Board Game Simulation and 40-point Multi-touch Table Computers

Matt Jernigan

May 2014

Background

Air hockey. I read some product reviews recently of an air hockey game on a large touch computer. Even though the game and hardware appear like they have a ways to go before they are ready for prime time (the game has difficulty keeping up with rapid gestures) the application of the game to table computers is obvious… and appealing.

Similarly, I have seen photos of more than one foosball game for table computers. While I have not read any reviews on these games, just imagining how the controls work makes a good study of what may be possible with table computers and simulations. It got me thinking about the subtleties of usability and control in simulators running on such computers versus the real thing. More specifically, and more importantly, it also got me thinking about the shortcomings of such simulators and how to overcome and/or move beyond them to increase their appeal in spite of themselves.

Before we move on, consider this list of video games:

All four have two important things in common, as I see it, that I’ll get to later.

Vision

So what about board games? Take the ubiquitous Monopoly game if you will. Yeah, I know, Monopoly has been done a hundred times over on computers already—including tablets and tables—but bear with me. Monopoly is a particularly good case study because of all the types of pieces and parts involved. The first game to simulate need not be Monopoly.

Imagine you have the latest and greatest, gold-plated, multi-touch coffee table and you want to play Monopoly with your friends on it. Yeah, not many people really want to play Monopoly anymore—especially with a video game platform staring you in the face—but let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that you really do want to play Monopoly. Other than pulling the actual board game out of the closet, here’s the scenario:

You have two different Monopoly programs already installed on your gold-plated coffee table computer. You must choose one of them to play:

Installation 1: Monopoly Sim

Monopoly Sim is a pretty basic 3-D physical object simulator and nothing more. It has no game mechanics programmed into it. It has a game board, dice, player tokens, stacks of money, property cards, game cards, and house and hotel pieces. You can manipulate all of these objects around the screen with various gestures to put whatever wherever. The game engine, however, keeps track of nothing for you. It doesn’t count money for you; it doesn’t keep track of players for you; it can’t make up computer players for you; it doesn’t place houses or hotels on properties for you; it doesn’t calculate rent for you; it doesn’t even force you to keep your bills off the game board and in neat stacks. You have to do all that yourself through gestures. You have to enforce the rules yourself. What a mess!

Installation 2: The Killer App Monopoly Video Game

The Killer App Monopoly Video Game is the latest release from the programming wizards at Parker Brothers. It is feature packed with more trivia and history than you can shake a shoe at. It communicates with Bluetooth dice. It has animated player tokens that move for you when you roll the dice. It counts your money for you just like an online bank account and makes sure you never miss collecting any rent from other players. It gives you super smart computer opponents in case you are 1 or 2 friends short of a full deck. It always knows who’s turn it is and it knows all the rules. It gives you pages full of various rule settings in case you want to play by your own particular house rules. Because you are playing on a touch device, it gives you the ability to arrange your property cards how you like on the virtual play surface through gestures (but only within your personal play area).

So which is it? Monopoly Sim or Killer Monopoly?

No matter how lopsided I try to sell it, it seems nobody wants to play the The Killer App Monopoly Video Game in this scenario, among friends. It is hard to imagine ever meeting that person either (although, I’m sure there are a few out there). So why would we keep making games like this for table and tablet computers?…

… Because we haven’t had an alternative… until now. An alternative where we can fully exploit what 40+ points of touch can do for us in the world of board games, card games, tabletop games in general, and other similar applications.

As addicted as we have become to letting technology make our lives easier, we still seem to crave not having computers police our every move. We want to play social games the hard way to sharpen our social skills. And, who knows, learning rules and counting our own money just might be good for our brains as well.

Chaos Theory

The Monopoly simulator I described above was about as lame as I could make it. It quite likely could not compete, however, against pulling the actual game out of the closet. This brings us to the next challenge: How to keep the Monopoly game in the closet and exploit multi-touch tables instead.

