The Digital Renovation - Incorporating Apps Into The Board Game World

This article is due to be published in the UK Games Expo magazine for 2015 later this year. However for those who are followers of my blog, here's an early viewing of the article, noting however that images and some paragraphs may be subject to change in the final product!

One of the best parts of owning a board game is all the pieces you get to manipulate during play. The chunky wooden pieces, the linen-finished cards, the metal coins and the hordes of plastic miniatures. We pay a hefty price for our quality board games (and more so in the UK annoyingly, but I digress) and we expect to get our money’s worth whether by pristine components or fantastic gameplay.

As the years have come and gone, the technology that goes into making these games has improved and as such not only are we getting better components but also some innovative ideas in game design. However nowadays we are starting to see a trend whereby game publishers and designers are taking advantage of the smartphone craze that has taken over the social media world as we know it. Games are no longer simply ported over onto iOS and Android as alternatives to their cardboard counterparts, but now apps are starting to be used as companions (e.g. 7 Wonders & Sentinels of the Multiverse) and recently even as direct replacements for components in a game (e.g. X-Com & Alchemists).

This has started to cause a little ruckus among gamers where we essentially have two sides. Firstly there are those who welcome the addition of new technology into modern gaming. And secondly those who prefer the tactile feel of components and don’t want apps to remove what made older board games great. Where do I fit in personally? Well no spoilers here, so read on!


Firstly let’s look briefly at the straight up game ports that have been around for several years now. Classic games such as Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Agricola have had outstanding digital alternatives made which don’t lose any of the fun factors that made the originals great. And new games are also getting ports made fairly quickly after their release.

But some might argue that this is hurting the board game market, particularly in the case of high street stores who only sell the physical game. If there is a solid digital version of the game available for less than a fiver, why should we fork out £30+ for a less portable box that takes up valuable shelf space?

Now I’m going to call balderdash on this one for a kick-off, at least for the most part. Firstly in terms of hurting the gaming market, this is really only going to affect high street stores. Designers are more than happy for their game to be sold in multiple formats to spread their name around and publishers will always earn off the license depending on how closely they are involved with the distribution of the app itself.

Now with regards to high street stores, let’s remember one of the primary reasons that we love board games so much. Not the game itself, not the pretty pieces, but the social aspect of it. Unless you are living in your Caverna dwelling alone somewhere with your board game room banning all visitors then I’m sure you enjoy playing your games in groups more often than alone. Now I’m an advocate for solo gaming given that I live alone and we all lead busy lives with jobs and family commitments, but even I prefer to whip out Arkham Horror with a posse rather than take on Cthulhu myself.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make here? Well I’m saying that no matter how good a digital port is it’s never going to replace the atmosphere and fun that’s to be had in playing a physical game with a group in person. When you set aside an evening for family time, do you then sit at a table passing an Ipad around for Ticket to Ride? Of course you don’t, you pull out that box, unload those plastic trains and coloured cards on the table and shout at your significant other for stealing your last route to Miami.

So those stores are still going to sell those physical games because the ports should be seen as a secondary alternative; a platform for those who want to play their favourite games but don’t have the time or are stuck on long journeys. However I will say that two player games are a concern in this regard because the digital versions can actually surpass the need for the original in some cases. I’m going to throw out Star Realms and Neuroshima Hex as a couple of examples where I believe the port is so good, it almost renders the physical board game obsolete, but even these are selling well in both formats so what do I know?


Not to be confused with large cubes designed by a maniacal AI system, these apps are less common, but in my mind, a highly under-used niche that should be developed more. I call these “companion apps” which act as an aid to the original game whether by randomizing variable setups at the start, speeding up the scoring at the end or keeping the gameplay flowing smoothly by helping with fiddly book-keeping.

My three most used examples personally are 7 Wonders Companion, One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Sentinels of the Multiverse: Sidekick. The former is essentially an iconography database, but it’s main feature is the great end-game scoring function that really speeds things up and solves the potential issue of getting your sums wrong especially in 7 player games. The latter takes care of the fiddly book-keeping by tracking hit points and status effects so you don’t have to keep messing with tokens all the time. And finally One Night Ultimate Werewolf takes us through the night phase with clear and concise narration by Eric Summerer so that I don’t have to lose my voice doing it myself and trust me I’ve tried!

