Heart of the Cardboard: Exploring the future of app-driven board games

By Anna Blackwell 26 Jun 2018 0

With the smartphone proliferation of the past decade there’s been an inevitable, (but so far restrained) trend developing in the world of board games. Depending on who you’re talking to, this new development is causing a bit of stir.

No, we’re not just talking about ports-to-digital – we’re being well served there – what we rather mean is the slow creep of digital being hard-coded into board game design. That’s right, we’re talking about board games that are largely driven by companion apps.

At their most base level these companion apps are a digital component that interacts with the boardgame/card game in some way. Whether this is a digital narrator, augmented reality, or an AI that controls the movement of the other pieces, these apps change the way we think about boardgame design. This is in contrast to utility apps, which simply enhance or assist in gameplay but are not required to actually play the game in question.

Leading the charge

Let’s take Rudy Games’ Cold War strategy game Leaders as our first example. At first glance. Leaders looks like a Risk spin-off except with a realistic world map that actually includes New Zealand. You wouldn’t be far wrong with that summary either. What allows Leaders to stand apart from its classic counterpart is its virtual headquarters. From the app you can conduct espionage and sabotage, complete missions, and forge secret alliances. All of which is done through your device which - now this is important - records that you have made these decisions.


A couple of years back while I was studying computer game design I tried making an alien invasion boardgame where one player played the aliens and the other played the humans trying to mount a resistance. One of the mechanics I had planned was a fog of war where players could stash units in buildings without the other player seeing what units were or even where they were. The main problem with this was that without gimmicky board design it all came down to player trust. Players would have to admit to each other that “yeah, that grenade you tossed through the window would have totally got my guards.” Which was never going to happen. However, with Leaders tracking your moves through an impartial digital referee, there’s no need for that trust. If my army gets sabotaged right before a key invasion and I lose because of it, then I can’t rightfully complain; the app knows all.

Bridging the Gap

Another take on app-driven games is XCOM: The Board Game, the cardboard adaptation of Firaxis’ XCCOM: Enemy Unknown. The main selling point is that the alien invasion is controlled by the accompanying app. You and your friends control the elite military organization XCOM as you fight against the invaders and the app also also dictates turn order, resolution and pacing of the player actions.

XCOM: The Board Game somewhat blurs the line between analogue and digital. Is it a boardgame with a companion app or a mobile game with a physical board? The answer is both and that annoys some purists. But putting them to the side for a minute, this new combined medium offers up a lot of new potential to developers on both sides of the divide.


App developers can now work with physical components. Take Sensible Object’s Beasts of Balance, a boardgame where you balance animals, elements, and interaction pieces atop a plinth and try to evolve and grow your app-side creatures as much as possible without the tower falling. Purely as a boardgame it would be mildly entertaining at best. Purely as an app it would have flopped and died. But put both of the elements together, where you physically tap the animal to the reader and see it come to life in the game world? Brilliant! And the tension it creates by having the app give you a few seconds to put a fallen tower back together again takes away the Jenga finality and adds in a strangely wonderful air of desperation that has kept me coming back for more. And while these represent large physical investments, not all games have to be.

By now, it’s fair to say that most people (never mind gamers specifically) have some kind of smart device; be that phone, tablet or something else. Provided developers make sure they hit the key beats of iOS and Android (and Amazon, if there’s time), then there’s no danger to your potential player base. Furthermore, provided you design the game well enough you only need one person out of a potential group of 4-6 to actually need a smartphone or tablet. There’s never been a better opportunity to go high-tech.

Games to Life

Lightseekers by TOMY is a great example here. Part trading card game, part mobile RPG, and part augmented reality game. The card game itself serves as a way to enjoy collecting the various cards that you want for the mobile RPG. Every card is scannable and provides your characters with spells, boosts, or even summonable pets that fight for you. It’s pretty clear to see the Skylanders influence but this shows an important step in game design with useable, physical microtransactions. These are cards you’re going to buy anyway and with the booster pack culture of TCGs, you’re going to be seeing a lot of cards over and over again so why not put them to use? Also, the little augmented reality moment where your hero appears atop the card to get their new bonus is pretty nifty. Sort of like the ARG cards that shipped with the Nintendo 3DS but with a purpose.

So, we’ve established that companion apps can be used as rules arbiters for high strategy games like Leaders, as opponent-components in games like XCOM: The Board Game, and as a way to bridge the gap between the digital and physical like in Lightseekers. But what about physical games that have an app-based teaching component?


Mensa award nominee Colour Chess by DogEared Games is an interesting new take on dusty fan favourite Chess. Its colour mechanics add a new layer of strategy that are pretty simple to learn but difficult to master and like all good remix games, it comes with a couple other variants packed in with it. The problem is, you might not have someone to play with. Or you might need to practice and are sick of your Chess buff friends calling you a dumb-ass. Well Colour Chess has your back with its companion app that allows you to practice against an AI and play with players online (in a digital only sense, but you could set the board up and copy the moves for better spatial awareness).

Like them or not, companion apps are expanding the potential of boardgames and apps and as technology progresses and gets cheaper to produce, we can expect more to come. Even party games like One Night Werewolf are getting in on the action with an app that handles the night time narration and turn order, meaning everyone can play at once.

And if that means that I can view my Yu-Gi-Oh battles through an augmented reality app and actually see them fight, then I’m happy with this new future Oh, wait, they already made that too.

What are your thoughts on app driven boardgames? Let us know in the comments!



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