Going Analog

Where video game industry veterans introduce great board games to video gamers

5 great board games with companion apps

Wait -- don't put your phone away after all.

Long before apps were a thing, a board game packed with an audio CD for ambiance was a major selling point. Hey, that was a big deal back then! (We would’ve settled for a cassette tape.) These days, you get everything from rulebooks and stat trackers to entire game-balancing modes packed into a companion smartphone app. What’s so great about ’em? Done right, they can breathe an extra dimension into your tabletop sessions. In some cases, they are even required. 

Yep, just as you finally manage to convince people to stash their phones for five whole minutes for some board gaming, this happens. Figures. 

It’s time to scour our shelves and local game stores for five of the best board games that also happen to have the coolest companion apps.

The companion app for XCOM quite literally puts you in command.
You can't play XCOM (the board game) without XCOM (the companion app). XCOM (the video game) sold separately.

XCOM: The Board Game

Defend the earth in this tabletop adaptation of the critically acclaimed video game series.

THE GAME: XCOM is no stranger to longtime strategy video game fans. This jump to the analog world brings all the tactical action -- and stress! -- from the digital version: You allocate resources and make command decisions; you decide which technologies to research; and, yes, you send out troops to stop an alien invasion -- much of it in non-stop real time. While it is technically possible to solo the tabletop experience, you’d need to be a multitasking master with a keg of cold-brewed coffee on standby to do well. Better to recruit a full squad of four players to get the most out of XCOM: The Board Game.

THE APP: One player takes on the role of Central Officer, whose job is essentially to use the app. This intel officer provides support by placing satellites on the world map and passing along new information from the app to the other players (Commander, Squad Leader, and Chief Scientist).

Besides mood-setting and making the “Central” player serve as a kind of game master, the app also has an extremely handy set of instructions that hyperlinks to every relevant event and cross-referenced rule. Versions are available for iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac.

Add more gameplay options - and go solo - with the Clank! companion app.
Add more gameplay options -- and go solo -- with the Clank! companion app.


Deck-build your own adventure

THE GAME: Clank! is a playful card game about thieves sneaking into a dungeon to grab as much loot as possible. The problem, however, is that with up to four of you all doing the same thing, they’re bound to make some noise -- noise that will eventually wake up a slumbering dragon who’s going to be awfully pissed when he notices some of his treasure’s gone missing. So Clank! isn’t just about nabbing the most gold. It has some fun “I don’t need to outrun the dragon. I just need to outrun you” franticness to it as well.

THE APP: The nicest surprise about the app for Clank! is that it adds two new ways for you to play. Wanna solo this? Complete quests and challenge your own high score -- the app will run point for you. Got a couple buddies available to quest? A new multiplayer option adds a lieutenant to the dungeon that you need to fight off as well.

Funny thing is, ask anyone that’s already playing Clank! (or its expansions), and they might not know that the app even exists (just ask Shoe, *ahem*). So have them download the Renegade Games’s app, stat, to get even more mileage out of this game.

The companion app for Alchemists is built right into the game. Don't experiment without it!
Cardboard-based augmented reality hasn't been invented yet, so Alchemists requires an app.


Conduct experiments for a better life through alchemy.

THE GAME: You and your friends are scholars trying to complete new potions to sell them off to wandering adventurers. But hell if you’re going to sample your own wares to make sure they work (that’s what your students are for). Meanwhile, you can get ahead of the competition and make a name for yourself by debunking your fellow academics' work. The fact that the whole game is presented in a very Discworld/Pratchett-esque quirky tone sells the fun even more.

THE APP: The Alchemists: Lab Equipment app is central to playing the board game. Using your phone’s camera, it adds a...wait for it...magical kind of quality as you’re puzzling out the best ingredient combinations and seeing the reactions between the reagents (and the students testing them) using augmented reality to scan your cards.

This Companion app is the fully modern take on mood-setting for this awesome board game.
Mansions of Madness's companion app is the best at setting the right mood...for death.

Mansions of Madness (Second Edition)

A co-op survival game that grabs you by the Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

THE GAME: Mansions of Madness is out to drive you...crazy. It comes through in its theme (you and your friends work through punishing Lovecraftian-inspired scenarios, with cultists, monsters, and otherworldly threats making every situation seem impossible). Then there’s the gameplay itself: A teammate may be forced to go mad and turn against the group in a friendship-testing twist. Whether or not you survive, you’re in for one hell of a ride in the only game we gave all thumbs ups to in our old video review series.

THE APP: Not only does the app narrate the different scenarios, it’s laced with thematic sounds and appropriate background noise that make you want to claw at your armrests. More importantly, the app frees up one player from playing the bad guys and doing all the tedious game master tasks (like setting up the puzzles or threats in each new room that the team explores). Now no one person has to feel bad when the rest of the group loses. Everyone can feel bad together!

The Unlock! series of games is a card (and companion app) -based escape room!
The Unlock! series is the cheapest way to get escape-room experiences (not counting the cost of your mobile device to run the companion app).

Unlock! Escape Adventures

A pocket-sized escape room.

THE GAME: The Unlock! series is essentially escape rooms that fit in a small box. Trade in room-cluttering props for a spread of oversized playing cards that are filled with detailed scenes, puzzles, riddles, and hidden objects. You and your friends (while the box says up to six can play, realistically this is a two-player co-op affair) eyeball the cards for clues and use the app to confirm if you are on the right track.

THE APP: This app isn’t optional; it’s absolutely required to play. It adds mood music and provides a timer to keep you honest (and to rate your performance in the end). It also provides hints in case you get stuck. But its main purpose is to push the game forward. As you solve puzzles and overcome obstacles, the cards will give you numbers to input into the app, which will either lead you to the next card with the next clue -- or take time off the clock and penalize you if you get something wrong.

Many escape-rooms-in-a-box are one-shot deals. Finish the game, destroy things in said box, and you’re done. Might as well douse it in lighter fluid and set it on fire because you can’t play it again, right? Not here, thanks to the app. Just hand the box to another friend, have them download the app, and secretly hope they don’t score better than you.

This, of course, is by no means a complete list. Hell, these are only five of the many companion-app-based board games on our shelves alone. In the coming weeks, we are going to come back and look at more of these hybrid titles, but we’d love to hear from you as well. What are some of the better companion app-based board games that you’ve been playing? Tag us on Twitter or Facebook and let us know!