A 2-D gesture surface and computer display versus 3-D tactile reality; hmm. Well, okay, bring it on! Remember those four video games I mentioned earlier? Bomberman, Worms, Mario Kart, and NBA Jam? The first commonality I was thinking of between these four games is that many versions of them support four players (most, simultaneously). A surface with 40 touch points has that down, no problem, so moving on.

The second commonality between these four games—the more relevant one to this conversation—is that they endorse mayhem and chaos. All four of these games have achieved a good deal of success. There are many others that fit this category, I am sure (such as the entire Mario franchise), these are just the first ones to come to mind.

The Real Monopoly Sim

The real Monopoly simulator I envision is pretty much the one described before but with added features to support natural mayhem… and then boost it a bit. Think back to the fights you likely had as a child playing Monopoly or other games. What did those look like? What kinds of actions made the situation worse? Anyone picturing flying game pieces and other destruction?

Now, also picture how a more civilized game of Monopoly might look. What are you doing while waiting your turn? Sure, conversation is good, great in fact—that’s the point—but what are you also doing with your hands? Stacking money? Arranging property cards? Stacking houses and hotels into pyramids?

Take all of that—both the juvenile destruction and the civilized finger fidgeting—and enable it.

Beyond basic dragging and dropping, it’s a pretty easy guess that flicks should knock pieces over and/or send them careening across the play area. Now what? GestureWorks offers a huge repertoire of gestures, so let’s use them all.

Flicks:

1 finger:  Knock object over or nudge it

2 finger:  Send object tumbling or flying across the screen, collisions with other objects modeled accordingly

3 finger:  Send object tumbling or flying across the screen with great enough force to bounce around a few times

4 finger:  Send object tumbling or flying across the screen with great enough force that it defies the laws of physics and vanishes off one edge and reappears on the opposite until it eventually comes to a stop

5 finger:  Send object tumbling or flying across the screen only to explode when it hits the edge of the screen, leaving the item charred the rest of the game

Note:  I am guessing one could not reasonably five-finger flick a small, onscreen object without also flicking other nearby objects, but these ideas are only demonstrative—I suspect many of these different actions will be defined by velocity ranges instead of multi-finger according to how testing works out.

Swipes:

Some sort of gesture is needed to put a virtual arm on the board to clear a wide path of destruction (such as knocking all the pieces off the board). Perhaps a five-finger swipe, perhaps a new gesture.

Taps and holds – player tokens, etc:

Various taps and holds create various animations and/or expressions of approval or impatience from the player tokens. Triple taps, for example, may start the object moving (driving, walking, walking on otherwise hidden legs, whatever) with another tap to stop it. There are Easter Eggs, of course, such as causing the dog token to leave a metallic gift behind. One might even go crazy and set a hotel on fire to watch the “ants” escape and a fire engine appear out of Free Parking to put it out (or the dog puts the fire out instead once in a while). The more complex actions requiring interaction between playable pieces may be too expensive to build at first but these kinds of amusements would be the eventual goal.

Splits – paper money:

1 finger:  Rip the bill in half (the pieces stay separated the rest of the game—two objects now—use them or brush them aside and grab a new bill)

2 finger:  Rip the bill into 4 pieces (pieces stay separated)

3 finger:  Rip the bill into 8 pieces (pieces stay separated)

4 finger:  Rip the bill into confetti (and perhaps disappear due to object limitations)

5 finger:  Ignite the bill and leave some ash behind

Splits – property deeds:

We can’t have ripped up properties and still expect to finish the game easily so, instead, treat property cards like they’re made of rubber. Attempted splits just stretch them to various degrees with the five-finger splits stretching to an extreme degree and releasing like a wild rubber band knocking other objects around.

I could keep building design detail, but you get the idea. No need to go too far with a big, up-front design. I believe in thorough testing and staying agile.

Oh yes, we should not forget the adult in us and the need for civilized finger fidgeting. Sure, playing with pushing our stacks of money around in various ways might suffice (we’ll need a good paper stacking engine) but I would like to see more. Such as (mentioned earlier) stacking game pieces like houses and hotels into pyramids. I suspect interfaces for this type of object manipulation already exist. Regardless, I can imagine some fun alternative gestures that may be worth exploring.

