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What will web apps do to family board game night?

Since the introduction of Monopoly in the early 1900s, board games became a staple in households all around the world, acting as a huge form of entertainment even into the radio, TV and even internet era. But while many of our favorite games still live in the cardboard-box form, computers have given these games a new form. It started with e-mails, floppy disks and CD-ROM, but now web apps have disrupted the space as well. And now that applications, especially web apps, are easier to make than ever, how are those games’ paper-based counterparts going to fare?

One of the most famous examples of this transition would perhaps be the game Civilization, which began as a board-based game of world domination. The game was eventually re-formatted to a PC-based format, which happened to suit the nature of the game better and for the most part displaced its physical ancestor.

Of course, the computer doesn’t always win. I’m sure many people would still prefer to play board-based Monopoly or Risk over their computer-based versions, especially if it required a CD or even a computer download. However, the rise of easy-to-build web apps is, for lack of better wording, a game changer.

Take the game Diplomacy, for example. This is another domination game where seven players seek to control a 1900s-themed Europe through negotiation with other players and the strategic movement of game pieces. But even though the game has a strong fan base (Henry Kissinger supposedly once called it his favorite game), there are a few things that make it a pain in the a** to play in person.

First, the rules dictate that the game can only be played with seven people – no more, no less. That would be easier to accomplish if it weren’t for how long the game takes: playing the game in person is usually a four to five hour affair, and there is a lot of down time. Players found a solution to this problem early on: Diplomacy was the first commercially licensed board game to be played by mail (only chess saw significant play by mail action earlier). But in the 1980s, people started to find a healthier alternatives to play-by-mail Diplomacy, which led first to playing by email and, ultimately, to the creation of browser-based versions of Diplomacy such as Backstabbr.

But with web apps becoming even easier to build with the help of emerging web development tools that are available even through browsers like Firefox, are we essentially witnessing the last existence of board games made out of paper and plastic? Sure, playing a game in person with someone may not provide the same experience as playing them over a screen (as in, you can’t yell at them when they beat you), but at what point does the convenience become more important than the experience?

Personally, I think the makers of board games are probably too smart to let web applications win, and what we will see is some kind of hybrid model. Clearly electronic board games are not a new thing, but I wonder if we will start seeing some kind of Wi-Fi connected board game that allows you to play with both those around you and those who are remote (maybe utilizing a web application-based connection?)

All I know is that as long as I can still yell “YAHTZEE!,” I’m happy.

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