The Return of TableTop Gaming

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I welcome gaming with friends, it’s a great way to unwind, catch up, and have a few laughs.  Being of the video game generation , I never expected I would revert to board games.

I’ve owned everything from an old Atari computer with Basic and a floppy drive to load games, to a 286’s to Pentiums to the latest multicore systems of today. Along the way were consoles from Sega, Nintendo , Sony and Microsoft.

My PS3 has mostly become a Netflix machine connected to projector for large screen low definition movie watching and most of my gaming has shifted to free to play browser and steam games on the computer or *gasp Iphone.

My quad core workstation has a beefy video card if I need to push some frames but my 2010 MBP follows me to the couch and has become my companion.  When I burn out from watching all these glowing screens, I revert to my love of reading on my non backlight e-ink Kobo Touch.

So here I am with all this electronic technology never expecting to actually enjoy a board game again.

As a child I had my fill of Monopoly, Scrabble and Clue with family and friends before video games completely eclipsed these. The Original Social Games.

With my friend’s encouragement and frankly no choice but to play with them, I was coerced into becoming a Settlers of Catan player. A simple game of resource management, dice rolls and every changing strategy and diplomacy. Simple yet nuanced.

Sitting around the upside-down cork-board at my friends bachelor pad with four others to play a board game seemed weirdly anachronistic at first. Probably because we were used to playing Quake 3 over the internet on our own servers from the comfort of our own homes. When we were in the room together Gears of War was usually the choice for split screen cooperative play on massive projector screens.

Remember the poker fad from a few years ago? That was probably the only other analog experience we had as a group.  Interacting on a competitive level with your friends without the intermediate of technology is a shockingly refreshing experience. No need for to be mic’ed up on Ventrilo to hurl some insults, just say what’s on your mind, no need for emoticons, your face will do.

Then there are the “Feelies”, with Settlers of Catan, physical objects such as roads, settlements and cities are little plastic pieces with an air of quality and metaphysical as well as real weight to them as they get placed on the board.

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A particular arrangement of roads and cities popping off the board in physical space becomes somehow more striking as a symbol of attrition, perhaps as intimidating as scouting an enemy nuclear silos in StarCraft or a fleet of Protoss carriers coming your way. The development cards which you can buy as tech tree like skill boosters in many games, sometimes stack up to grant extra points or powers like taking all of one resources out of your friends hands (the monopoly development card).

My question is, with the resurgence of board games like Settlers of Catan, are we going to see a new half digital – half physical mash up of the genre?

Let’s look at another classic board game, Monopoly – consider all the different versions and interpretations of it. Pretty cool, but you need a new set for each one. I don’t know many board game hoarders with multiple versions of the same game. Personally I have a Star Wars version of Monopoly, but that’s it.

With newer multi touch interfaces, tougher glass like Corning’s Gorilla Glass 2, and a decrease in screen costs as they scale larger and larger, it only seems logical that we will see a shift towards rediscovering board games in the digital realm.

Sure we’ve all seen the crappy digital versions of classics like Monopoly where you pass the tablet around to the next player, but something is lacking in the experience. Since all board games are turn based , passing along the screen from player to player kind of works, but it also kind of sucks, there no central focus for the group, the experience is numbed without the central source of attention and without seeing what individual players do as they are doing it. Worst of all, these experiences are made more ethereal without the presence of Feelies in your hand or on the board

So we lack holographic technology, but we have tablets that are foresee-ably going to be cheap and large enough to cover an average coffee table, powerful enough to display high end graphics, be connected to the internet and playback sound effects.

But the digital versions of the board games suck compared to playing the real thing!

As 3D printers come online, and new NFC technology gets even cheaper, old and new school game designers and hardware developers have an opportunity to do digital board games right. Half physical with printed pieces tagged with NFC (near field communication) codes for software identification and half digital with animation, sound and the ability to load infinite variations of game sets, brands, publishers, spin offs, mods, and more. Imagine playing a Settlers of Catan version modded out based on HBO’s series, The Wire (I’ve given some thought to it)

Everything that’s great about software gaming brought together with physical intermediary of game pieces to tie the experience together in a corporeal and social setting.  I think we are still a few years away, but we will start to see some leaders emerge with a standard sized multitouch tablet and a great viewing angle that will become the standard delivery method for these games. What pieces you can’t get sent in the mail or purchase from your local hobby stores will become 3d printable downloadable designs that will carve itself a niche with a new set of hobbyists, artisans and hackers to push the community forward and eventually make it mainstream.

Check out the links below to see one of the emerging leaders (Epawn) in this upcoming market.

http://youtu.be/wcqKR1OihSY

You can clearly see from the video the benefits of the digital experience being brought to the analog turn based gaming age, move a piece, and watch the animated attacks flow over gorgeous textures!

More to come on gaming as I follow-up this article with a look at the free to play market and the future of casual gaming.

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