Another “bored” tool might be something for passing notes around like we did in junior high math class. Perhaps self-destructing notes even. Basically, low-tech chat (and/or a high-tech one as an option perhaps).

Finally, one, last, small reason to use this sim versus the real thing: game saves. (Networking possibilities is a whole other conversation.)

Anyhow…

Anyhow, one particular ulterior motive of note is to give the customer something to show off to their friends. (Playing games is just a perk.) Maybe showing off yet another version of Monopoly isn’t exciting but…, in my mind at least, if I see a well-polished board game simulator like this (whatever the game) on a multi-touch coffee table I’m thinking “Okay, $4000 already justified—another $200 of the price just justified by the board game simulator—another $2800 to go and it’s a done deal.” Honestly, I think very similar to that. “Oh, look, foosball! Bazinga!”

The goal here is to give those with expendable income one more reason to get a multi-touch coffee table for their den because I expect they can put more novelty value on a board game simulator than I can. Furthermore, some businesses may also want some tame games for their public areas and/or staff areas (with pieces that don’t run off). If all else fails, ripping up and torching Monopoly money should demo well at shows.

Current Market

The idea of a board game simulator is not a difficult one to come up with. As such, I went looking and did indeed find another such simulator already in the marketplace. It is called Tabletop Simulator and is by Berserk Games. It has a fairly well developed physics engine and a good fan base of mods. (I have found no others in the market yet.)

Judging by their promotional video, it appears they have discovered the appeal of mayhem as well. Currently, their mayhem is limited to pushing objects around, stealing cards, and flipping the table over. Regardless, this simple amount of mayhem appears to be well liked and popular. In 313 reviews for this game on Steam, “flip” appears 109 times. The word “flip” is not mentioned in any of the 14 negative reviews.

Game Plan

The obvious first step is to investigate Tabletop Simulator to determine if its physics engine is sufficient for what is being proposed here. If so, consider a partnership with Berserk Games to develop it further. There are a few things that would need to be added to enable the Monopoly game described here. Such as, attaching specific animations to specific gestures, replacing undamaged objects with damaged objects, and replacing whole paper with pieces of ripped paper.

It may be that their API cannot be expanded to accomplish the desired effects at a general level and that custom adaptions of their “sandbox” need to be built for each board game. One minor detail to also note is that the table will not need to be simulated for games on multi-touch tables (because the screen is the table) and that the play area will need to be treated as more of a box bottom (something with walls to keep objects in the play area) than a table.

It may also be that Ideum and other table computer makers have already developed (or adopted) physics engines that could be expanded to board and card games. This I would not know. One important note here, however, is that whatever is built for gaming may also provide a useful library for other applications. As a basic example, I imagine the zoom out gestures being useful for gathering cards and bills into neat stacks after a few iterations (first to pull in, then to straighten), and zoom in for spreading such stacks out. Developing these gestures with the right finesse could be useful in any application with lots of virtual paper.

Finding the right physics engine should not be taken lightly. This is, after all, the secret to much of the appeal of Angry Birds. Angry Birds has a fairly realistic 2-D physics engine that feels comfortable to the human brain.

The two places I would start building and/or testing are checkers and poker. Checkers for basic object manipulation, stacking, animation, and damage. Poker for basic card and paper stacking, sorting, shuffling, stretching and ripping (poker chips can come later from the checkers work). From these two, you have the basic building blocks for many other games, including Monopoly.

The Kicker

There is a product on the gaming market called a ButtKicker. In short: the ButtKicker shakes your couch, gaming chair, or whatever you clamp it to in sync with your movie, music, or game like a subwoofer without sound. These multi-touch tables should have something like this—though not nearly as strong—and programmed by force feedback chords rather than just audio. Probably more like what a force feedback gaming mouse has. Perhaps one per table. Perhaps one per corner to provide some directional sensation if possible. This could particularly be helpful with tactile procedures like trying to fit objects into their spaces, such as a jigsaw puzzle, or the game of Perfection. (It should also improve the foosball simulator.)

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