satisfying tumble of the dice as you wait to see which way they land? Let me know.

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