Tabletop and Online Gaming Come Together in Fabulous Beasts

Michelle Stone Michelle Stone January 26, 2016

5 min read

How tall can you make your Fabulous Beast? Can your playing partners build it up even higher and hit a new high score?


You’ll soon find out, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign for the collaborative Fabulous Beasts game, which aims to bring together the best elements of physical and digital gaming.


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Fabulous Beasts is the brainchild of London-based gaming startup Sensible Object. Working from a vault under the Waterloo Bridge, the company’s veteran designers and artists have created a cooperative game in which 2–5 players work together to “build the most fabulous world possible,” according to product designer, Tim Burrell-Saward.


During a game, players take turns stacking colorful plastic pieces that represent beasts and artifacts. The object is to make the tallest, most fabulous tower possible by introducing new creatures, powering them up, bringing them into new combinations, and so on. Points are awarded based on the choices you make; once the tower falls, the game is over — and you have a new score to beat.


Here’s the twist: While players take on the physical and creative challenges of stacking the pieces, the tablet-based digital component of Fabulous Beasts controls the game, assigns points, and creates a virtual environment in which the beasts live and evolve.


Bringing Together Digital and Physical Play
Alex Fleetwood, CEO and founder of Sensible Object, found his initial inspiration for the game on a camping trip in California. As he carefully stacked firewood to make campfires, he had the idea to incorporate physical balance skills with a digital environment.


Fleetwood benefits from a deep background in game design, and especially in making participatory physical games for museum exhibitions and similar art installations. Burrell-Saward began collaborating with him back then, starting when “I built a three-meter-tall talking throne for one of his exhibitions at Kensington Palace.”


The Sensible Object team began to form at the end of 2014, when Fleetwood wanted to create a product that would bring his interest in participatory gaming to a wider audience. The fledgling company received funding from arts and research organization REACT Sandbox as part of the “Play” initiative. At that point, the team began “looking for ways we could specifically tie digital play and physical play together,” Burrell-Saward says.


Today, the team includes Fleetwood, Burrell-Saward (3D design and prototyping), George Buckenham (game design), Lyall McCarthy (2D graphics and UI design), and Chris Shaw (mechanical and electronic engineering). 

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Erasing the Divide between Tabletop Games and Video Games
According to Burrell-Saward, there are a number of games on the
market that aim to provide “digital play that doesn’t exist solely on a screen,” including offerings from Activision, Disney, LEGO, and Nintendo. A lot of these games incorporate a physical component such as a character figurine, yet aren’t specifically social in the physical world.


As Burrell-Saward puts it, the physical aspects of these popular games “look very nice, but they don’t do anything.” By contrast, the Sensible Object team wanted “to make the physical side as integral as the digital side.”


After spending several months developing the prototype, the team took the game to industry showcases such as the Game Developer’s Conference and the Shenzhen Maker Faire. The got the reaction they hoped for when testers praised the novelty of play and resonated with the social side of the game. In the half-year since then, the designers have geared up for a market-ready product, radically revising the prototype based on hundreds of hours of play-testing with different age groups in China, the United States, and Europe.


Burrell-Saward says that the youngest players have been the quickest to grasp the hybrid nature of the game: “The younger the kids were, the less instruction they needed in how the iPad interacted with everything else.” By contrast, many adult players have needed “more explaining about how these two things can exist in symbiosis.”


If the trend continues, this symbiosis may come to seem natural. Burrell-Saward believes that ultimately the traditional division between video gaming and tabletop gaming “is going to disappear.”


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The team has used Fusion 360 in various stages of the design process. Burrell-Saward imports surface models into the program to do “essentially all of the solid stuff” such as shelling, ribbing, and draft angles. With Fusion 360, he also generates STL files for 3D printing and the g-code used by milling machines.


He particularly likes using the program for setting up toolpaths and other manufacturing functions. “It’s a fantastic tool for getting you cutting quickly,” he says, “without waiting hours and hours to generate code.”


Working with a couple hundred other people in a maker space in central London, Burrell-Saward has a chance to see how other startups usedesign software. Cost is a real issue, he says, but subscription pricing for Fusion 360 and other applications makes the challenge much easier. Whereas in the past, his team might have only been able to afford one copy of one program, now they can afford a subscription that meets their needs at every step.


The Coming Evolution of Fabulous Beasts
The team’s efforts have garnered them awards, drawn positive attention from the mainstream gaming press, and attracted angel investment. Now, the team’s Kickstarter campaign will fund the first production run of the game. While there are still some refinements to be made, the design of the game is almost complete, and the team has already visited China more than once to collaborate with manufacturing partners and prepare for the start of production later in the year. Their goal is to deliver games to purchasers in time for the 2016 holiday season.


The core box product offered in the Kickstarter campaign will come with about two dozen pieces, “kind of like a traditional box game,” Burrell-Saward says. Additional pieces will be made available as booster packs or upgrades. One Kickstarter tier — the “maker” set — will include white game pieces ready for painting, RFID tags, and STL files for people who want to 3D-print their own pieces.


Meanwhile, the team can experiment with new variations of the product that allow different modes of play. One particular benefit that comes from having the digital side control the game is that the designers can use the same physical components, yet drastically change the playing experience based on how the digital component controls the game.


Burrell-Saward sums up the evolutionary nature of the game and the team’s design process when he says: “I’m really, really keen to see what people might make with what we’ve done.”


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