Beasts of Balance review
With companion apps popping up in everything from Mansions of Madness to Descent, it’s perhaps no surprise that the trusty dexterity game has now joined the digital world in the form of Beasts of Balance – and, sorry to disappoint you naysayers out there, it’s another fantastic example of tech enhancing a tabletop fundamental.
Beasts of Balance – which you may have previously encountered under the name Fabulous Beasts, before a certain teenage wizard-related movie put an end to that – is a co-op game of stacking animals. A battery-powered plinth is included in the box alongside six beasts (more are available online, and others are planned for future expansions) and a selection of other stackable bits and bobs, referred to as artefacts, all of which can be scanned by touching them on the base. This makes them appear on-screen in the free iOS and Android companion app. It's worth noting that we encountered a few irritating software crashes while using an original iPad Mini, but an update resolving the issues should be live by the time you read this.
The beasts are divided into three environments – earth, water and air – and take up residence in their respective home when placed on the plinth. Bigger animals are worth more points, but also spark jealousy among the lesser creatures of the world. Each turn, lower-scoring animals will lose a point, eventually becoming endangered and then going extinct, meaning players must work together to keep as many going as they can.
In order to save them, players must place elements on the stack. These abstract shapes are colour-coded to reflect the environment that they boost and can either provide points to the inhabitants of one zone or half the points each to two different areas. A fourth element, fire, boosts any creature indicated by the on-screen firefly when the piece is scanned. It’s a charming way of adding a greater level of strategy to the game, as well as allowing the plinth to be filled out with a greater variety of shapes.
The focus on keeping beasts alive and maximising the points they earn is furthered by the introduction of miracles, which are more awkwardly-shaped pieces that enable optional challenges. The 'distraction' miracle requires players to tap on the moon each time it appears on-screen or press and hold the sun while placing a piece, while 'haste' asks players to scan and place artefacts within 15 or 30 seconds each turn. Successfully fulfilling the objectives means holding on to any points lost by waning beasts, but failing sacrifices all of the points collected. The miracles intensify the links between the physical and digital aspects of the game, as well as gently ramping up difficulty for older or more experienced players.
To make it a little easier to encourage higher towers, the game also includes the migrate and cross artefacts. These appear to be a flat white arrow and cross, respectively, but despite their uninspiring look they actually serve as one of the game’s most important mechanics. The migrate piece allows a creature to adapt to a new environment, while the cross combines two beasts together.
In the physical world, the flat components make it much easier to begin a new round of stacking, but it’s in the digital game that the fun really takes place. You see, simply plopping a toucan into the deep sea wouldn’t be the best idea, so on the way it might grow gills and fins, creating a Toucean. Each new discovery gets logged in a digital bestiary and more fantastical evolutions can be unlocked by hitting 20 points with any beast, whereupon it transforms into an elemental, which cannot lose points for the rest of the game.
The tower stacks up and points are earned until the pile inevitably topples and players are unable to rebuild it in the short grace period.
It’s a lot harder than it sounds, and the charm of Beasts’ quirky artefacts and surprisingly strategic hybrid mechanics elevates it beyond simple stacking. The wonderful visuals of the app tie in perfectly with the joyous appearance of the components and the metagame of combining and evolving animals leaves plenty of room for replayability.
One of the finest examples of physical and digital gameplay working together yet, Beasts of Balance is a seriously fun game with an irresistible personality and simple but compelling mechanics. It’s gorgeous to look at, surprisingly gripping to play and sure to spark laughs as you seek out the more ridiculous animal mashups.
Publisher: Sensible Object
Time: 15-30 minutes