App-Based Board Games: Which Side Are You On?

Technology practically controls our lives. Our phones are always at our side, computers are practically necessary, video games and movies provide entertainment, and YouTube is a rabbit hole that not even Alice could find her way out of if she went deep enough. Technology used alongside board games is received with mixed emotions. In particular is the usage of smartphone apps to help facilitate a game. So are apps with board games good? Or are they bad?

Who has the authority to make that distinction?

Let’s take a stab at it, shall we? In defense of the good apps can bring to a game, let’s talk about the main reason we play games: to enjoy ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I play board games to have fun. Sure, you might loathe board games and only play them to punish yourself for some misdeed from your past. That’s none of my concern. However, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of people play games for the fun of it. Can I get an “amen”?

With that in mind, let's see how apps can aid or hindeer a game's fun factor.

 

Benefits of App-Based Board Games

So, if we play games for a good time, then what good will an app be? There are a few things I can think of as to why an app can help with a game’s enjoyment.

 

1.  Facilitating

Some games may require some facilitating, such as Werewolf or, in this case, #Werewords. Using an app can help keep roles secret, help keep track of time, and other important things. I think an app for Werewords was a great idea, and it does help streamline the gameplay process.

 

2.  Housekeeping

Apps aren’t just for party games, however. Take Scythe, for instance. The solo variant is fantastic; I love it. But the unofficial ScytheKick app helps take care of things so I won’t forget to do them, such as moving markers around and messing around with the Automa deck. It even helps you manage scoring!

 

3.  Ambiance/Theme

For this, I think mostly of real-time games, but I suppose it could work for others as well. In particular, the game #FUSE employs a wonderful app (as part of Renegade Game Studios’ main app) that counts down for you, but includes sound effects, frantic music, and, if you want, sassy flavor text from the ship’s computer. I love FUSE as a game, and I think the timer app plays a big part in that, as it helps my sense of urgency come rushing to the surface.

 

4.  Hybrid Experience

Some apps are so in-depth that they’re a big part of the game! In #UBOOT: The Board Game, you have your main board—the submarine—but the app is still required to play. This is because the app takes your navigational directions and other information and, in real-time, takes you where you indicated (whether it’s where you wanted to go or not). The app also has alarms for when events happen, you can go up on deck and look through your binoculars to find enemy ships, and other things. It is extremely satisfying to fix problems on your submarine while time is visibly passing around you as you careen through the open waters. There is something special about the two mediums coming together that makes the hybrid experience unique and enjoyable in ways it wouldn’t otherwise be.

 

5.  Extra Content

#Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure is a good example for this. In the app (again, the Renegade Game Studios app), you are able to play solo with various side quests to complete as you play. These quests come randomly, and while physical cards could also do that, there’s no hassle of setup. Plus, they can add new missions and quests when they like. Likewise, there is another variant that includes a lieutenant that reacts to your actions during the game. Sure, this all could be done physically, but this also goes back to the facilitating aspect of apps—it makes everything so much easier!

 

When Apps and Board Games Don’t Mix

Technology has some amazing advantages, but it’s still fickle. Here are some reasons why apps may not be the best idea when it comes to board games.

 

1.  Battery Life

If your phone is like mine, then you probably wonder why it costs so darn much if the battery doesn’t last longer than a day. Using apps—especially power-hungry apps—can significantly diminish your battery life. If you’re near a plug with your charger, that’s not a big issue. But if you’re away from home and don’t have a way to charge your phone, you’re choosing between your game and having your phone for later use—including using it for emergencies, directions, or other important things.

 

2.  App Crashes

What happens if your phone or the app crashes and you lose the data? Laaaaame! Do you start over or simply cut your losses and pack up? Either way, that’s annoying. I have yet to have that happen to me while playing, but I have had board game apps crash. It makes you want to go home and rethink your life.

 

3.  Obnoxious

Royalty-free music is great, but boy can it start grating on your nerves if it’s playing for too long! While most apps (that I’ve found) have music that fits the game (or no music at all, which is almost preferred), there’s always that one app that blares its 8-bit music for all to hear. And then the migraine comes. And, while I have no complaints about the #Fuse app, my wife can't play it because it's too frantic. I say "can't," but what I mean is "won't."  😃 

 

4.  Blackouts/Power Outage

OK, so this is going back to battery life, but I wanted it to be its own section because, when the power goes out, where do people turn for entertainment? Board games, of course! I know I did when I was a wee lad. But if you need power to charge your phone to use an app…what’s the point? Chances are you’ll save your battery life for as long as possible and opt for a game that’s strictly cardboard with no reliance on apps. Having worked for an emergency preparedness company, I have come to realize that power outages can happen any time of year, any time of day, and without warning. Board games will always be a staple for me during times like that, but I certainly won’t be using up my precious battery life for a game. No, I think I’ll find something else.

