Digitally-Enhanced Boardgames Have Arrived and Golem Arcana Is a Winner

Geek Culture Kickstarter Tabletop Games
A game of Golem Arcana with an iPad Mini 2 keeping score. Photo: Dave Banks

There are a number of games these days that experiment with the convergence of technology and boardgames: Fantasy Flight’s XCOM game, the upcoming Land of Yo Ho, and that Monopoly Live monstrosity, just to name a few. But the one that has been nibbling at the back of my brain ever since I first heard about it last spring is Golem Arcana, the digitally-enhanced miniatures boardgame that uses mobile devices to help set up battles and track movement and combat.

The game, by Harebrained Schemes, had a successful Kickstarter last October that raised over half a million dollars to build out the project. Development and production flew by in a whirlwind and the game appeared in stores last month. The base set, which includes six terrain tiles, a stylus, some cards and cardboard bits, and two Golem armies of three miniatures each, plus some flags to identify sides, has everything two people need to play many, many games. The company has also released a number of additional armies and tiles as expansions, as well as a Colossus, which sold out in minutes at this summer’s Gen Con.

Loading screen on the app with a map of Eretsu.

The mythology surrounding the game is pretty rich and there is ongoing fiction surrounding the land and the conflicts between its factions. In the land of Eretsu, the Great Kahn has died and his heirs are now vying for control of the land that has remained unchanged for nearly a thousand years. Monstrous Golems cross the hard-baked wastelands and misty forests to do combat at the Ru Battleground. These titans, crafted from bone, branch, blood, and stone, rely on guidance from Knights who control the beasts and Ancient Ones who bless the armies and curse their enemies.

A Sand Lion races into battle. Photo: Dave Banks

The Game

Both the terrain tiles and the base of the Golems are imprinted with tiny dot patterns that, when read with the high resolution infrared camera of the Bluetooth enabled stylus, convey actions and movement that are animated on the app (see list of compatible devices). Play is only for two players at this point, though games for more players are on the horizon. Players pick armies, choose a scenario, set up the tiles and minis according to the app and begin battle. I can’t over-stress how easily accessible it is. Unlike the huge books of rules for most wargaming systems, you can be up and playing in just minutes with Golem Arcana.

A closeup of the decal, capturing the dot patterns that the stylus reads. Photo: Dave Banks

Movement and combat is done by selecting a Golem, either by pointing the stylus at the mini’s base or the corresponding card for the creature. Some beasts have ranged attacks, some have only melee, and some have both. To do any action, you have to spend from a limited pool of action points. Once you make an action, there is a cooldown period so it becomes more costly to immediately take that action again.

For instance, if I move my Dune Viper at the beginning of the game, it costs me a single action point. But if I want to move him a second time, before the cooldown period ends, the cost doubles. You can read more about the cooldown mechanic in the game’s rules. Much of the familiar structure of miniature wargaming and role playing games are here. Difficult or special terrain costs additional energy or action points to traverse. Ranged attacks can be prevented by line of sight, and so on.

A screen grab from mid-battle. Has the Sand Lion bit off more than he can chew?

Once two Golems engage in combat, one of two things happens:

1. The attacking player chooses an attack and looks to the Golem’s card to find the attack’s accuracy to hit, which is represented as a percentage. The attacking player then rolls a couple of dice to see what the percentage rolled is and subtracts his target’s dodge value. If the number rolled is equal to (or below) that value, he hits. Damage is then calculated by looking at the attack’s damage value and subtracting the target’s defense. Terrain can also be a factor when calculating the attack, depending on the terrain and the Golem making the attack. (For more information on terrain, consult the chart in the instruction manual or online.)


2. The attacking player uses the stylus to touch his Golem’s attack (on the card or the mini’s base), and then touches the stylus to the Golem he is attacking or a territory and the app takes care of everything else.

Whichever route you take, it’s all pretty simple, but even more so, when you just let the app do the work. The game comes with a couple of dice and a card just for inputting rolled dice values (if you’re a purist), but it’s so much simpler to let the app take care of rolling the virtual dice and acting as scorekeeper. In fact, half the fun is tapping your target with the stylus and then turning to your phone or tablet and watching as hit points disintegrate from your target.

The game’s stylus and a control card for issuing commands. Photo: Dave Banks

Additionally, each Golem has a Knight power that can help you out and Ancient Ones who will deliver benefits to your army, while cursing your opponents. Knights and Ancient Ones can easily be swapped out in the army selection screen. What’s more, in certain scenarios, mana wells pour forth energy that can be banked to power your Ancient Ones. That’s essentially it. Once you make it through the tutorials, setup and play is really fast and enjoyable. The challenge comes in trying to outmaneuver and outwit your opponent. Different victory conditions, tile layouts, scenarios, and army loadouts give the game a lot of variety.

