The future of board gaming sits tucked away in the lower reaches of CES' South Hall, sandwiched between rows of HDMI cables and crappy video game accessories. The ePawn Arena looks like a miniature imitation of the Microsoft Surface, but the technology it uses to combine traditional board gaming and electronic gaming is something very different. Instead of expensive capacitive tech, the Arena relies on a simple detection layer beneath its LCD screen to track pieces with inexpensive tags.
ePawn's creators brought their baby all the way from Paris to show at CES. Unfortunately, they didn't have anything new to show off; the gaming system isn't meant to launch until later in 2012. However, CEO Christophe Duteil was able to tell us a little more about the French company's hopes for the ePawn and how it can potentially enhance games already designed for smartphones and tablets.
ePawn is doing everything it can to cut prices and make the Arena an affordable piece of technology for gamers. It doesn't use a touchscreen and instead relies on a proprietary tracking system to read the locations of tagged figurines or other objects. There's no processing done in the Arena itself either; software is run off of mobile devices like iPhones, Android phones or tablets.
So here's the real challenge: how does ePawn successfully turn a monitor into a gaming platform? If the Arena is meant to run iOS software, how will games built for touch translate to the physical/virtual interaction of the motion tracking board? This seemed like a major challenge for the Arena, especially for sophisticated boardgames that rely on menus for gameplay, settings, and advancing between players.
Translating that sort of interaction will actually be easy for the ePawn; as Duteil explained, tagged objects themselves can trigger menus and be used to select options. The ePawn's demo video shows menu navigation for selecting an attack in a D&D-like simulation, but the same concept would work with a menu for advancing turns or tweaking game options. A game could even use a specific figure (or something like a stylus) specifically for menu operation.
Solving that problem involves bumping into ePawn's greatest challenge: convincing developers to support the platform. Even with an easy-to-use free SDK coming from ePawn, game developers will have to adapt their UIs to the Arena and support ePawn's tagging system. When the finalized 26-inch ePawn Arena releases later this year at an expected cost of $400, it may be with a very slim offering of games.
On the bright side, ePawn plans to sell tags independent of whatever game developers come up with for the Arena. That means there's potential for all kinds of indie development with custom tags on D&D minis and Warhammer figurines. ePawn still has a shot at being the game board of the future, if developers give it a chance.