Hands-On Golem Arcana: Using Bluetooth for Seamless Tactics
Golem Arcana is one of the games I was most looking forward to seeing at Gen Con this year. A bluetooth enabled tactical miniatures game with a companion app from Shadowrun Returns developers Harebrained Schemes, Golem Arcana uses an easy stylus tool to control what you do with your figures - from moving to attacking - with easy swipes. It's the kind of magical marriage of tech and simplicity that shows every now and again - usually to little acclaim when the promised magic actually sees release.
Not so with Golem Arcana. I sat down with Jordan Weisman, the mind behind Golem, at Gen Con. Weisman is a serial entrepreneur of game companies and games - he was behind Shadowrun, BattleTech, MechWarrior, and Crimson Skies after all. Weisman now heads up Harebrained Schemes, and it looks like Golem Arcana could be the same kind of magic that Weisman has collected teams to create in the past. Weisman and partner Ray Winninger, executive producer for Harebrained Schemes, sat down at a bustling Gen Con booth and explained their philosophy of design to me as we played the game.
At its core is a solid tactical miniatures game. It revolves around boards assembled from various 3x3 components. each space of the grid can hold a handful of Golems, depending on their size. A couple large, two small and a large, of up to four small, Golems can fit in each space. To attack or move, the players tap the relevant figure's ability on its base or unit card and then tap the space they want to get to or an enemy figure to attack. The game will then calculate the odds itself on the app screen or allow you to roll dice and input the result. To get more info about anything, just tap it and it'll bring up the unit's current stats on the app. There's two simple gestures to learn, one that's a sliding tap and one that's a tap from directly above - but that's no harder to learn than the first time you learn to use a multitouch screen. If you don't like to tap the figures' bases to use actions, you can just tap on the unit summary cards you've got right in front of you instead. If that sounds complicated to you, it's not. It's incredibly simple to just sit down and play. The strategy is immediately apparent, though the tactics seemed quite nuanced and deep. Weisman distractedly tied with me while explaining the game and making suboptimal moves for explanation's sake.
"We have a rulebook," said Weisman, "but we don't encourage you to immediately sit down and learn it." That's because the game itself has a series of quick tutorials that teach you to play. One of the benefits of that built in app.
The app isn't just an automation mechanism, though. "If that's all it was, that'd be useless," said Ray Winninger, "We want to deliver a narrative experience on top of the tactical experience. The app enables that." The app adds decisions and aspects to the game that would be impossible to replicate without it. An environmental effect like a strange for, for example, can be a surprise element with effects completely unknown to both players. While playing I moved a figured into what appeared to be an empty board space, but the app dropped me into a conversation reminiscent of a computer RPG - the knight piloting my Golem had encountered a wandering blood mage. The blood mage would give me a blessing in exchange for some of my Golem's life force - basically a push-your-luck bargain for power.
Winninger related another such scenario, where a water spirit gives the player some mana to carry to her sister in another body of water on the map. Mana is a valuable resource that players can spend to empower their warriors or debilitate enemies, so the player should be well tempted to spend it. If players delivered the mana they got victory points towards winning the game. If they went back on their word and spent the mana for a boost to their units, the water spirit took her vengeance out on the player with a lost turn.
But that's not the extend of the plan. The app reports every piece of data to Harebrained Schemes' servers, so the developers know which factions are, for example, being jerks to water spirits. As the trends start to emerge, the developers can change the world's ongoing story to match the actions of their players. The lore is, in a way, in the hands of those playing the game. When I commented that the game's story was much like how people play competitive MMOs like Planetside or Dark Age of Camelot, Weisman cracked a grin. "My goal is a tabletop MMO," said Weisman in regards to the story. Emergent play will drive the developers' choices in advancing the story, and that story will be . It's Weisman's plan that you'll get summaries of stories after each fight, with weekly newsletters summarizing other nearby players' battles. Some of those, the winningest players, will be promoted to a General tier and their stories will reflect the direction of the overall war between the games' factions. "In MMOs the reflection of [players'] actions is limited to gameplay - to fights and battles mostly - but we want it to be part of everything in Golem."
Golem Arcana debut at Gen Con after shipping to Kickstarter backers and is now available in stores, with the starter set including a large amount of story scenarios for players to play through. Widespread organized play will start next year, with patches altering game balance between rounds. That'll be an interesting process for tabletop games, which usually have a longer time between identifying a game problem and fixing it. Another patch introducing custom scenario creation is on the way as soon as possible - within "about eight weeks" said Weisman.
I was very impressed with Golem, and we'll be sitting down to tackle the game for a serious review soon. If you're curious in the meantime, you can visit their website here.