Cardboard Children – Golem Arcana

Hello youse.

Golem Arcana is a weird one. It’s certainly cool. There will come a point, during the game, where you will go: “Haha! Cool!” You will have moved one of your wee men on the board, and moved him on your tablet, and you’ll see him fight and all the stats stuff will just happen. And you’ll go: “Cool!”

And then you’ll scratch your head and say: “Um.”

Golem Arcana is a miniatures game that takes place on a board and on a tablet of your choice. The app is free. You download it and then you sync it up with this big magic pen thing that comes with the board game.

The thing looks like a Sonic Screwdriver. It’s a bluetooth enabled magical “reading stuff” pen. If you touch it to the base of a miniature, you can see all the miniature’s stats and abilities on the screen of your tablet. What the hell is going on?

Okay, let me try to explain how all this stuff works.

You choose one of the missions from the app. It shows you how to lay out the board. You place big cardboard tiles on your table, choose your faction, and place the appropriate miniatures. The miniatures are lovely big things, by the way. Well-painted, and reminiscent of the baddies from the game Bayonetta. They’re like big angel things with wings and metal faces. And people ride on them.

Now, let’s say you are playing a simple player vs player “kill all opponent miniatures” type of scenario. Your board will be set. A couple of minis on one side and a couple on the other. Your tablet will be beside the board, mirroring what is there.

Here’s where it gets cool. You tap your stylus on a square on the board, and the tablet will tell you all about that part of the terrain – how much movement you need to spend to go through it, and what kind of advantage it gives a miniature on that space.

Now, every unit has its own card. You don’t have to tap a miniature with a stylus. You can tap a card instead. You tap your unit’s card, tap WALK on the card, and then tap a space on the board. Your unit, on the tablet, will move. You can then mirror that move with your physical miniature. If you want to attack, you’d tap your miniature (or card), tap another miniature that is in range, and the app will apply all the variables and give you a number you need to hit with a die roll. You can let the app roll for you, if you want. If you prefer physical dice, like a rational human being, you can roll real dice and then tell the app what you rolled by tapping an input card with the stylus.

So you roll. Take the input card. Tap 6-9 for a 69. And then the result is applied on the tablet’s screen. You will see the unit’s health bar take a hit. And then your attack will move into “cooldown” – this is tracked on the tablet’s screen too.

Wow. You with me?

Okay, so let’s get this straight. You have physical miniatures. Beautiful miniatures. You have a game running on your tablet. Everything you do on the board is mirrored on the app. This feels unbelievably weird.

There’s a strange disconnect between the two things. It fades after a few plays, sure, but it’s always there. You’re always going:

Board.
Screen.
Board.
Screen.

And that just feels odd. It feels as if you’re constantly distracted. But maybe it’s just because this experience hits you as entirely new. It’s so… weird.

Here’s what’s amazing, though. The way the app tracks stuff, like health and cooldowns and conditions and effects, is hugely exciting. Golem Arcana, by using the app to take charge of all that process, does things that a board game couldn’t do. (Well, a board game could do it, and they often have, but you’re talking about games of much higher complexity. Golem Arcana allows for lots of cool stuff with the absolute minimum of book-keeping, which makes it very accessible.)

Is the game good? Yes, it’s a solid miniatures skirmish game. It’s nothing remarkable, but there’s plenty to get your teeth into, and the app’s supervision allows for a lot of cool abilities and effects to be strung through the flow of gameplay. What really excites me is the potential for the game further down the line.

I told you that in the setup of the game you choose a scenario and the app tells you how to lay it all out, right? Well – the app can allow for any one tile, or any one space, to be anything it likes. In one scenario a space might just be a hill. But in another scenario, the same space on your board may be of greater significance. It might award power, or points. A space, any space, can pretty much be anything. The use of the “second screen”, on the tablet, allows for a huge amount of variety and freedom in scenario design. I’m keen to see how this gets exploited.

Man. But it is so weird.

Take a look at this video. It explains it all pretty well.

If it’s cool with all of you, I might revisit this game on these pages in a month or two. I want more plays, to see if that strange sense of detachment goes away completely. Is this a board game? Or is it a miniatures game? Or is it a computer game? Do we need the board? Why do we have the board? Do we need the minis? Why aren’t we just playing on the app? Because that wouldn’t be cool?

Golem Arcana is worth checking out, for sure. And if you do check it out – tell me what you think.

It’s just so weird. And cool.

From this site

32 Comments

  1. Jakkar says:

    We finally reached the future, just a few years ago. We may be the first human generation to reach this point. I think of it as a sort of singularity, however silly the toys it provides – human expectations are beginning to be surpassed by the pace of development. The wars of wide-eyed wonder and cynicism are coming.

