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The Modern Tabletop Game Renaissance

CAD-comic-happy-placeI’ve been playing a lot of games lately, but it took a Ctrl+Alt+Del comic to get me thinking about the difference between tabletop games (board, card, dice…) and video games.

I was part of the first generation to play computer games. In high school in the ’70s, I played Moon Lander on a PDP-11, and a text-based Star Trek game on an HP 2000. In my first “real” job the summer before I started college, I worked on a chip for an early arcade game. Over the following years, I played Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork on a DEC-10, bought a Pong game for my home TV, and collected computers like the Apple ][ and Atari 800 to play games ranging from Breakout to Galaxian.

I grew up, however, on tabletop games. My family’s copies of Scrabble, Monopoly, Clue, and Probe were battered and taped together. I played chess, checkers, go, backgammon, and mah jongg, and always had card decks laying around for hearts or go fish. My senior year in high school is when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons (oh, how many hours I spent painting miniatures).


Yep. Still got that original “white box.”

Video games and computer games never stopped me from playing tabletop games. With few exceptions, I played computer games and video games by myself, and tabletop games with friends. In fact, it wasn’t until World of Warcraft came along that I really got interested in a multiplayer video game, and I gave that one up years ago.

For a while there, it looked like tabletop gaming was dying off. Others didn’t share that mental distinction I had of multiuser games around a table with friends and single-user games in front of a TV or computer screen. But today, it’s a whole different world.

Every Thursday night is Game Night at my shop (the Phoenix Pearl Tea Tavern), and we play everything from the old classics like chess and go to new & different games like Splendor, Bärenpark, and Lanterns. Of course, the hot series like Catan and Pandemic are pulled out regularly, too.


Public places to play tabletop games are popping up everywhere. It’s not just your friendly local game store anymore. My old bookstore had game nights. There are coffee shops, bars, and hotel lobbies with stacks of demo games to play.

What brought back tabletop games with such a vengeance? I think it’s a collection of factors:

  1. Portability: You can play Munchkin around a campfire, Dixit in your hotel room, and Apples to Apples in the back seat of the car. A couple of Magic: the Gathering decks fit comfortably in a coat pocket. You can’t say that for a game console.
  2. Face-to-face social interaction: Sure you can chat with your guildies with a headset as you play Zelda or WoW, but when you’re playing a game of Mysterium with a group of friends, you’re all leaning over the same table, looking at each other, and searching the same clues. You’re chatting (unless you’re the ghost) and sharing real face time.
  3. A game for every situation: Some days, you’re in the mood to spend the entire afternoon setting up and playing Risk: Godstorm. Other days, a quick half-hour session of Fluxx (the Monty Python edition, perhaps?) may be more up your alley. There are tabletop games that take a few minutes to learn and others that take an hour of reading rulebooks.
  4. Control over the level of chance: Do you like a level playing field? Go fish. The game depends on the shuffle of the cards, and your eight-year-old just might kick your butt. Do you want pure, solid strategy? There are no dice in chess or go. You want to get wild and crazy? We’re back to Fluxx. Some make you think, and some just let you kick back and play.
  5. Easy breaks: There’s no pause button on an MMORPG. If you get up and walk away from the computer, your teammates might well be toast. But in tabletops games, bathroom breaks are easy (and the mandatory break to order pizza, of course).

I don’t really think it matters why they’re back. I just take joy in having them back. And in having such wonderful games coming in from all around the world.

If you have a favorite tabletop game I didn’t mention, leave a comment. And if you happen to be in Red Lodge, Montana on a Thursday night, pop into Phoenix Pearl Tea and join me for a game!

Captioning Computer Games

This article was originally published in Oct 1998 as a “Gary Robson on Captioning” column for a magazine called Newswaves for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing People, which is no longer in publication.

Zork Grand InquisitorWhen movies first appeared in the theaters, they had no sound. A sequence of flickering motion was followed by a slide containing some dialog or narration (gee — captions!), which was then followed by more flickering motion. Deaf and hearing viewers had the same experience at the movies, except for the accompanying music.

When sound became a part of the movie experience, the movies began to rely on the sound to communicate the plot, and deaf people could no longer share the experience. This trend was sealed by the time television took off. It took many years for closed captioning to come along and save the day.

Fast-forward to the computer age

When I started playing computer games in the mid-1970’s, they were mostly textual. If a game had two distinctly different beep sounds, that was pretty impressive audio technology. When playing a text game, a deaf player and a hearing player were on equal footing, because there was anothing to hear. Does this sound familiar so far?

Even as recently as a few years ago, game writers assumed that the majority of the people playing their games would not have computers with speakers, so sound performed a purely ancillary role. Even at that point, it made no difference whether you could hear.

Now, with sound cards for your PC selling for under $20, and virtually all new computers having sound capabilities built in, history is repeating itself. Computer games have critical instructions, tips, and clues in audio form. With many of these games, it is virtually impossible for a deaf player to get past the introduction.

Enter closed captioning

I was recently approached by Activision to test their newest adventure game, Zork Grand Inquisitor. Why me? Because the game is closed captioned! Not just captioned (i.e. subtitled), but closed captioned, meaning that the captions can be turned on and off.

In “normal” play, Zork Grand Inquisitor has a black bar at the bottom of the screen. When you turn on the captions, they appear in this black bar, and faithfully reproduce the dialog and some of the sound effects. In fact, words that are extremely difficult to make out in the audio are clearly visible in the captions, making the captioning a great tool even for the hearing player.

The captions appear as clear, readable colored text on the black background, in upper- and lower-case. They appear “pop-on” style like a captioned video rather than “roll-up” like live news or sports.

In the time I spent playing, I found no significant dialog missing, and only one glitch in the captioning: a particular sentence that flashed on and off the screen before I could read it. The captioning was remarkably well integrated into the flow of the game, and after playing for a few hours, you forget that non-captioned games even exist. This is the way it’s supposed to work!

cc logoOne minor complaint, though. Nowhere on the box do we see the familiar “CC” symbol. How is a deaf person to know that this game (clearly labeled as having “Qsound”) is captioned?

I congratulate Activision for taking the initiative and for doing a good job of implementing captioning in Zork Grand Inquisitor. They’ve set an example that I hope all the other game companies will follow.

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