In the battle for board games vs digital simulators, the Jackbox Party Pack is making a bold case for the superiority of video games. Bursting onto computer screens in 2014, Jackbox Games have been on a tour de force for the promotion of adapting board games into the digital world, and have been wildly successful in doing so.
But what gets lost when we flip the table on physical board games, and what do we gain by going digital?
Digital vs Physical - Jackbox
Jackbox’s position is immediately clear from the advertising surrounding the Jackbox Party Pack: beautifully designed board game boxes are stacked invitingly, promising the quality and sheer volume of games within the product – but watch the trailer and you’ll be greeted by a man hopelessly struggling with an overflowing number of physical components: counters, meeples, cards, and ping pong balls.
We’ve all been in the position of having to pack away mountains of plastic counters and scattered cards all by ourselves, and while the Jackbox advert is clearly poking fun and dramatising the scale of the challenge - they make a valid point about the frustrations of physical games.
Pieces get lost, scuffed, and mysteriously vanish when your dog decides to roll over right on top of the board, and in more cheaply made games might even just break from wear and tear. Yet board game lovers often agree that it is the iconic tokens, meeples, and creative components which add to a games value and nostalgia. You need look no further than the outrage surrounding the introduction of new Monopoly pieces to understand that physical components are intrinsically tied to the soul of board games.
However Jackbox go on to make a good point about the limits of physical board games: how many times have you had too many people to play the party game you wanted to? Or had to share pieces or use substitutes because there weren’t enough to go around? In the Jackbox Party Pack this problem is solved. After buying one copy of the party pack any number of players can join the game using their phone, tablet, or even computer as a controller, meaning no clunky components to be set up and no risk of running out of places. Hypothetically.
The wrestle instead becomes wireless, and while Jackbox have made the process as streamlined as possible we all understand the infinite number of things which go wrong when someone attempts the simple task of joining the WiFi, connecting to Jackbox.tv and entering the code displayed on the host’s computer.
Assuming a faultless connection and tech-savvy friends the set-up is easy, but it’s worth noting that though the game boasts the benefits of dispensing with an irritating physical set-up of the game, the internet-dependent replacement has just as much potential to go wrong, and with fewer obvious solutions.
Jackbox are also being somewhat sneaky with the promised solution to running out of space. While the five-game pack promises to be playable for anything from 1-100 players, the reality is that only one game on the classic pack allows for anything like these numbers. The original Jackbox Party Pack contains; You Don’t Know Jack, Fibbage XL, Drawful, Word Spud, and Lie Swatter, of which only the latter (Lie Swatter) actually allows for 1-100 players.
The rest will host either 2-8 or 3-8 players, apart from You Don’t Know Jack which maxes out at 1-4 players, meaning any groups larger than five people could end up disappointed. The promise of player numbers no longer having to work within physical limitations is true of digital games, however what Jackbox reveals is that it is often the mechanics of the game, and not physical components, which make large numbers of players unrealistic.
Lie Swatter’s flexibility with player numbers is fantastic, and it’s even gone as far as allowing the game to be Twitch compatible, but for most games computers are only as capable of waiting for hundreds of people to write jokes and processing their answers as a human is. You couldn’t play Cards Against Humanity with fifty people, nor would you want to, and for the majority of the games available in the Jackbox Party Pack the same is true - meaning that player limits are good, but also therefore not a benefit of digital games!
You Don’t Know Jack – 1-4 players – a classic quiz game, amped up on steroids. Fast paced question and answer with a range of different modes to keep things fresh.
Fibbage XL – 2-8 players – the game gives you sentences to finish, players enter their best lies, then are presented with everyone’s answers, and the truth hidden among them. You gain points for every person who foolishly selects your lie as the correct answer, and even more points if you managed to figure out the truth.
Drawful – 3-8 players – basically Pictionary. One player gets a prompt and must attempt to draw it, no matter how awful their drawing skills may be (even skilful artists face a challenge if they’re forced to draw from their phone), the other players guess what the drawing represents, then vote on the most believable answer.
Word Spud – 2-8 players – attempt to finish your friends’ words and sentences, like worldplay games where you tell a story by saying one word each in turns, where you’re up against a timer and your friends up vote you for clever moves.
Lie Swatter – 1-100 players – the game presents you with statements, you guess whether they’re true or false whilst racing against a particularly stressful timer, and rack up points.
The final promise that Jackbox sells is that its digital game is far cheaper than physical board game alternatives. With a price of £18.99 across PC, Xbox, and PlayStation platforms, and especially with frequent deep sales such as its current 60% off standing offer with the Humble Store, the Jackbox Party Pack certainly has a competitive price compared to other physical board games.
Considering that the Party Pack contains digital equivalents of games like Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, and Cards Against Humanity it’s a great deal when you might otherwise sink a lot of cash buying the physical games separately. However, while manufacturing and distribution may be the most expensive steps in board game production, there’s definitely something to be said for the satisfaction of displaying a physical game on your shelf, of treasuring much-loved tokens, and celebrating top-notch design.
Overall, the Jackbox Party Pack itself is a great game with tons of variety, ease-of-access, and entertainingly adult humour to get a game night going. It’s a step in the right direction and a revelation for the possibilities of digital board gaming, but it hasn’t quite yet solved all the problems that it thinks it has.
I’m eager to see what board games can learn from their digital counterparts in the future, but for now I think I’ll still with physical games, with a side of simulators to go, please.
Helen Jones is a writer and games journalist, you can read more of her stuff @BarnacleDrive on Twitter.