Tech at the table, does it help or hinder? – Ask The Bellhop

Tech at the board game table, bane or boon?. #BoardGameApps #TechAtTheTable #Cellphones #TabletopBellhop #boardgames #tabletop

On Facebook, Drew Sanderson asks,

Does technology at the table help, or can it be a distraction?

I have to say that I’ve been very impressed with the quality of questions everyone has been asking. This is another question that seems simple at first but there’s a lot to it. Thanks for asking, Drew.

The obvious answer is yes. Yes, technology at the table can help. Yes, technology at the table can be a distraction. That’s not a very good answer though, so I think we need to dive into some more specifics.

We also discussed this topic on Episode 7 of The Tabletop Bellhop Live Podcast – Tech at the Table.

Disclosure: Some links in this post are Amazon or iTunes affiliate links. As an Amazon and iTunes associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

The short answer:

There is always that one player who is on their phone.There are a ton of reasons why technology at the table can be great. There’s the social aspect of sharing your hobby with the world. There’s the ability to look up game rules, right then and there. If you have a question you can often find people online right then and there and get answers almost instantly. Companies publish their rulebooks, FAQs and rule updates on the web for anyone to access at any time. There are some very useful gaming hobby apps. They let us do things like manage our collection, track wins, and losses or keep score. Then there are the actual tabletop game apps and app integrated games, the technology for which keeps improving.

But, there is a downside to all this technology. Players are spending more time looking at their screens and not interacting with the other players.  Player focus is lost. Attention spans dwindle. There’s little more frustrating than playing a game and when it gets to a players turn they have no clue what they are doing because they have been checking their phone. We live in an age of distraction and all of that can take away from everyone’s fun while playing a tabletop game.

The long answer:

Technology at the table can be a bane or a boon.

I’m pretty sure most people reading this are already well aware of the negative things that tech can bring to the table. We’ve all dealt with distracted players. Players who failed to pay attention when you were teaching the game because they were on their phone but then get mad when they lose due to not knowing the rules. I know I’ve been frustrated when someone is at my game table and they get text after text and feel the need to respond to every single one even though none of them are emergencies that needed to be dealt with right now. There’s a reason many groups have a “no cell phone” rule at their game night and often I don’t blame them.

I think the problems with technology are pretty well documented. What I’m going to do here is try to showcase some of the positive things that technology can bring to the table. The best way I can think to do this is to break it down into categories. So here are the reasons I think having tech at the table can be awesome!

Instant access to information

Back in the day if you had a rule question you were pretty much stuck. Your group argued about it (sometimes at length) and eventually you (hopefully) decided on a ruling and you went with that. Other times you just stopped playing the game and considered it broken. If you were lucky the publisher would include an FAQ or a rule update in a later expansion, or sometimes you could find answers in gaming magazines like Dragon or White Dwarf.

The Questions & Answers booklet for Talisman The Magical Quest Game from GamesWorkshopThe other place we used to get answers was through the mail. A long time back, I had a rule question for Talisman, and I wrote a letter to Games Workshop, over in the U.K. asking my question. I waited weeks (maybe even months) and eventually got a return letter with the answer to my question and a yellow Q&A rules supplement. That was amazing customer service back then.

Today, if you have a rule question all you have to do is grab your phone and look it up. Often the publisher will have an FAQ posted on their website but more frequently you will find your answer on the king of tabletop gaming websites: boardgamegeek.com (BGG). If you have any kind of rule question I can pretty much guarantee that someone has already asked it on BGG and many people have answered it. What I find even more impressive, is that BGG is so well known and popular that you can often find the designers of the games themselves there answering questions.

Side note: Yes I know the interface on BGG is terrible. Yes, I know the site looks bad. Yes, I know there’s a learning curve. Despite that, it’s still the best resource out there, hands down.

Speaking of getting answers from the designers themselves. This is also something that can be done and often easily. Not every designer and/or publisher is active on social media but many are and many are more than happy to answer questions about their games. I’ve found Twitter to be particularly good for this.

This also goes beyond rules questions. Pretty much anything you want to know about any game can be found in seconds. Who’s the publisher, what other games have they published, who did that awesome art, are there any expansions, etc.

