Review: Beasts of Balance

Beasts of balance animals and artifacts on a white plinth
The Omnibeast is clearly king of the castle (or in this case, the plinth)

Back in February I learned that an old friend of mine from National Youth Choir of Great Britain, Alex Fleetwood, was raising money on Kickstarter to help develop a new board game with a twist: you need to play it with a tablet or smartphone.

At that point the game was called Fabulous Beasts but following a trademark tussle with Warner Bros who claimed that the name was too close to their forthcoming film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Alex and co. had to find a new name and eventually settled on Beasts of Balance, which I think I actually prefer plus it gives you a bit of an insight into the nature of the game.

As the months rolled by and the Kickstarter updates flowed in from Sensible Object (Alex’s company) I began to grow increasingly more excited about the release of the game. When I received the email to say that my copy of the game had been dispatched I downloaded the Android app in anticipation.

When it arrived, I wasn’t disappointed.

The game

Joshua and Isaac give the game a firm thumbs-up.
Joshua and Isaac give the game a firm thumbs-up.

The game comprises an electronic sensing platform (the plinth) plus six beasts (bear, eagle, octopus, shark, toucan and warthog), two miracles (distraction and haste), ten elements (which offer various boosts), three cross and three migrate artefacts. I also ordered the optional beastly playmat (which is gorgeous) and the rather magnificent-sounding omnibeast.

Set up

Setting up the game is as simple as switching on the plinth (a red light flashes steadily while it searches for the app), and then starting the app on your smartphone or tablet (Android and iOS are supported), assuming that you have already switched on bluetooth and made your device discoverable.

Add beasts

You are presented with a new world which you then populate by balancing beasts on the plinth. Each artefact has an RF tag which you tap against the plinth to let the app know which one you are about to add to the game; and once you’ve selected it there is no changing your mind.

Each artefact adds points to the game. Different beasts have different starting values, and the beasts all appear to be jealous of one another with the lower-scoring beasts each losing one point per turn until eventually becoming extinct.

The omnibeast adds any one beast from your beastiary to the world, which adds a nice element of randomness to the game. Plus the artefact itself is massive and takes up most of the plinth which creates its own challenges.

Behold my world! What fabulous beasts I have created.
Behold my world! What fabulous beasts I have created.

Elements

There are ways, however, to boost the animals’ scores. Placing an element artefact on the plinth will boost the beasts for their relative areas:

  • Pink elements boost sky creatures.
  • Green elements boost land creatures.
  • Blue elements boost sea creatures.
  • Orange elements boost whichever beast is currently being visited by the firefly, who constantly buzzes between the various animals in your world.

Most of the elements are half-and-half, so provide points for two groups of beasts. When a beast reaches 20 points they evolve into something new, and protect their scores.

The app includes a beastiary that shows you all the beasts that you’ve collected.

Miracles

To prevent the individual animals’ lost scores impacting your overall score, you can play a miracle. Lost points are then caught in a cloud above the volcano.

Our favourite is the snake-like distraction miracle which forces you to do something while placing the artefact on the plinth, such as holding the sun on the screen, or tapping the full moons as they arc across the sky. If you manage to complete the tasks you keep your points, they get trapped in the cloud; if you don’t the cloud turns red and with your saved points it disappears.

The beautiful, celtic-knot haste miracle artefact sets time limits on your next move.

Migrate or cross

Finally, there are six migrate (arrows) and cross artefacts, three of each.

Tap the migrate artefact on the plinth and the beast that the firefly is currently encircling will move, for example from the sky to the sea. They will transform into another creature (toucan becomes tocean, for instance) and gain more points in the process; it’s quite a good way to save a beast from final extinction.

Similarly, the cross artefact will create a new beast from the one that firefly is visiting with one other in the world. The new beasts have spectacular names, many of which are puntastic.

Volcano

If you knock things off the plinth you trigger the volcano, and you have seven seconds to rebuild your world before the volcano erupts and destroys everything.

Playing the game

I’ve now played this with three groups of people of different ages groups, and every group has loved it.

Sensible Object have found the perfect balance (pun intended) of real life, tangible game and computer game.

