Variant: Innovation in Board Gaming | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Variant: Innovation in Board Gaming

Image via BGG user Jajina

Like all industries, the world of board gaming tries to innovate. Often, “innovation” is really just a set of simple tweaks or repackaging of old ideas in novel ways. A little like going from the iPhone 2 to the iPhone 3. There are neat upgrades and repackaged enhancements, but it’s more of an evolution than a revolution.

Recently, Argent: the Consortium does this. It mixes worker placement (as seen in Caylus) with direct attacks (as in Carson City). Then adds in spells and magical items (too many to name), and layers a helping of hidden information. Best of all, each worker is given its own special ability that can be used when placed. While all of the ideas have been seen before, they nevertheless combine together into an experience that not only feels unique, but more satisfying than previous titles using those mechanics. Argent was well received in my group because of how interesting and fresh it felt despite using time-tested mechanics.

But, sometimes you do get that revolution. Going from the flip phone to the iPhone. There are a few titles that stand out for revolutionizing how we approach gaming. Dominion, with its popularization of deck building, is one. In recent days, I’ve been blown away by the innovation in Alchemists.

Alchemists is a hybrid worker placement and deduction game. The game has eight alchemicals that combine in predictable ways. At the beginning of each game, they are randomly and secretly assigned to eight ingredients, and to do that, the game uses a smartphone app. The app makes the assignments without telling the players, and then as players mix ingredients, the app tells them the result using the alchemical rules, but without revealing the actual alchemicals.

Apps have been used in gaming before. In fact, there have been lots of extra-game equipment like the soundtrack in Escape or the DVD in Scene-it. But in Alchemists, the app is not a flashy addition that adds chrome to the game. Instead, the app makes the game possible. It allows the alchemicals to be randomized each time so that what you learn on each play doesn’t translate to the next. It provides a deduction experience that would be wholly unavailable without it.

Full disclosure: I love Alchemists, but I find myself hoping that this is just the beginning. I would love to see more applications incorporated into gaming if doing so provides an otherwise unavailable experience. And that’s really the key. Incorporating an app just to add music or instruction, that’s uninspiring. But, if by using technology we can have new board gaming experiences that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, then I’m all for it. We’ll see if this idea is replicated and evolved from here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we look back at Alchemists being a defining moment in the hobby like Dominion or Caylus.

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