GenCon and Cybernetic Gaming: The Golem

This is a three part article about how digital technology is being woven into the fabric of board games, card games, and role-playing games.

Part One: The Golem

The booth for Harebrained Schemes is located at the back of the exhibit hall. It is a moderately large booth, much of its space turned over to four tables where convention goers can try out the company’s newest game: Golem Arcana. The long tables are covered with various landscapes constructed of large cardboard tiles, across which battle monstrous figurines. In many respects it looks just like any other game in which players battle with miniatures. In this case players control giant constructs that often look like demons out of a Lovecraftian nightmare instead of plastic infantry and tanks, but it’s instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever set up their green army men for a war across the family room. What is different about the scene—frankly the first thing that anyone approaching the booth would notice— is the large flat-screen monitor that is mounted above each game table.

At first, I think the monitors are simply to broadcast the games—something bright and flashy to lure in more GenCongregants. And although the large monitors are indeed bright and flashy and work on a principle similar to a bug-zapper for gamers, it turns out they are an integral part of the game.

Golem Arcana is designed to be played with a Bluetooth capable device. The monitors on each table are merely making the user interface visible to the gathered throng. Golem Arcana is a computer assisted table-top game. It is a game for hobbyists—those dedicated individuals who collect and paint and vast armies of miniatures—but Harebrained Schemes sees it as a point of entry for more casual gamers. As co-founder Mitch Gitelman tells me, “This is a social game. The technology takes away some of the barriers.”

I meet Mitch on the second day of GenCon. The vendors’ exhibition hall is packed and a line has started curling around one side of the booth as gamers queue up for a turn at one of the demonstration tables. We walk a few paces away from the booth just so Mitch isn’t drawn into some other conversation or demand on his time, but after a few minutes of standing he gets light headed and we sit down at a small table at the edge of the booth space. Turns out he hasn’t been eating much, and he has been talking, standing, or moving almost non-stop ever since GenCon opened its doors. He is enthusiastic and animated. His hands move in expressive bursts when he talks, but I suspect there is a limit to just how much that energy can be sustained by caffeinated sodas.

Golem Arcana is a gateway game,” he says to me as he pulls over a few of the game pieces and sets his phone on the table. At its most basic, the game consists of 6 landscape tiles, 6 figurines, two 10-sided dice, a blue-tooth enabled stylus, and a digital smart device such as a tablet or phone. Unlike any number of table-top war-games, Golem Arcana doesn’t require players read or consult a tome-like rulebook. Everything you need to get playing is contained in an app; starting with how to use the stylus and the digital interface.

Mitch sets his phone in front of us, and after the app loads, he presses the button to begin the tutorial. There is a brief explanation of the stylus and some examples of how it is used in the game. It shows us how to set up a small fight scenario—which we do—and then proceeds to teach us how to play the game by (and I know this sounds crazy) having us play a game. Any information I need about the pieces—how they move, how they attack, what special powers they might have—is accessible by touching the stylus to the piece or the landscape tile and pressing a button. There are also reference cards that players can touch with the stylus if that is easier than reaching the figurines. The information I need is displayed on the smart-screen.

“Microdots,” Mitch explains. The tip of the stylus contains a tiny camera that reads microscopic dots of information that are printed all along the base of the figures, on the landscape tiles, and on the face of the information cards. Players must still move the pieces and tell the app where the pieces are, but all other information is stored in the app: hit points are tracked electronically; allowable actions are highlighted on the user interface, movement options are illustrated for the player.

There are times when we need to roll the dice. The results are entered into the app and the game continues. “The app comes with a random number generator,” Mitch tells me as my small Golem deals damage to the larger foe, “but there is something about rolling dice that is important to the experience.” I agree with him. Rolling dice feels more random than having my phone produce a number. If I get a lousy roll on the app I might feel like the game is cheating me, but if the dice give me a lousy roll all I can do is curse fate. Or the dice. “Gamers tend to be superstitious about their dice,” Mitch says with a smile. He mentions that a lot of people who play at the demonstrations will switch back and forth between the dice and the app whenever one “goes cold.”

