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MIT-trained designer takes another stab at digitizing board games

Blinks puts the intelligence inside each game piece, then networks them together

A player reaches out to take a lighted game token from the Blinks game system. Image: Move38
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Digital board games are a hot topic right now, mainly because of the requirements enforced by social distancing. It makes the investments by companies like Wizards of The Coast (Magic: The Gathering Arena) and Asmodee (Ticket To Ride, Splendor, Carcassone and more) look almost prophetic. The team behind the Blinks game system is taking the model in a different direction, embedding digital elements inside physical game pieces. The result is a kind of hybrid experience, one that resonates with children and adults alike.

Blinks is the flagship product of Move38, a company founded by MIT-trained designer Jonathan Bobrow. At the core of the system is an unassuming plastic puck. There’s a rubbery button on one side and a door for a watch battery on the other. In between is where it gets complicated: there’s a sandwich of magnets, silicon, and infrared emitters.

Board games have offered digital enhancements for years now. XCOM: The Board Game, and Mansions of Madness Second Edition won’t work without their companion apps, for instance. Meanwhile, many different companies have taken a stab at creating console-like digital game boards. They’re all different, but many have tried to use touch-sensitive screens, near-field communication, or optical tricks to either reduce or eliminate the need for physical game pieces in the first place.

Blinks comes at the problem from a different direction by making the game pieces and the game board essentially one and the same.

Move38 sent me two sets of six pucks, each one of them pre-programmed with a different game. Step one is to pick out the game you’d like to play. Then you just hold the button on that specific puck until it goes into pairing mode. Attaching that puck to all the other pucks allows them to “teach” each other using IR signals. Once all the flashing lights have calmed down, you’re ready to go.

Of the 12 games they sent along, only a few of them resonated with my family. A favorite is called Speed Racer; it has you laying pucks down in real time as though you’re building a highway out in front of a race car. Other games, like Astro — which requires you to “refuel” your spaceship at different-colored blinking pucks, again in real time — just didn’t end up being a lot of fun. Much of the fun of modern board games comes from thematic elements, like miniatures and art. Blinks doesn’t have any of that.

The technology itself is solid, however. Pucks connected and communicated with each other flawlessly, and for Simon-style pattern-matching games, they were extremely responsive. Even my six-year-old was able to get the hang of loading games up and getting all the pucks to talk to one another. The pucks are also extremely portable, thanks to a magnetic roll that wraps up six pucks at a time.

What the Blinks system is missing, in my opinion, is a killer app. And that’s where the latest Kickstarter campaign comes in. Move38 is funding the production of more pucks with the promise of six new games. There’s also a set of developer tools. Since Blinks is open-source software and hardware, anyone is free to use the platform to make their own games. With more Blinks out in the world, here’s hoping that the killer app comes out soon.

The only hurdle when that happens will be the cost of the Blinks themselves. A set of 12 feels like the right number, in my opinion, to have the best experience. Full price, that’s about $198 — about the same price as a Nintendo Switch Lite.

Discounts on Blinks are available through the Kickstarter campaign and at the Move38 website, where you can reliably get 20% off a set of 12.

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