In a world filled with technology, board games are often an opportunity for a rare escape from screens and keyboards - a chance to log off and focus on the physical, tactile experience in front of you.
However, if you’re willing to stay a little more connected, there are a growing number of app-assisted games exploring the ways that a digital helping hand can improve your analogue experience - and even enabling things that simply wouldn’t be possible with just a deck of cards and a sand timer.
To showcase this, we’ve put together a list of the best board games that use an app - to a greater or lesser extent - to augment and enhance themselves.
Best app-assisted board games
1. Forgotten Waters: Piracy and app-driven narrative adventures on the high seas.
2. XCOM: The Board Game: Defend Earth from an AI-driven alien invasion.
3. Unlock!: Escape a deck of cards against a ticking timer.
4. Mansions of Madness: Second Edition: Face the Mythos with your friends.
5. Star Wars: Imperial Assault: Fully team up against a computer Imperial.
6. The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth: Adventure through Tolkein’s world as the app handles the forces of evil.
7. Gloomhaven: Simplify the admin in the beloved board game.
8. Chronicles of Crime: Solve mysteries, interview suspects and explore VR scenes with your smartphone.
9. Alchemists: Deduce the make-up of mushrooms and toads by mixing them in the app.
10. Space Alert: Vary your threats - and hardware requirements - by replacing fixed CD tracks with a randomised app.
11. One Night Ultimate Werewolf: Condense your Werewolf experience by using the app to moderate the night phase.
From admin assistants and enemy AI to virtual reality crime scenes, these games offer a gamut of digital experiences to explore when you’re looking for something other than just moving your meeple from one space to the next.
1. Forgotten Waters
Forgotten Waters is the first game Plaid Hat has made since going independent.
The first release from newly independent Dead of Winter studio Plaid Hat Games after its separation from the Kraken-sized gaming company Asmodee is this semi-cooperative narrative game. Up to seven players become a crew of pirates, working together to achieve the captain’s goals and prevent sinking or mutiny, while also attempting to individually unlock their best character endings by means of personal development and artificial deflation through scarcity of valuables (leveling up and burying treasure).
The mandatory companion app acts as a narrated choose-your-own-adventure book, as you enter numbers to reach paragraphs of well-written, excellently-voiced and frequently hilarious narration. A second web-based app is available to assist in playing Forgotten Waters remotely with friends, making this a fantastic game for the current time of lockdown.
Buy Forgotten Waters at Plaid Hat Games
2. XCOM: The Board Game
Playing XCOM: The Board Game is about as stressful as playing the video game series.
If you’re familiar with the computer game series XCOM is based on, you might be surprised by the solely high-level perspective the game takes of an alien invasion. You ignore the ground combat in order to focus on where to send troops, what to research and, most of all, how you’re going to balance your budget.
You might also be surprised by the real-time nature of half this video game board game, as the companion app - which orchestrates the aliens’ unseen machinations - spews out instructions with only seconds for you to follow. After a few minutes of this, you’re offered an untimed phase to roll dice and use abilities as you resolve the outcome of your panicked choices - before the app demands to know how you did, so it can use it against you in the next round.
Buy XCOM: The Board Game on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com
The Unlock! series has become a household name for escape room games.
Unlock! is one of several boxed home escape room game series and in some ways is the closest to a real-life escape room through use of its companion app, which provides a one-hour timer along with clues and a four-digit code-entry system. It’ll even provide hints proactively like an escape room game master watching you in a real room, despairing at how you haven’t thought to look behind the picture frame yet.
While not as tactile as the pleasing code-disks of the Exit series, or as elaborate as the decoder in Escape Room: The Game, the app in Unlock does exactly what you’d hope for - provides a seamless way of offering hints and verification as you puzzle.
4. Mansions of Madness: Second Edition
There's no need for a player to be the keeper in this second edition of Mansions of Madness.
The first edition of one of Fantasy Flight’s smaller scale Arkham Horror Files settings - a mere mansion, as opposed to a city or the whole world of Eldritch Horror - unleashed on the world a one-versus-many dungeon-crawler, as up to four players faced down a single DM-like ‘Keeper’ controlling the forces of the Mythos. In the second edition, that opponent was replaced by an even scarier force: technology.
Mansions of Madness 2E’s companion app slowly unveils the map as your now fully-cooperative group explores. It also provides an inscrutable controlling force for managing enemies and triggering events, presenting an assortment of text and audio to sell the theme. Plus, there’s the wailing of the now-redundant Keeper player in the corner of your room to really help with the atmosphere.
5. Star Wars: Imperial Assault
Players can immerse themselves in the most epic sci-fi world ever created.
Like the original Mansions of Madness, Imperial Assault is a one-on-many dungeon-crawler - just with an added campaign mode and an even more culturally all-pervasive setting. It recently received an update that allowed a free companion app to replace the human opponent but, unlike the Cthulhu property, didn’t undergo a full new edition to do so.
