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April 17, 2018

The PlayTable blockchain console brings digital board games back to the tabletop

by John_A

Digital and physical board games both have their advantages. Where one has easy set up and clean up, the other has a physicality that’s impossible to replicate on a screen. Combing the best – and ditching the worst – of each has long been a dream for gamers and toymakers. Now, PlayTable wants to make that dream a reality.

It’s an Android-powered, tabletop gaming tablet that leverages blockchain technology and RFID tags, to put real world toys into digital worlds in a manner that goes well beyond Nintendo’s Amiibo and Disney Infinity.

Developed by Blok.Party, PlayTable features a 24-inch 1080p display with multi-touch capabilities and no internal battery. As a touch-screen gaming device it is underpowered compared to the best tablets and 2-in-1s out there, but where it stands apart is in its close ties with the Ethereum blockchain, which cribs the concept of toy-based interaction from the likes of Skylanders or Amiibo, and makes the next logical leap.

Real figures, digital toys

“Where toys to life 1.0, as I like to call them, went wrong, is that […] these toys, really became just that: toys,” Jimmy Chen, CEO of Blok.Party told Digital Trends. “They weren’t actually figures that you end up playing with. What we’re doing is actually taking these figures and allowing you to play with them – that’s a critical part of the experience.”

As well as using figures to store character progression and customization, like Amiibo and Skylander figures do, toys placed on a PlayTable act as the pieces in the game you’re playing. In the case of the tactical card battler Battlegrid, which we were shown in a demo, a dragon toy was placed on the screen and physically moved on its turn. The PlayTable tracked its movement, highlighting potential move locations on the digital battlefield and displaying effects for attacks, which were triggered by placing RFID-tag-equipped cards on the screen itself.

Where this ‘toys to life 2.0’ system really shines is through its link with the Ethereum blockchain. Every single toy’s RFID tag will have its own entry, so the data can be read and interpreted by the PlayTable instantaneously, anywhere in the world with an internet connection, without relying on a single, centralized server.

The real strength of the blockchain is that it doesn’t constrain the toys to one digital or physical medium. “Figures don’t just exist within the confines of one game, they can be used in multiple games, on multiple devices, and even have multiple owners,” Chen explained.

This is at the core of the PlayTable experience. Children will be able to take their favorite toy, put an RFID tag on it, and then use it as a character in the digital board games they play. They can do that on their own PlayTable, or at a friends’ house. Adult gamers can trade toys, changing ownership either by physically handing over the toy, or digitally over the blockchain.

“Figures don’t just exist within the confines of one game, they can be used in multiple games, on multiple devices, and even have multiple owners.”

This also makes it easier for companies that sell games, or “structured experiences,” as Chen puts it, to maintain some measure of control over their content.

“The moment you put a tracker on a figure, it can now forever be tied to the original owner, which factory it came from. We know it’s owned by a particular IP owner and they can open and close different “switches” that allow for these different intentions for those who own the physical piece,” Chen explained. “This ownership is interesting because now when we think of software in general, it’s always this thing where people are coming in and [effectively] renting software from the IP owner. With blockchain there’s almost a dual ownership system. It’s ownership, it’s customization, with unique possibilities that you can’t otherwise have.”

Early partners include classic board games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride, but the potential is there for many hundreds of other smaller board games to work well on such a platform. If the digital components can fit on the screen, then the game can be played.

Don’t just play the game, create the game

Chen and Blok.Party don’t want to stop at digital games, however. They want to explore the creativity of such a platform. They want to see universes collide as gamers create their own experiences and shared game worlds.

“When [children] play in the real world, they don’t care that Elsa and Darth Vader come from two different worlds,” Chen explained. “To them they all exist in the same physical world. This kind of play pattern is what we want to encourage with PlayTable. You can 3D print your own characters – maybe it’s a 3D printed version of yourself in costume – take the existing characters in your toybox, and do interesting things with them […] You can battle with your characters with different stats and different abilities.”

Still, PlayTable could be facing uphill battle convincing the public to pay for yet another gaming system which, at $350 for the pre-ordered base version with just 16GB of storage, is more expensive than the exceedingly popular Nintendo Switch. That could be an even harder sell at its intended $600 launch price, especially considering how  so many other alternative consoles have struggled at much lower prices.

“The PlayTable could be facing uphill battle convincing the public to pay for yet another gaming system.”

Blok.Party is hoping that the PlayTable’s extensive feature set will help set it apart from more typical consoles, though. It’s splash proof, and uses strengthened glass to make it resistant to torture from young children – a big advantage over many other gaming systems with touch-screens. It supports 1-8 players locally, and as many as you want over online multiplayer with other PlayTables.

The PlayTable will live or die on its support from gamers and game makers. With a custom, Android operating system known as PlayTable OS, the ease with which existing digital games can be ported to it could be a major factor in how expansive the game library becomes. If your group’s favorite game is playable, that’s going to be quite attractive to frequent board gamers. However, if the process of bringing games to it is complicated or slow, we could be faced with the chicken and egg problem that has plagued new gaming platforms throughout the industry’s history.

PlayTable has a lot to prove when it launches later this year.

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