Review and Interview: Harebrained Schemes’s Golem Arcana

A new trend in board gaming is the integration of technology into games. I have to admit, I’ve been pretty skeptical about this trend. I was worried the tech portion, if done poorly, would take away from or tarnish the magic of board gaming, which for me, is that face-to-face interaction.

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But while at Gen Con this year, I got to demo Golem Arcana by Harebrained Schemes, and I have to say I was incredibly impressed. Golem Arcana is a miniatures game that’s integrated with a tablet or smartphone app. The players use a stylus to move and attack. All you have to do is touch the stylus to either the mini or the mini’s card and then touch the square the character will be moving to. The app then displays the information, and the player can confirm the choice. It works the same way for attacking.

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I chatted with Jordan Weisman, the CEO and founder of the company, about the game. Weisman has been designing games for 35 years, (heard of Heroclix and Mage Knight? Yeah, he created them), and he said he wanted to make a miniatures game that both kids and adults could easily understand and play.

“About 15 years ago, I watched my two older boys save up all their money and go spend it on Warhammer. This is when they were like 10 and 12. They couldn’t play it, they couldn’t build it, and they couldn’t paint it. It struck me all the sudden after having been in the business for 20 years that everything we make is too damn hard and expensive, and we’re pushing away a lot of people who would like to be part of our hobby.”

Those thoughts led him to form the company Wizkids and make the games Mage Knight and Heroclix, but after selling the company, he went back into the software business. Then Weisman said he realized we all carry around super computers, and those digital features could be used to make a game more accessible and fun. He wanted to bring the best of digital play, like being able to save and having your game affect the story of the world, to the wonderful world of table top gaming.

“I thought we could bring a lot of that to the table top, but still capture the magic of table top, which is the fact that you’re at the table with your friends, and you get to use all those other senses of tactile and sound and smell. We don’t get all that through wires. But we can take a lot of the best that we get through wires and bring it to the best of being at the table top.”

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It seems like Weisman has already succeeded. While I was at the demo tables, I saw many young children easily playing the game without needing to ask many questions. There was even one kid who was actually running demos for people. When I played the demo myself, I picked up the basic mechanics of the game in just a couple of minutes.

“I really wanted something that really captures mom and dad’s imagination and tactical depth, yet make it so they can play it with their seven and eight year olds. The kids totally get it. They love being able to do it without having to ask mom or dad to figure it out for them. Normally in a game like this, they would say, ‘I want this guy to attack that guy. How do I do that?’ And now they are empowered. This guy attacks that guy, and off they go. And what is great is the parents are telling me that the kids really are starting to get it after a game or two, that that guy needs to be right up next to you to hurt you, that guy is a ranged guy, and they’re starting to figure that kind of thing out.”

Weisman also said that he wanted to make sure the game had depth and rich stories that will hold people’s attention over time. He also wanted to make sure the stories that people are playing will matter and affect the game. For instance, they ran scenarios at Gen Con on different days. The first day one side was trying to get to their spy, collect intelligence, and get them out of the battle. But they failed. So the next day in the next battle, that army didn’t have the information from the spy, so that side was set up at a disadvantage.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but how many times can you play the same story over and over? Well, Weisman has a plan for that too. He says they’re planning to release new scenarios and stories multiple times a month, which will automatically download to the app. And because the data/results from people playing those scenarios gets sent back to Harebrained Schemes instantly through the app, the future stories will be affected by people’s play.

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But the game isn’t just about victories. Weisman said he wants people to have to make moral choices while playing.

“It can only get so dimensional if your only way to impact the story is whether I won or lost the game. Then it’s just the story of an ongoing battle, and it doesn’t have characters, and it doesn’t have emotion, and it doesn’t have moral choices being made. But inside of the game, victory points are scored by killing the other guy’s Golems or by meeting characters and making deals with them on the board.

So for instance, you can have an encounter with a blood mage who says, ‘I need blood for my ritual, so if you’ll give me 30 hit points from the Golem that you just walked into the square, I’ll give you one victory point.’ So you’ve wounded yourself, but you’ve gotten a victory point.

Or a more interesting one is if you walk into a lake, a water spirit comes up and she says, ‘My sister in the other lake (which happens to be on your opponent’s side of the board) needs 10 mana. If you’ll accept my quest to take the 10 mana to her, I will give you two victory points on completion of the quest.’

You can turn it down and say no thanks. But if you accept the quest and she gives you the 10 mana, if you complete it you get your two victory points. But mana is what you use to fuel your Ancient Ones, your gods. And if you decide, well she gave me 10 mana, I can just use the 10 mana and nuke my opponent. If you do that, then she comes up as a vengeful spirit, and she says ‘You stole my sister’s life force, and I will now steal yours,’ and she takes all of your action points for the next turn.”

As a person who’s played lots of pen and paper RPGs, this interactive storytelling really excites me, especially because Weisman is so passionate about the story and the magic of actual table top gaming.

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I also asked if Weisman thought about women as an audience while designing the characters and stories in the game. He said he absolutely did.

“I’ve always been a very big believer in strong female characters, because I think a great, strong female character is not only attractive to women, but is attractive to men as well, even with their clothes on. Our story line features six primary leaders and half of those are female. They’re on completely even footing with the men. They’re not running off in the corner, screaming.

I think we have great different archetypes of characters. So far what we’ve seen from the moms who have come and played with their daughters and the backers, they’re responding well to the characters. It’s written at a pretty sophisticated level. The characters and fiction are not really written at an eight-year-old level, it’s really written for adults, but I think they’re at least positive role models…unless they’re an evil character. Though actually, we don’t really have ‘evil’ characters, because I’ve always believed that universes are the most interesting when everything is a shade of grey. Often evil is about perspective.”

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Currently you can only use one device while playing the game, but Weisman says they are working on having people be able to connect two devices to the same game. That would enable people to be able to look through their characters and check out their stats and plan their strategies while their opponent is taking their turn. They also plan to implement tournament play come January of 2015.

The game is $80 and includes six figures, 6 reversible board tiles, dice, tokens, and the stylus.

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