The concept of a “game” is something I think many of us take for granted. The idea that we engage in structured forms of entertainment that require so much active intellectual interaction is truly quite special. In a world where most of us are filled to the brim with exhausting activities, I cannot believe that so many of us choose such involved forms of escapism.
Two of the most popular of these activities are board games and video games. Board gaming is not quite that popular yet: for those who know a lot about video game history, the board gaming landscape feels very much in the era of Sega vs. Nintendo right now, with the general market starting to become saturated with proper competition instead of a mediocre or underdeveloped monolith of a publisher. Regardless of where board games are, I can see them becoming more and more popular with time, and the general sales numbers of the last two – three years back this theory up.
Because both video and board games are so popular and are having such a large overlap in player bases, there’s often calls for popular video games to get made into board games. Over this and the following two articles, I’m going to discuss three different board game adaptations of video games, all which set out to accomplish three different theses.
The first, Frostpunk: The Board Game, is what I would consider a one-to-one reimplementation with as few changes as possible. For the purposes of levity, I’m going to call this a mechanical interpretation, as the game sets out to capture the mechanics of the game it’s copying. The two types of interpretations I will be covering in the future are the thematic interpretation, where the board game captures the feeling of the video game regardless of mechanical changes, and the transformative interpretation, where the designers of the board game take the existing video game and fleshes it out into its own thing, overshadowing the fact there’s a video game at all.
But, enough blabbering. Let’s talk about Cold Excel.
Frostpunk is a 2018 video game developed and published by 11 Bit Studios. The base game costs $29.99, and there’s additional downloadable content (DLC) you can buy. However, because the game has been out for so long, you can usually purchase a bundle of everything that the game has ever released for about $10.
Frostpunk: The Board Game is a 2022 board game designed by Adam Kwapiński (of Nemesis fame) and published by Glass Cannon Unplugged (whose only two titles include this one and another large Kickstarter video game adaptation). The standalone game costs $100, but for an additional $390(!) you can own everything that was included in the Kickstarter (or another $25 if you want a poster, I guess).
The theme and overall “plot” of both is similar: in an alternate 1886, a volcanic winter has led to global cooling, with temperatures endlessly dropping, and no hope in sight. You are the mayor of one of the last remaining cities that can survive only through the use of towering generators at the center of these cities to keep only the most vital structures warm. With temperatures dropping, and resources dwindling, what can you do to save yourself, and save your city?
The video game does so much heavy lifting to make this theme and encroaching dread stay omnipresent throughout each playthrough you do. First, the temperature of the unheated air surrounding your city is in the top-center of your screen at all times, reminding you of what each worker you have must endure each time you send them out on a mission. No matter the sub-menu you enter, that temperature gauge will remain, staring at you, waiting, its massive Sauron-like presence watching and judging your every move. It’s beautifully awful, and I love it.
“Oh my God, it’s -50 now? Seriously?!”
The second is the sound design. The sound of rough winds whipping outside of your city center are some of the most realistic sound effects I’ve ever heard in a video game. It instills the carnal fear felt on the coldest night of the year – and the wind never stops blowing. On top of the continuous awful wind, there’s the music. It’s subtly terrifying. There’s times where it’s a hopeful tune, but the final resolution note is missing. There’s times where the music is cyclical, often repeating the same 20 or so measures over and over again, as if to remind you you’re not actually making any progress. Just like the cold itself, the music is impossible to permanently escape.
Finally is the focus on people. Most “city building” games like this are often, frankly, awful to their citizens. They are abstracted away into nothingness, often grouping people together by class and assuming all poor people have the same needs, or by abstracting people away even further by calling all of your citizens “pops” and leaving it at that. But not in Frostpunk. Here’s an example.
You’ve started a scenario where you’re running a small outpost away from the city. A distribution center of sorts, rather than the heart of a larger city. However, due to the sheer difficulty of travelling, your workers will be living out here. But that’s fine, they can all fit into two living quarters right near the heat source. Everything’s fine. Until you get a pop-up on your screen from a random event:
“This is odd. There must have been some misunderstanding – our children were not supposed to join us, certainly not so soon! It won’t make things any easier for us. Well, it’s too late to turn them back, and at least New London promised to also send food our way. Hopefully they’ll keep to the schedule.”
Not only that, but there’s an additional note when your children arrive:
“Many of our people are really upset, because it looks that our kids were neglected. They haven’t enough warm clothes and some of them caught a cold on the way. But now that they are here we can take proper care of them.” And the dialog box doesn’t close with a simple “ok”, but rather: “We’ll do our best”.
Immediately your hospital fills, you’re running low on food, and housing gets crowded. But, for a brief moment, the morale of your citizens goes up, because their families are here. For a moment, nothing else matters to them, except that their family is here with them, no matter the timing or the reason.
And that’s just one random event of many that you’ll receive in any given playthrough.
