After nearly two decades of covering Gen Con, the world’s largest tabletop gaming convention, I’m tired of hearing about digitized tabletop and board game consoles.
Touchscreens, motion-sensing cameras, RFID-enabled bits, AAA-licensed titles, virtual reality solutions… I’ve literally heard every pitch that’s been made over the past few years. The problem is that almost everyone who uses a digital board game console is selling an overpriced solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. There are a lot of great board games available right now, thank you, most of which can be sent to my house overnight and none of which require a firmware update to run.
But what if there was a digital solution that actually added something to the experience, a near-seamless digital platform that added immersion and speed of play? Earlier this month, I was introduced to Teburu, a startup project by veteran game developers Xplored. I was skeptical at first, but if anything succeeds in this whimsical little niche, I think it could look a lot like Teburu.
At the center of the Teburu system is a rectangular game board, about the same size as your average Monopoly plank; 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 comes first. At 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 RFID chips and another for Bluetooth. That’s for dice, two simple six-sided dice just smart enough to know which side is up, and for other Bluetooth-enabled devices like speakers, tablets, and smartphones. The most complicated element is a singular, more sophisticated base for larger miniatures – call them boss miniatures – which lights up with a multi-color LED light at four points along its edge. That’s it: four slightly smart peripherals, by today’s standards, all connected to the smartphones that everyone keeps in their pockets all day anyway.
So what does this digital kit allow you to do? Well, first of all, it allows the game to always know where the players are on the board. This allows developers to program behaviors into enemies, or environments for that matter, that start based on where you move your pawn. In my demo of Bad karmas and the curse of the zodiac, this meant that each of the four player characters had a unique sound for their footsteps. When my character exited above a lava pit, I could hear the pops and fizzles of the molten rock below. Using my smartphone, I was able to select a skill to use from a small hand of cards displayed on my screen. By picking up and rolling the dice, I rolled a six, and it made a unique sound when I successfully hit the boss. This boss’s base lit up, indicating that I had dropped its shields on its back left side. Then the game passed to the player to my left, whose turn began with a unique musical fanfare.
Every moment of the demo, the Teburu system supported my efforts to play the game. The hyperlinked keywords were accessible, instantly popping up small menus to remind me of their in-game effects. The center of the interface traveled intelligently around the room, drawing the attention of the whole party to the main screen – a tablet – where overall information about the encounter was displayed, and alternately to my own individual screen which served as a personal buffet. It’s easy to see how Teburu could enable single-player gameplay, an extremely popular option in board games since the pandemic began.
Rather than being a cumbersome oddity or the singular center of every in-game interaction, Teburu was just helping me, adding to the experience without detracting from it. It was wonderful.
“[The hardest part was] the user experience or the flow of the game,” said Riccardo Landi, Head of Design at Teburu. “You have the game board, you have the physical dice, you have three or four — five! — screens to watch. [It’s about] how the game tells you what to do, when the game tells you what to do. It’s all about timing and pace of play, because if things go too fast, you lose control. If they come too fast, you won’t want to play.
For someone who has spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on elaborate plastic courts, boards, dice towers, paint and other odds and ends to support my favorite tabletop games , Teburu suddenly makes sense. I could definitely see myself shelling out the $100 or so required for the system to upgrade my favorite games.
However, the catalog of a single game – which hasn’t even been delivered 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 ensure the company had enough hardware to meet potential demand, Garofalo said it stockpiled the components needed to manufacture more, primarily the hard-to-find specialized chips and antennas needed for connectivity. They’re just waiting, ready for the next wave.
The only thing missing are other great games, and at least two more have been announced so far. The crown jewel is a new partnership with Paradox Interactive. Soon, Teburu will begin making original games based on the European publisher’s World of Darkness properties. Starting with Vampire: The Masqueradethey hope the line will extend to both Werewolf: Apocalypse and Hunter: Judgment. The Teburu team 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 city management game,” said founder and CEO Garofalo, “where you are anarchs ready to rule Milan on the Camarilla. Then we do a werewolf title and a hunter title, but they will somehow be intertwined with each other in a cross chronicle [way].”
Rather than turn-based tactical adventures like in bad karmas, these World of Darkness games will be story-driven. Think of a cooperative role-playing campaign in a box, like dark havenbut with a computer playing the role of Dungeon Master.
“Imagine something like Arkham Horror Second Edition, where you go to a place and you pick up a map,” Garofalo said, dropping the name of one of the leading app-assisted board games on the market today. “Instead of taking a map, we have a whole narrative design – like in a video game – that’s based on who you are, what time it is, what’s happening at that point in the timeline, etc. The system offers you the right narrative event, and it makes you choose between different possible choices. They can be narrative, or investigative, or related to 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 discussions of the metaverse and virtual reality taking up so much of the peak energy in development and marketing these days, why not go all-in on an augmented reality or reality system? Virtual ? Garofalo thinks this is yet another solution looking for a problem. Humans are still physical creatures, after all, who like to gather socially around the table.
“I believe we are still monkeys around the monolith,” Garofalo said with a hopeful smile, “or a tribe around the campfire.”
Look for more Teburu crowdfunding campaigns in the months and years to come. Bad karmas and the curse of the zodiac comes with the base Teburu system and is available as a late pledge reward through Gamefound for the equivalent of $178.