I love the mash-up of digital and analog, particularly when it comes to games. It hasn’t always been done well, but I love to see the ways that people are experimenting to combine the fun of playing board games with the powerful capabilities of smartphones and tablets. The latest device to come across my radar is the ePawn Arena.
That name may sound familiar to our long-time readers, because I actually wrote about ePawn back in 2011 and Jim Kelly got to see one in action at CES 2012. The product has changed some in the intervening years–at the time they were working on devices that actually functioned as a large display screen (which makes for some interesting possibilities) but the manufacturing was going to be pretty difficult, so they’ve decided to focus on the core feature they’ve developed: the ability of the mat to recognize the location and orientation of the various pawns on it.
The current iteration of the ePawn Arena is a flexible mat with the ePawn tech in a thin layer under the surface. You place various game mats onto the mat, and then fire up the apps on your mobile devices, which connect to the mat. While ePawn has made stationary pawns for testing, one of the fun features is pawns that have their own motors built in–so you can control pawns with your smartphone, which makes for possibilities like tank games or racing games. There can even be AI-controlled pawns. And because the software recognizes where the pawns are, they can prevent you from cutting corners on a race or running past obstacles printed on the board.
Another possibility for the remote-control pawns is being able to play a game remotely with physical pawns. I’ll admit this may not be the strongest selling point, but it’s worth a mention. Imagine playing chess–you pick up a piece, move it across the board, and on the other side of the world your friend sees the same piece move on its own. Now, chess may not be the best “app” for this feature, but I’d love to see some game designers take that idea and run with it.
I had another Skype call with co-founders Christophe Duteil and Valentin Lefevre recently, where they showed me a demo of the current version of ePawn, and asked if I had other ideas for what types of games might be fun to play on the Arena. After all, as everyone knows, a console won’t sell if there aren’t some good games to play on it.
One of the first games that came to my mind was Wings of War (now known as Wings of Glory), which uses programmed moves. Each player in this WWII dogfight game chooses three moves in advance, and then these moves play out, and you see if either plane is in position to shoot at the other. I thought that automating the movement of the planes and calculating shooting range would preserve a lot of the fun of the game while removing some of the “fiddly” parts. Well, it turns out that ePawn had already spoken to Ares Games, and they’ve announced a partnership to license Wings of Glory as one of the first games to work with the ePawn Arena. (I suppose it may be a little harder to get Fantasy Flight on board, but it’s the same system used in X-Wing Miniatures, which would also be very cool to play with the ePawn.) Currently the game is for two players only, but there’s a stretch goal to make the game multiplayer and include online play.
There’s a list of other games on the Kickstarter page that will be ready by launch. I think games that involve hidden movement or simultaneous action selection would be pretty fascinating. So would games in which player identities are hidden–because the pawns move themselves, everyone could choose their own moves, and AI could control other pawns, but nobody would know which pawns were AI-controlled and which were player-controlled.
Of course, the ePawn Arena isn’t cheap, so ePawn is now on Kickstarter to raise funding for manufacturing. There are some early bird pledge levels, but the regular pricing is currently €199 (about $220 USD) for the Arena with two bot-pawns, or €249 (about $275 USD) for four bot-pawns. There are options available for additional bots. They have a high goal needed to start manufacturing, but I’m hoping it succeeds. (There are some early bird slots available, too.)
ePawn is including an SDK and ePawn emulator at most of the Kickstarter reward levels, and I hope that a lot of game developers take advantage of that. I think the ePawn could open up some really cool possibilities, and I can’t wait to see what happens when a bunch of game designers get their hands on it.