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Startups remake classic games for the digital era

A host of startups are preparing devices that add touchscreens to dice, board games, and a twisting puzzle cube, seeking to blend the best of physical play with the flexibility of a console.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor on

For decades, the games market has included both physical and digital games with little crossover. More than a decade ago, I wrote about the Sifteo Cubes, a set of thick tiles with small screens that could be repositioned to create a range of games. The innovative effort may have inspired Hasbro to trot out a line of cheaper and simpler electronic games that included Scrabble Flash and Yahtzee Flash. Even those storied game brands, though, did little to create a lasting impact on the products.

Now, however, a host of startups are gearing up to turn some of the most familiar game design form factors into platforms for a new generation of games.

Digital Dice

One need not even tap the ever-spewing fountain of app stores to access virtual dice. Simply enter the phrase into Google and you're provided with a simple web app that will suffice for many tasks. But the German developers of Unidice have ambitions far beyond replacing the spotted cube. Unidice can simulate other kinds of dice such as the 20-sided variety long associated with adventuring games such as Dungeons & Dragons as well as show the results of multiple dice on whatever side lands face up. Each of the die's six surfaces can be tapped or double-tapped to trigger actions. The developers assure those concerned about tossing a glass-walled die across a table or floor that its product is built to withstand such tumbles.

When used with its companion app, Unidice can trigger sound effects to further enhance gameplay. The die even allows for after-roll features such as tilting to reveal additional chance results. And of course, each side of the die can be customized with whatever graphics one can fit on its tiny screens. Particularly with its optional wireless charger, Unidice may even have applications beyond games acting, for example, as a task timer or multi-button presentation remote. 

Unidice says it will be launching an imminent crowdfunding campaign and expects to ship in the second half of this year. Those willing to roll the dice with a $1 deposit can purchase one for $129, a discount from its expected retail price of $199.

Binary Board-dom

Before its name was repurposed for a line of 2-in-1 tablets that spawned a whole family of PCs, Microsoft's Surface platform denoted a large, pricey table-like touchscreen device that lives on like Samsung's SUR40 display powered by Microsoft PixelSense. While aimed at commercial applications, Microsoft showed off how you could use the horizontal display for digital reinventions of classic board games like Monopoly; it could even interact with physical game pieces. A few PC companies tried picking up the baton -- Lenovo offered a few iterations of its Yoga Home all-in-one PC that could recline to a near-horizontal surface.

Now, two companies are employing custom hardware to create game consoles that live on a digital square surface. Gameboard features a 17"x17" panel with a layer that can detect physical objects on the surface. It supports both turn-based and arcade-style games. One can reserve the product, which is in beta now, for a $199 deposit in advance of its December ship date at $799. And for those who really like their games to live large, up to four Gameboards can be connected to plaster your tabletop with interactive gaming. Gameboard has already lined up more than 35 games from over 15 game studios. But one notable holdout is board game giant Hasbro, the holdings of which include Monopoly, Sorry, Clue, Risk, Scrabble, Boggle, Operation, and Trivial Pursuit.

For those who are game for a less expensive variation on the tabletop-glass-as-console idea, French startup Wizama expects to deliver its SquareOne console this fall. Like the Gameboard, it can meld digital and physical elements in its gameplay and allows players to engage remotely. Its Indiegogo InDemand page offers a standard edition for €499 (about $529 at the time of publication) and an edition that bundles in a dice track, set of dice and a pack of dice-driven digital games for 140 more euros (for a total price of $565 at time of publication)

Twisted Gameplay

In the mid-'80s, dice were dethroned as the kings of cube-based games by a six-sided puzzle designed by a Hungarian professor trained as an architect. Rubik's Cube remains a cultural icon. However, beyond achieving ever more creative and faster ways of solving it -- another task where robots have relegated humans to the historical scrap heap -- it's a one-twist pony. 

In contrast, WowCube uses a smaller version of the rotating cube idea (with four squares on each side versus the nine that would have made the product prohibitively expensive) and adds a tiny touchscreen display to each surface, opening the door to a range of game objectives and mechanics. Since each of the eight cubes that compose the WowCube has its own processor and battery, one can also use them separately (although it's not clear whether any games will support such operation).

Starting from a concept proposed in 2016 by the co-founder's 16-year-old daughter, WowCube's developer Cubios has lined up 24 games, including new variants of breakthrough hits from the arcade and mobile games era with Space Invaders and Cut the Rope. As with Unidice, the team touts applications beyond games that include displaying widgets of ambient information such as weather, stocks, or air quality.
Like all of these products, WowCube is in beta for now. You can sign up to be notified when preorders start with the promise of a 40% discount off the undisclosed price. Those who really believe in the concept (or at least want more of a peek behind Cubios' curtain) can consider investing in the company via the equity crowdfunding platform StartEngine.

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