yo kids, boardgames are cool again

Here’s the splendid boardgame Settlers of Catan running on Microsoft’s potentially splendid Surface tech. Surface is touchscreen-mega-PC theoretical fun, but more likely to be built into tables in public spaces than to be something you hook up to your own device. Here’s how it could work for social videogaming (in the traditional sense of social, not the FarmVille sense). I’m fighting my overwhelming urge to grumble “but why don’t they just play the boardgame? It must be far cheaper” – because I suspect that’s very much missing the point.

Technically remarkable, definitely, and I love the idea that it could lead to boardgaming parlours if it took off. A place for men to gather and game, as they did in the arcades of their youth, but no longer having to worry that they couldn’t pull off the Dragon Punch.

I’d be lying if I said I’d rather have ‘tagged visors’ than cute little wooden houses, though. If this tech does make it to the home I suppose it’s an easy, space-saving way of having a massive boardgame collection: the Kindle of boardgames, even. I don’t think it’s as inherently exciting a prospect as the other Surface gaming demo we’ve seen, though – bringing touch-feely visuals to D&D. That’s where it’s adding something, rather than simply replacing it, as is the case with this otherwise highly impressive Catan demo.


  1. DJ Phantoon says:


  2. Torgen says:

    I love the idea that it could lead to boardgaming parlours if it took off. A place for men to gather and game, as they did in the arcades of their youth, but no longer having to worry that they couldn’t pull off the Dragon Punch.

    Figure two to four of these per Starbucks, loaded with classic games like Catan or even Risk or Monopoly. Sell access logins to people as they order their Venti-whatevers. (They already sell wireless Net access, so not a big jump from there.)

  3. Metalfish says:

    This would probably convince me to play “nerdier” games like D&D and warhammer, etc. The real barrier to entry, for lazy people like myself, is the faff associated with all the trinkets, sheets/whatever that inevitably lead to frustration when someone forgets to do something or we lose something. But these surface things are mighty pricey.

    I wonder what happened to that (obviously FUD) touchscreen notepad they were developing?

    • Jimmy says:

      What kind of fears and doubts would arise from a touchscreen notepad?

    • Metalfish says:

      Mostly those directed at apple hardware that, you know, actually exists.

    • stahlwerk says:

      Courier was only a mockup and the project was announced dead shortly after the iPad launch. Which is a shame because it offered many things the iPad will never (?) be able to do.

      Ballmer giveth, Ballmer taketh away.

    • NegativeZero says:

      Surface is expensive mainly because it never penetrated the mass market, which is sort of a catch-22.

      It’s also deceptive. D&D might work on it but Warhammer definitely wouldn’t, because it’s simply not big enough. We have a surface in our lobby area which is used more as a conversation piece than anything, and it’s actually a lot smaller than you’d expect it to be – I’d estimate that the active area is rougly the size of a 36″ HDTV I think. Great size for a board game if it’s built into a larger table, but not big enough to have a decent wargame on.

      I seriously hope this stuff goes somewhere though. I’d love to see some better games turn up too. Catan is annoyingly random and even when the dice don’t go against you, usually the winner is whoever gets first or second pick of starting locations, assuming an experienced group of players.

    • MDevonB says:

      I like your example Negative. Sadly, it’s not an actual Surface unit, but something done up by Mitsubishi, but here is Warcraft 3 running on something similar! link to gametrailers.com Aside from pointing to that though, I can’t really argue my case as well as you since I haven’t actually seen a surface in real life.l

    • qrter says:

      The thing that always bored me about Catan were the endless trading rounds.

  4. Sonic Goo says:

    “the Kindle of boardgames, even”

    Yeah, why not just put one of those, or an iPad or whatever on your table and use that?

    • stahlwerk says:

      Two counterpoints from the top of my head:
      1. size. 4 people can easily stand around this table, also Surface can track a (comparatively) shitload of touch events.
      2. usage of tagged objects. The iPad can only register touches by capacitive thingamagicking, the Surface has infrared video-cameras below the table that can detect and identify objects visually.

  5. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    “It must be far cheaper” – because I suspect that’s very much missing the point.”

    Obviously you’re missing the point. The point is

  6. toejam316 says:

    I want this.
    I want this forever.
    Imagine, just having a kick ass table like this in the middle of the living room, with an asston of boardgames installed, and maybe some tokens and things in a tray on it.
    Between this and the D&D thing, a microsoft surface is on my wishlist for when they release ’em.

    • snv says:

      Not having to set up or stash away the games, or even save the state if someone has to leave would be nice features

  7. Dagda says:

    At last, we geeks shall have our answer to the coffee table.

