Stacking games, tabletop games where players compete to build the highest structure, are generally fun. The physical element of building and balancing your pieces, all while trying to outdo your opponent(s) is thrilling and can be downright hilarious as the pieces come tumbling down.
Quite a few stacking games exist, with Junk Art being one of the most popular ones right now. Brian reviewed Tournament of Towers a while back, which is a stacking game that funded via Kickstarter and as he said in his review “When comparing [stacking games] it’s the variety of pieces and the circumstances under which you stack that make all the difference.” So what does Beasts of Balance bring to the table and how does Beasts of Balance set itself apart from the crowd?
Beasts of Balance definitely gets top marks in the “variety of pieces” or “cool shapes” category. The shapes, which are mostly representations of animals, are highly varied and look great. A few of them might have the occasional flat surface, but you’re never going to mistake any of them for a basic building block. Instead, there is a shark, eagle, toucan, octopus, bear, etc. In addition to the animal, or should I say “beast” shapes, Beasts of Balance includes various elements that are all odd shaped and aren’t very easy to stack. These pieces are needed, however, in order to upgrade and transform your beasts.
One of the ways Beasts of Balance separates itself from the other stacking games on the market is that an app is essential for play. Depending on your point of view, this might be considered a good thing or a not so good thing. Beasts of Balance isn’t the type of game where an app is suggested for play or even recommended for play, but the game can’t really be played without it. Sure, you can stack the objects on top of one another without the assistance of an app, but the game is only partly about stacking. In fact, one could argue that stacking isn’t the real focus of Beasts of Balance at all and is only a byproduct of the core goal of the game.
The app keeps track of how “balanced” the beasts of the different elements are, and this, along with acquiring points, is the main goal of the game and not necessarily making the highest stack of beasts. Each beast belongs to one element: either Water, Air, or Earth. And each beast is either large or small, and has a set number of starting points associated with it. For example, the toucan is a small bird so it will give three points and is associated with the air element. During the next turn, if you place a beast with a different point value of a different element, the beasts will be unbalanced. When this happens, you lose points (the beasts with a lower value loses life/health) each turn until the beasts’ point values match (or one beast dies). The makes the game more about keeping things equal, or balanced, as opposed to stacking things willy-nilly.
The app and the odd-shaped element pieces, are used to boost the beasts that correspond to that particular element. In the toucan example, if the bear was played next, the toucan would lose a point of life, becoming a two point beast because it has less points than the bear, which starts with six points. Should a beast drop to zero points, it is removed from the game. You, the player, earn a number of points that is gained/lost, so in the above example you’d get 3 points when placing the toucan, 6 points when placing the bear, then minus 1 point when the toucan loses a point so your total would be 8 points. To keep from losing points each turn, you’d want to boost the toucan by playing an air elemental piece. The elemental pieces are all double sided, so you can play an Air/Earth combo, an Air/Air combo, an Air/Fire combo, or an Air/Water combo. The Fire element acts as a wild element and will boost any beast that the firefly (seen in the app) is flying around.
The app also facilitates combining beasts, which is a huge part of gameplay, although indirectly. You don’t have to combine beasts, but it can be a fun aspect of play and there is a “got to catch them all” type vibe that comes from finding all the different combinations. To combine a beast, you’ll need to place the X shaped piece on the base, which will trigger a transformation of the beast that the firefly is near. You can also transform beasts by boosting their points high enough, which is obviously less fun and only upgrades the beast in question instead of transforming it into a totally unique creature.
You’ll want to combine beasts and keep things unbalanced as when everything is balanced nothing really happens. When things are balanced, there isn’t really anything to do. The game doesn’t provide a reason for continuing after you’ve reached balance. You can easily keep things in balance from the second turn, but you won’t get a lot of points this way.
All of this might sound neat and fun, and there is certainly a lot going on, but my main issue with Beasts of Balance is that it is called a game at all. It is really an interactive toy for solo play (and that’s okay, but I feel the distinction should be known going into things as Beasts of Balance isn’t an inexpensive game/toy). The box says it is for 1 – 5 players, but there isn’t a real way to facilitate playing with multiple players other than playing a game by yourself, then passing the game to the next player and comparing scores. The scores won’t be kept (so you’ll have to remember them or write them down) and there is no Player 1 or Player 2 type identifiers.
The app is both the best and worst part of Beasts of Balance. It does a fine job keeping track of things, but that’s about all it does. The game doesn’t come with a rulebook of any kind, relying on the introduction within the app to teach everything. I’d really like a small booklet to look at for reference. The app also seems to fail in that there aren’t really any game modes. As an interactive toy or a multi-player game, points are the only thing that matter, there is only a single way to get them, and you have to push yourself to keep going. The app doesn’t facilitate any sort of “highest structure”, or “most beasts”, or any kind of mode like that to provide challenges to the player. It is simply a points’ fest and any way that you can get the points is acceptable. Because there is no framework, no constraints of how to achieve the points, I had to question why I was playing a few times. Why am I placing beasts in the first place? Why don’t I want to simply place a toucan and a warthog and be done? It is really up to the player to keep going.
Granted, there are two special pieces that, when placed, add some additional challenge to the game, but because there are only two pieces and they do the exact same thing over and over, it gets kind of boring. The two added challenges are, “touch the sun on the device screen” and “place a piece before the end of the time limit”. Touching the screen can provide an added layer of difficulty, so I appreciate that this was included, however I found the time limit restriction to always be too long to add any pressure to the turn. I’d really like to see more of these additional challenges as they’d help keep the game interesting. As it stands though, after the first couple of plays, most interest in continuing vanishes.
The base is also easily tricked. You “scan” the piece you want to play and the app recognizes it, but the base is simply a scale and uses weight to determine if you used the correct piece. Players that want to cheat will be able to do so. For instance, before I began playing one game I extended the size of the base by placing a piece of cardboard on top. Also, I was able purposefully remove a piece in order to play its effect again. So the pieces aren’t really “smart” at all, and “scanning” them only tells the app which piece will be played. If the pieces were actually “smart” then the base would know which pieces were being played. If the app was as smart as it should be, it would also recognize that a particular piece had already been played and not allow it to be played a second time.
Beasts of Balance looks impressive. The pieces are finely sculpted and look and feel great. As a single-player experience, especially for children, Beasts of Balance makes an okay toy. It has to be used in conjunction with a device like an iPhone or Galaxy S7, so if your goal is to reduce screen time/electronic device usage, then Beasts of Balance might not be the game you are looking for.
There is a live (at the time of writing this) Kickstarter campaign for an updated version + expansion for Beasts of Balance. The expansion is called Battles and it looks like it might address some of the lack of gamifacation issues. Take a look at the new Beasts of Balance campaign.
I want to like Beasts of Balance, but I found it to be lacking. I can only halfway recommend Beasts of Balance for young children. My kid enjoys placing beasts on the base and watching the animations on the app, but the concept of keeping them balanced and/or evolving/combining them is a little lost on him and therefore his attention isn’t kept.
If the new Battles expansion turns Beasts of Balance a little more into a game, I’m sure my feelings on the matter will change and I’ll be able to fully recommend it. However, I haven’t played the new expansion so I must save judgment for later.