Packing dense rule books and complex instructions, miniature combat board games aren’t exactly steaming up the charts these days. But what if there was a way to outsource the ugly business of number crunching and rule interpretations to, say, your tablet?
Harebrained Schemes, a company best known for making video games, has successfully Kickstarted and released a curious hybrid that promises to combine the feel of a physical game with the approachability of a touchscreen app.
Meet Golem Arcana, a fantasy-themed board game that makes your iPad do all the work.
Golem Arcana’s box is crammed with plastic miniatures, heavy cardboard tiles, and little circular markers, but also something more unusual: a weighty gray stylus. It’s the least elegant component, a too-chunky plastic pen that seems incongruously cheap. Inside there’s a battery, a Bluetooth LE transceiver, and, at the tip, a tiny infrared camera. It pairs with an iPad or new-ish Android handheld and comes with an accompanying app.
Every other Golem Arcana component — the miniatures, the terrain tiles, the cards that list abilities and game functions — is printed with a layer of invisible microdots. The stylus camera reads those dots and tells the game app what it’s seeing. So if you want to know what kind of cover a square offers, or what the armor value of a particular miniature is, you just tap it with the stylus and the relevant info pops up on your device.
This sounds like a gimmick, and in a way it is. The underlying rules of the game don’t need any of the tech to work. But with an iPad doing the bookkeeping, you don’t need to know the rules — and this means those rules can be satisfyingly intricate without bogging down the game.
You can rattle through move after move at speed and let your device take care of calculating line of sight, accuracy, armor, dodge, terrain effects, and any bonuses your army might have from magical items or spells. When attacking, you can either let the game take a dice roll for you or roll dice yourself and enter the result. You could play basic Golem Arcana battles without the tech, but you probably wouldn’t want to for long.
Simple math isn’t the limit of its usefulness, however. One Golem Arcana map begins with the terrain covered with a mysterious fog. Its nature remains unknown until one player shoots a fireball — and then the whole lot goes up in flames. Another has a square that presents a visiting unit with a video game-style cutscene and a choice: to help a friendly fairy, or to steal her goodies and suffer her wrath? It’d be tough to make scenarios like these in a board game without at least one player already knowing the story.
It doesn’t stop there. Although the app is currently a little light on features, more developments are coming. Its designers are noting the outcome of every battle — yes, even yours — and are already fine-tuning its balance. A map and scenario design tool is on the way, as is the ability to play a buddy over the Internet. All that, say the designers, will be free.
That is, the updates to the app will be free. The game itself ain’t. The basic set costs a hefty $80, which includes six figurines, a stylus, and enough cardboard tiles to get you off the ground. Extra figurines run $35 for a pack of three, although there’s a vast “Colossus” figure due later this month that’ll retail for $65.
That’s a steep investment, but Golem Arcana is a unique beast. By brilliantly leveraging tech you already own, it transforms a deep, complicated board game into something that a reasonably bright 9-year-old can play and enjoy. (And win. Ask us how we know.) It’s a way for you to introduce your friends — or yourself, for that matter — to what’s one of the most engaging and competitive tabletop game styles out there, without any need for the inch-thick rule books that so often plague the genre. Here’s hoping someone will one day do the same for Dungeons & Dragons.