Board game publisher Days of Wonder recently announced the release of Small World, one of their popular boardgames, for the iPad. Rumor has it the popular “eurogame” Carcassonne will be showing up soon as well. Scrabble, already popular on the iPhone, now comes in an iPad version.

Like many people, I had trouble seeing exactly how to use the iPad when it was first shown to the world. It was cool and capable, certainly, but what was it for? What did one do with it exactly? Replace your computer? Your phone? Was it supposed to go on your coffee table? What was this thing?

Turns out that one answer is that it’s a killer boardgaming device. In retrospect, this makes a lot of sense. You have a display that’s large, colorful, and detailed enough to allow multiple players to read from and interact with it. The multitouch screen means moving pieces, scrolling and zooming the board, and shifting around cards are all easy, intuitive functions. You can lay it flat, so it can look a lot like a board or other playing surface. And the iPad is eminently portable, so it’s great for restaurants and travel.

Oh, and it’s a computer, so you always have a friend to play with. Small World might be missing an AI, but you can bet most other iPad boardgame releases will be packing a savvy computer opponent to keep you challenged during that subway commute or solo business flight. In this, it beats out the Microsoft Surface – that, and an order of magnitude in cost.

There are shortcomings. Hidden information gets difficult to manage, though perhaps a few games will take the Scrabble approach and allow players with iPhones to use their phones for exactly this purpose (players with iPhones can link them to the iPad game and use them to view and manage their racks). Display space is limited – probably too limited for many games. And there’s no substitute for the tactility of a hand of cards, or rolling dice – though nice sounds and animation can provide a different sort of sensory whiz-bang.

Perhaps, though, we are seeing something of the future of boardgaming here. For years, I’ve wished I could play Magic using a deck of electronic paper cards, saving me huge amounts of storage space, and the time it takes to manually pore through physical cards and put together a deck. An iPad as a game surface, and an iPhone for my hand of cards… well, that wouldn’t be so far off.

So what does this mean for the boardgaming industry? Perhaps very positive things. They are sitting on a chunk of intellectual property that just grew in value overnight, needing only some talented engineers to translate it to the new medium. In the short term, iPads and their coming brethren aren’t likely to cannibalize existing sales; dedicated gamers will be happy to pay a few bucks for electronic versions of their favorite games, and the games will see exposure to an entirely new audience. Longer term, it gets hazier: if the electronic experience grows to rival the physical one, and prices stay in the $5-10 range, then game publishers will begin to see a squeeze from shrinking margins.

It also means we can expect to see a shift in who works for boardgame companies. Many may partner with contract developers (creating something of a fun opportunity for talented developers with a gaming bent); however, if eventually the very nature of boardgame publishing changes to become more electronic, then the composition of the workforce at these companies will itself have to change. We can play out how this might affect distributors and local game stores, but that’s simultaneously straightforward and murky to predict.

Games themselves will change, too. There are things you can do electronically that are difficult or impossible with paper, cardboard, and plastic, from the aforementioned sound effects and animations, to complex randomness, to simple adjudication of time-based rules (e.g., who pressed the button first, timing of turns, etc.), to mid-game transformations of the board and pieces themselves. As a game designer, it is this last element that is perhaps the most exciting: a chance to mix the immediate social experience of boardgaming with the interactivity and under-the-hood power of the computer.