Outsourcing Ancient Evils

Yes, I’ve already written about board games that need an application to work, and if you’ve been following the NSKN Games Blog for some time (since its previous version in fact), you probably know my feelings about the whole thing. Up until now it has been lukewarm. However, now we have the second edition of Mansions of Madness Second Edition.

Let’s be honest, if there ever was a game that really seemed like it needed an app that would run at least some parts of it, it was Mansions of Madness. All the coolness of the game, all the immersive gimmicks and simple but effective storytelling mechanisms could not save it from its biggest flaw: the insane amount of prep required from the Keeper.

Mansions of Madness 1st edition.
Mansions of Madness 1st edition.

In fact, playing as the Keeper was both arduous (at least during the setup part) and stressful, as a single, tiny mistake in scenario setup (which actually requires you to play a swathe of cards in different spaces), could have catastrophic consequences. Then again, when it all worked, it worked really well.

XCOM The Board Game
XCOM The Board Game

Fantasy Flight Games had dipped their toes in the Android/Apple/PC app pond and deemed it worthy to marry some of their games with apps. Thus XCOM was designed, and although generally acclaimed, it did not avoid a few missteps spawned by its creators’ hubris: the game came with manual, so players could not refresh the rules during the game, or go back and read fragments they would disagree upon.

Soon afterwards, another big step was made, this time marrying an existing game with an app. Descent: Road to Legend created a new mode of play, a fully cooperative one, where the Overlord would no longer be a human player. Instead, all players could work together to fight the AI, and through a set of separate quests go through a full cooperative campaign.

Road to Legend: the app.
Road to Legend: the app.

Mansions of Madness Second Edition did a very similar thing. The Keeper Player was taken out of the equation, and players now fight as Investigators against an opponent that fits on a tiny fraction of a flash drive. And yet, despite its tiny size, it turns out to be a formidable foe.

On the one hand, it seems only natural that the heavy lifting would now be outsourced to an electronic device. Instead of building a complex system the players would have to follow (which includes correctly recognizing proper outcomes of edge cases), an app does all that for them.

Road to Legend: the physical box.
Road to Legend: the physical box.

On the other hand, it may seem a little disturbing that a revamped version of a fully analogue game now needs an app to work, or that a once discontinued physical product now makes a return as a set of blips on a touch screen.

Personally, I know that my interest with playing Mansions of Madness has risen significantly, and simply downloading an app seems like a much faster route to playing cooperative Descent than building a fan-made set of card to breathe some artificial life into monsters, traps and the dungeon itself. And yet, my previous trepidation still stands: I am afraid of what happens when partly digitalized board games start facing video games on their own turf.

Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts. And one more thing: who knows when the Imperial Assault app will finally drop?

 

 

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One thought on “Outsourcing Ancient Evils

  1. “I am afraid of what happens when partly digitalized board games start facing video games on their own turf”

    I don’t think that is what is happening at all. Video games are a very different animal from board games, and having an app that goes with your boardgame doesn’t change that. At least that’s my take on it. I play both tabletop games and video games avidly, but one can’t replace the other for me, they just scratch different itches.

    And seeing that most games using phones apps are cooperative games: is having an app really so different from drawing cards that tell you what happens? Would Pandemic be a very different game if the disease cards were replaced with an app telling you what happens? I think not. And for games like Descent, the app can be made to play smart, a much more challenging opponent than a card deck controlling the Overlord randomly.
    I have yet to try a non-coop game using phones. There is that pirate-y one, Seas of Yo-Ho I think, that uses players’ phones as game pieces. I’m waiting for a chance to try it.

    Anyway, as I see it, using phone apps as supplements to tabletop games just expands the designer space. There are tons of new options to explore with that. Some of them will end up blurring the lines between video games and tabletop games, but I don’t see any sort of competition arising between the two genres.

    My concerns with the app-inclusive games are different ones. Five years from now, will I still be able to play them? If Fantasy Flight decides that updating the Mansions of Madness app is no longer economic, but the old one is no longer compatible with mobile operating systems at the time, will my expensive game suddenly be useless? Will I have to jump through the same hoops that I have to deal with now when playing old MS-DOS video games, install an emulator for the old app and hope it works? When will the first publisher decide to have some sort of moronic DRM in their app and make it work only when it detects the RFID chip hidden in the box?
    We’ll be getting some of the classic video game problems with these apps, but we’ll also get some exciting new game concepts. It’s a bit of a mixed blessing, but I’m still excited for boardgame things to come.

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