  2. Emeraude says:

    As one of those remaining people refusing to use a cellphone, I must say I’m looking at the development of those games warily.

    Thank god I’ll be dead before it becomes an issue.

    • thebigJ_A says:

      Person.
      Remaining person.

      It’s a bloody telephone just get one. You’re not making a statement or meaningful lifestyle choice. (Hint: you can mute it whenever you want)

      • Emeraude says:

        And then you have to deal with people pestering you about daring to put it on mute. Na frankly, I’d have no land line either if it was manageable.

  3. Shieldmaiden says:

    The concept of a digitally enhanced board game is certainly intriguing, but that just seems to make the actual board game bit redundant.

    • Konil says:

      Well, to me at least the true value of a good board game comes from the interactions between the players. I do find some games mechanically interesting and engaging, I would even say that the physical element of boardgaming is very alluring, but digital mediums are much better at offering complex systems.

      The one thing that digital can’t ever hope to incorporate is the human interaction of a good board game. No amount of technological innovation will offer the same experience as looking and your friend in the eye and realize that he’s been playing with you, that he is a traitorous bastard and that he’s gonna fuck you over on the next turn.The mind games and theatrics of a good board game are producible in the digital space.

      Barring from a Matrix-style simulation, of course.

      • Shieldmaiden says:

        Oh, yes. I totally agree. What I was getting at is that, from the description, the game seems less of a digitally-enhanced board game than a digital game which has you moving some pieces around on the table. You seem to be playing the game on the tablet and then moving the physical stuff about. Kind of like playing a game of chess on a computer and then moving each piece on a physical board once you’ve made the move.

        • untoreh says:

          It seems that way. How it seems to be the miniatures are just a show off on what’s happening under the hood. To make this successful the miniatures should feed back to the tablet some ground data, maybe provided by gravity and proximity sensors embedded in the miniatures and with a Bluetooth connection to pair the items. This would make the stuff much more expensive but it would make the digital dualism actually balanced, and avoid the physical scenario to be a mere representation.

      • DrollRemark says:

        The one thing that digital can’t ever hope to incorporate is the human interaction of a good board game. No amount of technological innovation will offer the same experience as looking and your friend in the eye and realize that he’s been playing with you, that he is a traitorous bastard and that he’s gonna fuck you over on the next turn.

        Except for, err, local multiplayer?

        • Reapy says:

          This game actually opens a lot of questions about what makes a computer game vs a board game. A simple thing is, why couldn’t this work as a local multiplayer game on a console, 4 friends on a couch playing a turn based battle arena?

          Is it the simple act of sitting in a circle around a table so you face each other rather than all on one side facing a tv?

          I think the pen is a neat technology but it seems like too much work to rely on the tablet to know what is going on,. You essentially have to make all of your moves twice, and the board doesn’t seem to be giving you much of anything except a mirror of everything’s position. For the rest you seem to have to squint at a small tablet to know what you can do next turn or whatever else.

  4. Scurra says:

    It’s still worth observing that Dark Tower did most of this more than thirty years ago… Cooldowns, status tracking, random but calculable combat outcomes – it was all there.

  5. Shiloh says:

    This is an odd coincidence. I was playing Eldritch Horror tonight and was thinking how handy it would be if QR codes were built into the game so you could assign assets and conditions to individual investigators and never miss a Reckoning or any other modifier/action based on the cards. You’d just scan the card’s QR code and assign it.

    Then I started thinking, actually that’s the antithesis of board gaming, and that in fact interpreting and implementing the rule set is a massive part of the fun. So I vote “no” to hybrid games. You might as well be playing a computer game. I love PC games for what they are, don’t get me wrong, but board games are a different beast represent a different experience, and should be kept as such.

    • mechabuddha says:

      This is what I love about board games. To play a board game properly, I have to internalize the rules and then act upon them. I not only learn the system, I become the system. I am both game engine and player!

  6. Hensler says:

    Saw this at GenCon – I think it’s a good idea, but this is too wonky and takes too much focus off the actual physical game. The tablet integration on X-Com, on the other hand, was fantastic.

  7. frenz0rz says:

    It sounds interesting and I like how a lot of the heavy-lifting in terms of bookkeeping and such can potentially be done away with (I find Blood Bowl much more fun on PC for instance, as I don’t have to do all the calculations), but I’m worried that all this tablet stuff sets a dangerous precedent.

    What if apps become the norm and gradually replace certain bits and bobs that make up the typical board game experience? Is it cheaper for a publisher to produce lots and lots of little cards and figures and dice and tokens, or is it cheaper to design an app that somehow takes the place of all that (or at least a large part of it)?

