Katherine Boehret

Turning a Tablet Into a Board Game

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, companies from around the world are gathering this week to show off various tablet computers—much like last year. The good news about the Year of the Tablet Part II is that developers have had the past year to churn out cool tablet apps.

One area of apps involves gaming. I’m not just referring to the single player, heads-down games that consume a person for hours until she beats her own best score, or the scores of strangers around the Internet—though plenty of those exist for the tablet. I’m talking about old-fashioned board games, the kind that involve sitting around with friends or family and actually having fun together. Some of these apps are purely digital. But one company is bringing real board-like elements to tablet games.

This week, I tested a game that successfully marries digital and analog games by using the first physical device to digitally interact with the Apple iPad screen. The $40 Duo by Discovery Bay Games (yoomigame.com) doesn’t plug into the iPad, nor does it connect to the iPad via Bluetooth or other means. It sits on the iPad screen in a specific spot and uses a built-in light sensor on its underbelly to interpret light signals displayed on the iPad screen during a game.

DSOLUTION

To play the Yoomi game with Discovery Bay Games’ Duo, players drop jewel-like tokens onto the top of the device to vote on possible answers to questions.

The first accompanying game app to use the Duo, called Yoomi, is free from the Apple App Store and can be played by kids as young as 3 years old. It simply asks players to guess what one person would choose between two possible answers, or options, both of which are displayed as digital cards with text and images on the iPad screen. Cards include options like, “dig a hole to China” or “find buried treasure.” Up to six people or teams can play, and each receives a set of jewel-toned tokens that they’ll try to get rid of before the other players by guessing each person’s choice. Playful music and sound effects accompany each game.

Players cast their votes by placing tokens on one of two spaces atop the Duo, a plastic hollow device with clear sides and a tiny black switch. Each space represents an answer, and the person about whom everyone else guesses privately chooses one answer by reaching into the Duo and touching the iPad screen to select the answer.

After the other players cast their votes, a Reveal button on the iPad screen uncovers the chosen answer. Suddenly, the space at the top of the Duo representing the correct chosen answer drops like a trap door, collecting all tokens that were there. The iPad is passed to the next person and play continues, with each person selecting an answer for others to guess until one person or team is out of tokens.

At first, I was skeptical that the Duo and the Yoomi game could replicate playing with traditional board games. Since so few aspects of my life aren’t touched by digital technology, putting down my laptop, iPad or BlackBerry to play a board game always feels like a treat. But I found that while playing Yoomi, the iPad becomes the game board, stationed in the center of a table or circle of friends and passed around for each person to cast a vote.

Since the iPad has plenty of additional functions, playing a game on it may invite distractions from the outside world. Other apps continued to work in the background on my iPad, like my Facebook and Entertainment Weekly apps, which send occasional pop-up notifications onto the screen. The thought of personal Facebook messages popping up would be enough to embarrass any teen into not wanting to use his or her iPad to play with family members. On a good note, the chime indicating I received a new email on the iPad was automatically silenced during game play.

And of course, the iPad costs at least $500, so even though the $40 Duo is relatively affordable, the whole set won’t fit most family budgets.

Still, several advantages come from using a digital game that incorporates physical components, like tokens and a device that collects those tokens. Instead of holding a controller and staring at a TV, like with video games, players need to look up at one another to see how many tokens each person has and who’s winning. And the Yoomi game questions are provocative enough that people will want to ask one another why they chose their answers or voted a certain way.

One of the most exciting things about this technology is its ability to use a light sensor for communication between the iPad screen and another object. Discovery Bay Games CEO Craig Olson said the company might consider using this technology for other products such as a health-related device that, when placed on the iPad screen, allows data to be automatically recognized and recorded.

Like other digital apps, Yoomi can be updated with new content to replenish the 150 pairs of digital cards that come loaded with this free game; another 150 pairs will be sent in an update later this year. Mr. Olson said people tend to burn through digital games much faster than traditional board games, and the ability to send new game material without manufacturing and delivering physical parts is a real boon.

The people working at Discovery Bay Games know a thing or two about traditional board games: Numerous Discovery Bay Games employees worked at Cranium, the charades-esque game that gets people humming, whistling, drawing with closed eyes and miming. Duo is likewise deliberately designed to encourage interaction with others.

In the next nine months, some 12 to 15 other iPad app games will be released for use with Duo, including a $2.99 Smithsonian Fact or Fiction game and a $2.99 Discovery for Kids–Astonishing Comparisons game.

This summer, Discovery Bay Games will start releasing other physical devices that will work with the iPad and range in price from $30 to $60. Some will use the light-sensor technology while others will use different signaling methods to communicate with the iPad. These will launch in conjunction with lead titles, like a Highlights for Children game and a Saturday Night Live game. Mr. Olson said the company is developing for the Android platform as well as for Windows 7 devices.

For now, the Duo and Yoomi are a fun way to add technology into family game night, with continuously updated content keeping game material fresh. As games improve to take full advantage of the other tablet functions, they’ll become even more enjoyable and interactive.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com


Notice to Readers

Starting today, The Mossberg Solution column becomes The Digital Solution. It will still be written by Katherine Boehret and edited by Walter S. Mossberg.


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