Pocket Tactics Presents: A Guide to Boardgame Companion Apps

By Matt Skidmore 03 Oct 2017 6

The crossover between board games and technology is by no means a new phenomenon. In 1981 families were battling the evil king in Milton Bradley’s Dark Tower, and by the 1990’s millions of households had an Atmosfear video lurking at the back of their VCR cabinet. These early examples were inevitably hampered by technological limitations. However, these days, everyone, apart from my dad, has a smartphone that is just waiting to be pushed beyond a call home to check which brand of fish fingers to purchase.

Developers have wasted little time in designing a range of apps. These range from simple player-aids to full digital integration.


Keeping Score

When it feels like the end of game scoring requires a degree in mathematics it may be time to let your smartphone help with the number crunching.

Android apps such as Agricola Buddy are there to help when you run out of fingers totting up the rewards for your agricultural endeavours. Other apps go a stage further, like the official 7 Wonders Companion (iOS Universal), which will help calculate final scores and track statistics so that you can check your progress over time. RFTH-scorer (iPhone) is even smarter, allowing players of Race For the Galaxy to take a photograph of their final card layout, which will then be used to automatically calculate final scores. If you are looking for something a little more flexible then try AN Tracker (iOS Universal), it offers support for numerous games and provides an elegant and simple way to track scores and game progression.


Clock Watching

Timers are an obvious, but no less useful way of enhancing board games, the most obvious examples being the numerous chess timers that are available on both app stores.

Taking their cue from the videotape timer used in Atmosfear there are several modern games that use timer apps and soundtracks to create tension and urgency. Space Alert (Android) is a cooperative survival game in which players are crewmembers of a small space ship and must react to the backing track to overcome various emergencies. Whilst in Escape: Curse of the Temple players must work collaboratively against a timed soundtrack to flee before the temple collapses. XCOM: The Board Game is based on a franchise that should be familiar to the vast majority of readers. The board game allows up to four players to take on the app-controlled alien invasion. Players have to respond to threats that are thrown at them by the app in real-time before engaging in the untimed resolution phase.

Yo Ho

A Helping Hand

More complicated games especially lend themselves to app support.

Better Settlers (Android) is one of a number of Settlers Of Catan apps that will randomly generate maps using an algorithm to ensure fair and engaging layouts. Dominion probably has more apps than it does expansions, helping to track points and randomise card selections. The Arkham Horror Toolkit (iPhone) includes a bunch of helpful features including a dice roller, investigator tracking sheets and interactive maps. Scythe players should take a look at ScytheKick (iOS Universal), a utility that randomises factions, keeps score and offers automata for solo play.

Are you a wargamer, having problems keeping track of your army lists? BattleScribe (iOS|Android) is a utility that allows players to view and share army lists for a wide range of game systems using data files created and maintained by an active community. Other, more tailored options also exist, such as Aurora Squad Builder that lets you quickly and easily create lists for Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures directly on your iPhone.


Masters and Keepers

Apps are great for overseeing the boring stuff, leaving the players free to focus on the fun.

Alchemists is a game of deduction, a bit like a complex version of that old family favourite Mastermind. It can be played without digital assistance, but someone has to do all the dull fiddly stuff whilst watching the other players have all the fun. Players mix ingredient cards, take a photo, and the app works out the effects of the potion. The first edition of Mansions of Madness had one player taking on the role of The Keeper whilst the others worked cooperatively to solve the mystery. The second edition of this supernatural detective game transforms the game into a fully cooperative experience, with The Keeper being controlled by an app. This removes the pain from setting the game and eliminates the likelihood of mistakes. The mansion itself is now revealed room by room, complete with spooky narration that greatly enhances the atmosphere.


New Worlds

Some recent board games have a total reliance on technology. Let’s see what your smartphone is really capable of.

Beasts of Balance (iOS|Android) is a game of dexterity in which players construct a tower of animals. The animals have Bluetooth transmitters that communicate with the app. When they are placed on the building plinth the animal will be magically transferred to the digital world. Some pieces have special powers, allowing animals to migrate to different landscapes or to even indulge in a little Doctor Moreau style interbreeding. In Mask Of Moai (iOS|Android) one player dons the virtual reality headset, inserts their smartphone and is transported into a 3D maze. The player then has one minute to describe what they see to the rest of the team, who then attempt to recreate the maze. Lurking around some corners are strange creatures that the explorer has to remember and recreate using modelling clay.

The swashbuckling World of Yo-Ho transforms your smartphone into a pirate ship, and you don’t even have to worry about it being waterproof. Just download the app, place your phone on the map and set sail. Gameplay involves moving your phone around the map to accept and complete missions and battle other ships. Golem Arcana (also on Android) looks like a traditional fantasy miniatures wargame. However, it includes an electronic stylus, which is used to scan the individual units. From this information, a digital map is created that keeps track of units and displays movement and action options. Battles are also handled electronically, with all combat modifiers being applied automatically. In First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet, players are thrown into a hostile Martian environment and must take on a range of adventures and challenges, all overseen by the app. The plan is that the designers will be able to provide quick updates and free additional content. Hence, creator Ignacy Trzewiczek calls it a “living board game.”

First Martians

A Look Beyond

There are a lot of interesting new projects on the horizon.

Dized is an app that is currently enjoying a successful funding campaign on Indiegogo. Pick a board game and Dized will teach you to play it step by step, without having to spend ages reading through rulebooks. Finally, all of you Dungeons & Dragons fans will be delighted to hear that there are plans for an app version of the recently unleashed D&D Beyond website. The site lets players create and store characters, peruse items and monsters and consult digital D&D tomes and whilst you are waiting for the app you can still use the online version.

It is clear that there is a growing trend for board game designers to experiment with app integration. Opinions within the board game community are polarised. Some argue that tabletop games offer the opportunity for social interaction and an escape from the electronic devices that increasingly govern our lives. Others point out that digital integration offers unlimited potential to push the hobby in new and innovative ways. Not everyone is keen, but it certainly triggers innovation and may help bring more of the smartphone generation into the board game hobby.



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