When I was at Gen Con last month, one of the bright spots of the weekend was the hour that I spent playing Settlers of Catan in the Mayfair booth with some fellow conventioneers. I traded wool and ore and got into a race for the longest road with another player. Eventually, I won the race and was awarded the Longest Road for two victory points, the last that I needed to win the game. The red player shrugged, congratulated me and then walked off to grab some food with her friend. She missed out, because I was able to read an almost mind-numbing amount of statistics about the game we had just played, from how many sheep I had shorn to the number of trades that I completed. We didn’t even have to clean up the pieces before restarting the game.
You see, I had just played Catan on the Microsoft Surface. Halfway between board game and videogame, the experience combined all of the tactile and interpersonal fun of sitting around a table talking to real people with the ease of play and computational advantage of playing on a computer. There have been videogame adaptations of Catan before, but this one felt like I was playing a digital boardgame. It was fun, just like all those times playing Monopoly or Risk with my friends growing up.
The Microsoft Surface is a table-sized computer with a multi-touch screen. It uses cameras and infrared technology to sense whatever is placed on the surface, from fingers to objects to bar-codes. The gaming implications of the Surface are immediately apparent. The Escapist Editor-in-Chief Russ Pitts saw a group of Carnegie Mellon students write an application which uses it to play Dungeons & Dragons at GDC 2010. Joe Engalan, Executive Director of Vectorform and Eric Havir from the Microsoft Surface team, sat down at GDC with Guido Teuber, Managing Director of Catan for Mayfair Games. From that meeting, work began on Catan for the Microsoft Surface.
“Guido offered ‘Make Catan on the Surface,'” producer Mollie Harms told me at Gen Con. “Eric and Joe are huge fans [of Catan] so they snatched it right up, came back to Vectorform and started production on it.” The team of about five or six designers and developers has been working on the project since then and they were happy to demonstrate it for the first time at Gen Con.
The interface takes a bit of getting used to, but you soon realize how intuitive it is to slide various game pieces across the digital board. The dice are two clear plastic cubes with no visible markings on them. When you roll them on the surface, however, the sensors read the infrared labels and display the correct numbers. Each player is automatically given the right resources, which are displayed as cards. The neat part is that the cards aren’t readable unless you have a “visor” that is coded to each player. By moving the visor, the resources that you have in your hand are displayed to you but are invisible to your opponents.
You can then trade with your fellows, which was easily my favorite part of the experience. Once you agree on the terms, you put your finger on the resource card and fling it across the table to your trading partner with a flick of your finger. Sometimes the card “bounces” around a little but you can touch the resource card and drag it to your hand. You don’t have to fling it; obviously, you can also courteously slide it towards your trading partner. Ultimately, it feels like you are trading in the real game; I often throw resource cards at my rivals with the physical Catan as well.
There were a few quirks with the touchscreen though. When you have a lot of resource cards, they get smushed together and it can be really hard to put your finger on the one that you want. One of the players at the table tried to pick out a piece of ore from his hand but the system just wouldn’t let him grab it. The devs came to try it and were equally frustrated. Through a series of hand waves and voodoo gestures, she was finally able to pry that piece of ore loose and exact the trade. Harms later told me that they were experimenting with a different interface, one based on icons, which would solve that problem. But that’s part of the fun of demoing a product that is still being tested and developed; you get to see the process.
“It’s really nice to create our own UI and adapt the board game to the digital platform while maintaining what made the board game fun: the free time trade and that kind of stuff,” said Kevin Foreman, the Lead Game Developer at Vectorform. “A lot of the times, the digital versions [of board games] take too much control over the game. It feels like you’re playing a meta-game on top of the original game, because it is so restricting in how you can interact with stuff. It’s been really fun translating that board experience, and keeping that board experience .”
Such faithful translation is really important for the Catan team at Vectorform. “It doesn’t feel like you’re playing a digital game, it feels like you are playing a board game,” Harms said..
But that doesn’t mean that the team is averse to taking advantage of the computational cycles that are available when designing for the Surface. “We love stats. We think stats are awesome, how you can see patterns in stats,” Kevin said. “We also think that gamers love stats. They love saying, ‘Ha ha, I got all of the sheep’ or ‘My playtime was 16 minutes and your was only 5.'”
In speaking to Harms and Foreman, I could tell how excited they were to work on translating games to the Surface. “We very much think of ourselves as a ‘gamer’s studio.’ We are gamers,” Harms said. That was evident when I asked them what game they would most love to design for the Surface, if they could pick anything. Harms said she was a D&D geek and was excitedly watching the development from the Carnegie Mellon team. Kevin said that he’d love to see more card games like Flux on the Surface. Joe Engalan didn’t hesitate, “Acquire. The old Sid Sackson game that was made in 1963, about buying and selling hotel properties.” He said it would translate perfectly to the Surface because there was very little hidden information.
Pretty much the only downside of adapting Catan on the Microsoft Surface is the Surface itself. It’s a highly expensive piece of machinery, costing $12,500, not including any service charges. It’s hardly consumer grade; Surface is intended for businesses and institutions to showcase their immense buying power, er, their products or services.
The good news is that Vectorform has developed Catan using the .NET framework and the Windows 7 stack. That technical mumbo-jumbo basically means that it will be simple to convert the application to run on any Windows 7 machine with touchscreen capability. It is unclear whether or not the license that Vectorform has from Mayfair will allow them to release the game for other platforms, but I certainly hope so. The iPad seems like a perfect fit, as do the all-in-one Windows machines that feature touchscreens. Vectorform is also in talks to bring in the expansion content for Catan, and include the rules for Traders & Barbarians and Cities & Knights.
Vectorform is aiming for Catan on the surface to be released this holiday season. Again, most of us won’t be able to play it, unless you got a spare $12k sitting around. But it’s still an interesting use of a new technology that effectively translates a board game to a digital format. Or, it’s a way to bring computation and stat-tracking to the world of board games. Either way, I’m excited to see more developments like this as it brings us one step closer to the playing hologram creature battle chess game with Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon or 3D wireframe biplane dogfights like in Star Trek III.
Which is what we all want, right?
Greg Tito has ore, but needs bricks. Any takers?