    A big part of the reason I love boardgames is the physicality of it. Moving your little ships around in Cosmic Encounter; having tickets, counters, cards and health tokens strewn everywhere in Eldritch Horror; building a massive rainbow web of carriages in Ticket to Ride; assembling a random island from tiles in Catan; all that wonderful physical stuff contributes to the experience of getting a few mates around a table and having an adventure.

    I struggle to see my gaming group all crowding around a tablet like that.

    • Shiloh says:

      Amen, brother. Board gaming is a tactile/sensory thing as much as it is a cerebral thing. It’s like reading a physical book compared with reading the same book on the Kindle.

      Board gaming is social as well, in a way that online multiplayer games never can be. The good Lord preserve us from the day you get 4 of us round a table, intently staring at our phones as the game works out our rolls, modifiers and actions, for us then to “execute” on the board. What would the point be?

      • Rizlar says:

        It doesn’t sound like they quite nailed it with Golem Arcana, but the potential is there for digitally supplemented boardgames to be really cool. Someone just has to figure out how to make it work really, really well.

        Seems like the big problem outlined in this article is that you constantly need to update the screen with what is happening on the board and vice versa. They’ve clearly tried to address this with the pen thingy as a tactile interface with both board and screen, but it still sounds like a massive distraction. But there must be a better way to integrate privately visible, on-screen underlying mechanics and exciting board game action. Hm.

      • blastaz says:

        I don’t see what’s less social about four people sitting round a table playing a game and referencing stuff on their smart phones vs looking it up in a manual.

        Then again I find mourning the demise of the physical book the same as missing velum or Betamax.

        • gwathdring says:

          Books are a different thing. Books don’t have the same decay rate or technological dependence as a VHS does. Books has a greater permanence than a lot of older mediums.

          Digital books carry disadvantages that, say, the upgrade from DVD to VHS does not carry.

          Board games are less extreme than books in this regard, but digital board games, if designed incautiously, can require ALL players to have the relevant technology rather than a single host player. That’s a huge advantage of current board games. You just need one copy and one person ready to lug it to the gathering in order to have five, eight or however many people playing.

          Further, there’s the issue of software compatibility; even taking physical decay of a well played game into account, there are very popular video games that no longer run on modern operating systems and are about as old if not younger than many a board game that’s still alive and kicking. It’s a problem that digitized games should consider very carefully.

          Similarly, there are things I can do with a paper book that cannot be easily done with all devices for and formats of digital books. Annotating, setting multiple books out at once for easy simultaneous referencing, use without electrical access, DRM-free reading …

          There are, obviously, advantages to digital as well. But it’s not anywhere near as straightforward as VHS to DVD. :

  8. Diatribe says:

    I don’t see any reason why this isn’t just a computer game. The board seems entirely redundant.

    • malkav11 says:

      There’s a very powerful reason it’s a tabletop game, and that reason is called “being able to sell you expensive miniatures”. Other than that, as far as I can tell you are correct.

    • Rizlar says:

      You could say that about any boardgame too though. But then you would miss out on all the sexy eye contact and stuff that Rab loves. And you would see a lot more of these:

      link to rockpapershotgun.com

      • malkav11 says:

        Not really. Of course you could render pretty much any boardgame as a digital game, and I think there’s some value in doing that (so that I can play with friends that don’t live near me, or play solitaire games without all the hassle), but there is a value to having it exist as a physical object (or objects, really) that you spread out on your table and play concurrently with friends or strangers alike who are right there with you. But what’s the point of having physical components if all of the actual gameplay (as sounds to be the case with Golem Arcana) is happening on the tablet, right down to moving your minis? Is it not then basically just a tablet game that you are for some reason mirroring on a physical board?

  9. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Rab? You’re Adam? Or is it the other way around? Or wait, I’ve got it – every writer here is really Kieron and he roleplays as other writers as he plays games and writes.

  10. HumpX says:

    Weisman is one brilliant motherfucker.

  11. PoLLeNSKi says:

    Surely this is just a stepping stone.

    The end game will be to unroll your massive digital play surface, place your miniatures on top and the have some implementation so that the board knows where your pieces are without having to point with a stylus to tell it (could probably hack it together with kinect and distinctive looking pieces) – thus avoiding the duplicity of movements and looking back and forth between the two… Make the tablet the board.

    Bonus points if they add real, but digital dice that tell the tablet which way up they land.

    • Baines says:

      I expected long ago for some company to make a board game with computerized pieces. Maybe one did, and I just forgot.

      I mean a game where the board was computerized and the pieces all had some kind of ID chip or ID mechanism in them that the board could read. If a company wanted to get fancier, it could even try modular board pieces. The whole thing would of course be prohibitively expensive, though.

