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Video games make the latest board games so much more exciting

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While video games were evolving from Pong to Pac-Man to Pikmin, board game designers werent sitting idly by playing Monopoly or rolling Yahtzee dice. Tabletop experiences have matured significantly, building exciting stories, challenging cooperative experiences and bridging the gap to todays app-obsessed world.

Fantasy Flight Games is leading a board game revolution, with three games that reach across the digital divide to bring smartphones and tablets into the tabletop experience. Companion apps are integral to gameplay and provide a digital antagonist that aggressively thwarts player efforts to save the world.

In short, video games are invading board games… and that’s great news for everyone.

Alien threats pit players against the clock in XCOM: The Board Game

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Image: Fantasy Flight Games

In 2012, Firaxis and 2K rebooted the XCOM strategy franchise on PC and consoles with Enemy Unknown. The alien invasion simulator puts players in control of a clandestine task force responsible for beating back the incursion and protecting humanity from abduction.

In 2015, Fantasy Flight released a board game adaptation that authentically captures the digital games demanding nature. Players must to make tough decisions and sacrifices in the name of the greater good.

XCOM: The Board Game rallies four players in different roles against an AI aggressor. The app fills the role of that aggressor, and it’s there to maintain the flow of the game as players move to shut down an alien force threatening Earth.

In the timed phase, the app rapidly spits out assignments. Players need to quickly figure out how to respond by dispatching troops around the globe to ground missions and base defense, interceptors to combat UFOs and scientists to advance research projects, keeping in mind that each has a cost and going over budget has dire consequences.

At lower difficulty levels, the timer can be frozen indefinitely so players have time to puzzle through decisions. Once the team learns how to play, taking those training wheels off creates a frenetic atmosphere that demands concentration and coordination.

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Once the timed phase is over and orders have been handed out, players resolve their decisions and execute their offensive and defensive strategies.

Generally speaking, players of cooperative games enjoy the challenge, said Nikki Valens, a developer on XCOM: The Board Game. Rather than earning an easy victory every game, many players want to be overwhelmed in their first games so that when they finally manage a victory, it feels well earned.

“In XCOM, we wanted this possibility for as many players as possible. We knew there would be a wide range of skill level between players. The app allowed us an avenue for adjusting difficultyboth as a player choice and in response to how well the players are doing.”

XCOM: The Board Game only works because of the app

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Image: Fantasy Flight Games

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Image: Fantasy Flight Games

The entire experience could be digital, sure, but this experience wouldnt be feasible with a human running the alien armada. Fantasy Flight has successfully created a delicate balance in which the app is more than important; its welcome. It feels as much part of the game as the miniature soldiers and cardboard chits.

“Although the development process for digital games and analog games is quite different, the design of the digital component is very similar,” Valens said.

“The only real change to the development and playtesting process is that instead of printing a physical prototype of our companion app, we create a prototype build of the app on a tablet. In testing, we interact with the tablet in the same way we would interact with a deck of cards.”

Its important to note that while XCOM is Fantasy Flights first fully app-integrated game, it wasnt the publishers first foray into companion apps.

Arkham Horror, a complex game based on the written works of H.P. Lovecraft, requires significant setup time with a number of different card decks. A toolbox app allows players to streamline the process, with the digital companion handling card draw and, if desired, die rolls.

The success with both of these products has born fruit. Two of Fantasy Flights existing games were brought into the digital age this year. One has been converted to a fully app-based experience, while the other offers a new mode of play. Both continue the theme of cooperative play versus a digital aggressor.

The Mansions of Madness app is a horror movie director

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Image: Fantasy Flight Games

Following XCOM’s success, Fantasy Flight used what it learned to overhaul another title in its catalog: Mansions of Madness.

Released in 2011, the game offered a different take on the publishers Lovecraftian Arkham Horror Files franchise. The original release was a one-versus-many game, with one player taking on the role of the “Keeper” and running a story-driven scenario in which investigators explore supernatural horror in the 1920s.

Unlike XCOM, Mansions of Madness was an adversarial game. While the investigators worked together, the Keeper was responsible for managing monsters and conveying story beats to the rest of the players.

The prowess of a game masters directly impacts the investigators enjoyment, much like the Dungeon Masters of Dungeons & Dragons and other pen-and-paper role-playing games. Likewise, the game had the tendency to drag a bit when the Keeper wasn’t versed in the rules.

This year, Fantasy Flight released an overhauled second edition that relegates the Keeper role to an app. Unlike XCOMs app, which fires off tasks in rapid succession, Mansions of Madness: Second Editions companion directs the story. It slowly spawns new monsters, reveals clues and reacts to player actions. And unlike a paper scenario book, the app can handle an element of randomness.

The biggest challenge we faced with the creation of Second Edition was as one might expect creating a digital AI-driven Keeper that could guide the story intelligently without being intrusive to the gameplay, Valens said.

“No single part of the companion app is terribly complex, but the sheer number of pieces of the game that it affects made it a huge undertaking. Not every part of the first edition could be transplanted into the new edition. Many mechanics needed to be adapted or removed entirely.”

