Board gaming is in the midst of a creative “golden age.” But while games thrive on innovation, a paradoxically conservative streak runs through the hobby when it comes to the most fundamental technological shift of the 21st century: the rise of the smartphone.

While publishers have pushed out digital adaptations of hit games like Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride, this is generally a one-way movement; few digital apps and tools are used in physical board games. But there are exceptions.

One of the first high-profile attempts at an analog-digital hybrid was XCOM: The Board Game. Released in 2015, the game offers a cooperative, multiplayer reimagining of the revered video game series that tasks players with repelling an alien invasion of the Earth. Created by Canadian designer Eric Lang, it uses a smartphone app to coordinate the aliens’ sinister plans to enslave the planet.

“I’d been wanting to do a digitally integrated game for years, but it wasn’t until smartphones with big screens really hit critical mass that the time was right to do it,” Lang told Ars. “And when the XCOM license came up, I just knew in my gut that this was the game to do it with. I’ve been a fan of the series since the beginning. Back in the ’90s, my roommate had a copy and I remember thinking it looked a little primitive and kind of dumb, but when I actually played it I said, ‘My God, this is hard.’ I just died all the time.

“It was utterly compelling to me. I played it to the point where I even started dreaming about it.”

Enlarge / XCOM, with the alien control app running on a smartphone.
Owen Duffy

Lang’s previous credits include adaptations of big-name franchises like A Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and the Marvel comic book universe. Over the years, he has acquired a reputation as the go-to guy for tabletop translations that retain deep respect for the spirit of their source material. With XCOM, he distanced himself from the squad-based tactical gameplay portion of the original series, instead putting players in the shoes of top-level officers coordinating a global response to the alien threat.

“I didn’t want to just re-implement the video game as a board game. It would have felt like regurgitation,” he said. “So I thought: what if you could experience being the council, the people who are bossing the players around? What if you’re stuck in the situation room during the worst invasion of all time? I thought about real life disaster scenarios, and why the responses to big traumatic events usually break down. In 99 percent of cases it’s because you have smart, well-intentioned people sitting in a room arguing with limited time to make decisions. Eventually, someone has to make a call, and it’s usually the wrong call, and things fall apart after that.”

The XCOM board game uses a companion app to foster this sense of panic and chaos. The game divides each turn into two stages. First comes a timed round, with players racing against the clock to allocate their limited resources to the troops, air forces, and scientists under their command. At the same time, they must deal with a succession of randomized unfolding crises that threaten to derail their plans. It’s a recipe for acrimony, errors, and confusion, with players shouting over one another and arguing about which of the game’s escalating threats needs to be dealt with first.

“The core things I was looking for were frustration and stress, because that’s what hooked me into the video game in the first place,” said Lang. “The app lets me do that. I wanted to make something that really threatens players and hits them with the unknown. You know that there will be UFOs coming, but you don’t know exactly when or where they’re going to show up; you just have to be prepared. And if you play a purely analog cooperative game, there’s a lot of bookkeeping and responsibility that falls on the players. On every round, you’ll typically have to draw a card that’s going to screw with you in some way. But with the app handling all of that, you have this cold, distant enemy. Psychologically, it really feels like you’re fighting against this calculating, malicious foe.”

The app also adds to the game’s aesthetics. It comes with a tension-packed techno soundtrack, a science fiction-style user interface, and a news ticker at the bottom of the screen that shows stories about panic and unrest steadily mounting around the globe.

But even as XCOM embraces its digital element, it still relies on traditional mechanisms. After each smartphone-driven timed round comes a resolution phase, where players determine the outcome of the decisions they’ve just made. Players roll dice to decide the outcome of combat. They play ability cards to tilt the tide of events in their favor. They track stats using cardboard chips that progress along printed tracks on the game board.

“The key to XCOM is that, fundamentally, it’s a board game,” said Lang. “What the app is doing is taunting you and threatening you while you’re [playing].”

