Gaming Glossary: Boardgame, Tabletop game, Card game

With “game” clearly defined (successfully or not remains to be seen), the next most important term to define is “boardgame”. The first question to answer is whether a boardgame needs to also fit the definition of a game. I was not happy with how to define and categorize boardgames based on that first definition, so I revisited my definition and discovered I needed another word. I added a section on the end of that article to address it.

Boardgames clearly fit in the common sense of the word “game”, which includes all game-like activities. But the stricter technical sense of game as I defined it previously excludes some things that we would like to call boardgames. Chutes and Ladders is a prime example. It seems a bit strange to say that it is not a board game.

So I have already reached a bit of a roadblock. If I go for a strictly hierarchical approach to definitions, my approach to a game definition makes it difficult to include the high level concept of Boardgame. So I went back to my definition of Game yet again. The common use of “game” includes all game-like activities, while the new term orthogame would include only those matching my stricter definition. So I will use a more broad categorical approach, and state that boardgames are all games, but are not all orthogames. For the purposes of defining boardgame, the broader definition is the one that needs to be used, so a boardgame includes both pseudogames and games in the stricter sense.

The next most obvious question is whether a boardgame needs a board. Although BoardGameGeek includes a lot of games without a board, we should not feel obligated to include everything in the database. There is frequent discussion on that site over whether games played with strictly cards should count as boardgames.

I see that argument really boiling down to what counts as a board. In many ways, this is an arbitrary distinction. Do the tiles in Carcassonne count as boards, either individually or collectively? What if they were thin cardstock cards instead of tiles? What happens if you take a card game and add a flat board to play it on?

The real difference I see is that a boardgame typically contains components placed on top of larger components. But this does not work all the time. 7 Wonders has players placing cards under their wonder board. The two are functionally equivalent, but that makes it a challenge to define both at once. The key feature is that players know where to place the smaller pieces because features on the larger pieces indicate where to place them.

So far, a boardgame is a game or pseudogame in which smaller pieces are placed in relation to features on larger components. This, generally, excludes card-only games, and tile-laying games like dominoes or mahjong, since all components are one size. But it allows cards to be placed to form a board, when used with other pieces.

The excluded games can be included with boardgames in a broader category of tabletop games. The defining feature of a tabletop game is the need for components, not the need for a table. This does not seem to be quite sufficient for a trivial case of “guess what I’m holding in my hand”, so perhaps saying that a tabletop game is a game with a structured placement of components establishes a better requirement. This still includes a game that can, strictly speaking, be played without a table, and includes all card games.

As a side note, under this definition, a non-component based role-playing game (RPG) would not be a tabletop game. These are sometimes called Tabletop RPGs to distinguish from video game RPGs and other live action roleplaying, but I interpret the Tabletop RPG as a single term, and not as an indication of it being a subclass of tabletop game that includes roleplaying.

Finally, card games may overlap somewhat with board games, and are all included as tabletop games. A good starting point is that a card game is a game in which the primary mechanic must involve a card (or cards), though the boundary for “primary” is difficult to pinpoint. There is some overlap with boardgames. In Great Heartland Hauling Co, for example, some cards create the board, and other cards are used in play, and it is both a card game and a board game because of this.

These definitions raise another question, of whether a board game (or card game or tabletop game) remains so when it is translated to digital form, as an app or an online boardgame site. This is more of a philosophical distinction than a useful one, but reveals an interesting side of the debate, namely whether physical components are necessary for something to be a board game. For me, the difference breaks down into a question of form and function. It is easy for a digital game to perform the function of a boardgame (in other words, representing all the rules and mechanics). But the critical element is the form of the game. The digital version is still a boardgame as long as it represents the physical nature of the components. This is a very fine line sometimes. The current version of the Catan app I have misses the mark by treating the roads, cities, and resources as abstract concepts, rather than actual components. The Carcassonne app, on the other hand, represents the individual tiles and meeples being placed. In short, a digital boardgame (tabletop game) represents the physical components, while a videogame treats the components as abstractions from the concept.

These definitions are fairly simple because they lean on the previous definitions of game (which is why it was so important to start from the most basic concepts). In this case, I haven’t gone too in depth with establishing these definitions as rigorously as I did with Game, because I seem them as more of a pop cultural classification than an academic one. The real focus is to understand how games work, while these definitions reveal more about how people classify games (An interesting subject, but not strictly what I’m interested in discussing here). Nevertheless, establishing these definitions it is still an important step in the process of understanding games. Next time, I’ll continue to dig deeper into the nature of games, by examining some of the most broad classifications in the realm of tabletop games.


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