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Golem Arcana Review – The Pen Is Mightier

I’ve been an advocate for praising games that try to integrate apps within them and innovate to a new level. In recent years we’ve had fantastic implementations like X-COM and Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition setting the bar really high for future ideas. Previous to those we had Alchemists which did a fine job as well, though it was only “part” of the game and could have functioned without the app (though it would have been clunky and horrible to do so).

But we can’t forget what I believe to be the first game (or certainly one of the first) to really go full throttle in using an app to handle the majority of the tasks at hand, Golem Arcana. It tends to fly under the radar for most people, but occasionally this game crops up again and I felt it was time to see how one of the original innovators handled itself in the technological age.
Designer: Seth Johnson, Michael Mulvihill, Brian Poel, Jordan Weisman

Publisher: Harebrained Schemes
Age: 12+
Players: 2-8 (with app upgrades)
Time: 45-60 Minutes
RRP: £29.99

Cover

From the publisher website:

“The Great Khan is dead, plunging the world of Eretsu into total war. The Khan’s heirs fight amongst themselves for control of his shattered Dominion as the Durani Empire mobilizes to regain lost lands and honor. Their most fearsome weapon are Golems, arcane war machines created and mastered by powerful sorcerers.

As the world of Eretsu descends into chaos, now it’s your turn to take command of a Golem army and fight for honor, glory, or riches.

Golem Arcana is a digitally enhanced miniatures boardgame that leverages the power of a smartphone or tablet to deliver an unprecedented and engaging experience. GA offers the richness and tactical depth of other miniatures boardgames without any of the hassles; the free Golem Arcana app handles all the rules and record keeping, freeing up the players to concentrate on devising strategies and having fun.”

GolemArcana-Model

GOT YOURSELF SOME HELP THERE!

Players create armies including Golems, Knights, Ancient Ones, and Relics. While the Golems and Relics are represented by physical game pieces and cards, the Golem Knights, Blood Knights, and Ancient Ones are digital units supplied through the app. It’s entirely up to the player what attributes and abilities they want to combo together for their army.

The app shows you how to layout the tiles and where to place the figures and tokens on them depending on the scenario you choose and there’s been some new additions since inception.

On your turn you get a certain number of Action Points (APs) based on your army size. You spend these APs to move and attack with your Golems. Fairly standard affair right there for anyone familiar with most games. When you want to move a Golem, you tap its base or its card with the stylus pen and then the app tells you how and where you can move – you can’t make a mistake here, the app simply won’t let you move somewhere you couldn’t. But the app won’t do everything for you, you do at least have to pick up the physical unit on the tile and move it yourself. One tip for using the stylus – point it at the cards, not the bases of the units. You’ll quickly get annoyed at having to tap bases on a regular basis and tapping your cards in front of you is infinitely simpler to do.

Attacking works in a similar manner and again you can’t make a rules mistake. If you’re out of range or don’t have line of sight, the app will simply not let you shoot, argue with it if you will, it’s fun to watch. Hitting works by rolling underneath a percentile chance described by the app with criticals arising from a roll of a double. The app rolls the dice for you.

To stop players spamming everything, there’s a neat system called Cooldown. After you attack or move, you gain Cooldown pips on your Golem.  At the start of your turn the app removes one pip of Cooldown from all your previously used move and attack options – attacking generates twice as many pips as movement. Actions increase in AP cost depending on how many Cooldown pips you have on your various move and attack options. This keeps you from using your most powerful option over and over again, which is always a bugbear in any skirmish game.

It is also possible to obtain Mana from the tiles, which is spent on Ancient Ones, which you chose during setup. These powerful gods grant you blessings or curse your enemy and of course the app gives you the low down on how they work. Knights are the beings that ride your Golems into battle and again are chosen at setup. They grant the Golem they ride special powers or abilities and add to the cost of your army.

DRAW! NO, NOT LITERALLY!

There’s only so much in the box because most of it requires the app. The miniatures themselves are very large and gorgeous to look at it, though the stylus gives off an impression of “cheap” in feel, but at least it looks more interesting than your standard Samsung Galaxy Note stylus and it’s very functional. The map tiles are nothing to shout about, but they look fine, except that occasionally it’s tricky to distinguish certain features like plateaus. Graphics are present to tell them apart, but a small marker or icon could have helped. The insert is very cheap vacumn formed plastic so even though it does a basic job, you’re quickly going to be chucking it in favour of PLANO boxes and foam.