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Image: Fantasy Flight Games

In fact, the second edition comes with a conversion kit that allows you to use your tiles, investigators, and monsters from the first edition. (Those who do not own the first edition can purchase the relevant miniatures and tiles separately in an expansion set.) Monsters behave differently and investigators have revised stats.

Just like XCOM, Mansions of Madness Second Edition seamlessly blends the digital and analog components. The app doesnt track where monsters and investigators are. Rather, it tells players how the baddies move, issues orders on which stats are tested in each encounter and unveils global events that can have targeted or universal effects.

“From the very beginning of design, there were a few things we knew we wanted the companion app to help make a realityease of play, immersive narrative, and fully co-op gameplay,” Valens told us.

Putting the timesink of map-building and the creative pressure of story decision on the app’s shoulders allowed Fantasy Flight to revise the whole experience. Players could not only get into games more quickly, they could also focus on what mattered: exploration and discovery.

“At the start of a game of Second Edition, just one or two rooms are revealed, but you are presented with options for exploration,” Valens said. “Revealing the map room-by-room gives the player a great sense of discovery. Even more so because each scenario features multiple possible maps. Players can never be sure what they will find through each door.

Fantasy Flights Arkham Horror Files games are challenging. Players expect to face stiff opposition and understand that failure is a real possibility. However, the journey through the tentacle monster-filled investigations makes it all worthwhile, even if the world is devoured in the process.

Descent: Journeys in the Dark ditches the dungeon master in favor of an app

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The most recent addition to Fantasy Flights digital companion portfolio takes an entirely different approach from the other two. Descent: Journeys in the Dark is an enormous dungeon-diving experience that takes the best of pen-and-paper RPGs and combines them with beautifully scripted scenarios and gorgeous miniatures.

Presiding over everything is an Overlord, not unlike the Keeper in Mansions of Madness. The difference between the two games is that Descents one-versus-many mode already works quite well without the app.

There is an enormous amount of content, and bringing in an app to completely eliminate the adversarial gameplay between Overlord and dungeon explorers wasnt necessary or desired. Instead, Fantasy Flight decided to update the game with an optional, Overlord-free way to play.

The Road to Legend app offers up two full campaigns for free, complete with side missions and random events that happen on the road. Players can purchase new items from the town store and cash in experience for enhanced abilities between quests.

The app’s campaigns are designed to be extended, multi-session affair, played with a relatively stable group. Typically, youll be able to get through one or two quests in an evening, depending on your groups proficiency and comfort with the rules. Getting an app to handle that kind of extended commitment led Fantasy Flight to some tricky design hurdles.

“The largest challenge was the gigantic backlog of content that we needed to input, test, and write additional content for,” said Descent: Road to Legend developer Nathan Hajak.

“At the start of development, there was nearly three years of expansions to input. Thats about 40 SKUs. Not only did we need create a design that could effectively utilize all of that content in a way that was meaningful to the user, but all of that datanames, images, stats, associated products, in-game traits, rules exceptions, etc.needed to be input. It was a lot of work.

The Road to Legend experience grows and changes depending on how many expansions you own. Once you let the app know what youve got on-hand, it randomly pulls from your available content during the campaign. New monsters might appear, different tile sets will be used and status conditions like burning (added in later expansions) come into play.

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The app currently manages a database of 57 different monsters. Each one has three unique activations that bring them into a game, and each of those has its own set of instructions for masters and minions. The app juggles all of those variables without having to refer to a rulebook.

“Now that its done, its a powerful system that adds a ton of variability and wonder to each adventure,” Hajak said of the app.

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http://www.reuters.com/news/entertainment

Image: Fantasy Flight Games

“It was a challenge though. One interesting side effect was, as I neared the end of the list, rather than burning out, I just got a bit more crazy with my effects and monster logic. Players may notice that some of the later monster activations, those from the most recent Hero and Monster Collections and box expansions, do some wacky things.”

The app smartly handles the decisions previously left to a human player. Each time a monster group takes a turn, Road to Legend presents a set of behaviors. The monsters might move toward heroes, retreat, attack at range, or use a special ability.

All of those actions are presented in a list, and players simply need to go through them one at a time. Since they arent the same for every turn, its impossible to predict just what might happen next time those creatures get to act.

Just like Mansions of Madness, the Road to Legend app doesnt track miniature placement. It tells you where to place objective markers and search locations, indicates what kind of monsters spawn and from where, and advances the story as you explore more of the map.

The elegant design keeps everyone at the table on their toes, especially since no one knows what will be on the other side of each door.

For those that dont have a steady group or just want to break out Descent from time to time, a new mode called The Delve is a great solution. Designed to be completed in two hours, players face six random stages, including a mini-boss and final boss battle. Each level tests players with random objectives to keep things fresh.

Tabletop games are surging right now, especially as Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have become home to ambitious projects. Games like these that bring a digital component into the physical space are likely to take off as more developers take cues from those like Fantasy Flight that are working to figure out how phones and tablets can enhance play rather than distract from it.

http://feeds.mashable.com/~r/mashable/entertainment/~3/7aS7WgUtNck/

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