Matt M. Casey on Golem Arcana, one of the new offerings whose gameplay leaps from tabletop to tablet.

Michael Mulvihill carries the rule book, army sheets and tutorial for his latest tabletop war game with him everywhere he goes. Despite his long history in the gaming industry — which includes work on the influential 1990s Battletech war game — carrying his game materials has never been easier.

"I carry it on my phone all the time," Mulvihill said.

His latest game, Golem Arcana, doesn't have a traditional rule book. Instead, publisher Harebrained Schemes embedded all of the game's rules, army statistics and tutorials into an app compatible with most modern tablets and phones.

The app isn't limited to a simple rules codex; while players maneuver their three-dimensional figures across two-dimensional maps, they communicate all of their choices to the app using a bluetooth stylus. When attacking, players touch the stylus to their chosen attack on the attacking figure's card and then touch the target. The app rolls virtual dice to determine whether the attack succeeds and logs any damage or special effects it caused.

In theory, players could handle all of these tasks with pen, paper, dice and a physical rulebook, but doing so would create a bookkeeping headache. Golem Arcana uses a "cooldown" system that makes each ability more expensive for a short time after it's used. Players could track this with tokens, but they would have to remember to remove the tokens each turn. This would create an enormous opportunity for cheating — or for simple mistakes that change the outcome of the game.

But Golem Arcana doesn't allow players the pen and paper option. It has no physical rulebook. Anyone who wants to play must use the app.

And Golem Arcana isn't alone. By the end of 2014, three different publishers will have released tabletop games that use smart device apps as an integral part of the game. Fantasy Flight Games demonstrated its app-enabled board game version of the XCOM video game at Gen Con, and Czech game company CGE announced that it would release an app-enabled game called Alchemists at October's Essen game festival in Germany.

While publishers have sold board games with electronic components since 1910, this new wave breaks away from the pack. In the earliest electronic games, players plugged one end of a wire into a question and the other into an answer. The right question/answer combo lit a bulb. While novel, the system accomplished nothing that players couldn't handle with Trivial Pursuit-style cards.

That novel-but-meaningless trend continued through the 1980s boom in microcomputer-enhanced board games that gave us Electronic Talking Battleship. In some cases, the electronic components improved games, but weren't integral to them. Until now, electronic components made their biggest impact on board games in titles like Operation. The surgery-themed children's classic wouldn't be possible without an electronic circuit — but it's not exactly a strategy game.

That's not the case for this year's entries. Designer Matúš Kotry's Skyrim-inspired Alchemists challenges players to investigate alchemical reactions. Players publish theories about the alchemical ingredients that (they hope) match their randomized true natures. Publishing a theory gains players money and fame, but they risk losing both if their educated guesses turn out to be wrong. They get data for their guesses by choosing two of the eight ingredients at a time and mixing them.

In the earliest prototypes, Kotry acted as a game master. He shuffled cards to determine each ingredient's true nature and looked at each players' mixtures to tell them how their ingredients reacted. The role struck Kotry as mechanical and boring — the kind of task better handled by a computer.
"I had this idea early in the design," Kotry said. "Now everyone is carrying a little computer in his pocket."

By the time he pitched the game to its publisher, he had already prototyped the app himself. The program randomizes the ingredients' natures at the start of the game and uses the device's camera to feed players the information they need; when players mix two ingredients, they place them on a stand and snap a picture. The app acts as a digital game master and tells the player how the ingredients react.

Early versions of the app struggled in dim lighting conditions, Kotry said. It's still not perfect, but it works consistently enough to make Alchemsits marketable. While the game will include the components necessary to play with a game master, it might have been unsellable if that were the only way to play. Outside of tabletop role playing games and a handful of children's games, the modern tabletop game market is nearly devoid of games that require a moderator.

XCOM's app takes a similar approach. The app randomizes the phase order of each turn and keeps players on a clock. One player (the central officer) manages the app and tells the other players when they need to act. When players finish an action, the central officer taps a button to enter the next phase and banks the leftover time. The game allows players to spend banked time when the team needs a few seconds to consider their current conditions.

The result is a rare experience for board games. Players whip through turns at high-pressure as they urge each other to make tricky choices as quickly as possible. This gives XCOM an atmosphere similar to being on the bridge during a Star Trek battle.

All of this might have been possible with shuffled cards and sand timers, but it would have been challenging at best. At worst, it would have been too clunky to be fun.

For all three games, the app — at the very least — speeds up play. This is especially true for Golem Arcana. Once players acclimate to the bluetooth pen interface, they can usually complete a game in roughly 45 minutes. Traditional tabletop wargames can take several hours, and players spend much of that time consulting the rulebook.

The most recent core rulebook for the popular Warhammer miniatures game, for example, spans 528 pages. If players forget a rule — such has how hills affect ranged attacks — they have to check the index, find the right page, read the section describing the rule and then decide how it applies to their situation.

"That's 15-20 minutes of gameplay in any other game," Mulvhill said. "We cut it down to 8-10 seconds."

Harebrained Schemes, Mulvhill said, made it a priority to remove the rulebook as a roadblock. Players can open a Golem Arcana box and begin learning the game within minutes. The app's built-in tutorial walks players through the basics. Once they understand those, they can build their own armies and start battling their way through the game's digitally-enhanced campaign world.

Many tabletop games — particularly miniatures combat games — include a scenario flowchart that players can progress through based on each battle's outcome. When the Gudanna Dominion player defeats Durani Empire player in Golem Arcana, though, the app automatically queues up the digital file for the next scenario. The app also uploads the results to Harebrained Schemes, who uses the aggregate outcomes to determine broad story events.

In casual games, Golem Arcana can take surprising turns. Players sometimes randomly encounter hidden characters that give them quests in the middle of a battle.

Mitch Gitelman, one of the company's founders, said that this "evolution of gaming" has been possible because 80 percent of gamers now own some kind of smart device. Earlier developers who attempted to sell similar products found that the market wasn't ready. And, as smart device saturation grows, this digital-meets-cardboard evolution will expand beyond Golemn Arcana, XCOM and Alchemists.

"We have all sorts of ideas," Giteleman said.
As the sub-genre grows, it will almost certainly attract a handful of poorly conceived titles. New ideas always do. But the three app-enabled board games reaching consumers in 2014 show that this new genre has the potential to forever change tabletop games. For the better.

Photo: Wikimedia