Reaping the Rewards: ‘Beasts of Balance’

Beasts of Balance
Image: Sensible Object

Beasts of Balance is a fantastic cooperative dexterity game that uses physical “artefacts” to create a digital world on your tablet. It was originally funded on Kickstarter in February this year (under the name Fabulous Beasts) and was delivered to backers this fall. It is now available for purchase for $99 retail from the Sensible Object store or from Marbles: The Brain Store in the US. (It can also be ordered from Harrods or John Lewis in the UK.)

I was able to try out a prototype set back in February and wrote it up here, but since then I’ve received a production sample to try out. The components are similar to the prototype, but the app has been tweaked a bit from the one I played then. Here’s a closer look inside the box.

Beasts of Balance components
Beasts of Balance components. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The game comes with:

  • 1 Electronic Base
  • 6 Beast Artefacts: Bear, Warthog, Octopus, Eagle, Shark, Toucan
  • 10 Element Artefacts
  • 2 Miracle Artefacts
  • 3 Cross Artefacts
  • 3 Migrate Artefacts

These components are the same as in the prototype I played, though some of the shapes have been tweaked. The octopus is the most significantly different, but I’d swear the top of the eagle is more sloped than the prototype, making it a little trickier to balance things on top of it. All of the artefacts are plastic, though the animals have a slight rubbery texture on the surface while the elements are slicker plastic. The Element artefacts are made up of two halves, with the “elements” of air, earth, water, and fire.

To play, you’ll need 3 AA batteries for the plinth and the free app (for iOS or Android). The plinth connects to your tablet via Bluetooth, and then you’re ready to go.

Beasts of Balance
My daughter tries her hand at balancing a few beasts. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

When you first play the app, you’ll be walked through a tutorial to get you going. You scan an artefact by touching the symbol on the artefact to the symbol on the plinth, and the app will show which piece you have selected. Then, you place the piece on the plinth. So far, so good. As you add pieces, the corresponding beast will appear in the world on the screen, with a certain amount of energy. Larger beasts start with more energy.

 

Beasts of Balance warthog and shark
Starting off a world with warthog and shark. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The animals are jealous of whichever one has the most energy, so all of them (except the one with the most energy, and any over 20 points) will lose a point of energy after each item you place. If they run out of energy, they go extinct, turning into a sad pile of bones. At the bottom of the screen, there’s a running tally of all of the energy among your beasts, which acts as your score. You use the element artefacts to feed the beasts: each element will add energy to all of the animals in that area. The fire element will give a bigger boost of energy to a single animal—there’s a firefly that flits from one animal to the next, signaling which beast will get the bonus.

As you add beasts to the earth, water, and air, the landscape on the app changes, too, with plants springing up and adding color to the world. The more beasts you can place and keep alive, the higher your score.

Beasts of Balance swinejaw
Cross-breeding beasts is fun!

The cross artefact will cross two beasts—the one with the firefly and a random other beast—to create a new hybrid. All of the hybrids have fun names and illustrations. For instance, warthog and shark can form Swinejaw, a land-dwelling shark creature. But you might also get a sea-dwelling warthog creature. Either way, the cross will also add energy points, adding to your score (and most likely making the two original animals jealous). You can also use the migrate artefact to move a creature from one element to another, discovering new types of beasts in the process.

Beasts of Balance bestiary
Beasts appear in your bestiary once unlocked.

As you discover new beasts, they appear in a bestiary, which you can open up and scroll through. You can tap on any of the beasts to get a little more information about it. (I’ve shown a mostly empty bestiary above so as not to spoil too much for you.) In addition, once any beast (including the six basic beasts) has reached 20 energy, it undergoes a change and becomes an elemental beast, with more color. There’s another section of the bestiary to track your elemental beasts.

Beasts of Balance miracle
We’ve just added the Miracle of Haste in the tutorial. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

The two “miracles” are ways to recapture the points that are lost when beasts lose energy. Both miracles create a cloud that collects all of the points that are normally lost, so that they’re still included in your score. But they also add challenges that must be met, or the cloud disappears along with those points. The Miracle of Haste will limit the amount of time you have to place an object once you’ve scanned it. The Miracle of Distraction (which is itself one of the harder pieces to place) will assign you various tasks—touching the sun on the screen while placing an object, or tapping all the full moons as they orbit past at an increasing pace.

Any time an object falls off the plinth, the app responds with a series of alert sounds and an image of a volcano with rising magma—you have a very brief window to rebuild your world and get all of the pieces back onto the plinth before the volcano explodes and the game is over. However, you can also use this intentionally to rearrange pieces on the plinth, as long as you’re quick about it.

Beasts of Balance
My highest score so far—with all 24 artefacts placed. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

If you do manage to get all of the artefacts on the plinth, the game ends immediately but you get bonus points. I’ve done it once so far, and my high score was 348. However, according to a recent Kickstarter update, Sensible Object’s in-house high score of 674 was recently surpassed in the wild, and the score to beat is 780. That’s a pretty big challenge, and certainly requires placing the miracles early and good use of the cross and migrate artefacts.

Beasts of Balance is fun for both kids and adults (and even kids and adults playing together!) because everyone loves stacking … and watching stacks topple over. The app is a cool way to drive the dexterity challenges, because the easiest physical piece to stack might not provide the best scoring advantage. For instance, the cross artefact is nice and flat, providing a good surface for more stacking—but it’s pointless (literally) unless you have at least two beasts on the screen already. Some of the element artefacts stack on each other well, but if you don’t have animals in those elements, you’re losing opportunities to score points.

The pieces themselves are pretty fascinating—a lot of shapes that aren’t quite the same height so that it’s hard to maintain level stacking surfaces. There are bits that you’d think will fit into each other but they don’t quite, and some surfaces that are tilted just enough to make it very precarious when you put things on top of them. The Miracle of Distraction is particularly challenging—it’s that S-shaped ribbon, but it’s skewed in such a way that you can’t set it down flat in any orientation, so no matter where you put it, it’s going to be a challenge.

I do have a few quibbles, which I hope might be addressed in future app updates. Once you’ve scanned a piece, you can’t back out and change your mind. It might be nice to have a cancel feature there. Also, if you have a particular creature in mind for a cross, migrate, or fire element, you have to sit and wait for the firefly to land on it—there’s no way to select the animal, and sometimes you think the firefly is there but it leaves as you’re scanning, which can be frustrating. Finally, the app won’t even run unless the plinth is on and connected, but it would be nice to be able to look through the bestiary without having to connect everything.

If you like stacking games, and particularly if you like mixing digital and physical play, Beasts of Balance is a lot of fun. Discovering new beasts for your bestiary feels a bit like unlocking achievements. You can try to beat your high score, or focus on collecting all the beasts one at a time.

Our son likes to play on ‘expert level’–sitting on the trampoline. Photo by Will James.

Fellow GeekDad Will James also got a copy of Beasts of Balance and had this to add:

We get and try a lot of games, both tabletop and app, with our three-year-old, but it’s rare to find one that’s a good combination of the two. Even more rare is a game that sucks our whole family in. Since opening the box three days ago, we’ve played it at least a dozen times each day. I’ve played it with my son, my wife has played it with him, we’ve all played it together, and he even likes getting it out to play by himself! Although some of the pieces are especially tricky to balance for a three-year-old, he still has a blast and will just intentionally destroy the world.

For more information, visit the Beasts of Balance website!

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Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.