Tech Augmentations in Board Games - The Dreadful And The Derisive
Updated: May 25
This article will focus on augmented elements of board games, in particular their effects on game-play and subsequent player behaviours. We will learn why they should be used sparingly, why they should support the theme and how they can be made more effective by promoting inclusivity and emotional involvement.
Throughout the ’90s, tech had carved a firm foothold, permeating the toy industry for better, or worse. Countless board games were becoming augmented with technological features. These included everything from simple timers and scorekeepers, to buzzer mechanisms (as in Perfection and Operation), amongst others. These simple mechanisms bring an entirely new dimension to game-play. To illustrate how, we will explore two games at opposite ends of the thematic spectrum: the traumatising classic ‘Atmosfear’, and the titillatingly vacuous ‘Dream Phone’.
For those who are unaware, here is an overview of the games in question. ‘Atmosfear’, AKA ‘Nightmare’, is an intense, key-collecting, timed race to the centre of the board. The game is overseen by a boorish and rather creepy character called ‘The Gatekeeper’, who barks orders
through the VHS player.
The player objective in ‘Dream Phone’, on the other hand, involves a race to discern their secret admirer's identity first. Taking on the role of hormone-frenzied detectives, they judge their potential matches as voice actors whisper clues through the bulky, Fuchsia handset.
At first glance, it is clear that novelty plays a large part in their reception. This is one very simple way to breathe life into an experience, making it more memorable and setting it apart from the rest of the market. With the added dimensions of sound and moving visuals, players are presented with a deeper understanding of the game-worlds they are stepping into, increasing their immersion and connection with the core values being presented.
Augmented aspects can surprise and delight players, influencing them in a much more potent fashion. Video games have also been employing these tactics - using phenomenological elements to increase immersion - but with augmentations, there is another factor at work: contrast. Where there is a polarity between the static elements of a board game and the augmented aspects, the latter is made all the more enlivening simply by contrast.
Another thing to note is that these augmentations feature voice actors. In both instances, they speak directly to players, calling them to action. As such, I have witnessed players replying in kind, despite their understanding that the characters aren’t real. It seems to become a performance for the other players, wherein they become an active participant and help to immerse their opponents in the narrative being woven. Taking on this role as an actor in the game, players become integral to the plot, with the potential to develop their own, personal sub-plots as the game continues.
For example, when playing Atmosfear, a player who is picked on may continue to talk back to the Gatekeeper. For the other players, this could constitute a simple running gag or an entire character arc for them to follow. Players might end up rooting for their opponents due to their increased rivalry with the antagonist. This simple interaction is hence able to evoke emotional involvement with the game, bolstering inclusion and developing each player’s personal game narrative.
Whilst we are on the subject of narrative, we should note how the augmentations affect pacing. Both games utilise their augmented elements to build tension in two distinct ways. Each involves a race against opponents, so there is some initial tension in the form of competition but the pacing in each game is very different. Dream Phone’s pacing is certainly the lighter of the two. There is pressure to beat your opponent, of course, but speed is not paramount. Sometimes players do the calling, other times the phone rings at random; either way, tension seems to heighten whenever the receiver is picked up. Where once permeated the salacious giggles of would-be sleuths, the room drops into silence; senses magnify as players strain to hear the distant voice of their informant. The gently competitive downtime is enlivened with a few sweet moments of revelation.
Atmosfear ups the ante with a race against the clock. This results in one of two end states: someone wins or everyone loses. That’s a fair amount of pressure as, if no one wins, the entire session seems to feel like a flop. No one wants the bad guy to win, so they bolt around the board like madmen. At irregular intervals, The Gatekeeper pauses the clock to pick on players - usually the player whose turn it currently is. Thus, a desperate rush to pass the dice ensues, with everyone trying to avoid being made the victim. This keeps players on their toes, with heightened tension helping to move the game along faster.
Occasionally, however, the increased pressure hinders progress, leaving yet more spikes in the tension chart - particularly where quarrels or fumbles arise as a result of the intense rush. But here’s the real irony: relief from this floundering, backwards pass-the-parcel is delivered by none other than the character you were so fervently rushing to avoid! The Gatekeeper stops the game abruptly with a jump scare and follows up with a bout of ranting. This seems to cleverly mask a break in the tension for those who successfully avoid his wrath (or those who revel in condemnation - whatever floats your boat). His act even provides comic relief at points. But, for those caught in his cross-hair, there’s much less chance to breathe.
At first glance, the purpose of these augmented mechanisms seems to contrast. One spouts helpful information, the other: antagonism. It is important to note, however, that both offer a feedback loop, with each working in its own way to propel players toward the win state. The difference is that one is intended as positive reinforcement - i.e. hearing the voice of a cute guy on the phone (uwu), whereas the other is intended as negative reinforcement - i.e. jump-scares and degradation. Sarah Dobbs of Den Of Geek believes ‘it doesn’t really matter if you don’t answer the Gatekeeper promptly [...] the game can’t punish you’, but when you’re a ten-year-old girl with a fear of both social pressure and loud noises, the game can feel almost entirely like punishment.
More to the point, that which I used to deem ‘punishment’ in Atmosfear tends to be reserved for the infernally slow or easily distracted (namely, myself). In the same vein, the positive reinforcement in Dream phone has players being praised simply through fully engaging with the games augmented facets, it is something everyone can enjoy, however close they are to a win state. So, both games use their augmentations as a way of teaching certain behaviours that will propel them toward the win state.
Something we should also consider when designing feedback loops: what behaviours are we encouraging? With Atmosfear players are motivated to concentrate on the actions of others and coordinate themselves accordingly, so as not cause a fumble. Perhaps they are encouraged to become submissive or humble through the Gatekeepers demoralisation. Dream Phone has a questionable undertone anyway but coupled with reinforcement, young girls are likely to become more judgemental, dismissing potential suitors by their looks alone. Just something to think about...
As we have seen, augmentations can be powerful things. They can help to capture our imaginations, heighten tension and accentuate the game's atmosphere. They can bolster competition, encourage emotional involvement and reinforce selective behaviours. They have been seen to both improve or otherwise impair game-play experiences. As such, they can make or break a game-play experience.
So, here are a few things to consider when adding augmentations:
They should be used sparingly, to keep a good contrast of elements and prevent loss of impact.
They should support the theme and genre of the game, as would any good rule, mechanism or game mechanic. This will prevent jarring players out of immersion.
There should be an element of inclusivity, whether this involves simply pressing a button or shouting at the TV, some form of interaction will bring players closer to the game world.
They should also be implemented with careful consideration of what behaviours they are encouraging, as well as whether these are likely to extend into players' daily lives.