How Sensible Object designed 2017's best board game

The Beasts of Balance creator tells us how the game, its graphics, app and characters were designed – and how playing God can be a huge amount of fun...

Remember Mouse Trap? How about Kerrplunk? Or what about Buckeroo? Well, imagine those iconic games brought up to date, working harmoniously with an app as you play.

That’s how you could perhaps describe Beasts of Balance, the first game from ‘connected toy’ company Sensible Object – challenging you to stack physical objects on a plinth to build an interactive world on your iPad, iPhone or Android device. The more physical objects you stack, the more your virtual world evolves on your tablet or smartphone.

These physical objects take the form of animals, artefacts and elements. As you add a bear, for instance, to the plinth, a bear appears in the app, rewarding you with points for your creation. Add another animal and you can even cross-breed to create some rather odd mutations. Or indeed you can even make a shark become a land-based creature, if you so wish.

And everything is brought to life in-app with wondrously psychedelic character art and animations. If at any point your physical stack falls down, you only have a limited amount of time to rebuild your world before a volcano erupts in the app and destroys your world

The idea for the game came while Sensible Object founder Alex Fleetwood was camping in the wilderness of Northern California. Stacking kindling and firewood, he began to imagine the potential of a game where physical balance translated into digital play – and subsequently built a team of engineers, artists and programmers who could all work in harmony to deliver his vision.

At Makerversity, a thriving creative hub in London’s Somerset House Studios, I caught up with some of the team at Sensible Object to see just how it brought this ingenious hybrid of board game and app to life.

“We generally try and work creatively as a core team, so the disciplines of art, design, game design and electronics are kept in the same process, otherwise things can get disjointed,” says Tim Burrell-Saward, lead designer on Beasts of Balance and, as well as being responsible for the physical objects, the one who, by his own admission, “leads the project and makes sure everything gets done on time.”

The closeness of the team led to them sometimes butting heads throughout the process – mainly about how the digital art within the app coalesced with the physical stacking objects.

“There was a tension between the digital art and the physical art,” explains Tim. “But it’s kind of OK, as long as they are obviously from the same world. With the narrative, it makes sense… the physical objects are artefacts, the physical representations, but when you put them into the game, they kind of hatch and become the real thing.”

And these physical objects, you may be surprised to learn, were prototyped in a pretty rudimentary way. As Tim reveals: “When prototyping the physical objects, quite often we work with pieces of rubbish that approximate the types of physical shapes we want to make. And then it goes in stages to first 3D prints – making very crude 3D shapes just to get them printed out so we can start playing with them in the real world.”

Beasts of Balance uses innovative technology developed by Sensible Object, including RFID to recognise the pieces, load sensors to sense whether the tower is standing, and Bluetooth to connect to the player’s smart device. And when you begin playing, within the app you’re treated to a beautiful, sprawling coloured world – the aesthetic of which lead artist Lyall McCarthy describes as “gently psychedelic’.

“When we first started thinking about the overall art style of the game we had this phrase written on our white board,” he says. “That kind of meant bright bold colours, beautiful gradients, patterns – psychedelia but not too garish.”

The game was built in Unity, mainly by lead programmer on the project, George Buckenham. As well as this, George was concerned with some of the rather unique design challenges: “I had to work out that when you scan an object, it’s worth this amount of points,” he laughs. “Or that the beasts can get jealous of each other – I was thrashing through those kind of decisions.”

Beasts of Balance was originally released back in October 2016, but the beauty of the game is its ability to be expanded, not only through new physical pieces, but also new rules and gameplay within the app.

“The original version of the game is collaborative, you play together and have to work together to build a tower, but people really like fighting each other and battling, so the new version of the game lets two or three players play against each other – they compete to see who has, at the end of the game, the most fabulous animals and the highest score,” smiles Chris Shaw, lead engineer and ‘the person responsible for the electronics’.

“We’ve introduced features such as being able to attack your opponent and you can defend. There’s a lot of different strategy that didn’t exist in the first game.”

A new feature recently added is strategy cards – something artist Lyall enjoyed the challenge of designing.

“An example of one of the cards is ‘Booby Trap’, he smiles. “This enables you to put a booby trap on one of the pieces, so when someone plays it, one of their beasts dies. Rather than just showing a beast in the app dying, I wanted the opportunity to put in visual puns – so with the Booby Trap card you’ve got a blue-footed booby bird standing on a bear trap. It’s a great pun.”

As Beasts of Balance continues to evolve – just like the worlds you create within it – the team are hugely excited about what’s next.

“It’s been designed to appeal to as many different types of players as possible,” enthuses Tim. “So you’ve got the strategic depth of the gameplay with the cards, but we wanted to introduce some more challenging stacking pieces. The physical pieces we’re working on now are the next stages of difficulty.”

But perhaps it’s artist Lyall who best sums up the inclusiveness of Beasts of Balance – being a physical and digital game that appeals to all generations. Something that has led it to win numerous awards: “We have seven year old kids playing with their grandparents… the grandparents don’t understand Minecraft or anything like that, but they understand this game and they all play together." Playing god has never been so much fun.

HowWeWork takes you behind-the-scenes at some of the UK’s leading creatives studios – giving you an insight into how they create their best work. Groundbreaking games, market-changing rebrands, mind-blowing visual effects – these companies produce these and more.

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