I got to spend some time with Microsoft’s new Surface today running a demo of Settlers of Catan and we’ve had a few requests to provide our thoughts on the new device and it’s use in games. First, let’s be clear, I’m an Apple fanboy and just about everything you see from me comes to you via an iPad, iPhone and occasionally a MacBook Pro. I say this to clear the air and be clear that I spend a good bit of my time in a touch world. The surface is a good touch device, but it’s not great – the touch occasionally feels inaccurate, but when it takes, its very responsive. Objects on the table don’t always respond the way you anticipate, but this is more a factor of the software than the underlying Surface technology I suspect.
What is absolutely brilliant is the recognition of physical objects placed on the table (for Settlers, you can actually roll clear, plastic cubes which are represented as dice on the screen) – this alone makes the technology really interesting (though it makes for a trite demo in the case of Settlers – the D&D demo is a bit more persuasive in this regard). The visuals are a little washed out for my taste – they don’t really pop with the clarity of a modern display, an artifact of the technology required to recognize so many touch points (at one time, I put four contacts on the Surface at the same time someone else was interacting with it – handled it without any issues). How about the game? Well, it’s Settlers of Catan – if you’ve played it once, you’ve played it a hundred times. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine implementation of the game, but there’s nothing here that’s going to blow you away in terms of Catan innovation. The real question you have to ask with a technology like this is does it have legs? Can I take these ideas and this demo and bring it to other games and make them new and interesting? I think the answer here has to be “yes.” The entire time you’re playing with the Surface, you’re thinking of other games that would be brilliant in this format – wargames with real fog of war, bidding games with real money chips, etc. This isn’t a finished product – this is something that inspires you to get excited about future finished products. In this regard, the Surface is a resounding success from a boardgamer’s perspective.