    I seem to be as hooked by this as anyone, but for the opposite reasons. What excites me isn’t the idea of Catan: the super-nifty technological marvel, but Catan: the casual activity that’s no big deal. Catan: the boardgame is just too *simple* to justify the work involved in playing it; you have to get other people on board , make space, set up the board, keep the thing straight, etc. I’m spoiled enough to expect a richer payoff for that kind of legwork.

    But Catan as something you tap out on the side, while having a conversation? That sounds fantastic.

    • alh_p says:

      I think there’s something in that… As simple as board games may be, not actually having to physicaly roll the dice or consult the rule book every 5 minutes would be attractive to some people -maybe me.

      A bit like the book/kindle issue, there is a quality to doing things the old way, actually throwing the dice and actually knowing the rules -nevermind knowing the rules well enough to anticipate outcomes a bit better.

      At least losing play pieces and finding a D20 would no longer be an issue, although a drunk friend and heavy objects might be more catastrophic.

    • alh_p says:

      I wrote the above before watching the video (yah, I know!). What piques my interest now is the mixture of computing and physical interface – what has been kept as physical human interface and what has been plowed into the software.

      For example, the clear dice, the refractive “card viewer”, that buildings on the map are graphicaly represented. I’d be interested in how they decided which way to go with these things -what is actually a pleasure or improtant to do in a boardgame.


  8. bagga says:

    I think that adding physical objects to the computerised game is a smart move. The tagged visors provide a pretty superfluous function as far as necessity goes, but if this were a consumer-oriented release it’d give a huge boost to sales. People are really drawn to the idea of owning a tangible artifact in a way that just doesn’t apply to data games – too ephemeral.

    If a Surface-alike ever makes it to the mainstream, it’ll be with software that includes consumer-friendly physical tools – a configurable paintbrush for Photoshop, say, or Homeworld: Total War will include one of those scoops used by croupiers and busy War Department staff to push units around on a table.

  9. JohnnyMaverik says:

    Only benefit I can see is no longer having dozens or in some cases several hundreds of losable pieces to worry about, just a very expensive table instead… I think I’ll stick with board games on actual boards for now thanks.

  10. LionsPhil says:

    But why don’t they just play the boardgame?

    Because it’s a terrible game? ;)

    Now, Carcassone on the other hand…

  11. Bassism says:

    I think this has the potential to be very, very cool. The main sticking point I see is that the tech will have to become a lot cheaper for it to take off.

    There are already some really interesting things happening on the ipad in this arena, but the main problem there is size (and the lack of the object recognition shininess). Whether it comes from Apple marketing a much larger ipad-like, the surface becoming mass marketable, or some other player coming up with something to fill the gap, I think this is something that we’re going to see a lot of in the upcoming years.

    While I think that Catan is cooler, and D&D is cooler, I see the real potential in mixing the paradigms to come up with something that could only be done on a surface. If somebody can mix the socialness and (mock) physicality of boardgaming with the wonderful wizardry of computer gaming, they’ll be able to come up with something that is unique and interesting and couldn’t be done anywhere else. That’s what I’m waiting for.

    In the meantime, I’d settle with Catan and D&D though.

  12. Bassism says:

    This is what I get for not logging in, but I just thought of the example I couldn’t think of.

    Gurlz vs Robots is a neat game exploring the concept. Four people, huddled around an ipad, playing video gamey fun. link to youtube.com Note that the video has a lot of NSFW language, but it looks pretty great.

    The Scrabble app for the ipad is also good example of something totally cool, just for the sake of it. You get a scrabble board on the ipad, then every player gets his tray of letters on his iphone. Now, a scrabble board is a lot cheaper than an ipad and multiple iphones, but still.

    • lurk says:

      Oh man, Chu Chu Rocket!

      That takes me back.

    • LionsPhil says:

      But still what? You can show a pointless disregard for common sense, giving yourself a worse interface at higher up-front and running costs because technology journalists called it the future?

    • Bassism says:

      Well, that’s where my last paragraph comes in to play. Catan and D&D are gimmicks. I also happen to think they sound awesome, but there’s no getting away from the fact that board games work best as board games, and are a lot cheaper than technology.

      But I do see potential for really cool things to be done (I wish I knew what exactly, so I could do it, and be rich, instead of poor). For instance, there are some games on the iphone that are really great, and could only exist on the iphone or iphone-like technology. The best example of this is Eliss link to toucheliss.com. IMO, it’s the most iphoney game I’ve played, utter brilliant, and would be impossible to play on anything other than a multi-touch device. It’s games like that where the iphone shines. Otherwise, it’s neat, but fairly rubbish for most things. Physical buttons are always better than something that seeks to emulate physical buttons.

