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Steam and iOS apps are helping sell more board games

The latest edition of Mansions of Madness marks a shift in tabletop gaming

Imagine sitting around a table with your friends, playing a board game about exploring a mysterious hotel. As you investigate the next dusty room, the application running on your phone directs your attention to a mysterious woman who has just walked into the kitchen. When you strike up a conversation with the stranger, lengthy dialogue and multiple response options are provided to you. Will your party be polite and inquiring, or demand an explanation? Each decision could shape the direction of the story in different ways, just like a BioWare role-playing game.

Tabletop gaming is pushing up against traditional boundaries with the latest wave of digital companion applications, allowing them to blur the line between board games and video games. Fantasy Flight Games is at the fore with the recent release of Mansions of Madness: Second Edition, which requires a digital app in order to play. During my first experience with it on the floor of this year’s Gen Con, I found that it enhances the experience in exciting new ways.

It even makes it faster and easier to play.

When Corey Koneiczska developed the first edition of Mansions of Madness back in 2011, his goal was to channel the spirit of point-and-click adventure games as well as the horrifying atmosphere of Resident Evil.

The original game required someone to play the role of Keeper, constructing the mansion and controlling the monsters and secrets that would oppose the player Investigators. The Keeper’s responsibilities were expansive, requiring the adversarial player to juggle a dense campaign book, multiple monsters, and construction of an entire mansion.

In both editions, up to five Investigators tackle a mystery that needed to be solved based on the current scenario. This could be discovering the whereabouts of a dangerous Cthulu-worshiping cult, or defeating a horrific beast that should not be.

This is done by having players spend actions to gather clue tokens, explore new rooms, or battle monsters using a simple eight-sided dice system, all while trying to keep their sanity intact. In a mansion based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, it’s all too common for one or more of the players at the table to lose their mind.

Each Investigator has a number of skills as well as both physical health and sanity. If their health reaches zero, the Investigator is killed.

Mansions’ first edition also featured physical puzzles in the box that could be manipulated to discover necessary clues. The game’s concepts were fantastic, though the execution of the physical components was a bit clumsy and awkward to manage at times. Along with the lengthy setup required, many gamers criticized the three-to-four playtime.

"I used to hear people say, ‘Oh, this would be so much easier if a computer could do it,’" Koneiczska told me during Gen Con last week in Indianapolis.

But while his first attempt may have just missed the mark, Koneiczska saw a second chance to bring his vision to life with the success of Fantasy Flight’s digital companion applications on Android, iOS and Steam.

The publisher’s first foray into digital-tabletop hybrids was with their successful video game adaptation of Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But since it was the first time the company tried to make an app and board game work together, its integration was kept relatively simple. There was also some initial pushback from the tabletop community since XCOM: The Board Game didn’t even include a physical rulebook. Players were solely dependent on the app’s in-game tutorial.

"I used to hear people say, ‘Oh, this would be so much easier if a computer could do it.’"

"Eric Lang, XCOM’s designer, had a lot of good ideas for what the app should and shouldn’t do," Koneiczska said. "At the time, we erred on the side of making sure that it’s more of a board game than an app game, and the app will just be there to assist and help out."

Fantasy Flight took the lessons learned from XCOM’s digital integration and took them in an unexpected direction, retrofitting a new application onto an existing game: Descent: Journeys in the Dark. The free companion app, titled Descent: Road to Legend, allowed FFG to repackage a beloved game and breathe new life into it.

"We tried doing a co-op version of Descent that just used cards," Koneiczska said. "It worked, it was pretty good, so we kind of used that as the seed to start everything off. Now, imagine if you replaced the deck of cards with an iPad? What else can we do with it? What if it was a whole campaign? What if there were random side quests that would show up? Keeping the input minimal but tracking all of your campaign progress, experience points, items, so you don’t need character sheets anymore. The iPad does that."

Road to Legend was released on Steam, iOS and Google Play stores earlier this year and was widely praised for smartly handling the game’s combat and exploration. In fact, during the publisher’s annual press conference at Gen Con this year, Fantasy Flight Games CEO Christian Petersen noted that sales for Descent have tripled since the release of the game’s free companion app.

Since the app was released, sales have tripled.

The Descent and Mansions programs took app integration to a whole new level, but also presented an entirely new set of challenges for the digital production team as well.

"The XCOM app itself is a pretty straight-forward timer utility. There are no scenarios or narrative elements in the app itself," according to Keith Hurley, vice president of media and interactive at Fantasy Flight Games. "Descent and Mansions, on the other hand, required a complete suite of scenario building tools that our product development team could easily pickup and use to create all of the content.

"All told, we’ve spent the better part of a year developing both companion app clients and backends."

It’s worth noting that FFG isn’t the only publisher to release successful app-based board games. In 2014, Czech Games Edition released Alchemists, which required players to secretly concoct potions via a required smartphone app. And Plaid Hat Games just announced last week a new digital companion for the popular hidden-movement game Specter Ops.

While our demo was short, Fantasy Flight tells us that the Mansions app handles monster movement and exploration in the same fashion as Descent. It also features cutscenes, a novel’s worth of branching dialogue, interactive puzzles, map randomization and even save states if players need to cut their gaming session short. The presentation is slick and the UI is clean and responsive, with production qualities rivaling console RPGs.

The second edition game features nearly all of the original’s mechanics, but the presence of the companion app vastly streamlines what used to be a long multi-hour endeavor. Now, most sessions of Mansions Second Edition can be completed in 60-90 minutes.

The final scenario, Rising Tide, is substantially longer than any other mission in the game, utilizing every map tile in the box.

FFG announced its next digital application during Gen Con — a companion for their popular cooperative game Star Wars: Imperial Assault. Like Descent, the Imperial Assault app will remove the need for an adversarial player, allowing for a fully cooperative experience for the first time.

Koneiczska was certainly pleased with the positive reception the new Mansions of Madness was receiving at Gen Con.

"This is one of those experiences with the app integration into the game, it’s something that you can try to explain to people, but just seeing it and experiencing it for yourself… It just feels right."

Mansions of Madness: Second Edition is available now, and the digital companion app can be downloaded for free via Steam, iTunes and Google Play.

Polygon will have more coverage from Gen Con 2016 all this week, and you can find all those stories here. For more tabletop gaming coverage, see our dedicated section here.

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