Smart board game console aims to be the future of 'game night'

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Is this the future of game night? This smart board game console lets the worlds of analog and digital games get closer together. (KGO-TV)

For some, Friday night means the old tradition of inviting friends over to play board games -- and for others, it means making a beeline for the couch to grab a video game controller.

But Jimmy Chen thinks it's about time the worlds of analog and digital games got closer together. He thinks it's the future of game night.

"You can't play a game like Battlegrid anywhere, on any other console, any other device," Chen said, as he challenged me to a round of his new board game with colorful cards and artfully crafted figurines of dragons and wizards.

The game also features something else: stunning visual effects. Instead of a paper game board, Battlegrid is played on a 24-inch Android tablet device called Playtable.

"There's over 70 antennas inside the Playtable. So that's really what's the magic behind the device," Chen said.

Those antennas let the $350 device interact with physical objects like game pieces, cards and dice, that have RFID tags affixed to them. Each piece has a unique identity stored in the Ethereum blockchain -- yes, that's the technology behind cryptocurrency -- so players can collect rare cards or take characters from one Playtable console to another, and sell or trade them.

Battlegrid is one of 25 games Chen says the console will offer at launch later this year -- including nouveau-classics like Settlers of Catan, and even card games like Texas Hold 'Em. All of the games are built to be social experiences that Chen calls the opposite of virtual reality.

"You know, we're at this stage in our lives where we're literally gluing screens to our faces, and i think that's gotta change," he said.

Playtable is meant to live in your living room, so Chen says he hopes to offer interchangeable bezels to give the device the look and feel of whatever furniture it sits on. But he might face an uphill battle.

"It's gonna be a hard sell from a consumer standpoint," said managing editor Justin Haywald.

Gamers may already have a PlayStation, XBOX or Nintendo Switch, and convincing them to buy another console -- with a whole new category of game -- could be tough, he said. There's also the fact that many players seem to be just fine with old-fashioned board games.

"Part of it is that simplicity," Haywald said. "It's a board that you pick up, you put down, you can play it anywhere, it doesn't take power."

But where Playtable excels is getting rid of the part everyone hates: Reading the rule book. When the board tells you where you can move, the game goes faster, and new players have more fun -- which, Chen said, is the whole point.

"This is the first truly social device where you can sit around a table at 7 o'clock on a Friday night, order some pizza, and just have a good time," he said.
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