Where Board Games And Video Games Come Together

For as long as we've known the pair, video games have been video games, and board games have been board games. But as time and technology march on, could two become, as the Spice Girls say, one?

There has long been a fairly simple divide between the two: One medium involves playing games on a computing device, the other involves playing games on a board, or using a set of rules or cards. One is virtual, one physical, and despite thematic similarities the two have been largely separate entities.


As we push into the 21st century, however, the lines are becoming a little more blurred. Video games have long been home to digital conversions of actual board games, but with the advent of online communication platforms like Xbox Live, old card and board game favourites like Uno and Settlers of Catan are finding new life – and new generations of fans – on gaming consoles.

An even greater trend has recently – pardon the pun – surfaced in the world of board games, where things are moving in the opposite direction. Thanks to the nature and interactivity of Microsoft's Surface, which is basically a touch-screen computer that doubles as a large table, games that once relied on little but pen, paper and die are now looking decidedly digital.

SurfaceScapes, a project currently underway at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, is at the forefront of this movement. The students in the team have been hard at work creating a proof-of-concept for a Dungeons & Dragons (fourth edition) program that runs on Microsoft's Surface, and have already achieved impressive results.

Their digital version of the venerable tabletop game maintains the use of real-world objects such as miniatures and the famous D&D die, but introduces a range of new features only possible through the use of Surface, such as animation sequences on the "game board," along with constant feedback on the status and progress of the characters in the game.

This synergy is achieved by modifying the "real world" elements of the game so that Surface can recognise them. By placing sensors on the die and character pieces, the table is able to recognise their movement, and update the board and game progress as required.

Another similar project is currently in development at Vectorform, in partnership with Microsoft, the creators of the Surface. This team is working on another famous board game, only this time it's Settlers of Catan, the classic German board game of colonisation and conquest.


Both projects are notable not just for the way they make traditional board and tabletop games a little sexier, but for the improvements made to the games under the hood. Being computers, platforms like Surface aren't just there to provide pretty graphics and sound effects; their processing power can be harnessed to make playing the games a lot easier, by taking things like statistics and rule calculations out of the hands of slow, inaccurate human brains.

While all these pretty graphics and touch-screen controls and computing power might be what first grabs your attention with these digital board games, they're not the biggest improvements made to the original games. No, those are a little less tangible, a little less immediate.


"Today, if you want to play a digital boardgame, it's often a solo affair, or a disconnected experience (ie. users in different locations or on different machines", Joe Engalan, from Vectorform Game Studio (the Surface Catan team) tells Kotaku. Dyala Kattan-Wright, from the Surfacescapes team, continues "The table is a great place for friends and family to gather, and games are a wonderful interaction."


It's the fact that, despite all the technological advances and presentation improvements a device like Surface brings, the key is that it's making those advances while keeping a group of people sitting (or standing) around a single table. No phone lines or split screens required.

Sounds amazing when you look at the positives like that, but there is of course a major obstacle standing in the way of this becoming something "mainstream": the availability and accessibility of the technology required. While Surface looks great on film and plays great in person, it's big, and it's expensive, with commercial units going for around $12,500 each.


"The cost of Surface is definitely a major barrier of entry for people to enjoy SurfaceScapes", Kattan-Wright says. "Average consumers may soon be able to buy them (or an equivalent system), but it will probably be a few years before such technology becomes affordable and widely available."

And even when it does, it's not like this kind of stuff is going to be appearing in lounge rooms or dining rooms the world over. People already have tables, and most won't be willing to spend the money - or find the space - to house one of these devices in their homes.


One potential, and promising way around this is Microsoft's plans to explore commercial ventures for games like Surfacescapes and Catan Surface. You may not be able to play or afford the games at home, but if there was a dedicated arena - like an arcade or cafe - you may go there to play, and even pay a club or a vendor for the privilege.


So if these two projects - surely the first of many to come over the years - are an example of boardgames and tabletop games becoming more like video games, while video games, with an increasing trend towards accessibility and direct control, become simpler, could we at some point in the future see a point where these two once very different mediums return to the same common ground?

"Hopefully there will always be a segment of the population that finds value in sitting down at a table and playing a game," says Todd Breitenstein, creator of Zombies!, one of the most popular tabletop games of all time. "For us, the social aspect of gaming is as important as the game itself. There is value in the social interaction associated with tabletop games. It would be very sad indeed if people lost the need to have real human contact."


It's a sentiment shared by Surfacescape's Kattan-Wright. "While we will likely see tabletop gaming borrowing more heavily from video games, there is a lot to be said for keeping certain aspects, such as the shared social narrative, in the hands of the players and not relegating it to a computer."

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