The game uses cards for events, but keeps the cheery tone with topics like “Child Labor”
The reason that I’ve been so focused on the theming of the video game so much is that, generally speaking, the board game truly captures what the video game does with all of its random events, number crunching, exploration, etc. Stripped down to its barest, devoid of all context, the board game is a survival game based on finding and allocating resources, and balancing tons of different meters to survive and/or meet the goal of the scenario. There’s many different scenarios to choose from, and the difficulty can be adjusted in each scenario. Nearly all of those mechanics are all the same between the two: it’s just the theme that’s missing.
A large part of adaptation is always focusing on what are the strong suits of the medium you’re moving the project into. For instance, if you’re adapting a book to a movie, you can maybe trim out some parts the editor missed, or really bring people into a fantasy world by creating spectacle with special effects. But when you’re adapting a video game into a board game, you simply lose large parts of the experience. As I stressed earlier, sound is a big part of what I think drives the success of Frostpunk, but due to the nature of board gaming, it’s simply gone. Outside of sound, a lot of the subtle touches are lost too, like the temperature gauge at the top of the screen. A video game can direct your attention to whatever content it wants to deliver on the screen, whereas there’s so much more player agency in what players look at or pay attention to while playing a game there’s no guarantee a component will be checked more than once.
I think that the most difficult part of moving a property into board gaming is realizing that this game will be played in a social setting. Video games, even those as dark as Frostpunk, are silly! Keeping track of all different types of resources on tracks, or even just dumb little names people come up with… all of these things, when said out loud, can mess with the tone of the whole piece. “Jerry, have you been moving the corpse marker?” Maybe I’m the weird one here, but even in the context of playing this grim game, that’d pull me out of the experience! All of this is besides the fact that it’s so much harder to be immersed into what’s going on in a flimsy narrative of a board game, especially with all the other social happenings going on around the game.
But, ok. So the theme doesn’t shine through particularly well. We get it. Should I spend $490 on this game for its amazing mechanics?!
I mean, no. No one should buy this or any game for $490, are you kidding me?
As I said earlier, this is meant to be an examination of a “mechanical interpretation”. The reason I’ve barely talked about the mechanics so far is because, well, this game does do a phenomenal job of capturing the meter management of the video game. Without pulling out any statistics or examining the impact of how different scenario design can change things, this game takes the sheer amount of data of the video game and crunches the numbers down to a reasonable size, as well as reducing the amount of information down to a (almost) reasonable amount.
There are two minor differences in the board game that I do want to talk about. The first is the game board. Imagine a typical Catan board, but another layer of hexes around the outside and the tower from Dark Tower in the center. Unlike Catan, though, only select hexes are known at the start of the game. This creates a random map for the players every time, but the players must spend actions exploring these hexes to find the required resources to keep the city going. In the video game, the “hexes” are randomized too; however, the resources available are known to the player from the start of each scenario. I would assume that this is a way to make players feel more active in the experience, especially since the board game is multiplayer co-op over a purely solo one. Either way, it adds a layer of luck to a game that is already quite harsh and definitely not in need of more things to worry about or get wrong.
But, a way the board game goes out of its way to mitigate luck is by sterilizing and setting the Social Dispute from the beginning. A common event that happens in the video game is, at one point or many points, citizens of your city will become quite angry with you. However, the citizens never get angry and violent and restless for no reason: They will strike if they are treated poorly for too long. If you can mitigate this by keeping their needs met, they will not riot. But in the board game, these riots are not only presumed, but the effect of this event is written out in plain numbers and shown to each player before it is shuffled into its deck. This is quite bizarre to me, but I suppose it helps prevent the players of the game from worrying about, or tracking even more, information. Or maybe people just refuse to iterate on Pandemic.
Finally we get to the point. The reason that I wanted to write this article. Are you ready?
Frostpunk: The Board Game has 9 mounted boards where you track information.
You thought I was joking, didn’t you?
This is why I personally have no interest in ever playing this, nor why I think exact 1:1 copies of video games is a particularly great idea. The video game exists, automates all the tracks, and can be bought for 4% of the price. Truly, if I wanted to play a version of Frostpunk with friends, I’d stream myself playing the video game and we’d discuss the decisions just like how the board game works. Why would I want to worry about all of that information, all of those different tracks? If this is meant to be a puzzle with friends, there are so many other games to play. If you want good co-op games, I’ve heard those exist too. I simply cannot imagine playing a game with this many different tracks. It’s absolutely bananas to me.
Mechanical interpretations of video games have their place. Being able to fully capture what a video game did so well and squeeze it into something that new people can experience, or that long time fans can re-experience on the tabletop, is truly a remarkable feat. However, this method of interpretation does lead to the issue of bloat and complexity. Besides my personal misgivings about Frostpunk: The Board Game, its high price and high complexity weight (4.3 out of 5 on BoardGameGeek!) does not really scream “I’m setting out to find a new large audience!” That’s more of a Kickstarter issue to some extent, but there will be fans of the video game that bought this and will absolutely love what it accomplishes. I just hope its price doesn’t leave them out in the snow.
Be sure to come back in the future where I talk about thematic and transformative interpretations. Oh, and I’d love to hear from you about some of your favorite board games based on video games!