In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
Board games have always tried to capitalize on the novelty of new technology. As VCRs became common, they incorporated home video through pairing on-screen prompts and awful acting with your typical tabletop accoutrements. Then, the same thing happened with DVD and CD players. Now, the ubiquity of tablets, laptops, and smartphones makes board-digital hybrids the obvious next step in this lineage. In this installment of Gameological Unplugged, we’re taking a look at Fantasy Flight’s XCOM and Harebrained Schemes’ Golem Arcana, both of which provide a taste of what this budding style of game has to offer.
XCOM, which was released in January, is basically a more sophisticated version of Czech Games’ Space Alert, where a CD announces new threats and the players have to deal with them in a set period of time. Based on the video game series of the same name, XCOM puts up to four players in charge of a military organization that must defend Earth from invading extraterrestrials. Each player has a different role and a host of things to keep track of. For instance, the Chief Scientist allocates resources to a variety of potential new technologies that give the humans a leg up, while the Squad Leader deploys soldiers to fight the aliens and defend the XCOM base.
The digital side of things—an app that’s available for iOS, Android, PC, Mac, and even web browsers—keeps the game from falling into a common pitfall of cooperative games: veteran players who want to control everyone’s turns. Every action has a time limit, and you just can’t debate the proper distribution of interceptors when there’s less than a minute to get them on the board. When it’s not your turn, that time is more likely to be spent plotting out your next action than offering advice. This can become less true with experience, since the biggest time sinks involve reading card text, but you’ll still want to put as much thought as you can into considering your options in light of what’s happening on the board. That’s even truer if you have fewer than four players and some people are taking on more than one role.
Not having much time to advise newbies is a bit of a double-edged sword, though. While I’m normally a fan of giving a brief description of a game and then teaching the rest of the rules as they come up, the timer means that’s not really an option. In an effort to keep the interface clean, the app tells players what they need to do in the most basic terms like “Deploy satellites” or “Defend the base,” and you’re expected to know what that means. Running new players through the tutorial is a good idea, even if it might not be much fun for those that have already played a few games.
Along with setting timers and announcing actions, the app takes the game’s state into account and triggers events accordingly. If there are too many satellites in orbit, for instance, the action order gets scrambled. That can be a devastating change in certain circumstances, like when you have to assign troops to defend the base even before the app announces what’s going to attack it. There’s a lot of variety and depth to the game that can’t be explored without coming back to it multiple times. That richness is found in the different missions and alien-invasion plans, as well as the challenge of taking on new military roles, including some funny ones like the Commander, whose primary job is to shout at people if they’re going over budget, and the Central Officer who tells everyone what the computer is saying like Sigourney Weaver’s character in Galaxy Quest.
Golem Arcana’s digital component is more like an extension of the official companion apps created to keep track of rules and calculate scores for complex games like 7 Wonders. The game uses a stylus that responds to invisible microcodes printed on the board and miniatures, and the app takes care of pretty much all the math you needed to consider when playing similar tactical miniatures game like Warhammer or HeroClix.
Players stage battles between rival factions who employ magical war machines. Figures on the board represent your golems, but there’s also a knight that controls each one and whose presence is entirely digital. You select your knights when building your army in the app, and each one has a special ability to integrate into your strategy. Armies also have the favor of godlike beings called ancient ones, who can grant bonuses or curse your enemies during the course of the battle and are also chosen through the app. Mixing the knights, factions, and ancient ones provides a surprising amount of variety, even if you’re just using the six golem figures that come in the base set.
When you tap a golem’s stat card, its abilities appear in the app, and it tells you where that figure can move, what squares it can target with a ranged attack, and even the odds of it landing a blow. When figuring out whether or not an attack hits its mark, you can let the app roll the dice for you or roll percentile dice and enter results yourself, if you’d prefer some tactile sensation.
Each player has a limited number of action points they can spend per turn and every type of action costs a different amount. To discourage players from leaning too heavily on one particularly powerful golem, the cost of each of these actions doubles every time you use it, only reverting to the normal price after it’s had some time to cool down. It’s a great idea that would be unwieldy without the app, especially since different abilities and even specific golems have distinct cool-down periods.
Hairbrained Schemes has already updated Golem Arcana since its release, introducing new figures, knights, and ancient ones that have to be purchased with real money. More important, though, are the ways the developers have expanded the core of Golem Arcana, increasing support from two-players exclusively to up to eight and giving users the ability to design their own maps. Further features, like a co-op mode that will pit players against a computer-controlled enemy, are still in the works.
That ability to easily evolve is the most exciting element of these hybrid games. Rule changes can be introduced with app updates instead of bits and pieces you have to dig for on the Internet. New scenarios and boards can be introduced the same way. VHS and DVD games have been relegated to obscurity because they were rarely able to do anything that was innovative enough to justify their existence. But judging by these two early examples, this new kind of hybrid shows the potential to stick around and help games evolve alongside the technology around us.