BoLS logo Tabletop, RPGs & Pop Culture

Let’s Discuss App Assisted Board Games

5 Minute Read
May 28 2018

Board Games have always had an obvious distinction from video games. There was a clear line in the sand for a long time. But then the 80’s came along, and like they always did, made everything weird and confusing.

I’ll take any excuse I can to use this picture.

Some of you may remember back in the 80’s and 90’s VCR Board Games. They general idea being that it was a board game that would use a VCR tape to somehow enhance the gaming experience, usually as the narrator or game master of some sort. As you can imagine, it wasn’t great. The games were often clunky and hard to manage and not worth the novelty they were aiming for.

If you never seen a VCR game, they were clunky and annoying to manage.


Certainly, VCR board games were not well executed, but conceptually there is a good core concept: using digital media to facilitate gameplay in some manner.

In recent years with the proliferation of smart phones, board game developers have taken advantage and starting building apps to work along side their board games somehow. Let’s take a look at a couple of different ways this can happen.

Helper Apps

Arkham Horror has thousands of encounter cards once you have all the expansions. Rather than deal with the tedium of setup and teardown of these cards every game, some friendly app dev made a helper app to work as an encounter card library. Simply tell the app at which location you are having your encounter and the app will provide you a suitable encounter. Couldn’t be easier.

Similarly, players of 7 Wonders know that the end game scoring can be a little confusing for newer players and a fair annoyance for experienced ones. So, like Arkham Horror, there was an app made which would do the scoring for you. By entering in which cards you drafted, the app would pop out a perfectly accurate score for you in an instant.


Both of these examples are great examples of helper apps. They aren’t required for the game and don’t add anything to the game, they only simplify some aspect of the game. I like helper apps. I think they are fantastic.

Mediator Apps

One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a fantastic game but requires a narrator to really move things along without outing anyone ahead of time. Also, within the rules of the game, it requires a timer to determine how long the players have to decide who to vote as the werewolf.

One of my personal favorite games is Alchemists. It has players brewing potions and discovering the nature of the universe. You know, no big deal. Each time a potion is brewed, the player uses the app to determine which potion was brewed, given the ingredients used.

Both of these are Mediator Apps. They are more fundamental to being able to play the game. However, you could have a buddy sit in as the mediator instead. These sorts of apps let everyone play and take out that required role of a person.


Integrated Apps

The new Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition app tells players which items they start with, how to set up the map and controls the game throughout play. It can be used to play through multiple different scenarios each with differing setups and gameplay and variant rules.

The X-COM board game uses their app in a very similar way. The app determines set up and which difficulty will be played, but also controls the events that occur throughout the game.

Both of these are Integrated Apps. These sorts of apps are required for gameplay and the board game was developed with app-integration in mind. While a person could take the place of the app, the app often determines many random game effects and the like which could be outside the purview of what a human player would be comfortable doing. The difference between Integrated Apps and Mediator Apps is that Mediator Apps are often only checking a timer, or a table or charts and the like. They don’t have to make any real decisions.

Final Thoughts

In general, I’m in favor of trying something new and pushing the boundaries of what’s already been established. Conceptually, I love app assisted games.

Helper Apps are great. I use them basically any time I have the option. They don’t take anything away from game play and only speed up the more tedious parts of analog games.

Mediator Apps are also great. They open up new possibilities for gameplay and make whole genres of game viable when they wouldn’t be without such an app.

Integrated Apps is where I draw the line. I don’t like Integrated Apps. At a certain point, I’m not playing a board game. I’m playing a video game and just copying what’s on the screen to my tabletop board. Why? What’s the point? We’ve gone so far away from full analog gaming that I’d rather just play a video game.

Me, playing the latest Integrated App Board Game. Guess which one I am.


That said, I could see myself enjoying Mansion of Madness 2nd edition. It looks very fun. And it’s gotten great reviews. But it’s not really a board game anymore.

~What do you think? Where do you draw the line on app-assisted board games?

Editors Note: AdamHarry thinks Matt should give XCOM and Mansions of Madness 2.0 a chance. Some Integrated Apps do a poor job, these two games do not.

Author: Matt Sall
  • Retro: 'Judge Dredd' Board Game From A Very Familiar Workshop