Beneath London's Somerset House, on the north bank of the Thames, a whole bunch of gene-splicing "science" is going on. A small studio by the name of Sensible Object is making a game where animals you know are combined with others you'll have seen in books, on the TV, maybe even for real, to produce creatures, beasts, sometimes fabulous ones, that are either straight out of your dreams, or likely to send you to sleep fearing nightmares. And it's not exactly your normal game, either, existing both on a screen and a table, at the same time.
This is Fabulous Beasts, and after 30 minutes in its company, playing two rounds beside its lead designer George Buckenham, I can confirm that it is, indeed, just the most fun you can legally have with your hands, a modern tablet device, and a bunch of pretend animals.
The dry description of Fabulous Beasts, to quote from its own online press kit, "is a game of strategy and balance in which you build a tower of animals on your tabletop, then help them evolve in a connected digital world on iOS and Android tablets and smartphones." But George gets me rather more excited when he simply says, "We're playing as gods."
But the land that we gods first look out over is devoid of life. On the screen—"it'll work on any smartphone or tablet—I've had it running on my Android phone," George says—there's a "world," land, sea and air, but nothing swimming, breathing, grazing, living. "We're trying to build a world full of fabulous beasts," George continues. "We need to fill this landscape, that you see on the tablet, with incredible creatures, and we do that by putting pieces on the tower, and hoping that don't fall over."
The "tower" in question is a pressure-sensitive platform connected to the game's app via Bluetooth, upon which you place the 24 physical pieces, or Artefacts, attempting to stack them up until no more remain loose on the table. The pieces aren't all animals—there are migrate pieces, cross pieces, pieces that provide perks to certain beasts, and also "miracle" pieces. Each not only serves a purpose as a palpable block to balance so very carefully on top of another, but also affects what's happening on the screen. So, I make my first move.
"You start by putting a beast on," George instructs. "You scan the piece against the tower, thus registering it with the app, and then you put the piece on the platform. Take that bear. It can go anywhere you want. And there you go: you now have a bear in the world."
I do indeed: one happy bear, with a "fabulous" score of six attached to it. The more fabulous your beasts in the game become, the higher your overall score; and the higher your score, the better your game. And to get the very highest score, you have to level up your world's array of fauna by mixing species. This is achieved by placing a cross piece on the tower—any two animals beneath it will have their traits stirred together, resulting in a new animal of incredibly fabulous potential. Before I pick up a cross piece, I nudge an eagle into place, beside my bear.
"There's a nice thing where the height of the eagle is about the same as the bear, so they're pretty intimate," George says, and he's right—it looks like the flat cross piece will sit perfectly horizontally on top of the two animal blocks. "So now there are two creatures in the world. Take a cross piece—you'll see what it does when you put it on. It forms a fresh platform to put new pieces on, but it also crossbreeds two existing creatures in the world. Which means we now have an Airbeareagle in the world. And he's so fabulous, that the other animals become jealous, and their scores drop."
Article continues after the video below
Both my eagle and bear are pissed that this new freak of nature has shown up in their airspace. And the more animals you introduce to the world—via the blocks, the mixtures of beasts, and by using skinny migrate pieces that bring a creature into the picture from beyond your collection of Artefacts (the first I see is a seagull, for example)—the more that you need to balance the jealousy raging amongst the less-fabulous species, which you do by adding element blocks. Green means land, and gives the four-legged creatures a boost of confidence; dark blue corresponds to the sea, and light blue the air; and orange, fire, provides all the beasts with a pick-me-up points surge.
"The smaller creatures are obviously less fabulous—a warthog is less fabulous than a bear," George explains. There's an octopus here, too, and it's not exactly in the same league as the shark. The toucan isn't up there with an eagle—to begin with, at least, but cross it with another of the teetering critters and it can become so much more. All of this mad science boosts your score, which you can tot up by playing solo or any number of friends. And having someone by your side becomes ever so helpful when you bring the miracle pieces into play.
"Because we're gods, we can add miracle pieces," George tells me, picking up a thin, curved piece of plastic and asking me to hook it onto my now-delicately-poised pile. "We can use them, and one will double our score, a second will quadruple it. But while they're in play, the screen will challenge us. So one piece is the miracle of distraction (the curved one), and will give us something to do on the screen as we're playing with the pieces. The screen will show a series of moons that we have to eclipse by tapping on them. The other is a timing piece, the miracle of haste, so you get a ticking clock in the background."
I bring the distraction piece into the game and am immediately torn between making sure I'm keeping my tower in check and clearing the moons on the screen—if I fail to tap them, I lose my score bonus. I'm tapping, and placing, and hoping, and then it all comes apart: my beasts fall from their platform, and a countdown begins on the screen. Five, four, three, fucked it.
"The endgame is either we manage to get all the pieces on, at which point our score doubles, and we can all feel very pleased with ourselves," George says, now helping me pick helpless plastic animals up from the floor. "Or, a piece or more falls off, at which point we have five seconds to put everything back. It doesn't matter what order it's in, but everything has to go back on. So when everything falls off, it's pretty much game over."
I play another round, score higher, and find myself well and truly locked into Fabulous Beasts' loop of piece positioning, screen checking, scanning, and tapping. I could sit here all afternoon and keep playing. I'm laughing, a lot, and it's not just because I'm utterly useless at making a small bird balance on top of a shark's snout—it's because, clearly, this game is the work of geniuses. You'll start playing it and think, yeah, whatever, it's like Skylanders without the shooting and stuff, or just Jenga gone rogue with a laboratory full of mutagens. But two, maybe three minutes in, that cycle of tangible risk and virtual reward has got its claws in deep, and the deviousness of this seemingly simple game becomes clear. And it's not just for me—while I can easily see myself playing this with friends and booze, kids are going to absolutely love it, too.
And yes, I know: saying that something is "fun for all the family" usually means the activity in question is boring as sin. But trust me: anyone can, and should, play Fabulous Beasts, and they'll have an absolute whale of a time doing so. Not that there's a whale in the game. An oversight, that, but one that you can fix—Sensible Object will release a "maker" edition of the game, with a set of tags that players can affix to anything they like at home. Want to stack your grandma's precious china for a one-off, never to be repeated game? Go for it. Or, try piling up real-life pets, sticking tags to their collars and eyelids. That's a great idea, and you can have it for free. Though, and this is just a suggestion, do steer clear of inviting actual bears around for a game. That idea, not so good.
Fabulous Beasts should be available in real-world stores and at online retailers this side of Christmas 2016. The game is currently on Kickstarter, if you want to back it now, or simply learn more about a genuinely fascinating merging of virtual and physical play.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.