Physical-digital play: what we can learn from Beasts of Balance

Beasts of Balance unboxing

Having been a Beasts of balance kickstarter supporter throughout development and seen the prototype system demoed on a number of occasions I was as excited about the arrival of my Beasts of Balance parcel as a child awaiting Christmas. Knowing the date it was being shipped, beforehand I’d been planning to keep this as a Christmas present but I discovered I could neither wait nor consider giving it away (even to my children!) So our family started playing in early December (2016)!

I say I was excited, which I was, but I was also apprehensive. So far most digital/physical toys I’ve reviewed have been disappointing. So I have to admit I played initially with some scepticism but was very pleasantly surprised. No toy is ever perfect but there are so many fantastic things about this one. There is an awful lot that the toy community can learn from Beasts of Balance about how to create a success physical-digital cross-over toy. My feedback is based on my own review of the toy and  observation of a range of children and adults playing Beasts of Balance from age 4 to 70 but particularly in the 6 – 10 age range.

Onboarding

Set-up and on boarding can be a particular challenge with digital products and with board games so the combination is a significant challenge. Families are pretty familiar with one person having to decipher the rules for board games in tiny font on a slip of paper highly likely to get lost and then relay to the impatiently waiting family. Equally, having reviewed hundreds of apps, I can confirm that failing to onboard successfully and so failing convey how a game is played, what features exist, why its engaging is the top reason I’ve see for apps failing to be successful. A ‘Low Threshold’ approach is so vital to providing a positive user experience (UX) in digital games. 

I normally advocate in-line, contextual support where appropriate. However, with something as novel and complicated as Beasts of Balance more of a tutorial style is necessary. Tutorials are typically terrible – dull, ignored and delaying the start of the experience. However, Beasts of Balance are a great example of how to do a tutorial well. They take the approach, in a similar way to Monument Valley (an example often use to explain good onboarding) of a playable tutorial. It explains each step, the purpose of each piece and everything else you need to know while you play for the first time so it feels like an enabler not a barrier for play. The children found the tutorial fun, and we found ourselves returning to play it again for each new person we introduced to the game which was a great success. It proved really important that this tutorial was easy to re-access, something I would always recommend.

Engagement and age range

One of the things that impressed me immediately about Beasts of Balance was how engaging it was, even for adults. You reach a Jenga style mindset very quickly – determined to build a taller and taller tower, becoming competitive with your last attempt and playing cooperatively with other player to help everyone together make as tall a tower as possible. This is a challenge even for parents with plenty of strategy and knowledge of physics coming into play, whilst being entirely playable by a 6 year old. Such a broad age appeal is rare and very clever. It was frankly pretty addictive for a time! The desire to unlock all the animals is also akin to collecting cards in the real world – something that has been well proven to engage children over a long period.

My only suggestion here would be that Beast of Balance give some hints to good building techniques to get you started, e.g. through images of stacked towers. I saw players trying to copy the picture on the box (with limited success) and they commented they could do with more to give them ideas of where to play each piece, at least to get started.  However, you could argue this challenge is part of the appeal and learning through trial and error is, of course, a valuable approach. 

Physical digital play pattern

However, the thing that has impressed me most about Beast of Balance is how great an example it is of a successful physical-digital crossover toy. It ticks all the boxes I look for in such a toy. In particular, it sets up a natural loop from physical play to screen use very successfully. Players need to really concentrate in the physical space to balance their next beast and yet their attention is then drawn back to the screen to see the results. There is a real purpose to the screen in this game as well as the physical play and the game has fundamentally clear and simple UX providing a seemless, delightful play experience. Also, this toy clearly naturally fits on the board game shelf. This is important as physical-digital toys can so often get overlooked after first use as they have no ‘home’ and once put away no-one thinks to play with them again. Conversely, cast your eye down your ‘board game’ shelf (something common in most families) and Beasts of Balance will be there to entice you.

The game also manages to work well as a one person challenge and for multiple players and I loved how it encourages collaboration despite the inevitable final one loser end point. Cooperative play in this sort of toy is a hard play pattern to establish and so valuable for children, it’s great to see. Of course, some people I observed went down more of a competitive route throughout – particularly as they became more proficient, which is in itself a strength. It is a sign that the game supports what I would call ‘Wide Walls’ and ‘High Ceilings’, i.e. the ability for different players to play in different ways and to support mastery. 

Improvements

I do feel there are things that could be improved on, in particular, making more use of the marvellous creature pieces and building a story to engage the children in the online world of these animals. The children I observed playing were clearly excited about all the animals they unlocked and would have loved to have this developed further. The physical creatures could easily be developed further to encourage ‘small world play’ too and help age the product down as well as up. I realise this is the first game produced from this IP but will wait with interest to see whether they choose to build more physical-digital games with different pieces/concepts or build on the brand and story they have started with the Beasts. Both routes have their merits but I can certainly see huge potential in the latter.

My main worry about this product is its price point. It is clearly expensive for a board game which may put off potential buyers. Given the complexity of the tech in this toy that’s not avoidable which is again why turning this more into IP with a wider story across different channels/platforms may be advisable.

It is certainly a toy I would recommend. If you haven’t done so already, I strongly suggest you purchase it, whether for research at your office or fun at home, you won’t be disappointed!

Comments are closed.