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…


At first, Sifteo seems like some kind of IQ test from the future: a set of three high-tech cubes, each a small computer with a color screen, each knowing when it is pressed, tilted, turned over, turned around, or near another cube. All together providing an apparently endless variety of surprisingly deep puzzles and investigations of the universe of sound and reason. And then you realize it’s a more of an IQ toy than an IQ test, inviting you and your children to hours of, as the manufacturers describe it, “intelligent play.”

Sifteo is a computer peripheral that communicates via a “dongle” (a small device that plugs into the USB port). To begin play, you must first download an application called “Siftrunner.” Through this software, you connect to the Sifteo cubes, your own personal library of Sifteo games and activities, and an online collection of yet more games that are available for a most modest fee (the Sifteo itself is somewhat of a significant investment, and you’ll probably rationalize yourself into purchasing at least one more $50 Sifteo cube).

Sifteo is a frame-breaking toy. Even though you need your computer nearby, the players are interacting solely through the manipulation of the three (or more) Sifteo cubes. When a game is selected, it is downloaded to the cubes. The computer provides the sound effects – which results in a richly immersive soundscape for each game.

Currently, there are 19 different activities available from the Sifteo store. Some are free. Several are included with your initial purchase. Though the majority of Sifteo activities are best played as a solitaire, many can be played with more than one player.

Peano’s Vault is one of the included games. It is more of an exercise than a game, offering a collection of mathematical puzzles where players arrange cubes to equal a target number. Each cube displays a number. Surrounding that number are different arithmetic operators (plus, minus, multiply, divide). By connecting the cubes in the correct order to the correct operator, you arrive at the correct solution. The game demonstrates the unique benefit of the Sifteo device – rearranging cubes provides a new and inviting way for interacting with number puzzles. Even with three cubes, the puzzles can get deeply challenging. With four, even moreso. Five or six and you border on merry mathematical masochism.

Chroma Shuffle (available for 300 points) exemplifies the more recreational uses of Sifteo with a series of visual logic puzzles. Each cube displays a collection of dots of different shape and color. By positioning two cubes next to each other, dots that are adjacent and the same color/shape disappear. By tilting a cube that has lost some of its dots, you can rearrange them. There are a variety of puzzles, most of which have something to do with making all the dots disappear. Again, the opportunity for challenge (this time, visual and logical) can get quite profound as you progress through the games. (Chroma Lite comes free with your set. Playing with it for a half-hour or so should be ample evidence of why you should consider purchasing Chroma Shuffle.)

Planet of Tune (a 300 point investment) transforms the Sifteo cubes into a tool for exploring and composing music. Each cube becomes one of 14 different instruments. Standing the cubes on edge makes each instrument continuously play. In this way, by selecting which cube to stand up and which to lay down, you can actually play your cubes, creating your own musical performance. Shaking a cube makes the instrument play according to whatever tempo you create. You can “record” each instrument so that the sound you make keeps repeating.

And on and on, each activity demonstrating a sometimes significantly different way of interacting with the cubes, and each another invitation to use your mind, senses and fingers.

All the activities exercise the mind. The games center on logic, and the activities, like Peano’s Vault, focus on exercising knowledge. Though the games are engaging and entertaining (like good puzzles), currently the most significant contribution of Sifteo is educational – encouraging thinking and learning. The arithmetic and linguistic exercises demonstrate how the simple act of shifting cubes around adds a new and playful dimension to what in other manifestations is dull and routine. Sifteo even includes two activities that the user/player can edit to focus on particular learning objectives.

For players who may not appreciate the fast and near-chaotic pace of the majority of arcade-like computer games, Sifteo is a welcome alternative. It provides a rich and comparatively gentle invitation to electronic gaming that is removed (by up to 20 feet) from the computer. For parents and teachers who want to encourage children to use their minds and exercise their creative and intellectual skills, Sifteo offers ample and entertaining opportunities.

In sum, Sifteo proves to be an innovative interface to computer technology, inviting mind and fingers to many hours of deep, intelligent, and often major fun.

Sifteo was originally developed at the MIT Media Lab by Dave Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi and introduced to the world in Dave’s 2009 TED talk.

Scrabble Flash

Scrabble Flash is an electronic word-making game. It’s a good word game. It’s fun, absorbing, challenging. There are three different games, and each has one variation. In the first game, you try to make as many words as possible in the given time (75 seconds – with an extra 5 seconds added to the clock for every 5-letter word solved). In the second game, you have to use all the tiles (4 or 5 depending on how many you start with) to make one word; and, as soon as you do, you get your next set of letters, and so on. In the last, you play competitively, passing the tiles to another player as soon as you have succeeded in spelling a word using all the tiles. That player must accomplish the goal in ever diminishing time. If the timer expires, you’re out for that round.

The variation: you can use 4 or 5 tiles. If you use 4 tiles in the first game, you can spell 2-, 3, or 4 letter words. In the other games, all the words have 4 letters. If you use all 5 tiles, words have to be 3, 4 or 5 letters, and the other games require your using all 5 tiles. Whether you elect to use 4 or all 5 tiles, the games are equally challenging and inviting.

Whenever you finish a game (the time has run out), the tiles inform you how many words you were able to complete, and how many words you could have completed if you only thought harder and moved the tiles faster. This is really all the information you need to keep your ego in check. As you might guess, the game uses the official Scrabble dictionary. As you might conclude, many of the words you’ll need to know are, well, shall we say “obscure”?

Major Fun AwardScrabble Flash is not just an electronic word-making game. You could download one of those to play on your iPod/pad/phone or computer. It’s the tiles, the 5, separate tiles, and the feel of them, and the challenge of moving them and lining them up as quickly as quick can be that makes Scrabble Flash as uniquely, and majorly fun as it turns out to be – no matter which variation you play, regardless of whether you’re playing by yourself or with friends or family.

If you’re over 10, it will take you a while to get over the sheer wonder of the technology you’re playing with. It’s truly amazing to discover how this thing works – how the tiles can function individually and collectively, how it “knows” how many letters you’re playing with, how the tiles communicate with each other. If you’re under 10, you’ll just enjoy playing the games, taking, as is your age-related privilege, the technology completely for granted.

You get 5 tiles and a storage case. The tiles are like Siftables – they are each battery-powered, they each have an LCD screen and a computer chip, and they “communicate” with each other via infrared transmitter/receivers housed in each tile. The batteries (watch-like), are included, bless them.

The whole package is so convenient, the little case so elegantly portable, the components so accountably few, that you’ll be taking the game with you pretty much everywhere. All of these factors also make it perfect for a library games collection, for a school library collection, for your own personal collection, to play at home, to play at restaurants, and, whenever possible, to flaunt shamelessly.

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