The Imperial Assault app, published three years after the Star Wars board game’s initial release, allows the Imperial player to defect to join their friends on the Rebel side during brand new campaigns. It doesn’t support as many scenarios or allow as much flexibility as having a human manage the campaign, but it can still be worth it to let you and your friends all work together to defeat the Empire.
6. The Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-earth
A variety of narrative-driven adventures can be accessed via the game's companion app.
To complete the trifecta of app-based dungeon-crawlers from Fantasy Flight, the most recent instalment has been app-dependent from its initial release in 2019.
Set in-between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Journeys in Middle-earth sends up to five players on a RPG-lite campaign made up of 14 scenarios. The party travels through Tolkien’s world using the app to lay out the map, determine enemy behaviour and offer narrative choices, including the ability to level up their characters with experience and acquire new equipment for the rest of the campaign.
Although clearly based on Mansions of Madness’ core loop of exploration and combat, the physical gameplay differs more, moving away from the dice beloved of the genre and utilising card decks instead.
This game's app may not be official, but it is certainly useful.
Widely acclaimed - remaining the highest-ranked best board game on BoardGameGeek three years after its release - and followed by a record-breaking $13 million Kickstarter for its sequel, Frosthaven, earlier this year, you may have already heard of Gloomhaven.
You may also be wondering why it’s on this list, since it doesn’t officially require an app to play. If that’s the case, we’re here to transform your gaming sessions.
Gloomhaven Helper is an optional app that can handle large portions of the enemy tracking and general upkeep involved in playing the game, reducing setup time, table space and card shuffling. It’s full of nifty features, many of which you can use or ignore as you like. Ultimately, though, less admin means more time to agonise over how you’re going to grab that treasure and still finish the scenario successfully.
8. Chronicles of Crime
Scanning QR codes has never quite been so fun than in this story-driven game.
For something completely different, how about a narrative co-op crime-solving game? Chronicles of Crime puts you in the shoes of a Scotland Yard detective (or some vastly different characters, if you’re playing one of its expansions) solving a mystery by using the app to scan QR codes representing locations, characters and items. You’ll get the opportunity to fire up 360-degree panoramas - in virtual reality if you choose - of crime scenes to look around and identify elements of interest using your phone.
As you explore each location, you build up a picture of what happened - tested by a final quiz that lays bare your understanding of the crime. The writing isn’t great and some of the scenarios veer rather too heavily into silliness, but it’s an undeniably entertaining exploration of how apps can develop and expand genres.
Every game of Alchemists feels like an entirely new experience thanks to its companion app.
As a competitive worker-placement logic puzzle game, Alchemists is unlike every other game on this list - and off it. Players are the eponymous alchemists, making potions in the service of knowledge and profit. What potion any two ingredients will form is determined by the app, based on the combined items’ secretly assigned alchemical compositions.
This leads to an exceptionally scientific process of experimentation and deduction, mixing different combinations of ingredients to create the best concoctions. Work fast and you can also beat your opponents to publishing your theories on what each ingredient is made from - did we mention you’re all academics as well?
Oh, and you can feed your unidentified potions to your students - for science, naturally.
10. Space Alert
The companion app for this game amps up the tension and keeps things fresh.
As with Gloomhaven, an app isn’t necessarily required to play this chaotic co-op masterpiece from Codenames creator Vlaada Chvátil. The game comes with a CD – remember those? – from which you select one of eight tracks to play for your 10-minute space flight. The track announces where and when threats appear that your crew will have to race to overcome, while also timing how long you have as a group to decide on your actions.
However, eight tracks isn’t a huge number. While the specific threats you face are drawn from a deck of cards to ensure every game is different, there’s scope for greater variety. Enter the unofficial Mission Generator app, which can generate all-new random mission sequences - or simply play the official CD tracks without having to track down a suitable device.
11. One Night Ultimate Werewolf
Deciding which roles to include and organising admin has never been easier.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf takes the classic social deduction party game of Werewolf (or Mafia) and presents it in its fastest, sharpest possible iteration, reducing it to a single night (and subsequent day).
Gone is the player elimination: everyone’s in until the end. The half-hour-plus playtime is reduced to a tidy 10 minutes, no matter your player count. Best of all, it doesn’t need a narrator - meaning everyone at the table now gets to play!
This is achieved by having the app prompt everyone to perform their special action during the night phase, before unleashing everyone in a free-for-all discussion. It all still culminates with a vote in which the villagers must eliminate a werewolf to win. ONUW doesn’t strictly need an app for the night phase, but using one ensures impartial time periods for each role and no game-ruining mistakes when someone forgets to offer the Doppelgänger a go after every other role.