Golem Arcana Hands-on: Board Game Meets Mobile Game
Originally launched as a Kickstarter project, Golem Arcana ($80) promises a tabletop gaming experience mixed with mobile technology. During my hands-on time with an early version of the game, I hoped to find it fun and easy to play. Sadly, that wasn't the case.
I can't speak for all the backers who helped the developer raise more than $500,000 to create the game, but I found the game frustrating and unnecessarily drawn-out. Although the visuals are strong and the concept is intriguing, it will take some major tweaks to make this an enjoyable experience.
One area in which Golem Arcana doesn't disappoint is the look and feel. The game's visuals gave off the fantasy vibe that I expect from a fantasy tabletop role-playing game (RPG). The colorful, interesting terrain created a unique universe.
I also like the storyline. According to the game's lore, the Khan has died, and the world of Eretsu is at war. Two factions have arisen that wish to take control: the Gudanna Dominion and the Durani Empire. Sorcerers from each faction drive Golems, automata fueled by magic, with immense power that stand above men. Players must join one of two factions and lead their golems into combat.
Each faction has a distinct visual design that revealed something about its civilization’s nature. Gudanna drives a collection of red beastial golems, whose designs feel like they could have been found in nature. In comparison, Durani's blue and gold golems draw from angelic and knightly influences, creating the sense that they are the noble and good faction.
Every figurine is well designed and has lots of detail, from the chains used by the rider to the blade notches and emblems representative of each side. They have the same level of detail as the typical Warhammer 4K figure.
The board game uses a specialized stylus to initiate gameplay, but it felt cheap. The stylus uses a tiny infrared camera to read microcodes that are invisibly printed on top of the icons and values on all of the figure bases. These microcodes activate the characters' various abilities. Players can use the other end to interact with their smartphones and to access the various app functions via Bluetooth.
The interesting design adds an arcane look that complements the story's focus on magic. However, most of the time, our Nexus 5 smartphone could not detect the stylus, or would not accept the connection. When the connection was working, the phone had a difficult time detecting which golem we were scanning.
Many of the scenarios that come with the game required each army to have its own stylus. However, the game came with only one stylus, limiting our ability to play. HBS says that it plans to provide options for getting styluses apart from the original game, but supplies will be limited.
All the rules, data and extra functions are contained within the small Golem Arcana app. The app also looks great.
However, the app's functionality was questionable. I was not able to install it the app on iOS devices, and getting it installed on an Android device required sideloading. Note: An official app is expected in the Google Play store closer to release.
Once installed, the app didn't provide much guidance. There's a tutorial video for starting the game, but HBS hid it in the tutorial menu. I felt as though I was getting thrown in without any foreknowledge. Thankfully, the two tutorial missions in the game provide an accessible guide, showing most of the mechanics and rules of the game. Certain things were not explained, including terrain, how the various stats interacted and how Relics worked.
I was unable to find any way to play with more than one device, which meant I had to hand our phone back and forth between players. I found this to be unnecessary and unhelpful. It slowed down the game and made strategizing difficult.
Players choose a scenario and set up the game board accordingly. These included versions of King of the Hill and Elimination. I was limited to only eight or so scenarios. HBS has promised to continue adding scenarios as the game progresses and as the company updates the app.
Players go into battle with preset armies, which they set up using the in-app Army Builder. Players can customize their golems with Knights, Relics and Ancient Ones.
Knights are the human sorcerers who ride the golems and lead them into battle. Players can choose from different knights in their faction. Different knights provide various powers for the golem. Relics are items that can be used at any time to affect the battle. Ancient Ones are in-game gods, who provide players with powers that they can use to curse or bless a golem or the surrounding terrain, thus affecting the character’s stats.
The end goal of the game is to score 10 Victory Points (VP) before your opponent does. Players can earn VPs in a number of ways, depending on the scenario, and can involve anything from destroying golems to holding capture points.
I enjoyed this element, since it reminded me of the Settlers of Catan. I also liked how Golem Arcana offered various options for gaining points in-game. In the long run, using Victory Points will create a more flexible game model that will hold up over time.
As for combat, the gameplay felt too simple. Players spend Action Points (AP) for various abilities. Using consecutive abilities will often double the cost and require a cool-down period. For example, if a golem moves for one AP during a turn, moving that golem a second time would cost two AP.
The gameplay, in theory, has the potential to move quickly. It felt like a simplified version of the strategy games made by Games Workshop (Warhammer 4K, Lord of the Rings Strategy Game). When compared to Warhammer 4K, Golem Arcana has fewer troops involved, but makes up for it in customizability. The addition of Knights and Relics meant that no two golems were the same.
Because the app did all the math and kept track of all the rules for us, I didn't have to worry about making a mistake or rolling a 10-sided die to see who would act first. However, the app's unresponsiveness and the stylus's weak camera slowed down gameplay to a crawl. After 20 minutes of gameplay, both of our testers were frustrated. The gameplay felt forced, and we had lost interest.
The concept behind Golem Arcana is great, since it helps create a tabletop experience without tracking 20 to 30 different mathematical values and rolling die for every decision. The characters felt fantastic, and the lore seemed interesting.
However, the tools involved were extremely frustrating. While they were designed to speed up gameplay, their inability to function properly actually slowed things down. The stylus was not reliable, and the app only slowed things down. If HBS wants Golem Arcana to stand the test of time, it needs to refine the app and improve the receptivity of the stylus.