What It Takes to Turn a Video Game Into a Tabletop One

This revolution makes good business sense. The tabletop space has exploded in popularity over the last 20 years, and major publishers have rightly identified the natural crossover appeal between analog and digital gamers. After all, who wants to trade their umpteenth bundle of hay in Catan, when they could instead be shipping out mana crystals in Azeroth? Or leading a battalion of robots in Runeterra?

“The tolerance for the hobby board game industry has gone up overall,” explains Fischer. “A really crunchy, deeper, board game that takes a lot of effort to get into is going to find more traction today than 15 or 20 years ago.”

Some of those adaptations are pretty straightforward. There is no debate about what the core praxis of a Doom board game should be. The mechanics reveal themselves as soon as you start writing the rulebook. (Space marines are going to unload payloads of shrapnel into the forces of Hell, ideally culminating in a showdown with the Icon of Sin.) But Cole Medeiros didn’t have it nearly so easily. He’s one of the two designers behind the Stardew Valley board game, which is based on a video game that stridently refuses any conception of victory. Anyone who’s logged time into its verdant pastures can attest to how tranquil, passive, and nonconfrontational Stardew can be. You can ditch the farm entirely to drink with your buddies in town, and watch the mellow seasons slowly molt away if that is where your happiness lies. This was one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Medeiros when he cracked into the design; how on earth can someone possibly lose Stardew Valley?

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“The video game is so open-ended. There’s nothing you have to do,” says Medeiros. “Any win condition you assign has the risk of restricting the player and forcing them to tell a specific story. We wanted to make the board game in such a way, where the win condition asks you to engage in the valley as much as possible, to touch as many different parts of it. It’s really challenging to take a sandbox game and say, ‘Here’s how you win!'”

Medeiros eventually settled on a cooperative design, where players are working together to complete a to-do list left behind by their grandfather. The patriarch might want you to save some money, or dredge up some sealife from the river, or most charmingly, make some lasting friendships with the townsfolk. (That can be accomplished by hanging out at the community center, and offering a gift to the first person you see.) That variety was another sticking point for Medeiros; the sensations of mining an ore vein or casting a fishing line are unique and bespoke in a video game, but he needed to make sure that they didn’t overlap too much on the board. In other words, fishing needed to feel different from farming, which also needed to feel different from boring through the quarry. Like the game it’s based on, Stardew Valley is an intricate series of mini-games that, as Medeiros emphasizes, is not so complex that they each require their own thick rulebooks.

“You have a whole game, with all these moving pieces,” he says. “The one mechanic that saw the most revision was the mine. How do you summarize exploring, fighting monsters, getting materials, and descending down levels without adding a ton of complexity?”

One thing is clear. Medeiros struck when the iron was hot. In less than 24 hours after the announcement, the Stardew Valley board game sold out. The singularity between tabletop and digital gamers has never been tighter, and ideally, the fascinating design complications that come from that convergence will only grow more esoteric. Could you imagine, for instance, if Nintendo decided to publish a Mario board game? Or if Valve put Counter-Strike in a box? Could the greatest minds in board gaming design ever generate the systems to make, say, jumping on a Goomba’s head work with pawns, counters, and wooden cubes? Who knows, but as the tabletop renaissance continues, we’ll certainly enjoy watching them try.

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