How do you even begin to describe Beasts of Balance? As the family board game that’s also a video game? As a toy-stacking and balancing game, where you create your own creatures? As the game where Skylanders meets Jenga?
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that Beasts of Balance is a unique experience that, despite a few flaws, is a whole lot of fun. What at first appears to be a simple exercise in balance will eventually become a game of surprising choice and depth that will have you completely hooked.
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Open the beautifully packaged box and you’ll find a two-part plinth, three large beasts, three small beasts, two sets of white shapes and a range of coloured polyhedra, all carefully shaped and fashioned out of matte-finish plastics.
Insert three AA batteries in the plinth, download and install the iOS or Android app and you’re away, the app guiding you through the basics with a smart, well-designed tutorial.
You, it seems, are the creator of a new world, bringing beings to life by stacking them on the plinth. Each of the stackable beasts or shapes – artefacts in Beasts of Balance parlance – has an NFC chip built in, and by touching the icon on the artefact to the icon on the plinth, you can activate it, then carefully place it on the platform.
If it’s a beast, it will appear in the game. Your basic beasts belong to one of three elements – Earth, Sea and Sky – and will appear in the app in the appropriate area of your brave new world. Each beast also has a star power score, with the total score helping form your personal score as a creator.
Now things get more complex. The beast with the current highest star score makes any other beasts in your world envious, with the result that they lose a point of star power. If they lose all their points, they become extinct.
You can keep them going by feeding them elements; the polyhedra I mentioned earlier. Single-colour elements give all the beasts belonging to that element a decent feed, while two-tone elements split the feast across the two elements. Fire elements, meanwhile, give a huge bonus star power hit to the currently selected beast – generally, the one with a helpful firefly buzzing around it.
Beyond that, you also get the white shapes, which run one of two operations on one of your beasts. The cross-shaped one combines beasts, making a new beast out of, say, the shark and bear or octopus and warthog, leaving the originals in place. The arrow-shaped one migrates beasts into a new form, the sea-based Octopus becoming the land-based Rocktopus.
These migrated creatures or weird hybrids can then become the basis of even more bizarre creations, the points rising the stranger and more unusual your beast becomes. Keep a cool head and a steady hand, and the world fills with all kinds of bear-meets-shark-meets-toucan critters.
Beasts that reach 20 point or 30 point totals become Elementals: super-beasts at the top of the evolutionary chain. Finding a new one always feels like a real achievement.
Of course, while your brain is trying to deal with all this, your hands are busy trying to stack the different artefacts on the plinth. The team at Sensible Object has meticulously designed each one so that they’ll stand up at different angles in different positions, provide perches for other artefacts, and be weighted in different directions – but the more you place on the plinth and the taller your ad hoc tower gets, the trickier it all becomes.
In addition, because you need to respond to what’s happening in the app, not just what’s happening on the plinth, you can’t always place the object you’d like to because poor Warthog’s dying of starvation or because you’d really like to squeeze the shark on-board to make that killer beast combo you’d thought about earlier.
To make things even tougher, you have a small range of miracle objects that protect your beasts from losing star power points through jealousy, or that give you a bonus score for stacking quickly.
To make them work you need to stack while performing a tricky feat in the app, such as tapping or holding your finger on an icon. Given that just keeping a big pile of artefacts balanced is an art in and of itself, this could be your undoing when you’re trying to rack up a high score.
Lose that balance and your tower will come crashing down, giving you a few frantic seconds with a volcanic in-game countdown to replace all your artefacts before the world comes to an end, along with your game.
When that finally happens, you have two measures of success; the total score for your world when it ended, and the beasts you’ve made for the first time and added to your bestiary. There’s a little of that Pokémon "gotta catch 'em all" spirit in there too, and with so many different combinations of beasts and hybrids, it’s going to be a long time before you do.
Beasts of Balance is very compelling and worryingly addictive, lovingly presented both inside and outside of the app. The cool stylised graphics bring the different creatures to life, along with an atmospheric soundtrack from the Fez/Hyper-Light-Drifter composter, Disasterpiece.
By now, however, you might have noticed one of the oddities of the game. It isn't designed to be played competitively – something that was originally the focus, but subsequently rejected in favour of the current play style.
While you can play it cooperatively, taking turns to place your artefacts, it’s a pretty informal arrangement where certain players tend to lead, and where the positioning of the NFC scanner kind of gets in the way.
What’s more, the only thing the app tracks is what you score as a group. In a way, then, it isn't as much of a party game as I expected, even if it’s still great to share the fun with others – not to mention the tension, relief and horror as a tower wobbles and goes down, before the often-hopeless scramble to get it back up again.
You could label this a flaw, and we’ve had our share of play sessions where one player plays while the others basically watch and advise, which isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. That said, the beauty of Beasts of Balance is that it’s easily expandable. Sensible Object is already selling add-on creatures and a DIY kit for home creature makers, and there’s obvious potential to add new game modes and options to the app.
As it is, right now, Beasts of Balance is a whole ton of fun – but this might be only the start of something awesome.
Talk about your equilibrium; Beasts does a fantastic job of keeping all its different elements in perfect balance. What looks like a simple game of stacking one weird critter on another is actually a game of nerve, poise, smarts and strategy, where both the digital and physical parts are equally important.
We’d love to see the entertaining co-op play expanded to bring in some competitive options, but what we have right now is beautifully made, presented and designed and – most of all – fun.