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Saturday, May 18, 2024

From Screen to Tabletop: Six Great Boardgame Versions of Video Games

by | published Friday, February 26, 2021

The announcement this week of the release of a Tabletop versions of Stardew Valley and Skyrim was met with a lot of “Shut up and take my money!” by fans of both very successful videogames.

But as with games based on licenced IP from movies and books, Tabletop ports of videogames are a mixed bag. Part of the difficulty is that the huge majority of videogames are real-time experiences, whereas Tabletop gamers much prefer turn-based play. As a point of interest, the highest-ranked game on BGG with anything like real-time play is #96’s Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (though one could argue for Codenames, currently #93 and the highest-ranked party game on the list). 

Both real-time and turn-based play are rewarding–but they are very different experiences, and trying to turn one into the other is fraught with danger. Real-time videogames reward players with fast and accurate reflexes. The experience they provide is primal, very much fight-or-flight (usually literally). Turn-based games reward players who can plan and optimize; they are puzzles to be solved. 

Also, I think we “live inside” videogames for longer than we do at the Tabletop (with the exception of mega-wargames like Unconditional Surrender, legacy games, or RPG’s). Unless you’re doing a speedrun, a game like Skyrim can consume hundreds of hours of your life, chopped up into smaller sessions for sure, but still thought of as one experience. Whereas boardgames, with the exceptions noted above, take up individual sessions over the course of an individual evening. 

In the same way, movies and books are equally wonderful media, but they provide very different experiences and have very different vocabularies–as any writer who has adapted her written work to the screen has found out. So I think we need to look at Tabletop adaptations of videogames the same way we look at movie adaptations of books.

Here in alphabetical order are six Tabletop ports of videogames that I think do the best job at translating their experience from one medium to another:

Brikks, Wolfgang Warsch: Some ports of first- or second-gen videogames, such as the recent Space Invaders Dice (Daryl Andrews) and Atari’s Centipede (Jonathan Gilmour, Anthony Amato, Nicole Kline) are decent enough, but their appeal is as much in their nostalgia factor as anything else. Brikks is a roll-and-write with a definitely Tetris-like feel, but it adds all sorts of other decision-points using an energy-management mechanic to restrict player choice and incentivize strategic play. The first time you play it you will probably suck because you’ll be trying to play it like real Tetris; by the end of that first game you will I hope begin to see some of the depth that Warsch has hidden beneath the shiny arcade veneer.

Civilization: A New Dawn, James Kniffen: Probably the most successful turn-based videogame franchise ever, Sid Meier’s Civilization was only ever loosely based on Francis Tresham’s 1980 masterwork Civilization. Now on its sixth iteration, Civ (the computer game) continues to thrive, and although Civ V introduced something like simultaneous real-time play in multiplayer mode, I would argue that the “pure” Civ experience is solitaire and turn-based ((ducks for cover)). Kevin Wilson’s 2010 version certainly still has many fans, but I think A New Dawn is a more elegant and intriguing adaptation, with a unique Focus Card mechanic that encourages long-term planning. You can read my review of it here. The recent Terra Incognita expansion adds a lot of great content but I’m not sure if it over-complicates things.

Fallout, Andrew Fischer and Nathan Hajek: War never changes. You can, however, choose how you want to experience Fallout in Tabletop form. There’s Wasteland Warfare, which takes a tactical miniatures approach, the surprisingly good Fallout Shelter, based more on the app than the original game. And then there’s the Fallout Board Game. To me, it’s the most authentic experience clearly designed by people who know and love the games. Some will miss the FPS combat–but to me Fallout was always more about the quests and exploration–particularly some of the stunning storytelling in individual Vaults. And Fallout captures that essence really well for a game that only lasts for a couple of hours. You can read my full review here.

Gears of War: The Board Game, Corey Konieczka: Konieczka has made rather a specialty out of dark futuristic combat, but each of his games takes a unique spin on it. In Gears of War, he had the unenviable task of adapting a beloved IP and managed to pull it off in admirable fashion. His rules for cover-based shooting are simple and effective, and the system he designed to control the Locusts is unpredictable and devastating–just what you’re looking for in a tactical shooter. Not easy to find a copy these days–but totally worth it even if you’re not a COGhead.

Superhot: The Card Game, Michael Correia. In this card-based version of the innovative shooter you don’t so much build a deck as constantly manage one in a state of flux. Playable solitaire, cooperatively, or PvP, Superhot:TCG destroys everything you think you know about deckbuilders and builds it back up again, very much in the spirit of its IPYou can read my full review here.

This War of Mine, Michał Oracz, Jakub Wiśniewski: Like Robinson Crusoe, TWoM is a cooperative game where players collectively make decisions for their group of Survivors in a war-torn modern city (the videogame was based on 1992’s Siege of Sarajevo). Alternating between worker-placement action-taking during the day and push-your-luck exploration and combat at night, TWoM also incorporates a paragraph-driven choose-your-own-adventure system where your choices have consequences. It’s not for everyone in terms of theme or gameplay, but the success with which it adapts its subject-matter is really impressive. 

(Dis-Honourable?) Mention: Blight Chronicles: Agent Decker, Manuel Correia: If any Tabletop game comes close to replicating the sweet suspense and stealth that was the original Thief franchise, it’s Agent Decker, which designer Correia later adapted to become Superhot (see above). To me, this deckbuilder (although set in modern times) rewards exactly the same kind of planning and tactics that Thief did: knocking out security cameras, picking off minions one by one, foraging for better equipment and finding secret time-saving passages…plus it has a branching narrative with tons of replayability. You also have two choices for your protagonist, with different gameplay styles. Unfortunately, the execution is marred by some poor rules-writing and only one scenario, with probably no more content to come due to the publisher’s shoddy treatment of designer Correia. Still, if you can find a copy and are willing to house-rule the ambiguities, it’s worth it imho.


  • David W.

    David is the Managing Editor of the DWP. He learned chess at the age of five and has been playing tabletop games ever since. His collection currently consists of about 600 games, which take up way too much space. His game "Odd Lots" won the inaugural TABS Game Design Contest in 2008. He is currently Managing Editor of The Daily Worker Placement. All in all he's pretty smug about his knowledge of games and game design.

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One thought on “From Screen to Tabletop: Six Great Boardgame Versions of Video Games

  1. […] I’ve written before about the possible perils of porting from videogames to tabletop and vice versa. Gameplay, components (and fiddliness thereof), and player interaction rarely translate from one media to the other without considerable adaptation.  […]

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