You don’t have to be a geek to play Golem Arcana, but it helps


This colossus figure towers over all comers. Photo: Hunter LeFebvre, Cult of Mac
This colossus figure towers over all comers. Photo: Hunter LeFebvre, Cult of Mac

SEATTLE, Washington — Table top miniatures are some of the geekiest board games, coming as they do with thick rulebooks and complicated sets of play mechanics. Developer Harebrained Schemes, the folks behind video games Shadowrun Returns and the more recent Shadowrun: Dragonfall, has decided to bring this arcane, geeky gaming genre to players who might want to try it out without having to fight their way through an extreme learning curve.

With the time we spent with the game at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle this weekend, we’ve got to say, we’re pretty impressed. While there’s still quite a bit of learning that has to occur in order to fully and deeply play this fantasy-themed miniatures game, even players as young as four can grasp the basic concepts of move, battle, and conquer that the game’s iPad app and bluetooth-connected stylus allow.

“There are a lot of rules to these kinds of games,” said Harebrained Schemes’ Ray Winninger. “Sometimes there are these giant, thick rule books and that sort of thing. It’s especially hard to bring someone in who’s never played before and to just kind of plop them in the middle of it. So, we’re trying to manage all of that for you.”

The idea behind this two-player digitally enhanced board game is that there are various warring factions across the fictional world of Eretsu. Wizards control and ride monstrously large creatures called golems into battle, each with its own set of movement and combat skills, bonuses, and abilities. You’ll need to move and battle the golems all around the game board, eventually trying to out-fight your opponent.

“It’s a war between two big fantasy armies,” said Winninger in a meeting room at the Penny Arcade Expo this weekend. “The weapons of choice in the war are golems, these big magical creations, which are piloted by these little sorcerers in here.”

The ruleset and basic mechanics are all taken care of with the stylus, which has a camera at one end and several buttons that can control the app running on an iPad. The iPad app is a bit on the sparse side, but there are a few tutorials and a ton of extra information and help systems in place if you want to spend the time to dig deeper.

This giant setup might only take 90 minutes to play. Photo: Hunter LeFebvre/Cult of Mac
This giant setup might only take 90 minutes to play. Photo: Hunter LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Gameplay is much faster with this iPad app keeping track of all the health, magic points, movement modifiers that come into play depending on which tile a creature stands on. Most non-digitally enhanced miniatures games can take up to several hours to play, while the massive game board set assembled at PAX this weekend might only take 90 minutes or so to fully resolve.

The tech is pretty cool, too, with each game piece and square on the game board having its own dense mesh of barely visible dots on the surface, letting you tap the golem, the board, or game play cards with the camera end of the stylus. But, says Winninger, the great thing about Golem Arcana isn’t the gee-wiz tech behind the scenes — it’s the special magic of a miniatures board game that keeps players interested.

“Really, we think there is something that’s just sort of special and fun and magical about getting people to sit together around a table and play,” he said. “We’ve made many, many multiplayer video games, and we love them. But it’s a different kind of interaction that happens with this type of game.”

Every time you play a game of Golem Arcana, the details are sent to servers, which compile the world data, making this board game into a sort of massively multiplayer online game.

“It’s actually a living world, the fate of which is in the hands of the players,” said Winninger. “Any time you sit down to play, it just might happen that you’re particular game here is one of those pivotal battles that changes the war and you get your awesome hero moment.”

The company plans to release new tile sets (the board part of the game) and miniatures on a fairly aggressive monthly schedule. They’re gearing up to take over your gaming table with the gorgeous miniature golems and other fancy table top game objects.

The basic starter set for Golem Arcana is available now at game retailers and online for $79.99, while expansion miniature sets will run you around $35 for three figurines, each able to be used within the game itself. Tile sets run about $25 for a set of six.