Showdown between two powerful Golems. Photo: Dave Banks

The Verdict

To be honest, a lot of the time when I get excited about a game, I get let down. In this day and age, promise often exceeds delivery. So I was a little trepidatious when I sat down with Golem Arcana for the first time. Here was a game that I was really revved up about, would it satisfy or come up short? The good news is that Golem Arcana lives up to the hype, it’s everything you’d hope it would be.

I had a small hiccup or two getting started with the app (with an earlier build), but, once I got the kinks worked out, the game proved to be serious fun. Each setup was a cinch and games moved quickly, which was nice because just about every time we finished we were ready to play again. We began tinkering with different Knights and Ancient Ones, seeing what could turn the tide of battle for the previous loser.

Input can be accomplished by touching the strip at the base of the Golem, touching the card, or through the app. Photo: Dave Banks

The pre-painted minis are gorgeous with a wide variety of colors and detail — very impressive. The tiles look great too, as do the cards. At Gen Con, they had a huge Golem Arcana game set up, complete with a colossus and 3D terrain — trees and rocks supplementing the 2D images on the tiles. It was good stuff and makes me consider finding or making my own 3D additions for our own battles.

Using the stylus to record input. Photo: Dave Banks

There were enough scenarios and victory conditions to make the game new and interesting while we were playing, and I’m convinced the game will have long legs with the addition of expansion armies and the improvements that Harebrained Schemes plans to make in the coming months.

While it’s been a sprint to get the game complete and in the hands of players, most of the work the attentive developer has been doing lately has been tied to improving performance and stability of the app. However on the horizon, it’s only going to get better. In the coming months, be on the lookout for features like:

  • A map and scenario creation tool for players
  • Expanding to 8 players per game
  • A robust Organized Play event system to support Emissaries and retailers
  • Adding a banner design system so players can create their own banners for in the UI and on the board
  • Adding additional Knights and Ancient Ones for sale in the App
  • There will be several stages of development of the Living Fiction system in which players’ actions in Organized Play events has direct impact on the ongoing story of Golem Arcana and, in turn, affects the stories they read and the scenarios that they play in subsequent months
  • Remote Play — Many players have asked for the ability to play with friends that they no longer live near so this feature would allow you to player a game from your kitchen table to your friend’s kitchen table anywhere in the world
A Fire Ram and his Knight take aim. Photo: Dave Banks

Is it all great? Of course not. It’s a new game that has taken a big leap with technology. As fast as gameplay was, I think it could actually be a bit faster if the second player had his own stylus. However, the only way to buy a second right now appears to be with the purchase of another base set — styluses don’t seem to be available as an à la carte purchase. (Don’t let yours roll off the table!) Speaking of the stylus, it is easier to use it on the cards than awkwardly trying to touch the right place on the thin sticker on the base of the Golems. [EDIT: I’ve been told by Harebrained Schemes that the app can currently accommodate two styluses at the same time and additional styluses will be available soon for $35 each.]

What’s more, and maybe it’s just spillover from playing the game on an iOS device, but with limited instructions, it would be nice if they were a little more intuitive and better organized and detailed. Finally, as you know, we are boardgame packaging elitists here at GeekDad and there are a couple of problems with this one. First, the instruction manual is too big for the box and ends up being rippled because of its size, no matter which way you put it in the box. Second, the insert for Golem Arcana is completely rubbish. It’s that thin vacuum fast-formed plastic that is good for about a single use. Maybe two. Then you’re off, trying to figure out Plano boxes or Battle Foam solutions, which you will probably want to do anyway to protect these really nice minis.

These are small objections, though. Especially for a game that was little more than a prototype just a year ago. None of them are deal breakers or really affect gameplay and all could be easily addressed in the future. I have no reason to expect they won’t, either. The company has proven that they are listening to their customers and have been updating and balancing as the community suggests, so far.

The team over at Harebrained Schemes bit off a big chunk when they decided to develop a game like Golem Arcana and deliver it so quickly, but they really delivered. The game is fast and fun with a great theme, attached folklore, and big plans for the future. It’s so easy to pick up and, despite the 14+ on the box, I think kids as young as 9 or 10 can play this game competently. The bottom line is this: If you look at these images and think it looks fun, believe me, it is. Give Golem Arcana a try. You won’t regret it.

The base set and expansion armies are available now.

Disclosure: GeekDad was sent a sample of this game for review.

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4 thoughts on “Digitally-Enhanced Boardgames Have Arrived and Golem Arcana Is a Winner

  1. Hoi Dave!

    Golem Arcana totally rocks, and your review here is pretty snazzy too! So, I noticed Harebrained Schemes just put a placeholder page on for a web-store, which they’ve previously mentioned they’ll use to sell Elite (limited edition?) versions of Golems and accessories like the TDi Stylus! What timing! ^_^

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