The blend of traditional tabletop elements and technological innovations seems to have struck a chord with players. XCOM received largely positive reviews on its release. While publisher Fantasy Flight Games doesn’t discuss sales numbers, Lang said that the title has sold “very well.”

Giant golems and the perils of innovation

Other digitally augmented games have found it harder to find a foothold among fans, however.

2014’s fantasy-themed miniature battle game Golem Arcana let players command warring armies of giant, magically infused automatons piloted by elite sorcerer-knights and aided by a pantheon of rival gods. In theory, its creator, Seattle-based video game studio Harebrained Schemes, should have been perfectly placed to bridge the gap between the digital and physical realms. Company founder Jordan Weisman designed the BattleTech miniatures game and the iconic Shadowrun tabletop RPG before working as the creative director of Microsoft’s games division. While the company had previously produced video game adaptations of Weisman’s analog titles, Golem Arcana marked its first foray into the tabletop industry.

To fans of battle games like Warhammer or Malifaux, many elements of Golem Arcana might feel familiar. Players build customised armies of figures, each with their own set of strengths, weaknesses, and abilities, then take turns maneuvering the troops around a modular battlefield and launching attacks against enemy units.

But the game’s major innovation was its electronic smart stylus—a chunky piece of plastic that looked like a post-apocalyptic take on the magic wand.

“Other than the app, it’s the only piece of tech in the game,” said Brian Poel, one of the game’s designers. “The front end is an infrared camera, and the back end is a Bluetooth transmitter. All of the printed surfaces in the game—like the cards, the map tiles, the bases of the miniatures—have an extra layer of ink that you can’t really see when you look at them, but if you were to zoom in with a microscope, they actually look like tiny little QR codes which the stylus reads and transmits to the app.”

Enlarge / Golem Arcana, complete with electronic “wand.”

“So the app knows what figure you’re pointing at, which part of the board you’re on, what kind of attack you’re requesting to do,” said Poel. “It remembers the bonuses and penalties that have been applied over the course of the battle. It means you’ll never forget a modifier or accidentally move a figure too far. It takes care of all of those details and lets you play at a fun, strategic level rather than down in the weeds keeping track of everything.”

Handing the hard work over to the app and stylus meant that the game could feature a level of complexity not normally seen in tabletop titles.

“It let us introduce a video game style of design,” Poel said. “If you were playing a video game, you would expect to see lots of modifiers, conditional effects, and things that would be extremely frustrating if you had to keep track of them with tokens and pieces of paper. But because it’s doing all of this for you, it’s possible to tap into these expectations and provide a much wider variety of special effects, of choices that you’re making, and the cognitive load involved is very low.”

The app also reported data back to the game’s designers, giving them insights into how players built their armies, what combinations of units and items were popular, and what sort of tactics players had the greatest success with in their games. This data allowed the studio to tweak gameplay mechanisms and point values to subtly balance the game, avoiding the “overpowered units” that have long been one of the main complaints about analog war games.

Golem Arcana sparked interest on its release, and in 2015 it picked up a prestigious Origins Award for the year’s best miniature battle game. But commercial success was harder to find; earlier this year, the team behind the game announced that development would cease.

“One of the problems we had was just in terms of explaining to people exactly what they were getting in this box,” Poel said. “Another was that as a video game company, we didn’t have access to the distribution and marketing networks to get the game in front of prospective customers.

“But specifically in wargaming, for some players there’s a challenge and an enjoyment in mastering a complex rules set and keeping it all in their heads. It becomes part of their tactical advantage in the game, and for some players, a game that levels that playing field and lowers the barriers to entry could be intruding into that.”

The untimely demise of Golem Arcana shows the risks that go hand in hand with innovation. But these risks haven’t stopped other designers from working on new digitally augmented games of their own.

Choices and consequences

Among these designers is Ignacy Trzewiczek, whose upcoming game First Martians features an app which opens up a complex, evolving story mode for players to explore.

“The game is scenario-driven, and you’re playing a group of astronauts trying to survive in a habitat on Mars,” Trzewiczek said. “The app lets me drive the story and make it incredibly immersive.