The Digital Evolution?: From Tabletop to Online Simulation

Curator's Note

Produced by Filsinger Games, Champions of the Galaxy was released in 1986 as a tabletop card-and-dice game, offering gamers the opportunity to simulate their own wrestling federation set one-hundred years in the future.  The accompanying video is an introduction to the game's mythos and possibilities, and for almost thirty years the game has cultivated a small, dedicated fanbase that purchases expansion sets each year, attends annual conventions, and congregates on the company's online message forum to discuss the game.

In 2007 Filsinger Games introduced COTGOnline, an online simulation of the tabletop format of the game.  This conversion to an online format was heralded as an evolutionary step for the game, a natural progression from its primitive origins into a new digital era.  Many fans indicated that this online version would allow for newer gamers to get into the game, assuming the tabletop format was an obstacle to those more comfortable with digital formats.  In addition, many in the community espoused the "unlimited possibilities" the online format would offer for the game and its fans.  In many ways, this moment was indicative of the utopian promise of digital culture, a metaphorical rebirth for the game in a new historical moment.

However, COTGOnline was not without its problems.  Most significantly, the game's foundational feature, the control the game provides individual players, was diminished in the online format.  With the traditional tabletop version of the game, players could modify the stats of individual cards with a mere pen or pencil.  Now, with COTGOnline, one needed significant levels of technological proficiency to modify the stats of individual characters within the digital game.  COTGOnline also cuts down on the implementation of "house rules," referring to the modifications in gameplay many make with their personal cards and dice.  The corresponding video emphasizes the control one has with the game's raw materials, but the digital version of the game actually limits that control rather than facilitates it.

Finally, the digital content within COTGOnline had an economic impact on the game's fans.  Players, in order to have access to the digital cards they already owned in tangible form, had to repurchase individual editions in digital formats.  In this way, COTGOnline became an indicator of conspicuous consumption, an unnecessary luxury that only some fans could afford.  Rather than ushering in a new era for the game, some members of the game's existing fan community saw this digital evolution as an attempt to exploit the fanbase.


This post raises some important points about the consequences of computerizing play, particularly the negative consequences that make us stop and think about whether higher tech is necessarily better tech. I've recently been playing Atari 2600 versions of tic-tac-toe, backgammon, etc., which are generally not that much fun. I wonder if they made these games most of all because they *could* make them, not because they thought they'd be better than the old media versions. The persistence of old-fashioned pen-and-paper and board games and card games even after 40 years of video games is a good reminder that old media haven't been obliterated by new media. I also wanted to recommend this source in case you don't know it: Simon Deterding, "Living Room Wars: Remediation, Tabletop and the Early History of Video Wargaming" in the book Joystick Soldiers. 

Great post, Shane. I've just recently been hearing a lot about the new Magic the Gathering digital release that is part of a really successful transition from physical to digital (here a collectible card game).

What struck me is that the descriptions are almost completely the opposite of what you describe here for CotG, with the Magic release lauded for its restrictions.The strict enforcement of rules as embedded in code, for Magic, help players navigate and abide by the game's often vague and convulted systems, helping players learn how to play by stopping them from inadvertent misinterpretation. So if you're not exactly sure who you are allowed to target with a spell, or what order the cards will be played from the "stack," the game will do it correctly automatically, providing players with an example through restriction. Here there is no room for "house rules" or modifications, but that is exactly what people are after.

Magic is also engaged with some of the same issues with players having to purchase digital versions of cards that they already own physically, but so far it has seemed that the digital game has mainly revitalized interest in the physical game rather than hindered it or led to widespread resentment. Perhaps this is because the game was not pitched as an evolution or replacement for the physical version, but as a complement to it, or a training version for new players who will (hopefully) move over to the physical version eventually.

To follow on the above comments, I'd be really interested to see an expanded history of board-to-video games. Given the varying levels of success for these various games, I think looking at the differences between successful and unsuccessful games might be rather interesting. Is it the design of the original game that makes the difference? Or, the pricing structure? Or, the popularity of the game? My assumption would be that it's some combination of these factors, but this definitely seems like a compelling area of inquiry.

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