On its own, as an object-balancing game it would be fun in itself, and my children and I have spent probably too much time simply trying to find different ways to balance the artefacts on the plinth and off. It’s a bit like Jenga in that respect. It requires concentration and a steady hand.

But more than that it requires the group to work together – players don’t compete against one another, they are collaborating to collectively try to gain the highest score. And that makes a tremendous difference to the nature of the game and the atmosphere in the room. We have a rule that whoever knocks over the stack and brings the current game to an end is the person to place the first artefact in the next game. It purposefully shifts the idea of being punished or blamed.

The addition of the virtual world is what takes this game to another level. That what you do on the real world plinth affects what happens in the game is remarkable enough, but that your beasts evolve into different beasts, and you have to think collaboratively and carefully about your next move to try to keep everyone alive is where the real fun comes in.

We have yet to have a game where we have a) kept all the beasts alive, and b) used all the artefacts. We’ve been close on a couple of occasions  but it’s one of the things that drives the “okay, just one more game…” excuse to keep on playing.

What else drives us to keep playing is the collector instinct that drove so many of our Victorian ancestors to explore the natural world and return with specimens of fabulous beasts and insects. A recent update to the app means that you can now explore the beastiary without needing to be connected to the plinth.

And then there is the obvious drive to try to beat the highest score. Ours is currently 146, but Beasts of Balance tweeted on Christmas eve that someone had reached a magnificent 866 points.

Conclusion

This game has exceeded my expectations. I thought that it would be fun but I didn’t expect it to be quite so immersive. On most occasions I’ve played until the battery has drained on my Google Nexus 6P – I guess you have to set a time-limit somehow.

That this has been a hit with people aged between 5 and nearly 50 is a plus. The older people may have a slight advantage in terms of strategy, but the younger player are often a little less shaky!

I don’t have another game that my boys (currently 5, 8 and 8) want to play as much as this one. Yesterday, Isaac arrived at my flat and his first words were, “I want to play Beasts of Balance!”

And so we did… until I had to recharge my phone.

I’m excited to see where the game goes next. I already want to buy the Lalnalion beast (and am kicking myself that I didn’t when I pledged on Kickstarter). I’d love to get my hands on the RF sticker pack too and start adding our own random bits and pieces to the game. And it would be interesting to introduce malicious beasts into the world or a game mode that tells you which artefact to play next.

I asked my children what they liked about the game. Reuben and Joshua (twins, 8) in their usual understated way just said that it was “great” and “good”. Isaac (5) , however, said “It’s amazing… awesome… epic! I like the omnibeast because he has a crown.” You can’t argue with that, really.

Good work Alex, George and team! We love your game.

Buy

You can buy Beasts of Balance for £69 GBP from beastsofbalance.com.

The link above gives you £5 off any purchase over £30.

Follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

Chord! guitar app for Android and iOS

Chord! The definitive guitar app.
Any chord, all the fingerings!

I don’t get to play my guitar as much as I did before I had children, or at least I haven’t yet made it a priority. I have a couple of acoustic guitars (a four-string bass and a six-string electro-acoustic) sitting in my study behind me which I pick up now and then and play along to a song on my PC, or I sit in my chair with my guitar and play whatever comes into my head.

The reality of having children is that I have less time to dedicate to my own projects (which I’m not complaining about, I love spending time with my three boys) so I have to choose which I want to focus on. Right now I’m working on a couple of websites: one for me, the other for the lovely Jane. But somewhere on my backlog there is mention of my guitars. One day…

When that day comes I have a shelf-load of guitar books; some books on theory and technique, more, however, note-for-note tablatures of some of my favourite albums and artists. I also have this application on my phone: Chord!

Chord! is the closest thing I’ve been able to get for my beloved Chord Magic by Andy Gryc, which was a 16-bit MS-DOS application from the mid-1990s. What I loved about that was I could dial in absolutely any chord, at any point on my fretboard and it would show me the fingerings. Or if I found a cool-sounding chord while jamming, I could indicate on the virtual fretboard which notes were being played and Chord Magic would tell me the name (or variant names) of the chord.

You can do much the same on Chord! Unlike many applications it’s not just a dictionary of chord positions, it knows music theory so it calculates everything on the fly. It’s been such a useful tool already, and it looks great on a tablet too.