 

5.  The Need to Unplug

Personally, I think this is one of the biggest reasons for not wanting to use apps alongside board games. Working daily on a computer, having my phone readily available, and the television playing who knows what (currently Hero Elementary for my kids), there’s something to be said about disengaging from technology. For me, it’s almost always a timing thing. If I’ve had too much exposure to technology, I’ll opt for a non-app-based game practically every time. It’s a good break for my brain, and it allows me to fully engage with the game without having to worry about any of the above issues happening.

 

What Side Are You On?

While there are certainly pros and cons to app-based board games, we each have a tendency to lean one way or another. As someone who loves immersion and theme, I’m definitely #TeamApp. However, you may have noticed points in this article that I didn’t sound too friendly about in regards to app usage. There’s a time and place for everything. But, when it comes down to it, I will generally opt for the thematic, immersive nature of app-based board games.

Are you #TeamApp or #TeamAppless (not to be confused with #TeamApples, which is something else entirely, or so I’m told)? And if you’re still on the fence, that’s OK. You’ll know as soon as you start to fall off, one way or the other.

 

About the Author

Benjamin hails from Canada but now lives in Kentucky with his wife and kids. He’s a certified copyeditor, and a freelance writer and editor, covering everything from board game rule books to novels. An avid writer of science fiction and fantasy, it comes as no surprise that his favorite board games are those with rich, engaging themes. When he’s not writing or playing games, Benjamin loves to play ultimate Frisbee, watch and play rugby, and read the most epic fantasy books available. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminKocher and Instagram @Benjamin_Kocher. You can also read his board game inspired fiction at BoardGameImmersion.com.



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22 days ago

How many millions of people do not own nor can afford a smartphone but can buy and find friends or family with whom to play a straight board game?

19 days ago

That's a good point. Requiring apps for board games will make it more difficult for a lot of people to play that game. The long-term investment seems to be to go without the apps.

23 days ago

This is a great article. I agree with all the pros and can acknowledge the cons listed, however a few of them are less bothersome to me. I think the main thing is the desire to unplug and to just experience the game on the table. Having said that, I do have many app versions of board games because it's a good way to get to play when other players aren't around, which is often. That's a different topic for another article. 🙂

19 days ago

Yeah, I have app versions of games too, but I think that's a little different than physical board games using apps. I enjoy the apps, but would still prefer playing at a table with others. I'm with you though; I think my main thing would be to unplug.

25 days ago

Usually if there's an app involved, I'm not too interested. Exceptions might be for facilitating or for housekeeping, as you mentioned. If the app runs the solo AI so I don't have to keep switching brain space, that's pretty cool. Or if I was more into dungeon crawlers, having the app play as the "dungeon" or as the enemies would be pretty great.

25 days ago

I don't have any games that use an app as the dungeon, but I think that would be really cool. Clank! sort of does it, but it's more about giving you extra quests to do while still trying to get your artifact.

25 days ago

I once got to play #The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth, and the Steam app ran everything, which was pretty handy. It's nice because you can all be on the same side, unlike something like #Descent: Journeys in the Dark 2nd Edition, where someone has to play as the enemies.

24 days ago

That is nice. I'd love to play that. It looks really good!

Supporter25 days ago

Great article!  I wanted to start off with that  

However, I wouldn’t call it picking a side because it’s not an either or choice really. 

There are games where the app is required like #Mansions of Madness: Second Edition or #Alchemists.  ( I guess you can play them app-less but they are meant to use the app.), there are games that are supplemented by apps like #Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure and #Clank! In! Space!, and there are a bunch of great little app helpers like Scythe kick, the various #Gloomhaven apps, scoring apps etc.  

The radio plays for #Mechs vs. Minions aren’t exactly apps but they add to the game without being necessary to play it.

And of course there are digital implementation of games and some video games that might as well be board games. 

There is a huge continuance to look at and each case can be different. 

For me I like the innovative ways board games us apps.  I wouldn’t want every game to have an app but a game well integrated with a well done app can be a lot of fun and something a bit different from everything else.  The app helpers can make solo gaming a lot easier or make your evening run more smoothly.  But they aren’t all great or necessary so really it has to be considered on a case by case basis!

25 days ago

I agree that it's definitely a case-by-case basis. And while I am pro-app in games, I certainly wouldn't want most games I play to be app based. But, in general, the apps I have used have been great for the games involved.

Supporter26 days ago

Excellent write up.

I am clearly in the non app category, for me personally. But, I do see some of their advantages, and I certainly won't down anybody for using them.

Supporter25 days ago

I agree mostly. It's something I am open to liking but very rarely have I actually used an app in a way that didn't feel like it made the game less immersive.

 

I do think that helper apps, especially in games with high maintenance (solo games, #Gloomhaven), seem fine to me and while my personal gaming doesn't involve using them often I do see the positives. I think much like an APP being inserted into a game can break focus and immersion so can a ton of upkeep in a game and if an app is simply telling you where an opponent moves or tracking hit points etc the positive probably outweighs the negative in many cases. 

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