The rulebook is pretty sparse at explaining how to play the game, but this is no surprise as X-COM did the exact same thing, keeping the rules predominantly on the app and using paper mainly to explain the world of Golem Arcana and the history behind it. However a reference sheet could have been useful none the less. For some reason the book seems a little big for the box as well. But if the tutorials on the app aren’t enough you can always visit the website for a more detailed explanation of the core rules.

But the best thing, oh thank god, these miniatures are pre-painted and they look amazing. They may not be the best miniatures ever seen, but let’s not be spoilt brats here. They’re very good and for someone like me who isn’t a hobbyist painter, it’s so refreshing to not have to spend forever to glue things together and splash a load of paint on a model only to result in something that looks amateurish at best. Yeah I stopped Art class at a young age, I have the artistic skills of 3 colour blind hedgehogs in a bag. . . .

GolemArcana-ScreenGrab

I’LL HANDLE THAT, YOU GO SMASH!

It has to be said, Golem Arcana is very accessible compared to a lot of skirmish miniature games out there, and it’s all down to the app, which despite the odd technical hiccup, works pretty well. It’s been a while since its original release and so the developers have obviously had time to expand the game with a few cool features including:

  • A map and scenario creation tool for players
  • Expanding to 8 players per game
  • A robust Organized Play event system to support Emissaries and retailers
  • Adding a banner design system so players can create their own banners for in the UI and on the board
  • Adding additional Knights and Ancient Ones for sale in the App
  • There will be several stages of development of the Living Fiction system in which players’ actions in Organized Play events has direct impact on the ongoing story of Golem Arcana and, in turn, affects the stories they read and the scenarios that they play in subsequent months
  • Remote Play — Many players have asked for the ability to play with friends that they no longer live near so this feature would allow you to player a game from your kitchen table to your friend’s kitchen table anywhere in the world

There’s a good level of depth to Golem Arcana and it would normally be something far more complex if the app wasn’t there to help you along for the ride. Where you move, how you attack, what army you chose, how you manage Cooldown, all of these choices make a difference, but be aware you’re still sometimes at the mercy of the dice just like in every other skirmish miniature game.

GolemArcana-Play

SIZE MATTERS

Golem Arcana released with a starter set of six figures as well as a couple of expansions with other figures. The starter set contains three figures from two different factions, so it’s enough to get you started and learn the system and get a feel for the game. But if this becomes a fun experience for you, then expansions are a must as there’s no where near enough replayability in the box to go the distance. But those expansions aren’t going to be cheap despite the base set being fairly reasonable. If money is not an issue for you though, I can see Golem Arcana really standing out as a quality miniature game with more units to play around with – but then let’s face it, aren’t all skirmish miniature games expensive anyway?

Also do not play this on a phone. Ever. I know phablets are a thing now, my phone is pretty big, but you’re not going to get the best out of this without a tablet. You want as large a screen as possible so you can clearly see what’s going on and phone screens just don’t cut it, but to be honest I suspect most of you already assumed that before looking at this. Hell, I cast my Google Pixel C tablet to a cheap wall TV for games like Mansions of Madness or X-Com so clearly I’m not even satisfied with 10+ inches.

VERDICT ON GOLEM ARCANA

I was a little hesitant at first, but Golem Arcana turned out to be a fairly decent tactical miniature skirmish game overall. Even though it could have functioned without the app, it’s still an integral part of the game and certainly makes life easier during play. This was one of the first games to integrate an app and it still holds up despite a few kinks. It streamlines all the fiddly upkeep of unit abilities and environment cover that would normally be a burden. Games don’t take too long despite having to constantly pass around the stylus and it’s a nice taster of the system.

But a taster is all it is. You’ll get a few plays out of this, but if it’s a hit, you’ll need expansions and they’re not going to come cheap with miniatures at this level of quality. This is merely a starter set, aimed to introduce the system and as such it won’t stand the test of time on its own. But for what it is, it’s a fairly inexpensive test-run and if you like this style of game, it’s worth giving this one a look, if only to satisfy your techno-geek side.

BROKEN RATING – 7 GIANT FUNKY PENS
YOU WILL LIKE GOLEM ARCANA IF:

  • You want to see a good example of an app integrated with a board game.
  • You enjoy tactical miniature games, but want some of the admin burden reduced.
  • You like staring at large gorgeous miniatures.

YOU WILL NOT LIKE GOLEM ARCANA IF:

  • You don’t want to have to pass a single stylus around all the time.
  • You feel this is more of a taster rather than a full experience.
5 (100%) 1 vote
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Luke Hector

I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.

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