BEASTS OF BALANCE
Design by George Buckenham and Alex Fleetwood
Published by Sensible Object
1 – 5 Players, 15 minutes
Review by Greg J. Schloesser
There are stacking games…then there is Beasts of Balance. Beasts of Balance takes the stacking game genre to a completely new level, one that uses modern technology (you need the free downloadable app for your phone or tablet to play) to recognize the pieces that are being stacked as well as provide incentives for stacking other specific pieces. Points are earned for not only stacking pieces, but for arranging pieces into certain orders so that they evolve and earn even more points.
Most stacking games require players to balance blocks of various shapes. Beasts of Balance has the same challenge, but the pieces themselves are made of bulky, sturdy plastic and mostly represent various animals and elements. There is a bear, shark, giant bird, toucan, octopus and warthog, as well as more than a dozen other pieces representing elements (water, fire, etc.) and artifacts. Each piece has multiple colors (which is important when playing the game) and are huge and very oddly shaped, making stacking an incredibly difficult challenge. A standard stacking game using these pieces alone would be fun, but the digital game system offers so much more.
The base upon which these items must be stacked is called the “plinth,” which actually contains an electronic device that records the pieces played upon it and syncs with the app, which must be downloaded to one’s phone or tablet. During the game, players will take turns stacking pieces upon the plinth, but before each piece is placed, it must be passed in front of the plinth’s sensor, which records the piece being placed and provides this information to the app. Points will be scored for the piece placed, but the app will soon begin providing incentives for placing other pieces. Certain animals require land, air or water, otherwise they will perish and the player (or players, if playing as a group) will lose points. Others will morph into an entirely different animal if certain other animals are placed nearby. This morphing will usually earn the players even more points.
All of these features are tracked and announced in a graphic and entertaining fashion by the clever app. The app shows an overview of an island, and as each piece is added, the newly placed animal will appear on the screen in its proper terrain. The screen will animate with various graphics and sounds and points earned will be indicated. As the game progresses, the app will warn players if a specific beast is in need of certain items, which will encourage players to find and place the needed piece (which is based on color). As mentioned, animals can and will morph into other fantastical beasts if certain other animals are placed near them on the plinth. When this occurs, the app will demonstrate this morphing in a loud fashion, depicting the newly created animal, which is often accompanied by an amusing name that melds the two animal names into a suitable new one. How about “squidwart” for the offspring of the octopus and warthog, or “bair” for the offspring of the bear and bird? These new creatures earn players more points, so morphing is a desirable tactic.
Adding to the tension is the fact that the app is also timing these proceedings. When animals begin to have needs, players have a limited time in which to fulfill these needs. If a proper piece or pieces are not added within a certain time frame, the animal will perish and players will lose points. Accomplish these tasks quickly and more points are retained and/or earned.
All is not necessarily lost if a pieces tumble from the animal tower. The app senses this catastrophe and immediately begins a very short countdown. If players are able to restack the fallen pieces within this short timeframe, the game can be continued. Otherwise, all is lost, which is usually what happens since the timeframe is so short–about ten seconds. Players can note the points they scored up to that point, then try to beat that score on the next play.
Another feature of the game that is not present in many stacking games is that pieces can be rearranged as the game progresses. This is often necessary to allow further pieces to be stacked. However, remember that time is a factor, so this rearranging may well cost points.
Beasts of Balance can be fun, but there are some caveats. The game rules provide almost no information, rules or guidance. When I first read the small sheet that was enclosed, I thought the rulebook was missing. I downloaded the app and figured it would provide those missing rules, but no such luck. One truly has to learn the game by simply playing, as the app begins to eventually provide a bit of guidance–mostly in the form of incentives–as the game progresses. Further challenges will also be encountered as the game progresses (only use one hand, etc.). It truly is a “learn by doing” affair. That was off-putting and will likely bother quite a few players who are accustomed to traditional rulebooks.
That being said, most people I have encountered enjoy stacking games, albeit mostly as a pastime or in a party-type atmosphere. While clever, the use of an app may prove a bit unwieldy in the party atmosphere, particularly if playing with an abundance of people. Perhaps this is why the box states that the limit to the number of players is five. Without the app, I think just about any number could play.
The biggest impediment to the game may well be its price, which is a hefty $99 suggested retail. Expansions are available, mostly in the form of new animals and pieces, and this will add to the hefty sum. Still, the game is undoubtedly going to have a huge appeal for families with young children, as those bulky pieces are just amazing, and the combination of stacking with a video-game like app may well prove to be irresistible. Seasoned gamers will likely find it to be an amusing pastime, but they are likely not the target market for this fun and stunningly attractive game.
4 (Love it!):
3 (Like it):
2 (Neutral): Greg S.
1 (Not for me):