Golem Arcana is highly expandable and highly customizable. Through the app, players can download new scenarios, new game modes, and participate in the developing world of Eretsu. The players’ progress is tracked by the app, and the game will suggest new scenarios based on the ones that have been completed. But the new scenarios are not just canned adventures that players would be expected to complete in a linear manner. The results of the player’s home experience influences the world of Eretsu and changes the way future games will be played.

Multiple players can be accommodated by the software. At one table there were six players battling over a massive 24 tile game board.

I have friends who are avid collectors of miniatures and will memorize seemingly endless tables of data in anticipation of their next encounter. That level of dedication is not for me. I have a little experience with table-top miniature games—much of it good. I remember playing Warhammer and Warhammer 40K with cardboard chits and a tape measure. I’ve played some Batttletech and Car Wars and more recently a few scenarios of Memoir ’44. And although I loved playing these games with my friends, what I really loved was that they were obsessive enough to have the rules memorized (and usually the game set-up) before I ever had to play.

The ease with which I could learn from and interact with Golem Arcana is very appealing to me.

That’s not to say that I have no reservations about this encroachment of technology into the realm of table-top gaming. As far as I know, it is possible to play Golem Arcana without the electronic aids. You can find the information about the pieces and the terrain and the order of play. There are dice for your random events. The game is transparent in that you can learn the mechanics and play without the use of a smart device. You can record all necessary information with paper and pencil should you want to.

But given the ease of the technology why would you want to? Most gamers, especially those like me on the casual edge of the miniatures scene would see the app-based rules and interface as a great convenience. But convenience comes at its own price.

I will say this for my friends who obsess over their miniatures: they have paid a price—both in time and money—that virtually guarantees that they will play their games of choice for a long, long time. Harebrained Schemes has turned to our digital devices and the structure of many video games to effectively lower the entry price for casual gamers. And I’m not talking about the monetary cost: the basic Golem Arcana set costs around $80 and after that the sky is the limit. I mean the gamer equivalent of “sweat-equity” that is paid when we really devote ourselves to the minutiae of any significantly complex game system.

Many great board games have been turned into great apps. Pandemic is one that first springs to my mind. What I like about it (and wrote about in an earlier review for the Major Fun Awards) is the way the app opens up the mechanics of the game so that someone could play the table-top version after playing the app with only a cursory scan of the set-up and rules. But Pandemic is not nearly as complex in neither its rules nor its mythology as a game like Golem Arcana. Its accessibility is its appeal but it also limits just how fanatical its fan-base can become. Mitch is right that the technology takes away some of the barriers to the game of Golem Arcana. What won’t be clear until some time has gone by is if that is good for the game. There is a powerful social aspect to a group of people who share in knowledge that others consider esoteric.

But before I start to sound like the old man down the street who still thinks the printing press made humans too lazy to memorize the great stories, let me praise Harebrained Schemes for smoothly integrating our ubiquitous technology as a teaching tool for what could have been an intimidating experience. The tutorial style of instruction makes great use of not only the technology but some of our best pedagogical practices.

One of my favorite recent novels is The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker (Harper, 2013). As the title suggests, it tells the story of two mythological creatures, a Golem and a Jinni, who discover each other and develop a remarkable relationship in turn-of-the-century New York. It’s a great adventure story, and it does a marvelous job of implying more nuanced conflicts (inherent violence, cultural relativism, class divisions, and the pitfalls of service and freedom to name a few). I found the Golem’s story particularly moving as she struggles to come to terms with her remarkable strength, endurance, and the murderous rage that often threatens to consume her. Wecker creates a compelling character from what is typically a monstrous automaton as the Golem searches for her place in a world that can destroy her with a single word and yet is also remarkably fragile in the face of her power.

Although I can’t describe Golem Arcana’s conflicts as particularly nuanced—this is a game of magical monsters beating each other down into their component atoms—I do appreciate the richness of the world Mitch and Harebrained Schemes have created for their community of players. The fact that I could be immersed in that world and have some small effect on the direction it might take is perhaps the game’s greatest strength. That the game has the capacity to actually interact with the players—not just push new products but actually respond to the experiences of the individuals—is very compelling and represents an evolution of our technology that I’m glad Harebrained Schemes has brought to life.

Part Two will look at social networking and all manner of tournaments…

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