      And that’s where I see the whole surface/etc market heading. There will be plenty of “FPSes with virtual d-pad controls”, that are ultimately just worse than anything you can play with a mouse/keyboard. But there will be the odd game that only works on a large, multi-touch, or fancy-camera-thing tabletop surface, and those will be the games that make it worth it. Of course, you’ll still want to play Catan on it, cause you can. But that’s missing the point.

  13. malkav11 says:

    Catan is really not an optimal use case for this sort of tech. The appeal of computerizing a boardgame, to me, is that the computer can do a lot of the bookkeeping, rules tracking, and other fiddly bits. Catan is very simple and straightforward in its rules and has little fiddliness.

    (Well, the other appeal of computerizing a boardgame is to be able to play it online with people you can’t get around the same table, but obviously Surface doesn’t offer that.)

    • Bassism says:

      Yeah, something like Catan doesn’t leave me thinking “Oh, if only I didn’t have to do all these maths!”

      I suppose where I see the potential is in something like Solium Infernum, which wouldn’t work as a board game, but which could really benefit from being able to sit around a table and play, looking your opponents in the face.

  14. jonfitt says:

    $15,000 for a developer unit though. You could pay some real peasants to act it out King Louis style, and still have change for a new PC.

  15. Tei says:

    Microsoft Technology is a Oximoron.

    • Deuteronomy says:

      They don’t have the style of Apple Tei, but they certainly have better technology. Microsoft has always been better for everything always, and their marketshare and profitability prove it, until this new tablet craze.

      I can’t wait to get an HP Slate 500 with One Note installed and live the Courier Dream.

  16. user@example.com says:

    Screw Catan, this needs VASSAL badly. It’d be perfect for all those wargames I can’t play in paper because they need to monopolise a table for 20-odd hours of play. A conventional monitor’s OK, but this looks far more convenient.

    • JB says:

      Oh yes indeed. Being able to play ASL on a tabletop like that without having to worry about how long the game would run? That would be awesome.

  17. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    I just got back into boardgaming, and a large part of its appeal is that it ISN’T digital, and I don’t have to stare at a screen (like I do the rest of my life)

    It’s a sensual pleasure to count out the tactile wooden tokens of AGRICOLA each turn.

    link to boardgamegeek.com

    • user@example.com says:

      And fondle the chits, and push bits of brightly-coloured plastic around if you’re playing some of the more delightfully Ameritrashy games. Wooden cubes are boring! Unless they have stickers of men on.

    • Edgar the Peaceful says:

      But the wooden chits feel so nice! Not that I’m averse to a bit of Ameritrash either:

      link to boardgamegeek.com

    • user@example.com says:

      Last time I played Yig ate us. He’s supposed to be one of the easier ones! To be fair we were gloriously incompetent.

      An official online Arkham Horror would be great.

    • JustOneWay says:

      Last time I played, my mate beat up Hastur with his bare fists and won.
      How this came about is one of the most amazing bits of combined luck I have ever seen.
      It was much fun to watch.

  18. Malagate says:

    Reminds me of playing Space Invaders on a table unit back in the day…do they have Space Invaders on this new thing yet?
    Or Warlords?
    How about Gauntlet?

    Of course, buying the original arcade table machines is probably cheaper than this, as would be buying the boardgames and paying a minion/specially trained monkey to set them up for you.

  19. Dyst says:

    It looks pretty cool, but something about it just does not look right. If it had 3D, then it might be a little better. I’m not a fan of 3D and it doesn’t actually work because I have one messed up eye, but it just seems like it would make it better. 3D pieces, 3D card racks ect. Just make it a bit easier for people to see them.

    Again, I’ve never actually seen 3D so I’m probably overestimating its capabilities.

  20. DeepSleeper says:

    I love how Microsoft can roll out a video of people casually playing a boardgame on a giant tabletop touchscreen monitor with the game keeping track of their state, hiding cards, doing the work, etc and people bitch and whine because they aren’t playing the RIGHT board game as a demonstration.

  21. JackShandy says:

    I think where this thing could really come into it’s own is with incredibly complicated boardgames that would normally be impossible to play in real life because of the huge amount of number-crunching involved. How awesome would Solium Infernum be if you could play it face-to-face, having the table crunch the numbers for you like it does in the computer game?

    • jon_hill987 says:

      Or Blood Bowl. I know people do play that in real life, but there is no way I would play it without a computer doing all the tracking/maths for me, hence my only experience of it being the Dark Elves Edition PC game.

  22. DazzeL says:

    I agree with the Solium Infernum sentiment and that RPS readers want something that cannot be delivered by a board game, to give this thing purpose.

    I think that the only practical way that niche pursuits can prosper is for the mainstream to take up the tables initially. No one could spot a use for the iPad when it was announced and it’s now sold bucket loads.

    I would love to see these things pop up in Starbucks etc with games like Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly. Maybe then enough demand could be generated to slash the price of these and get them in homes.

