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Digital Tabletop Games: An Autoethnographic Account of the Play Experience.

Introduction & Cutural Background

Like many of you around the world, we have all felt the impact of COVID-19, and the self-isolation of the lockdown, which has unconditionally transformed our lives forever. In spite of this, however, one thing has remained a staple of families’ toolkit for dealing with indoor-induced boredom, that being Board and Card Games. Since 2020, The Mass-Market Board Game industry has seen massive growth riding the wave of a prolonged lockdown due to their simplistic game design, and status within popular culture. Contrast this to the niche market industry which has not seen the positive repercussions as its mass-market counterpart for multiple contributing factors, for example, the depth of play, the nature of niche genres, themes, settings, and most importantly the lockdown of events, clubs, and hobby stores.

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Board Games have been a dominant feature of my upbringing in a large extended family and have directly affected my personality, education, and career path. Through this blog, I will be analysing my personal experience of playing Digital Board Games, through which I will be producing a comparison to that of the traditional Physical Board Game experience to contrast the strengths and limitations of both variations of play, and how they align with my personal values, biases, and cultural interest of what it means to play games.

Documenting the Experience

Identifying Key Epiphanies

For a more detailed identification explanation of these Autoethnographic Epiphanies.

Feel free to view the slides below:

Analysis of Epiphanies


One of the first implications for all types of play including that of ludic, tabletop, or digital is defining the rules, and teaching users the mechanics to effectively play the game. Hearthstone and Card Thief highlighted a change in the formula in which we teach players how to play games, both games provide an on-rails experience as to note distract, confuse, or otherwise interrupt the users’ ability to understand exactly how to play the game. Contrast this with Star Wars: Armada and its 24 page ‘Learn to Play’ Manual, which leaves the game open for interpretation and flexibility surrounding the rules.

This creative freedom over the interpretation of the rules is supported by the fact that by default, board games do not have a referee, judge, or mediator it is up to the players to moderate their own games. Digital versions of games by design are moderated by mechanics which stops players from diverting from the intended playstyle, which hurts creative freedom and causes issues around the concept of game balance. Therefore, this epiphany highlights the importance of having the rules open for discussion by the players to allow the development of experiences that the audience wants from their play.


In “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, belonging and love needs are the third tier.” (Brunscheen, 2019) which highlights the true importance of human contact and communication, Physical Board Games are one of many means of attaining that human need for so many around the world, especially during the climate of today’s world. The Digital Board Game Industry has seemed to have forgotten how important relationships and communication are for the experience of play, which can be seen in Hearthstones’ extremely limited communication menu (for a decent reason) and Tabletop Simulators’ mediocre communication options, and poor-quality audio.

Through these interactions of play, it does not only act as a means of strengthening bonds between two parties, but they are also a “good way to encourage kids (or anybody) of different ages to team up and work together” as a means of developing “Teamwork, Focus, and Language skills” (Zander, 2019) to name a few crucial skills required throughout life that can be taught through the board game experience.


Through my experience of playing Digital Board Games, I have found that it “presents the opportunity to combine the social advantages of traditional tabletop games with the automation and streamlined gameplay of video games.” (Wallace, 2012) The games I explored from Berserk Games, Blizzard Entertainment, and TinyTouchTales all provide an experience that fully utilises the capabilities of computers, and other devices to create the most natural collaboration of automation and manual control for the user.

One major issue surrounding automation is that “Automating routine in-game activities and game progression can lead to severe awareness deficits.” (Pape, 2012) Therefore, it is crucial to provide the user will full control of the game experience while only reducing the tedious tasks surrounding the experience by managing it with automation, which is still visible and engaged with by the user.

Rounding off Findings

Over the course of my Autoethnographic Research, it has given me a great deal of insight into what matters to me the most in regard to tabletop gaming. From mitigating boredom to maximizing creative freedom, I believe that I have identified the most important strengths and limitations of the Digital Board to me as I reflect on my experiences of these last few weeks to my entire cultural background. Currently, The Tabletop Simulator is the closest option we have to a Physical Board Game experience online and should be used as an example for all future developers of how to accurately emulate the experience of playing a board game in the real world and what it means to truly have fun!

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Reference List

Brereton, E (2021) Card Thief Review [online] [Accessed 21/03/22]

GameFAQ Forums (2016) I’m curious what the age demographic of the players is [online] [Accessed 21/03/22]

TinyTouchTales (2022) Card Thief [online] [Accessed 21/03/22]

Blizzard Entertainment (2022) Hearthstone: Heros of Warcraft [online] [Accessed 21/03/22]

Fantasy Flight Games (2022) Star Wars: Armada [online] [Accessed 21/03/22]

Smith, R (2010) Monopoly Game: Rules Made To Be Broken? [online] [Accessed 22/03/22]

Brunscheen-Cartagena, E (2019) Bonding Thru Board Games [online] [Accessed 23/03/22]

Zander, M (2019) The Surprising Benefits Your Kids Get From Playing Board Games [online] [Accessed 23/03/22]

Pape, J (2012) The Effects of Digitization and Automation on Board Games for Digital Tabletops [online] [Accessed 23/03/22]

Wallace, J, Pape, J, Chang, Y, McClelland, P, Graham, T, Scott, S, and Hancock, M (2012) Exploring automation in digital tabletop board game [online] [Accessed 23/03/22]

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