This is where I see apps really shining with board gaming for the future. None of these apps are mandatory requirements for the game. You can happily play the physical game and ignore the app entirely, it’s not like you’re been forced to use it. But they do the game credit by improving on the original flaws it once had. If you’ve ever listened to my podcast you’ll know that Sentinels of the Multiverse is my No 1 game, but I never play this without my Ipad next to me taking care of the Hit Point and Status tracking so I can get more immersed in the theme. And in the majority of cases, they don’t even remove the use of any of the original components bar a score pad or the odd token. So you still have the tactile “buzz” you get from playing the game physically.

I never really hear gamers complain about the use of a companion app and with good reason. They are a useful tool, nothing more. Designed to improve your experience of the physical game by letting the technology take care of the fiddly aspects that stall proceedings; who can honestly say that’s not a good idea? I’m hoping that publishers really take advantage of this and promote this further in the future.


Now we’ve reached possibly the most controversial part of the digital renovation and one which has only really dipped its toes in the pool in the last few months, but my prediction is that from 2015 onwards we’re going to see more of this creeping in, but at a slow rate. This is where apps aren’t simply just a companion of the game, but are a mandatory or essential part of the game for it to even function. Right now at the time of writing this article, we only have three culprits in this field, that being Alchemists, Golem Arcana and X-Com: The Board Game. Alchemist’s requires an app to handle the setup of the hidden chemical formula's for each ingredient as well as the potion mixing itself. X-Com’s app dictates the entire flow of the game based on the scenario and difficulty chosen. And finally Golem Arcana handles unit movement and statistics with its very cool and unique Bluetooth Microdot Camera system.

Now not only is the app replacing aspects that could be handled by manual components, it’s also in some way telling the story of the game. Alchemist’s is more light in this aspect as technically it is possible to have a player “sit out” and run the game manually without the app but let’s face it, who on earth is doing that? X-Com however takes over to the extent that all of the tutorials and rules for playing the game are on the app meaning the rule book literally is a couple of setup diagrams and a component list.

The typical argument heard in this area is that the app is reducing the need for tactile components and as a result the gamer is not getting value for money in the box. Now this is a legitimate concern, but not one that I feel has been proven yet. It can potentially be an issue when most of a game is dealt with using an app to the extent that components are no longer required. However apps require money to develop just like a component needs money to produce and so far no publisher has charged additional funds to download their respective mandatory apps. Let’s just hope it stays that way without dubious marketing tactics – if I even get a scent of the word “micro-transaction”……

It should also be noted that in the case of X-Com in particular, the value for money has not suffered despite its mandatory use of the app. You still get high quality components galore in the box to justify your money; the app merely keeps the game flowing smoothly and replaces the need for fiddly card decks to dictate your actions. Not to mention the app provides a fantastic platform to improve on a trend for awful rulebooks in the industry. I think every single board game should at the very least have a tutorial and indexed rulebook within an app because they can help a great deal, again let’s use X-Com as a perfect example where I’ve heard nothing but praise for the tutorial function.

So in essence it’s a case of ensuring that publishers don’t use the app as an excuse to skimp on other aspects of the game. It’s a legitimate concern that some publishers will cut the costs in the physical department if they believe they have a solid app to back it up. Not to mention that we’ll probably still get our games packaged in those large, square, shelf-invading boxes despite the reduction in components. But they’re taking on greater risks if you think about it, because if a single component isn’t great, it usually doesn’t break the game, but if you get the app wrong, that’s a different story.


So we can see what the current market has in terms of using apps within or in tandem with board games. There are plenty of quality games ported on to mobile platforms and I hope that more companion apps are developed to improve on current games and supplement future ones.
As for the prospect of apps replacing our board games - I wouldn’t worry too much. The first examples of games relying heavily on the app have proved to be popular among gamers and none of them have skimped on components.

As long as we all remember that the best part of board gaming is the people we play with, then we can rest assured that high resolution pixels are never going to replace our boxes of wood, cardboard and plastic!