Matt Carlson: Gen Con 2021 – Digital Game Tables

This giant d20 made of aircraft aluminum is guaranteed to smash any digital table you use it on…

Back in the early Noughties (00’s) videogaming was a large portion of the Gen Con convention.  Several of the “big names” would show up and show off their fare in quite elaborate booths.  The digital size of things has trailed off of late, with the exhibit hall showing off a smattering of computer role playing games and digital tools for use with tabletop role playing games.  This year, nearly everyone stayed home (the only exception I found was Arkenforge – map making software which I’ll cover in my Gen Con RPG report.)  However, starting around 2018, digital gaming hardware started to make an appearance.  Large touch-screen monitors and tables are starting to show up, each with their own pros and cons.  I was able to secure demos of two of them, each with their own approach.

The Infinity Game Table – by Arcade1Up

Arcade1Up has made a name for itself in the retro-arcade space with a line of 3/4 size classic arcade game cabinets, tabletop cabinets, and more recently pinball.  It has now turned its attention on the boardgaming space and has released a pair of large touchscreen monitors that can be set on a table or set up like a coffee table using its attachable table legs.  Running on an android operating system, there are currently two sizes available, a 24” screen for $649 and a 32” screen for $849.  Both have a resolution of 1920×1080 which seemed acceptable on the unit I saw, although it does put a lower limit on usable font sizes.  As one might expect, there are included speakers, but the board also has haptics (like the “rumble” effect of some videogame controllers) to give games a bit more presence.  

A promotional photo so you can get a feel for the table’s size. Note the perfect people playing a rousing game of that boardgame classic, Whack-a-Mole…

The system sports wifi which allows two tables to connect to each other remotely for a multiplayer-around-a-table style play (note, there’s no microphone so you’ll need a phone or other computer for communication.) Sporting just 16 GB of internal storage, gamers will want to purchase a microSD card for additional storage.

All this is great, but not useful unless there are games to be played.  Among the 44 included games are a number of sport-like action-oriented titles such as tennis, whack-a-mole, and fling hockey.  However, the initial lists of boardgame titles were quite generic and not all that attractive to a modern boardgamer.  Things like Candyland, Chutes & Ladders,  Dots & Boxes, and Tic-Tac-Toe are just not going to cut it.  Of more interest are standard titles like Chess, Mahjong, Battleship, Solitaire, Scrabble, Monopoly, and various puzzles (Sudoku, word searches, etc…)  For those OK with the digital format, it could be a boon to jigsaw puzzle fans.  You can create puzzles of an arbitrary number of pieces and use the game save feature to come back to a puzzle whenever you want.   There’s even a coloring book function.

The board does leverage its advantages in games such as Monopoly.  It automatically handles cash transactions, property purchases, and other chores.  The game board sports a central city that is “built up” during the game as players purchase properties and buildings.  There’s even a day/night cycle displayed on the board during the course of the game.

Games like Scrabble require hidden information.  This is accomplished by little stand-up screens placed onto the board to hide one’s own play area.  The ones I was shown were rather flimsy cardboard ones, but since they do not actually interact with the board I can imagine someone 3D printing more interesting ones.  When playing Scrabble, for example, a player’s letter tiles are displayed upside down.  A player can then use their screen to hide their tiles while they flip them over to examine them.  When playing tiles, all but the selected ones are flipped over again before removing the screen and placing the revealed tiles on the board. It would be nice if players had a way to display hidden information on their own phones (like Ticket to Ride on some consoles.)  While nothing is promised, the developers are looking into the possibility.

I know I haven’t piqued the interest of anyone in OpinionatedGamers-land, but there is hope on the horizon.  The first two games that will be available for sale include Ticket to Ride and Pandemic.  Ticket to Ride should come with 5 boards with others available via in-app purchasing.  More boardgame titles are to come, but which ones they will be is still under wraps.  

I’m a big fan of digital boardgaming, always looking for something that I can put up on our TV and play with my boys.  Having a computer run all the fiddly bits as well as setup and clean-up (as well as save the game if interruptions happen) is a great feature.  Taking that foundation and moving it to something horizontal, allowing players to gather face to face around the board, creates something even closer to a traditional board game evening.  Currently, I see the game library to be the weakest link in the Infinity Game Table experience.  While I am hesitant to give the Infinity Game Table a double-thumbs up, that could change in the future if more modern gamer-friendly titles start to appear.

Gameboard – by The Last Gameboard

Beginning with a Kickstarter, the folks at The Last Gameboard are focusing on a square-shaped touchscreen and an emphasis on a relatively open architecture to allow people and companies to help create content.  The screen is a 16.5 inch square (1920×1920 resolution), run by an internal computer running a custom android-based operating system. The entire system is relatively thin with a small bezel on each side.  The system can use both Unity and Unreal graphical engines (the most common ones found in videogames today.)  While it is a touchscreen, the board ships with a few snap-on bases for miniatures that allow the board to track individual pieces.  Owners can 3D print additional bases if they wish.

The stand-out features of Gameboard include its networking and touch screen technology.  The touchscreen is fairly robust and I was informed there is nearly “no limit” on the number of pieces that can be in play at one time (at least 1,000s.)  The board has “3D touch” technology, which means it can even sense gestures just above (but not touching) the screen.  Gameboards can be networked such that two gamers can play remotely with their own gameboard display.  Onboard stereo speakers combined with two microphones helps to keep the “everyone in the same room” immersion.  However, I was particularly attracted to the ability for adjacent gameboards to link up with each other to create a mega-gameboard for a large game footprint.  

Another promotional image, but this gives a bit of a sense of the size, thickness, and bezel of the board.

Kickstarter fulfillment is in its earliest stages, with a wide release planned for Spring 2021.  The expected retail price is $799 (for one, if you want 6 to make a 33” x 50” gaming surface it will only set you back $4200…)  The Gameboard is already in the hands of a number of developers, and plans are underway to create games based around Ogre, Mystic Vale, Terraforming Mars, Wings of Glory, and others.  Plans are for a subscription service giving access to a large number of titles, with the option of individual purchases of a specific item.  At the convention, the board was showing off Planar Ally, an semi-open source virtual tabletop program that is free to play.

While Gen Con 2021 was smaller than past years, I still found plenty of game news to fill up my notebook.  Watch this space (well, this web site anyway) for future news and info about the games and other sundry items I found in my Gen Con 2021 Exhibit Hall explorations.

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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