You can buy Chord! on the Android store (£2.99) or on the iTunes app store (US $4.99) or visit getchord.com.

Offline documentation with Zeal and Sublime Text

Zeal - a documentation browser
Zeal – a documentation browser

Yesterday I came across a really useful application for web development which has already sped up my workflow when needing to look for documentation: Zeal.

The efficiencies come about mostly because instead of having to open up a new browser tab, then either search or navigate to any documentation bookmarks you may have saved, you can instead search (or browse) within the official documentation which has been downloaded to Zeal.

Download documentation sets

Inspired by the Mac-only application Dash, Zeal is a simple offline API documentation browser.

In other words, select the languages you want documentation for, click download and it’s all available in one easy-to-search location.

Select which documentation sets (docsets) you want and click Download
Select which documentation sets (docsets) you want and click download.

You can either browse the documentation, or simply search.

By default searching returns results from all documentation downloaded, but you can also prefix your search terms with the name of a particular language followed by a colon should you wish to limit the search to only that language or framework, e.g. wordpress: get_header.

In order to install it you first have to unzip the application files to your C:\Program Files directory, or C:\Program Files (x86)\ for Windows 64-bit, and create your own shortcut—there isn’t an automatic installer.

Sublime Text integration

Where I’m finding it particularly useful is within my coding editor Sublime Text, using the Zeal Sublime Text package (available for both Sublime Text 2 and 3) which allows you to search the documentation from within Sublime Text, without lifting your fingers from the keyboard.

I found that to configure it I had to first install the package (using Will Bond’s excellent package control), then run it by pressing Shift+F1 which returns an error, and then locate the Zeal.sublime-settings file (via Preferences > Browse Packages…) and update the “zeal_command” parameter to wherever you unzipped the zeal.exe file, which for me looks like:

"zeal_command": "C:\\Program Files (x86)\\Zeal\\zeal.exe",

Then in Sublime Text itself I have two options:

  1. Select something to look up and hit F1.
  2. Or press Shift+F1 to open the Zeal search box to type in my search term.

As an example, I’ve just highlighted padding-left in my CSS code and pressed F1.

Highlight a keyword press F1 and Sublime Text sends that plus its context (a CSS file) to Zeal
Highlight a keyword press F1 and Sublime Text sends that plus its context (a CSS file) to Zeal

You will notice that the Sublime Text plugin has also respected the search term’s context, within a CSS file, and passed that too as an argument.

I’m really impressed and thoroughly recommend you check it out if you are involved in any kind of coding. Both Dash and Zeal share the same documentation sets. There are a lot! And it can also be integrated into a lot of editors, not just Sublime Text, such as Coda, TextMate, Emacs, Vim, Eclipse, and PhpStorm.

Wunderlist — UI peculiarities

Wunderlist—a beautiful and simple to-do list
Wunderlist—a beautiful and simple to-do list

As part of a money-saving exercise, at the moment I’m looking to move away from using a hosted Microsoft Exchange account for my email, calendar, contacts, notes and tasks. I know that I won’t get one application that will cover all five elements, but I’m okay with that.

My two main criteria are that the applications I choose should be:

  • Free
  • Able to synchronize between PC, Android and the web

For tasks I’m now beginning to trial the free version of Wunderlist, a to-do list application for iPhoneiPadAndroidWindowsMac and Web. It’s really rather good.

Being involved in web design professionally, and often called on to assist with web application user-interface (UI) designs I frequently find myself analysing other people’s application interfaces and asking myself why certain elements have been laid out in a particular way.

I found myself considering these things when using Wunderlist for the PC this morning. I wanted to change where new list items were added, from the bottom of the list to the top.

Curiously, on the application menu I selected “Preferences” (4th item down):

wunderlist-preferences

But it opened a dialog window called “Settings”. Why not keep the two terms consistent?

Wunderlist settings: add new items
Wunderlist settings: add new items

On the first panel, which is open by default, I found the option I wanted: where to add new items. However, I was a little surprised by the order.

Why is “Bottom of List” at the top of that two option list, and “Top of List” at the bottom?

I would have thought it would be more intuitive to users—in a Steve Krug ‘don’t make the think’ kind of way—to list them in the order that the words themselves suggest:

  • Top of list
  • Bottom of list

What do you think?