Much has been written about the videogame revolution, which is often portrayed as springing spontaneously from the forehead of Nolan Bushnell, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. In a scant thirty some-odd years, we’ve grown from nothing to one of the world’s largest entertainment forms, grossing tens of billions annually, with games being the mainstay of entertainment and acculturation for most of the planet’s youth.
Works that discuss the evolution of the game industry from an historical perspective generally talk about the connection between the pre-digital arcade and the earliest digital games; I’ve even heard some claim that “without the arcade, videogames would not exist.”
This is, of course, bosh. Early creators such as Crawford, Garriott, Bunten, and the Brothers Gollop were not inspired by coin-drop amusements, but by tabletop games, either of the board or roleplaying variety. Without the arcade, we might have fewer twitch games and more that require cerebration, but that is another story.
Indeed, you can draw a direct line of descent from, say, Tactics II to Call of Duty, or from Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft – or, for that matter, from games like Rail Baron to Farmville. If, as I do, you accept that digital and non-digital games are not different in essential nature, you must conclude that our history extends far longer than thirty years; as Stewart Cullin documented in a series of landmark works for the Smithsonian at the turn of the century, every Neolithic culture that survived into the modern era has its own games, and one can presume that this was true millennia ago as well. Even if you prefer to draw a line between what David Parlett (in the Oxford History of Board Games) calls “folk games,” and games intentionally designed by identifiable creators, our history can be said to begin with Don Casimir Freschott’s Map Game, published in 1680 in Venice; or perhaps with Cribbage, designed by the poet Sir John Suckling in the early 17th century; or with A Journey Through Europe, the first English-language boardgame ascribable to a creator, designed by John Jefferys and published in Britain in 1759. The last is perhaps the most important of the three, since it is followed in subsequent decades by dozens of other original games, the first time what we can reasonably call a “game industry” appeared, an evolution that led directly to the 19th century efflorescence of boardgame publishing.
And far from being crippled by the advent of digital games, tabletop games have flourished in the same era – with ups and downs, to be sure, as waves of innovation have washed over them: the rise and decline of wargames, roleplaying games, and trading-card games followed, today, by increasing interest in Eurostyle boardgames.
As many game studies programs have discovered, tabletop games are particularly useful in the study of game design, because their systems are exposed to the player, not hidden in code. It is easy to misunderstand the essential nature of a digital game, if you focus on graphics or narrative without appreciating the way in which system shapes the experience, a fundamental failing of the narratological school. Tabletop games may have an intimate connection to narrative (as with roleplaying games), and certainly the nature of their graphics and components has an impact on the feeling of play; yet the system of rules they use to shape the experience are explicit and immediately graspable. Digital games can be far more complicated, in terms of the algorithms they use and the number of elements in play than tabletop games, but they are controlled, in the final analysis, by algorithms that, like those of tabletop games, create gameplay loops, provide positive or negative reinforcement, and pose challenges to players they must work to overcome.
In other words, whether your interest is in tabletop games themselves, in game design as a discipline, or in the historical evolution of the form, tabletop games are worthy of study.
In this volume, we have asked people of diverse backgrounds – tabletop game designers, digital game designers, and game studies academics – to write about tabletop games. Some have chosen to write about their design process, others about games they admire, others about the culture of tabletop games and their fans. The results are various and individual, but all cast some light on what is a multivarious and fascinating set of game styles.
This volume is not a definitive study of the field, nor of the design of tabletop games, nor of their history; it is not intended to be. Rather, we trust that readers will find in these pages, interesting and different views on the pleasures to be gained from tabletop games; and perhaps, in reading, will discover a renewed interest in playing and designing them.