  23. JustOneWay says:

    I agree with this entirely, I think this has great pottential for the games that require a lot of book-keeping or a very long time to play. I remember playing Imperium Romanum over weeks with half my living room floor occupied for that time. I had panic attacks every time someone tried to shut the door because of the draft it caused.
    A game of that complexity but without the book-keeping, which can be cleared away and summoned back in an instant would be great. Same goes for ASL and Eastern Front or much hex based stuff.

    I would also be interested to see how it affected the development of boardgames, it opens up the possibility of more complicated mechanics without ruining the game by making it too much of a burden (which is basically the big problem with the sort of games I mentioned.)

    Arkham Horror would be great in this form too.

    • Tei says:

      In my experience with complex board games like Arkham Horror ( I don’t play no-computer games normally, but I have some board-game-nerd friends ) this is the problem with these games. Starting the game takes long, has you have to prepare everything. It also take long to clean the desk. and lets not walk about a long game interrupted… So, It don’t seems board games need this, but could benefict from this. Also, part of the beaty of these games is the phisically.. like books. So boardgames can survive withouth this.

    • user@example.com says:

      Yeah, some games are just pretty when you set them up. It only uses a bland map and wooden blocks with stickers on (used copies are probably worth more than new ones because of the sheer volume of blocks, two stickers on each), but Command & Colors [sic]: Ancients looks amazing in play.

  24. myros says:

    Something like this that is then integrated with ipad like devices … main game space, personal space for planning, storing etc … sounds like fun.

  25. jalf says:

    @NegativeZero: Do they come in different sizes? The one I got to play around with for an afternoon seemed bigger than that.
    But still not big enough to play Warhammer on.

  26. PHeMoX says:

    “I’m fighting my overwhelming urge to grumble “but why don’t they just play the boardgame? It must be far cheaper” – because I suspect that’s very much missing the point.”

    It’s why people buy eReaders for books, instead of buying the actual books. It’s why people browse the internet on a mobile phone, instead of on their desktop PC. It’s why you can take pictures with a mobile phone nowadays too.

    The list is endless, but for many of these things it’s a matter of ‘because we can’.

    Don’t forget such a Surface table would be awesome for a non-messy multiplayer boardgame match with the feel of playing the actual real thing. I think that’s the point. Apart from the fact that it’s still just a PC.

    In my opinion touchscreens have their limits in usage when it comes to distance to screen, videos and so on. But a table such as this has plenty of other kinds of potential.

    • malkav11 says:

      None of those things you mention is “because we can”. Ereaders are vastly more convenient than carrying around most actual books, let alone the number of books one ereader can have in storage, while having most of the benefits of the real thing. Browsing the internet on one’s phone instead of one’s desktop PC is silly behavior when one has one’s desktop PC right there, but the phone can do the internet almost anywhere. (Such as at work, where we have a very aggressive filter and shitty internet speeds on our work PCs.) As for taking pictures with a phone…I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested enough in photography to buy a separate camera, much less carry it around day to day, but since my phone can take pictures, I have that option if I do happen to want to take a picture of something.

    • user@example.com says:

      I bought an ereader (Sony Pocket, the best one on the market right now) because I read a lot of books.

      I recently went on a one-week holiday. Fortunately, there were no luggage limits – I could take whatever I wanted without any weight restrictions, so I left my reader behind and took paper. I did a lot on that holiday – sightseeing, drinking, relaxing – and I still read seven books. I occasionally have to travel to London for the day. That’s a lot of travelling time, and time waiting around when I get there, so what do I do? I take books. Before my reader, I was taking three books and often finishing two and starting on the third. This meant I had a lot less bag space for a quick trip up to Leisure Games. ;_;

      Yes, physical books can be cheaper, and physical books are awesome, and yes, I still buy them sometimes, but now I can read a lot more, a lot more conveniently. The Felicia Day reasoning applies too – I can read books I wouldn’t want hanging around on my bookshelves, like romance novels about time-travelling vikings, and no-one else can see the oiled manchest on the covers.

  27. Peter says:

    No, let me assure you that you have those entirely the wrong way around

  28. DiamondDog says:

    So we just need someone to combine this with Nintendo’s 3DS tech and we have holochess?

  29. imirk says:

    Must Play BloodBowl on this Device!!

  30. D says:

    Seven seven seven seven seven seven, seven seven seven, seven seven seven seven seven seven.

  31. Phydaux says:

    As much as it looks great for social games like boardgames. I’d love something like this in a more vertical configuration (like a drafting table or drawing board) and firing up Civilisation or Supreme Commander. Sure you’d lose the ability to put shaped acrylic on the thing but I think there are a lot of great games that could be improved with a multi-touch style screen and interface.