      • Hypocee says:

        I guess spammers link to YouTube videos a lot? I can’t get a link through the system, or a restatement of the procedure for unbinning a comment.

        In any case, third time without convenience. It’s probably not as expensive as you think. Technical Illusions, the CastAR people, are doing a grid that identifies and locates cheap RFID stickers for 85 currencies per square meter as part of their Kickstarter and preorders. Largely accurate discussion in Idle Thumbs 130 starting at 26:30.

  12. Hypocee says:

    Saw it in person, more or less in passing, at PAX Prime 2013. My feeling is it’s a shot at a cool target but I find the actual…product?…activity?…really depressing. It seems like more busywork, not less, than a typical RPG or skirmish game and symptomatic of a sort of 1970s lust for gadgetry for its own sake. I mean, Skylanders and Infinity, the two most cynical physical/digital products on the planet, have less muddled, superfluous verbs attached.

    Version 2 on the CastAR could be a neat thing, but then you get into whether its actual design does anything remotely interesting as a skirmish game to compete with the likes of whatever has actually been elegantised down to fit into cardboard – I like Relic Knights and its card mechanisms, but don’t know much about the genre. I’m sure GA does something but what I saw was all fireballs taking off hit points, maybe a stunning ground pound. Woo.

  13. Kefren says:

    “This game is so much fun!”
    “Yes, epic, the battle has been lasting hours!”
    “And now I’ll move … oh. Low battery on my tablet. Have you got a charging cable?”
    “Only for my iPad. Would that work?”
    “Don’t know. Let’s try it.” [5 minutes later] “Mmm. Doesn’t fit. Ask the neighbours?”
    [10 minutes later]
    “That was lucky! I’ll remember to bring a cable next time.”
    “Brill! Let’s finish this! I will destroy you!”
    “Hey, wait, what does this light mean?”
    “Oh, that means the batteries are low in the pendongle.”
    “Erm…”
    “Maybe we should just move the pieces and make ‘Clang!’ and ‘Argh!’ noises like we used to do with 1:72 scale soldiers from the newsagents.”
    “Good idea! Take that! Boom!”
    “Wallop!”
    Meanwhile more toxic metals are mined, more batteries binned, and the Earth shudders closer to collapse.

  14. Opellulo says:

    The integration between board and tablet is intriguing, but i don’t think this is the way to go: tactical boardgames are fun also because of their “physicality”: collecting, building and painting your WH40K army is part of the fun and seeing that whole load of lead degraded to be simply placeholders for a videogame is quite depressing.

    I think the integration can work better if that could do what a boardgame cannot: keep track of visibility, surprise, hidden and stealth. Remind you special or situational rules, managing heights and flying support, things like that, an augmentation of the game, not a duplicate.

    This until i can get my Skylander-like Warhammer Game: collect the miniatures play the units, burn the galaxy!

  15. sass says:

    I thought I’d make a separate entry, rather than reply to a couple of individual posts.

    I backed this on Kickstarter for a few reasons:

    Remote play: I can’t always get to or arrange a game night. While remote play doesn’t take the place of playing face-to-face, the ability to have a game when you feel like it (even if it’s to prevent yourself from getting rusty) is a welcome feature (yet to be implemented mind you).

    Book keeping and adjudicator: The app tracks all of the info, and ensures that all modifiers etc. are not forgotten. I use the word’adjudicator’, but really that’s incorrect given you just aren’t able to execute any moves/actions that aren’t allowed. The system saves you from having lengthy ‘discussions’ about rules & oversights. Which I loathe.

    The lore is quite good & interesting, if that’s your thing. I quite like it.

    The save system: It’s yet to be implemented, but having the ability to resume games & not have to leave them set up for the cat/3 year old to knock over is a sweet (planned) feature.

    As to the building, painting & individualising your army, this game isn’t going to replace that. I daresay that’s not the intended market though. This game is accessible, easy to teach (even though it does have quite a bit of complexity to it) & doesn’t require a lot of time to put it all together. It’s not going to replace Warhammer/Infinity etc. but I could see it being a stepping stone.

    The app allows for events to happen on the board, which sounds cool to me. Also, the app updates with new content, which is supposed to be informed by percentages of which side wins in the scenarios. Which is an interesting idea. Regardless, easily accessed new content!

    On a different note, I’ll admit the app was too distracting to start with. As I’ve played a few more games though and become more familiar & comfortable with it, I’m looking at the app less & less. Instead I’m using the board to inform my actions & staring deep into my opponents eyes… I’d still like a less distracting mode on the app though.

    Quite frankly, I find it fun & though it certainly won’t be for everyone, I suggest it’s worth giving it a shot.