Data collection

A screenshot of the worlds best boardgame website board game geek dot com.Do you log your plays? I know I do. What about keeping track of what games you have in your collection? Okay, maybe not everyone has so many games that they forget which ones they own, but what about expansions? Which X-wing minis do you have? Was it Bossk or Dengar you still needed for Imperial Assault. I know I own two Millenium Blades Promos but which ones were they?

We are all taking part in a geeky hobby and one of the things that geeks love is tracking, categorizing, collecting and analyzing data. No, not everyone does it, but it seems like a large number of tabletop gamers really care about just how many times a specific game gets played or how often they win, the percentage of their games that got played more than 5 times, etc.

There are a lot of great tools for tracking this stuff and in most cases, it leads back, again, to boardgamegeek.com. Added to that there are some very solid apps out there for tracking your plays, keeping track of who won, your score progression over time, etc. One I see recommended often is Board Game Stats. Basically, if you want to track it, there’s a really good chance someone out there has an app to do that for you.

Game Improvement Apps

There are apps out there designed specifically for improving your games. I’m not talking about actual games, but apps designed to work with your tabletop game and improve it in some way.

Screenshot of Star Wars Dice App showing dice for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game from Fantasy FlightSome of these are tied to specific games. For example, take a look at the growing variety of Gloomhaven apps out there. There’s one called Gloomhaven Helper that eliminates the need for a huge number of components (all of the monster cards and sleeves, condition tokens, element infusion board, round tracker, the player xp/hp tracker and the player boards). This can save a crazy amount of time, not only in set up and clean up but also in shuffling and flipping cards. You also should check out the really cool Renegade Games Companion that adds things to a variety of their games like quests and solo play for Clank!

Then there are other apps that work with pretty much all the games in your collection. A personal favourite of mine is Start Player which helps you decide who goes first for any game. I’ve also found a variety of score trackers that actually list a ton of games and integrate with your BGG account to only show the games you own. These are great for those games that should have come with scorepads but didn’t. You can find a crazy amount of dice rollers out there, and many have more than just your standard dice. One of the best is actually the Fantasy Flight one, which not only gives you a standard set of polyhedrals but also has the dice for the X-wing, Armada, Imperial Assault and the funky Star Wars RPG dice.

If you own a game it’s worth going into whatever app store you prefer and searching for that game because someone has probably made something to go with it.

Actual Game Apps

There are a growing number of app versions of games out there. Now I’m talking about complete games, where you no longer need to own the actual boardgame to play. Though I sometimes hate to admit it, some of these are significantly better than their physical tabletop counterparts. Apps are great at tracking lots of things at once and are often way better than people at making sure you don’t miss some mechanical interaction in a game.

Screenshot of the Onitama App.I find the best apps are the ones that convert games with lots of fiddly bits into digital form. Through the Ages and Suburbia are the first that come to mind. Then there are deckbuilding games, especially the ones with lots of expansions. There is no way I’m going to take every single Ascension expansion and promo card and put them into one giant deck and shuffle them so we can play. But I will happily boot up the Ascension app and play a pass and play game with three other people, sitting at the table. I personally love playing the Small World 2 app with 2-4 of us sitting around my iPad at a coffee shop.

This is my favorite way to play board game apps, at a table, where you are still face-to-face with your opponents and it’s still something personal and social. I do have to admit though that the other awesome thing about board games in app form is that players don’t have to all be there nor do we even have to want to game at the same time. The best board game apps allow you to take your turns when you have time to do so.

There are a ton of board games that have been converted to apps and many more hit the app stores every day.

App Integration

Something that is becoming more and more common is the integration of board game and digital app. Part of what inspired me to write this post today was the fact that I played Mansions of Madness Second Edition on Monday. This is a game where the app is so integrated that you cannot even play the game without it. It’s a step above having an app help with the game. This is using the app to actually play the game. Also, you can’t just play the app, you need the physical game as well.

My first experience with this was a very cool hidden gem of a game called World Of Yo-Ho. This is an anthropomorphic, pick up and deliver, pirate themed game in which your phone becomes your playing piece. You have a large rectangular grid showing a set of islands and you actually set your phone down on the board. When you move your ship, you physically move your phone. When you interact with something on the board (go to a port, search for sunken treasure, etc) you pick up your phone and it walks you through the interaction. When the inevitable combat between players happen, they both pick up their respective phones and battle it out using the app. It’s full of awesome sound effects and animations and kind of blew my mind the first time I played it.

