Designing for Augmented Reality – Deciding on Scope

In this blog post I’m going to look at my approach to designing my game about warring wizards for Augmented Reality (AR).

Why use AR?

I guess the first question is: why look at designing a game to support AR in the first place? The answer to that is multifaceted as I have a number of motivations for using AR.


One of the biggest benefits that AR will deliver to the table top is helping players manage complex game mechanics.
Let’s look at the game ‘Star Wars Armada’ as an example. Great as the game is, I constantly battle with a number of the game mechanics. Take the action of measuring the distance between two spaceships to check whether one is within range of the other one so that it can be shot at. This can be problematic if the game surface is very busy: models get nudged accidently, there might not be room to place a physical range ruler and players might argue about a measurement. These problems could quite easily be solved by having an AR-based measuring system that also acts as an umpire. It would visually show whether or not the ships were in range with no need to physically measure anything and would give you a consistent, trusted and impartial ruling every time.


Augmented Reality itself is exciting and it’s quite obviously a giant playground for innovation.
There’s more to it than this, however. Compared to computer games, table top games have a much lower limit on the amount of complexity that you can add before players get overwhelmed and a game becomes too difficult or tedious to play. AR can help bridge the gap, using computing capabilities to allow extra complexity on the table top. Allowing more complexity on the table top in turn gives more space in which to innovate.

AR is cool

Now, I’m not much of a gadget person. I tend to ‘solve’ for a specific purpose: when I bought a 5.1 audio receiver and got surround sound for my TV, that was job done. My girlfriend, however, was happy to play around with it and find all sorts of useful features.

AR is a bit different though. I see AR as solving loads and loads of problems, and in a very cool and exciting way. Our imaginations have been seeded with suggestion from TV and film. I can picture vividly what might be possible: as a minimum, it would be awesome to have your very own heads-up display as you went about your daily business. It’s this blindingly obvious and potent potential for doing interesting things that motivates me.

Where to start?

As I say above, I’m fortunate enough to know a smart techie who knows quite a bit about the technology side of things. I’m also fortunate to have worked as a software product manager, so I’ve intuitively got a handle on how to approach the question of ‘where to start with AR?’

Possible Scope vs Practical Scope

The first thing I’ve done is to do a brain dump of all the ideas that I’ve come up with for how I’d like to use AR in my warring wizards game. Nothing is too big for consideration at this stage. I ordered and categorised the ideas by their feasibility, complexity and value. There are two ends of the spectrum.

At one end, the ‘holy grail’ is to have a computer keep track of an entire game’s state, and have AR as the mechanism by which the game state is both updated, and how the state is communicated to the players.

At the other end, AR could be used for purely cosmetic purposes, such as displaying battlefield smoke, adding cosmetic terrain features such as grass or foliage, and such.
The challenge is to for me to include AR capabilities that won’t be either too costly or too ambitious. At the risk of stating the obvious: the greater the scope, the greater the cost and the greater the risk of failure.

Proposed scope

I’m focusing my attention on AR object recognition capabilities. Considering my wizards game, ideally, I’d like AR to be able to recognise different instances of a creature (miniature) on the table top, and to know who those instances belong to (i.e., which player) and to be able to track conditions, statistics, health values (etc.) against each of those instances. My troll is wounded and your troll is on fire – that kind of thing. Having instant access to specific information about the state of each of their game pieces would help players cope with more complex information and allow more complex game mechanics to be incorporated into the game.

However, I believe that this ‘ideal’ is currently too ambitious for the first use of any AR capabilities. Reducing the scope so that AR recognises generic creatures (i.e., it can ‘see’ and know that a playing piece is a troll) but cannot differentiate between different trolls on the board would be adequate for providing players with some useful AR features, but would be much easier to implement (I’m pretty certain this can be done now without any new technology development).

My current target scope is to aim for this ‘generic creature recognition’.

An example of an AR game feature that would require ‘generic creature recognition’ to work is where players interact with creatures on the game board using AR to bring up a virtual display of the creature’s statistics, rules and whatnot.

This kind of capability would save players from having to look up all this information in a manual, and would make the availability of this information less of a priority elsewhere on the tabletop (that being said, since using AR must always be optional until the technology is so ubiquitous that a designer can assume that everyone has it and uses it. This may not be in my lifetime!).

Physical design considerations

The physical design of game playing pieces and a number of game mechanics might be affected by whether or AR will be used in the game. For example, it might make model recognition using AR easier if each of the players had a different-shaped base to their miniatures, say. It may be necessary to incorporate such requirements into the physical game design now in order to allow or ease certain AR capabilities in the future.