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'Beasts of Balance' is Jenga evolved

A true digital board game hybrid.
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Hybrid board games are not a new concept. There's only so much you can track with paper, dice and pen before it becomes 'Spreadsheet: The Game.' A companion smartphone or tablet app can, under the right circumstances, be a useful scorekeeper or dungeon master. Beasts of Balance, a new game by Sensible Object, takes this concept one step further with a deeper, more dynamic digital experience. While you stack objects on a podium, a real-time strategy game takes place on-screen. Both affect one another: The situation in the virtual world encourages you to play certain objects. Likewise, the beasts you position on the tower have ripple effects in the digital game. Mastering both is the key to a dazzling high score.

The aim is to create a world filled with beautiful, bizarre creatures. You work co-operatively with friends, taking turns to place the beasts on a circular podium. Once they've been played, the animal will appear in the digital world with a score. There are six in total, and they've all been designed so that you can stack them in different ways. Each one has a small, ornate marking on its surface that can be read by the plinth over NFC. A quick tap indicates the piece has been selected, and a scale hidden under the base knows when it's been added to the tower successfully.

Eventually, you'll want to play an "artefact" piece. These larger, flat tiles are useful in order to keep your tower from falling over. They also modify what's happening in the digital world, changing your creatures and the scores attached to them. The "cross" artefact, for instance, will create a hybrid based on two of the beasts you've already played. The "migrate" piece, meanwhile, will encourage them to move into a new, unusual habit where they can grow stronger. Elemental artefacts boost animals in particular environments, such as the sky, which is useful because their scores deplete when more "beautiful" creatures emerge around them.

Creating the animal pieces was no easy task. "It's tough to make something that looks recognisable but also has a style to it," Tim Burrell-Saward, a product designer at Sensible Object said. "Something that's stackable but also manufacturable. It's really hard to juggle those things together. We did lots of 3D printing -- we couldn't have done this game without access to that. You can design something on screen or on paper, but it isn't until you have it in your hands that you can play with it and see if it's weighted correctly, or if the angles are too hard. There are just so many variables."

At any time, you can look at the app to see your world and the beasts within it. There's no way to really "win" the game -- you're just trying to nail the highest score possible, which is calculated based on your creatures and the values attached to them. It's a simple, but colorful interface, buoyed by jungle-esque music produced by Fez and Hyper Light Drifter composer Disasterpeace. A quick glance will tell you the creatures that need boosting and the ones you might want to turn into hybrids. Monitoring this ecosystem is vital as new animals are introduced and interact with one another, changing their values and your score.

The basic strategies are twofold. Firstly, you need a tower that's tall and strong, otherwise you won't be able to play the maximum number of pieces. For this, you need to choose the beasts in an order that will produce the most stable structure. The second, and often conflicting strategy, is to play the animals in response to what's happening in the app. To stop a beast's score from dropping to zero, you might want to play an elemental artefact, even if it threatens to topple the tower. It's also important to consider the hybrids you're making -- they command different scores and allow you to create even weirder creature combos later.

The game is over when your beasts and artefacts fall to the floor. Nimble groups can continue playing, however, if they quickly reassemble the tower. A countdown timer is visualised with a volcano on your phone or tablet -- complete the rebuild before it erupts and you're safe to keep going. It's a neat idea that stops games from ending prematurely. At any time, seasoned players can rearrange the tower -- removing a piece will trigger a potential eruption, but everything settles back down once they've finished tweaking the structure. These rebuilds are especially useful in the latter stages of the game, when your beasts are balanced precariously.

I played a few matches with the Sensible Object team and was surprised by the game's depth. At certain points, you'll need to time an artefact with a firefly that's hovering between your animals in the app. "Miracle" artefacts will force you to play a piece one-handed, while your other mitt keeps an icon on the screen pressed down. These touches culminate in a game that's unlike anything I've played before. It's equal parts physical and digital -- a true hybrid that utilises the strengths of each medium. The app has some deep, interesting systems, while the physical props retain the tactile and social experience that so many people love about board games.

Gallery: Beasts of Balance | 17 Photos

Beasts of Balance was originally funded on Kickstarter, under the name "Fabulous Beasts." Warner Bros took issue with that however (apparently there's a new Harry Potter movie coming out), forcing Sensible Object to come up with something else. Now, almost 11 months after its crowdfunding campaign, the team is close to shipping. You can pre-order the basic set for £69 ($99), as well as some optional extras which include a £15 ($21) playmat, the £15 ($21) Omnibeast and £15 ($21) Lalnalion. There's even a £499 ($718) "Handmade Edition" if you want to go super-fancy.

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