Screenshot of the Fantasy Flight Games Mansions of Madness Board game app.I had a similar feeling playing Mansion of Madness on Monday night. I was shocked by how much better this app-integrated version of the game was vs. the first edition of the game. I’m sure I will be talking more about that play in next Monday’s Week in Review post. For now, all you need to know is that the app integration actually improved both the immersion and the gameplay.

I will admit I haven’t tried many of these games, but all of the ones I have tried have been excellent and eye-opening. Being a bit of a grognard at times, I will admit that having a game which required an app to play it was unappealing, but the more I try, the more impressed I am with this new way of gaming.

Adding ambiance

Making your game night more immersive is something I’m personally really into. I started this first with RPGs but have found that I’m doing it more and more for board games as well. There are some great things that technology can do to get people into the atmosphere of the game they are playing.

Check out spotify for some great soundtracks and playlists for your games.My game room is completely lit by Philips Hue lights. These are LED lights that I can control with my phone or tablet. With the right app, I can do amazing things with them. I can set them so that the room fills with the flickering reds and yellows of a campfire. I can set a cycle of dark blues and greens for an underwater scene. I even have an app that will make the lights get brighter the louder I speak. I mainly use these for RPGs but it’s still fun to toss up some lighting effects for dramatic board game moments.

The other big addition technology can add to immersion is through audio. Whether that’s using something like Syrinscapes for specific sounds or just loading up the Terraforming Mars playlist on Spotify, sound can really improve the feeling of your game night. Just remember not to have the music or sounds up so loud that they become a distraction.

Making games more accessible

As a fully abled gamer, I don’t always think about the fact that games are designed for me. There are a lot of gamers out there who face difficulties that don’t affect the majority of us. However I strongly believe that gaming should be for everyone, and anything we can do to make the hobby more accessible is worth doing.

Technology can help a lot with this. For example, using your phone camera for magnifying text. There are also a wide variety of text to voice apps are out there which can read aloud cards, board elements etc. Holding a phone may be easier than moving components so things like dice rollers or app versions of card games could allow someone who would never be able to play a game to now take part with everyone else.

Going back to the Philips Hue lighting,  I’ve found, even for myself, that adjusting the light hue or temperature can sometimes make hard to distinguish colours easier to tell apart.

It’s a social hobby

The Tabletop Bellhop sharing everything on TwitterI saved this one for last because opinions vary on it. Personally, I’m all about social media. I take pictures of all of the games I play. I like to share a #Tableselfie on twitter at the end of a game. I’ve now started taking pictures of the winners of our games. I let people know when I’m at the FLGS through Swarm. I not only log my plays on boardgamegeek.com I also share them on Facebook and Twitter. After doing this I love to interact with people who interact with me, those who like, share and comment. To me, this is part of the social aspect of gaming. Nowadays it’s not just about the people at the table, it’s about the other people who have played the game. It’s about the shared experience of having played the same game as someone halfway across the world. It’s about sharing and talking about the things you love. But it can be detrimental.

I’ve never had a problem with someone snapping a quick picture, or sending out a tweet, or sharing a good comment with the group. Like anything though, it should be done in some moderation and always make sure your group is comfortable with it. Don’t let your social media feed interfere with the actual fun you are having at the table. If your group prefers to be phone free, that’s fine, just make sure the expectation is well communicated.

Final Thoughts

Sure technology at the table can be a bad thing. Like anything, it can be misused and/or overused. But overall, I think there are a lot of good reasons to have technology at the table. There are so many awesome things you can do with it. From looking up rules questions to keeping track of everyone’s score. From helping manage lots of little rules to keeping track of how many times you’ve played a game. Technology can increase immersion and allow you to share experiences with other gamers. It can track your game collection and let your everyone know what you’ve been playing lately.

I personally feel that the good that technology can bring to the table far outweighs the bad.

So what do you think? Do you have a No Tech policy or are you all about the digital mixing with your analog?

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