Updated: Jul 7
Some board game purists look disapprovingly at games that require an app. If you're in that camp, then this game isn't for you. Be warned tho' - you're missing out on an excellent game that's playable by all the family but still has enough meat in it to appeal to hardened gamers.
Open the Beasts of Balance box and it looks like you've bought a boxful of plastic bath toys. Most of the components are cute abstracted animal and other shapes made of a silky soft-to-the-touch plastic. Buried inside the box is a plastic plinth unit that requires batteries.
The idea of the game is that players on their turn select pieces, touch them to the plinth to scan them and then position them on the plinth or on animals and objects already placed. You can see, therefore, that Beasts of Balance is, as the title suggests, a dexterity game: you are trying to position pieces without knocking anything over.
If this were all there was to the game, it would be decent family fare but it would be little different to many other dexterity games on the market. There is more, however. Much more. Scanning the creatures and other objects also logs their entry to the game on a free app which you run on your smartphone or tablet. This keeps track of the points values of all that's stacked. It also shows and keeps track of how animals and objects interact with each other: adding certain pieces turns a sea creature into one that can fly. Other special pieces create Pokemon-like a new creature that will be an amalgam of two of the animals already on the plinth. This adds strategy and depth to a game that takes it way beyond any run-of-the-mill dexterity game.
You'll actually be dividing your attention between the plastic components and the app. Firefly cursors on the app move between the creatures that have been generated from the plinth and so, when buffing up a previously placed animal or creating a new hybrid, you need to make sure that the firefly is on the creature you want to affect. You can rack up bonus points by making the dexterity part of the game more difficult for yourself (requiring you to have one hand on your smartphone or tablet while placing an animal or object on the plinth).
And of course, the dexterity element remains there in the background. If you knock over animals and objects on the plinth, the app gives you a very limited time to put them all back before you lose the game.
Out of the box, Beasts of Balance can be played as a purely co-operative game with players working together to beat their previous best points total (the app will keep track of your previous highest scores). And, of course, the game can be played equally well as a solitaire. The game can be played competitively by players trying to beat each other's scores.
Additional creatures can be bought to add into the mix but the game is transformed into a head-to-head competitive version by adding a Battles expansion, which is essentially a deck of 16 plastic 'cards' that players scan at the start of their alternating turns. In this mode, players have ownership of the animals they place and they are pitting them against each other on the app. The interactions between the cards and the various pieces turn Beasts of Balance into a competitive strategy game with a surprising amount of depth to it. And always the dexterity elements remains in the background to trip up an overambitious placement.
Publishers Sensible Object have developed something of a speciality in linking board games in with electronics. Thanks to designers George Buckenham and Alex Fleetwood, and with art by Tim Burrell-Saward, Lyall McCarthy and Chris Shaw, they have outdone themselves with Beasts of Balance. If you're looking for a game that will have the entire family enthralled over Christmas and beyond, you really need to check this one out.