merryholidaysThe Turf Geography Club app blends Wes Anderson, Foursquare, Monopoly and 8-bit into a delightfully addictive real life mobile game. After launching in August after a successful Kickstarter campaign and infusion of capital from RRE Ventures, the startup has amassed a small but fiercely loyal base of gamers. This week the app launched a revamped version based on early lessons learned about the nature of mobile gaming. Turf also launched what might be the most adorable user acquisition play in the history of apps.

First the app update. Founder and Chief Geographer Michael Tseng says the insights he’s learned from the launch were counter to everything he’d known building apps for brands as an ad agency freelancer or playing deeply engaging video games like World of Warcraft. For one, most people apps are built to be as easy and smooth as possible. But a game needs challenges and limitations. Turf was initially missing those crucial gaming hooks. With the update, the app now has ways to defend properties with a new currency system called tickets. There are new limits on spinning a wheel at new places you visit, and other systems to make the game, which is complex but incredibly engaging — even stickier. A telegram communication system was also added.

He realized that Turf had to be unlike the massive console game releases, where the game is built over years, released like a movie, and then set up on a pedestal forever. Or until the next version comes out. Mobile games are iterative.

The other thing mobile games have going for them is that they’re very short-term focused. The most successful iOS games give you a quick endorphin rush for five minutes, and then they’re done. Turf had tried that style early on, but after looking at the engagement numbers, Tseng realized Turf is a long term game. “It’s not something that’s played for a week or two and then discarded,” he says. “We’ve come to realize its less of an arcade game and more of a board game.” So longer term rewards were put in place.

Tseng says he’s been surprised by the high retention. A third of the apps users updated Turf on the first day the update was live, and the majority of its active users have stuck with it since the beta launch eight months ago. “I’m curious how many people are playing Angry Birds after eight months,” he says. Mobile gamers have proven themselves to be incredibly fickle — see Draw Something for a prime example. Even Foursquare, the app that inspired Turf, has had to move away from the gaming elements of the app — the checkins, points and badges — and more toward content and recommendations.

Turf won’t be pivoting to coffee shop recommendations any time soon, but Tseng says he’s had to blend a few gaming philosophies to find something that works for his users. Turf is now more Monopoly and Risk than it is Draw Something or Pota-Toss.

And for the new user acquisition: Turf built a flashlight app for iOS that has just one button — a link to download Turf. It’s a marshmallow on a stick, done, as you’d expect, in Turf’s delightful 8-bit style. So if a neverending game of IRL Monopoly sounds arduous, you can still get a feel for Turf’s magical Wes Anderson world of digital exploration with the Turf Torch. It’ll be available in the app store starting in the new year.

Torch