Board game companion apps and new ways to play: the (controversial) marriage of analog and digital

Earlier this month, the second printing of the cooperative board game The 7th Continent raised a staggering $7 millions. One of the last stretch goals to unlock was a small set of cards designed to work with an app, meant to show clues in augmented reality. The campaign, as Serious Poulp admitted, exceeded all their wildest expectations: it’s safe to assume they saw in this sudden windfall an opportunity to toy around with smartphones to create fun, new mechanics for their game. The specific announcement for this reward was met with a deluge of comments exposing conflicting opinions, and how the gaming community stands divided about board gaming apps today.

A mock up of the special The 7th Continent cards

While most players welcome anything that makes the gaming experience more accessible or new, some claim technology has no place in tabletop gaming, as what must be cherished above all is the analog experience — which, admittedly, is a scarce resource nowadays. 
And while the very nature of board games is wood, plastic, and cardboard, no one can stop the analog and digital worlds from colliding when the crossover meets a need or solves an issue.

Extending the gaming experience

As games take the lead in the list of our hobbies, we feel the need to come back to the worlds we spend dozens of hours in, or to stay in touch with characters we grew fond of. 
When a game is popular enough, it’s not uncommon to see it outgrow its original medium.

Examples of video games turned board games abound: from FPSs (Doom, Gears of War, Dark Souls), RTSs (Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires III), RPGs (Fallout, The Witcher, Pillars of Eternity), to Strategic (Plague Inc.). 
In some cases, like Civilization, we went from board game to video game and back to board game!

An image from Pillars of Eternity: Lords of the Eastern Reach

A matter of time and space

Some gamers struggle to find the right time and place to gather friends to play: the new wave of mobile versions of popular games is addressing that problem. Among the titles already available, we can mention Euro classics like Carcassonne and Puerto Rico, quick card or dice games (Star Realms, Elder Signs), and even social games like Mysterium. Asmodee Digital seems to set the pace for these adaptations, and as they recently started to port games from other publishers, this could be only the tip of the iceberg. For all intent and purposes, these are video game versions of analog titles: while the tactile feeling is lost, they make up with automatic scoring systems and integrated tutorials.

Trailer for the digital version of Mysterium

Board Game Arena, Tabletop Simulator, and Tabletopia tackle a similar issue; these platforms (or software) also allow players to virtualize board games so they can be played independently from the geographical location of players.

The good companion

While playing a board game on a mobile device can seem a little bit removed from the original experience we all love, mobile apps can also be part of a board game rather than replace it. Some designers took advantage of new, digital possibilities to create games that could not exist without them.
In these cases, the app is an essential part of the game mechanics and can serve different purposes. Let’s see some examples:

Timer

The way Fuse or Doctor Panic apps work is useful, but not exactly new. A few years ago, games like Zombie 15’ or Pingo Pingo (or even the previous version of the game, known as Squad Seven) already used digital soundtracks to time your sessions and set the pace with sounds triggering events in the game. XCOM The Board Game goes a little bit further, as the app runs different timers for different players, keeps track of the alien invasion and rebalances the game from round to round.

XCOM The Board Game’s app was well received by gamers

Assistant

Apps can also be a game changer for titles relying on deduction skills. Alchemists is an excellent example of a board game that would not exist without an app. Admittedly, a human can manage the random ingredient distribution at the beginning of the game then secretly provide players with the results of their experiments, but who would want to spend two hours doing such a tedious task? And the app does a better job at this than any human ever could.
Space Cowboys is a publisher renown for their innovative take on board games, and their latest hit is no exception. The app for Unlock is simple enough (designer Cyril Demaegd taught himself how to code and developed it by himself), but serves multiple purposes. While the game relies mainly on cards, the app is essential to keep track of time, give hints when players are in a dead-end situation and validate their answer to some of the various puzzle in the game.

GM-o-matic

Sometimes, apps go a bit further: rather than just reacting to players’ actions, they become an active part of the experience. Recently, Fantasy Flight Games introduced new apps for two of their best-sellers: the newest versions of Mansions of Madness and Descent now come with their own digital overlord. The apps can teach the game, offer new scenarios paired with immersive graphics and soundtracks, unexpectedly pop up random or triggered events, and streamline the monsters’ rounds by walking players through each evil deed.

Fantasy Flight calls Mansions of Madness 2nd edition “an app-driven” board game

Both games have seen their sales soar since the release of the apps, and FFG already announced they’re making one for another of their big titles: Star Wars: Imperial Assault.
Earlier this year, Portal’s First Martians — a reimagining of Ignacy Trzewiczek’s excellent Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island — also came with an app to streamline the gameplay, confirming the global trend.

Hybrid

Some video games go even further to integrate digital and real-world interactions, relying heavily on players’ direct and social interactions — outside the screen — see for example Space Team, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes or Hidden in Plain Sight. In the board game space, Paris-based publisher Volumique puts digital devices at the service of tangible ideas. Their World of Yo-Ho is a pirate board game where smartphones are used as interactive pawns.

In World of Yo-Ho digital devices are integrated into the gameplay

Pairing apps to board games allows for a better overall experience, by making routine easier and offering hidden balancing mechanics, more immersion or novel features. But it also opens new possibilities for game designers, whose imagination and creativity always demand more — and that’s something to be excited about!

Companion apps

Like the 7th Continent’s stretch goal reward mentioned earlier, apps can even be beneficial for board games that are not initially designed with one in mind. Some universal companion apps can help to pick the first player or keep track of time, scores and stats. 
Many publishers released their official apps to make fans’ life easier, and the list of what you can digitally get on your phone or tablet keeps growing: score sheets in 7 Wonders, player boards in Zombicide, new tracks for Flamme Rouge and even a new event mechanic for Clank!

A screenshot from Renegade Games Companion App

Enter Dized

Our decision to build Dized was informed by all the angles the board game industry is testing with digital products.

A screen from a development build. If you are at SPIEL you can try it out at booth 2-D120!

First and foremost, we want to help gamers overcome the biggest obstacle to trying new games: learning how to setup and play a title (we discussed rulebooks in our previous article). Secondly, we want an easy, fast, always up-to-date way to verify rules when something comes up during a game. Thirdly, we want to make Game Nights easy to organize and promote dialogue between players. Last but not least, we want to give publishers and designers tools to make their games more accessible so that more people can enter (or stay in) the hobby.

In the next blog post, we’ll look at how a Tutorials are built in Dized, and what kind of considerations go into their planning.

Until next time!

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