The semi-digital future: App integration in board games

Countless games have made the jump from cardboard to digital. Many of my favorites are available on the iPad or Android, from Carcassonne to Agricola, to Galaxy Trucker. However, many new games are experimenting with a new hybrid format, supplementing the traditional board game format with a tablet app. I have played several of these new format board games and each of them brings something different to the board game experience, depending on how the app works.

The app is central to One Night Ultimate Werewolf
The app is central to One Night Ultimate Werewolf

One Night Ultimate Werewolf uses the app as a moderator, and narrator all in one. The dulcet toned Eric Summerer walks through which roles in this social deduction game do what. The cards are still essential for keeping track of the shifting identities and status of the players, but otherwise I would argue that the app is the game itself. This would have not been possible even a decade ago. There were many attempts at interactive technology in board games even then, from the VHS versions of clue, to a childhood favorite of mine, Omega Virus, which was a simple voice box that players could interact with by entering the number codes of rooms on the space station that they entered. But all of this pales in comparison to the One Night Werewolf app that can add and remove roles, and players with a few swipes.

In Alchemists players fill out their chart of elements by experimenting with different elements cards using the app
In Alchemists players fill out their chart of elements by experimenting with different elements cards using the app

While One Night Werewolf uses an app to replace what could be a human element, Alchemists flexes more of what computers can do best, randomization. The game premise is one of logic and deduction. Players are alchemists who are studying various fairy tale like ingredients to determine their properties. When you combine two ingredients, the result can be positive or negative, and one of three colors. Each time you play the game, the combinations are different, and the results of any combination are handled by the app that each player can individually download for their phone. All players enter the same seed number, so the alchemical rules for the game are the same from player to player. This solves two major problems at once. For one thing, no one player has to set up this puzzle like aspect of the game, and potentially discover the answers for themselves and ruin the deductive fun. Secondly, each player’s interactions with this puzzle are handled on their own device so that only they gain the insight from their own experiment.

The app is not the whole game here, and there is plenty of player interaction as players claim action spaces on the board to gather these ingredients, test them on unfortunate students, sell them to wandering adventurers, and gather expensive rare artifacts on the side. However the puzzle that supports all these actions is handled elegantly by the app, and no two games are ever the same.

In XCOM: The Boardgame the app functions as a timer and director.
In XCOM: The Boardgame the app functions as a timer and director.

XCOM: The Board Game uses the app as both a director and a timer. In this co-op game the app tells players what to do, and what happens in terms of the board game “fighting back” against the players. It also counts down how long each player has to make a given decision, keeping the action moving and the tension high. This solves a common complaint about co-op games where players will discuss what to do and one player will drive the decision making of the whole team. By keeping everything directed through the app, but on a timer, each player must acts independently and this prevents the single player “quarterback” syndrome. Each player is also assigned a different role in fighting off the alien invasion, from the science officer who researches new technology to the commander who fight in combat encounters. The app certainly helps capture the spirit of the video game and gives this co-op a unique feel.

In Mansions of Madness the app handles the scenario and the players handle the decisions.
In Mansions of Madness the app handles the scenario and the players handle the decisions.

Finally there’s my favorite app integration yet, Mansions of Madness Second Edition. What was a clunky game with a lot of set up when it first came out in 2011 is now an eloquent and smooth experience, thanks to an app that runs the show. The app handles what tiles come out to build the environment that players explore. It presents skill checks for players to roll against and handles the results and their impact on the environment. There is still plenty of board game here, with players handling the dice rolls, decisions, inventory etc… But the app provides the music, the story, and most importantly the variety and ease of set-up that the first game could not have had. Over this past weekend different people played through the first scenario multiple times, and each time there were new wrinkles and wholly different mansion layouts.

I personally cannot seem to dig into the all digital versions of my favorite games. There is something missing, even in an excellent execution of a cardboard to digital transition. But these new hybrids are very promising indeed. These days, our iPad or our phones are always by our sides. And while I do value an escape to board gaming to get away from these digital companions, I enjoy when a digital app makes that on the table experience richer and more entertaining.

2 thoughts on “The semi-digital future: App integration in board games

  1. I loved MoM first edition even with all the set up time and broken scenarios. I am currently loving 2nd edition though, even with its occasionally buggy app.
    I played Descent: Road to Legend app and GenCon this year and that was pretty amazing too, breathing life into a game I haven’t played in ages.
    Also in the future, FFG, announced an app for Imperial Assault in 2017, the future of solo gaming, for me anyway, is looking pretty great!

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