After nearly two decades covering Gen Con, the world’s largest tabletop gaming convention, I’ve gotten pretty sick and tired of hearing about digitized board game tables and consoles.
Touch-sensitive screens, motion sensing cameras, RFID-enabled bits, AAA-licensed titles, virtual reality solutions... I’ve heard literally every pitch that’s been made in the last few years. The trouble is that nearly everyone hocking a digital board game console is selling an overpriced solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. There are plenty of great board games available right now, thank you, most of which I can get sent to my house overnight and none of which require a firmware update in order to run.
But what if there was a digital solution that was actually adding something to the experience, a nearly transparent digital platform that contributed to the immersion and speed of play? Earlier this month I was introduced to Teburu, a startup project by the experienced game developers at Xplored. I was skeptical at first, but if something does succeed in this fanciful little niche I think it could look an awful lot like Teburu.
At the center of the Teburu system is a rectangular game board, just about the same size as your average Monopoly board; it’s just that this one is covered on one side with a thin, pre-printed adhesive sheet full of sensors. A compatible board game goes on top. On the bottom of each of your pieces are RFID tags, which the game board can detect as they move across its 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 just smart enough to know which side is up, and for other Bluetooth-capable devices like speakers, tablets, and smartphones. The most complicated item is a singular, fancier plinth for larger miniatures — call them boss miniatures — that lights up with a multicolored LED light at four points along its edge. That’s it: Four mildly intelligent, by today’s standards, peripheral devices all connected to the smartphones everyone keeps in their pockets all day anyway.
So what does this digital kit allow you do to? Well, first of all, it allows the game to always know where the players are on the board. That enables developers to program behaviors into enemies, or environments for that matter, that kick off based on where you move your pawn. In my demo of The Bad Karmas and the Curse of the Zodiac, that meant that each of the four player characters had a unique sound for their footsteps. When my character stepped out over a pit of lava, I could hear the pops and fizzles of the molten rock underneath. Using my smartphone, I was able to select a skill to use from a small hand of cards shown on my screen. Picking up and rolling the dice, I got a six, and that made a unique sound as I succeeded in hitting the boss. That boss’s plinth lit up, indicating that I had dropped its shields on its rear left side. Then play passed to the player on my left, whose turn began with a unique musical flourish.
At every moment during the demo, the Teburu system was supporting my efforts to play the game. Hyperlinked keywords were accessible, instantly popping up small menus to remind me of their in-game effects. The focus of the interface traveled intelligently around the room, drawing the entire party’s focus to the main screen — a tablet — where global information about the encounter was being displayed, and alternately to my own individual screen that served as my personal sideboard. It’s easy to see how Teburu could enable solo gameplay, an extremely popular option in board games since the beginning of the pandemic.
Rather than being a cumbersome oddity, or the singular focus of every interaction in the game, Teburu was just helping me along, adding to the experience without detracting from it. It was wonderful.
“[The hardest part was] the user experience, or the game flow,” said Riccardo Landi, Teburu’s head of design. “You have the game board, you have the physical dice, you have 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 the rhythm of the game, because if things happen too fast you lose control. If they happen too fast, you’re not going to want to play.”
For someone who has spent hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars on elaborate plastic terrain, trays, dice towers, paint, and other odds and ends to support my favorite tabletop games, Teburu suddenly makes sense. I could definitely see myself ponying up the required $100 or so for the system in order to upgrade my favorite games.
However, the catalog of just one game — which hasn’t even shipped to backers yet — is pretty limited. The team tells me that most of the hardware work is out of the way at this point. Development started 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 has stockpiled the necessary components needed to make more — mostly the hard-to-find specialty chips and antennae needed for connectivity. They’re just waiting, ready for the next wave.
The only thing missing are more great games, and at least two more have been announced so far. The jewel in the crown is a new partnership with Paradox Interactive. Soon Teburu will begin creating original games based on the European publisher’s World of Darkness properties. Starting with Vampire: The Masquerade, their hope is that the line will expand to both Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Hunter: The Reckoning. The team at Teburu wants the trilogy of games to be connected in some way, with the events of one game flowing naturally into the next.
“It will be a game of city management,” founder and CEO Garofalo said, “where you are Anarchs willing to rule Milan over the Camarilla. Then we do a Werewolf title, and a Hunter title, but they will be somehow interlaced with each other in a cross-chronicle [way].”
Rather than turn-based tactical adventures, as in The Bad Karmas, these World of Darkness games will be narratively focused. Think a cooperative role-playing campaign in a box, like Gloomhaven, but with a computer performing the role of the Dungeon Master.
“Imagine something like Mansions of Madness Second Edition, where you go into a place and you take a card,” Garofalo said, name-dropping one of the leading app-assisted board games on the market right now. “Instead of taking a card, we have a whole narrative design — like in a video game — that is based on who you are, what is the moment, what’s happening in that moment in the timeline, and so on. The system proposes for you the right narrative event, and it makes you choose between various 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 with talk of the metaverse and virtual reality taking up so much of the cutting-edge development and marketing energy these days, why not go whole hog with an augmented reality or virtual reality system? Garofalo believes that’s yet another solution in search of a problem. Humans are still physical creatures, after all, who like gathering together socially around the table.
“I believe that we are 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 months and years to come. The Bad Karmas and the Curse of the Zodiac comes bundled with the base Teburu system and is available as a late pledge reward via Gamefound for the equivalent of $178.