Board Games and Video Games sound like they were made for each other.  We’ve been playing board games for thousands of years, from Sekhmet in Egypt and Go in China to Chess in India/Iran.  There was an explosion in the titles available from the 1920s as long-standing favourites like Scrabble, Monopoly and Cluedo were developed and helped while away the time, particularly during the worst economic predation ever.  This continued right the way through after WW2 with manufacturers like Parker Brothers, MB Games, Waddingtons et al churning out set after set.  Granted, they peaked in the 1980s as more and more houses explored these funny little grey and black boxes.  After a decline in the 1990s, board games reinvented themselves with economic and large strategy games picking up some of the slack whilst Role Playing titles gained ground in the mainstream. 

The conversion to those funny little grey and black boxes have been a little less smooth however.  In the beginning, the first home computers were little more than glorified calculators with keyboards integrated into the machine.  They were barely able to do more than manage spreadsheets and databases.  As they slowly evolved, the first games began to appear and whilst there were no early licensed (official) conversions, there were several turn-based trading games which were just about manageable and could have easily been played on a board.  Games such as Chess, Draughts and Reversi were available on the earliest machines though the AI did frequently take its sweet time in deciding where to move. 

Interestingly enough, the first cross-over was in the opposite direction – MB released Frogger in 1981 as a board game taking the basic premise of guiding the frog across the road to its lillypad.  It wasn’t long before other video game conversions hit board games – Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Popeye et al.  Most of them were faithful recreations of the original games (except one couldn’t hurl a joystick across the room) although dice had to provide the randomness of the game which could lead to more sulking.  Unless my brain is totally faulty, I think the first licensed board games hit home computers around 1985 when Parker Brothers allowed the biggest names (Monopoly, Cluedo, Scrabble etc) to appear on the 8-Bit formats.   

Some of these early conversions were surprisingly good given the limitations of the 8-Bit machines.  Whilst graphics would always be an issue, the computer could do things which human players couldn’t; with Monopoly, it could keep track of your total net worth thus allowing for a proper decision on the “Income Tax” Square rather than a guess.  In Cluedo, you’d never run out of clue sheets.  There was also music and sound effects to jazz things up a little.  But there were downsides too; Scrabble was limited in the number of words the CPU could retain and customising dictionaries was not possible to allow for more contemporary updates.  And the games rigidly adhered to the official rules, not allowing for house variants (notably Monopoly). 

There were 3-D board games which appeared to get the video game treatment – look at Screwball Scramble and tell me that’s not Marble Madness.  And there were several RPG games such as Hero Quest and Space Crusade (with the legendary Weetabix Monsters) that saw consumers snap up copies.  Why did these sell?  Simply put, you didn’t need a friend or relative to play a game with.  The AI would always be there for you as soon as you loaded up the game and their difficulty level could be customised.  Of course you couldn’t be sure that the AI wasn’t cheating after all, it controlled the dice throws and handled other game resources. 

One of the biggest disasters was the first conversion of Trivial Pursuit; the computer could only handle multiple choice answers rather than free text answers and the answer was always “Yes”.  It was many years before Trivial Pursuit returned to the home computer.   

On a similar vein, as Board Games made their mark on home computers, so too did we see conversions of quiz shows and game shows after all, the formats are broadly similar.  Play mini-games, answer questions, win prizes.  And so was the reverse true as several game-shows added computer games to their repertoire.  The first was a kids game show (the name I cannot recall) but in-between kids trivia rounds, there were levels of Paperboy and Summer Games played.  There was also an adult games show featuring a cat in a series of minigames on ITV (I wish I’d paid more attention as a child to their names).   

Board games also began appearing on consoles but as there were no keyboards to input with, games weren’t quite as versatile and didn’t sell as well.  But that didn’t matter – as the 8-Bit era gave way to the 16-Bit era, the first big-selling Strategy games (non-trading games) began to appear which were in effect huge board games themselves.  Of course you didn’t need to have a massive box with a million pieces and the computer was capable of performing so many more calculations than its progenitors.   

Based on items like the Argos Catalogue and what was on the shelves in Woolworths, the only people still interested in board games were old farts and people with gifts to buy without actually understanding the nature of the intended recipient.  However, this _did_ have the benefit of separating the wheat from the chaff so those games which were poorly designed and executed disappeared and newer games were a little more thought out and added more bells and whistles.  Of course this just _happened_ to push their prices up, particularly for the bright, noisy games but lost revenues have to be made up elsewhere.  

And the digital revolution came to games – video board game and DVD board games.  The first one (that I can recall clearly) was Atmosfear and then subsequently Star Trek and Sports editions of Trivial Pursuit.  I had a Star Wars video game which actually saw James Earl Jones voice Darth Vader once again and David Prowse donning the costume. How these games worked were that an hour long video was shown during which the participants of the game would play as normal.  At various stages, the video would halt the action and different commands were issued to certain players changing the nature of the action.  Typically, the idea was to beat the game before the video ran out because the villainous character would win.   

It always felt as if video board games were a stop-gap in the market as around the time of the release of Atmosfear in 1991, the Mega CD was showing FMV in games albeit of the crappy quality variety.  I don’t think the writing was on the wall just yet for them but they would only have a finite span before home computers and games consoles could pick up the slack.  Again, technical restriction on video tapes meant every game was linear; at least DVDs could have more data stored and could randomise chapters making each game unique (or a high degree of unlikeliness that exactly the same chapters are seen twice in the same order). 

End of Part 1

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