Thanks to the wild possibilities of virtual reality, like visiting the Louvre from your couch, or walking on the moon over your lunch break, any experience that’s not wildly ambitious borders on self-parody: "Whoooaaa, this simulation makes it feel like I’m watching Netflix on my couch!" Take the upcoming game Lost Cities. It’s just a board game—a board game that you play with virtual reality gear that costs hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.
But to lead designer Lesley Klassen, it’s not so silly. "I think it's funny that everyone says that to us. When we decided to make Lost Cities we never questioned the joy of playing a board game in VR even once," he says. "We had spent a year developing other VR experiences and had learned a lot about what works in VR. We knew we wanted to create a seated experience and we didn't want to make yet another turret or shooter game so we asked ourselves what kind of fun can happen where you don't move and you're seated. For us, board games became an obvious choice."
Klassen has a point. Most VR games being built today are walking a strange line between too much motion and not enough. The Samsung, Oculus, and Google VR headsets allow you to look around, but most don’t allow you to physically walk around. And so if you were to play a first person game like Call of Duty, your body would be trapped in a paradoxical sensation of extreme virtual movement without physical movement, which makes some people sick.
Lost Cities, on the other hand, is a real board game that you already play sitting down. So, somewhat ironically, it’s actually the perfect fodder for the current limitations of virtual reality. Now, that doesn’t mean the interface design was obvious. Things as simple as how the table and board felt were major debates for Klassen, who shared an in-depth look at his design process at Oculus’s recent developer conference. He tried versions of Lost Cities that looked like futuristic, floating HUDs—the sort of multi-pane interface deployed by Microsoft’s Hololens. Ultimately, though, the table was better for the immersion factor of the game. And by adding the simplest of touches—a lip to the table that appears to go over your knees—the experience of sitting at the board just clicked.
Having said all this, Lost Cities does still capitalize on the limitless possibilities of VR in two important ways. First, as the board game is technically about traveling the globe a la Indiana Jones to collect artifacts, it wraps the player in a rich, ever-shifting environment. Much like in Jumanji, you will suddenly appear in a desert or rainforest as you traverse the game. (Sounds neat!) Secondly, you’ll be able to play this board game, head-to-head, avatar-face-to-avatar-face, against friends who might be scattered across the globe. In fact, while Lost Cities will be coming to the Samsung Gear and Oculus Rift in March, the Oculus version may even feature character lip-syncing—so that as your friend talks, their avatar’s lips move, too. As a VR researcher told me recently, even if your friend appears as a polygonal skeleton in VR, if that skeleton has their familiar voice and body language, you will instantly accept the avatar as your buddy. They're just wearing a costume.
So while it’s fundamentally absurd that anyone would strap on $1,000 in technology to play a $25 board game, don't let the cognitive dissonance get you down. The inherent irony of playing a board game in VR doesn’t mean the experience will be any less enjoyable for it.