After talking about Gen Con, the world’s largest table-top gaming convention for nearly two decades, I’ve gotten pretty sick and tired of hearing about digitized board game tables and consoles.
Touch-sensitive screens, motion-sensitive cameras, RFID-enabled bits, AAA-licensed titles, virtual reality solutions… I’ve heard literally every pitch made over the years. The problem is that almost everyone who hangs on a digital board game console is selling an overpriced solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. There are plenty of great board games available at the moment thank you, most of which can be sent to my house overnight and none of which require a firmware update to work.
But what if there was a digital solution that actually adds to the experience, an almost transparent digital platform that added to the immersion and speed of play? Earlier this month, I was introduced to Teburu, a startup project from the veteran game developers at Xplored. I was skeptical at first, but if something works out in this imaginative little niche, I think it could be a lot like Teburu.
In the middle of the Teburu system is a rectangular board, about the same size as your average monopoly plate; it is only covered on one side with a thin, pre-printed adhesive sheet full of sensors. A compatible board game comes on top. There are RFID tags on the underside of each of your pieces, which the board can detect as they move across the surface. Attached to the game board is a dongle with two antennas – one that connects to the RFID chips and another for Bluetooth. That’s for the dice, two simple six-sided dice that are just smart enough to know which side is up, and for other Bluetooth-enabled devices like speakers, tablets, and smartphones. The most complicated item is a unique, fancier pedestal for larger miniatures – call them boss miniatures – that lights up at four points along the edge with a multicolored LED light. That was it: four slightly intelligent peripherals, by today’s standards, all connected to the smartphones that everyone has in their pocket all day.
So what can you do with this digital kit? Well, first of all, the game can always know where the players are on the board. That allows developers to program behavior in enemies, or environments, that start based on where you move your pawn. In my demo of The Bad Karma and the Curse of the Zodiac, which meant that each of the four player characters had a unique sound to their footsteps. As my character stepped over a lava pit, I heard the splatter and hiss of the molten rock below. Using my smartphone, I was able to select a skill to use from a small hand of cards on my screen. When I picked up and rolled the dice, I got a six, and that made a unique sound when I managed to get the boss. That boss’s pedestal lit up, indicating that I had dropped his shields on the left rear. Then the game passed to the player to my left, whose turn began with a unique musical flourish.
At any point during the demo, the Teburu system supported my attempts to play the game. Hyperlinked keywords were accessible and small menus immediately popped up to remind me of their in-game effects. The interface’s focus intelligently moved around the room, drawing the entire party’s attention to the main screen – a tablet – where general information about the encounter was displayed, and alternately to my own individual screen that served as my personal dresser. It’s easy to see how Teburu was able to enable solo gameplay, an extremely popular option in board games since the start of the pandemic.
Rather than being a cumbersome oddity, or the unique focus of every interaction in the game, Teburu just helped me along and added to the experience without detracting from it. It was amazing.
“[The hardest part was] the user experience or the gameplay,” says Riccardo Landi, head of design at Teburu. “You’ve got the game board, you’ve got the physical dice, you’ve got three or four – five! – screens to look at. [It’s about] how the game tells you what to do, when the game tells you what to do. It’s about the timing and rhythm of the game, because if things go too fast, you lose control. If they happen too soon, you don’t want to play.”
For someone who has spent hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars on intricate plastic terrain, trays, dice towers, paint and other knick-knacks to support my favorite table games, Teburu suddenly makes sense. I definitely saw myself positing the required $100 or so for the system to upgrade my favorite games.
However, the catalog of just one game – which hasn’t even shipped to backers yet – is quite limited. The team tells me that most of the hardware work is done at this point. Development began five years ago, says founder and CEO Davide Garofalo, leading to nine patents. To make sure the company had enough hardware to meet the potential demand, Garofalo says he stocked up on the necessary components needed to make more — usually the hard-to-find specialty chips and antennas needed for connectivity. They just wait, ready for the next wave.
All that’s missing are more great games, and at least two more have been announced so far. The jewel in the crown is a new collaboration with Paradox Interactive. Soon, Teburu will start making original games based on the European publisher’s World of Darkness properties. Starting with Vampire: The Masqueradetheir hope is that the line will extend to both Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Hunter: The Reckoning. Teburu’s team wants the trilogy of games to be somehow connected, with the events of one game flowing naturally into the next.
“It’s going to be a game of city management,” said founder and CEO Garofalo, “where you Anarchs want to rule Milan over the Camarilla. Then we’ll do a Werewolf title and a Hunter title, but they will somehow intertwined in a cross-chronicle [way].”
Instead of turn-based tactical adventures, as in The bad karma, these World of Darkness games will be story-oriented. Think of a cooperative role-playing campaign in a box, such as Gloomhavenbut with a computer that plays the role of Dungeon Master.
“Imagine something if Arkham Horror Second Edition, where you go to a place and take a card,” said Garofalo, naming one of the leading app-supported board games on the market today. “Instead of taking a map, we have a very narrative design — like in a video game — that’s based on who you are, what the moment is, what’s happening in the timeline at that moment, and so on. the right narrative event for and lets you choose between several possible choices, they can be narrative, or investigative, or related to the other characters [in the game with you at that point in time]. So it’s not a role-playing game; it’s a board game experience – but very narrative.”
But speaking of the metaverse and virtual reality that takes up so much of the advanced development and marketing energy today, why not go all out with an augmented reality or virtual reality system? Garofalo believes this is yet another solution in search of a problem. After all, humans are still physical beings, who like to sit together at the table.
“I believe we’re still monkeys around the monolith,” Garofalo said with a hopeful grin, “or a tribe around the campfire.”
Look for more crowdfunding campaigns from Teburu in the coming months and years. The Bad Karma and the Curse of the Zodiac comes with the basic Teburu system and is available as a late pledge reward through Gamefound for the equivalent of $178.