iBoardGaming – Winter 2011

Those who followed my writing over at BoardgameNews are aware that, as a father of two young boys, I’m busier than I would like to be at times.  It is difficult to schedule face to face gaming with friends, and since I’m not a fan of gaming with strangers (who I won’t see again, I enjoy starting new friendships) I don’t get in as much boardgaming as I would like.  I tend to make up for it (somewhat) by playing against computers, either my PC or using my iPod Touch.  I try to stay abreast of the newest board and card games coming down the pike and figure I might as well pass on what I’ve found so that anyone else in the same boat will be able to benefit from my “research”.  Below are my thoughts on a few of the board and card games that I’ve given a test run in the past few months.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of each title, I’d like to share a few thoughts on how I analyze a new boardgame translation to an electronic format.  Obviously, the first requirement is for the game to be faithfully translated.  Having a few variants available are always a plus.  When possible, it is also nice to have hotseat play between players.  Not every game works well in hotseat mode, but once the main game has been implemented it isn’t too difficult to add in a pass-the-iPad hotseat mode.  Online play against humans is a huge plus, but I acknowledge that solid networked play can take a fair bit of programming, so am not going to demand it in any particular game.

While I acknowledge it can be difficult to program the computer to play a boardgame well, having a passable AI is almost a must for me.  Playing solo (or with additional computer opponents to round out a setup) is usually the main point of having an electronic format.  The only exception would be an excellently implemented iPad version that would attempt to make a portable replacement for the physical game.  Obviously, a strong computer opponent is always nice (and would definitely help move a game to the next level in my evaluation) but I realize the difficulty of competing against a human so am only looking for a reasonable AI presence.

The next most important aspect of a program is the user interface.  A good UI can make or break an electronic game.  Players want to be able to naturally flow from one part of a game to the next without managing multiple button selections, but this must also be balanced by the need of an electronic game to present the wide variety of game information that can normally be seen at a glance.  These two are often in conflict (having more buttons means less information can be shown on the screen).  Unfortunately, when people are presented an excellent user interface, they rarely notice it.  It is only when the UI fails that it becomes glaringly important.  Most programs do a pretty good job of keeping the flow of the game going, however many run into the trap of eliminating access to information.  This most often occurs during special situations calling for a player to input more information. Examples might include things like limiting access to the board situation, players’ scores, or resources when a simple dialogue button pops up (presumably, the programmers are looking for a simple answer but forget that players like me might not remember important details.)  I find that most of these issues tend to go away with time, as I become more familiar with a game it is easier to remember the relevant details.

Having all the above, makes for a great game.  However, what makes a good boardgame translation into a great video game is the inclusion of something that makes a player repeatedly come back for more.  Computer versions of boardgames are great because they are so quick to play making them perfect for short gaming spurts on the go.  The consequence is that a player can easily become burned out on a game through repeated play.  What I like to see, is developers taking a cue from other video games and including additional features designed to extend the life of a game.

While keeping track of high scores or giving a player a ranking over time, there are so many more options that can be explored.  Specifically, I’m looking for new game options to explore through the use of a story mode or some sort of achievement system.  These can be used to challenge players to think about the game in new ways.  As a fan of the “new” I appreciate looking at games with a new goal in mind, to see how it might change my style of play.  While this sort of thing would easily “break” a game when played with humans, when playing against computer opponents turn each game into a sort of puzzle. Classic examples include some of Nintendo’s old sports games, which have a basic sport title, but also an involved role playing game in the background built around that particular sport.  You can compare this with the Xbox achievement system, where players are awarded arbitrary points for performing non-standard actions.  Sure, the points really don’t do anything, but casual players love to be rewarded with little micro-benefits, continue to stroke their ego by awarding little achievements and they’ll keep playing.  Apple has see this trend and even included it in their Game Center application, so gamers can keep all their records and achievements in a central system.  Examples of how this can be done in boardgame applications can be seen in the iPhone Settlers of Catan seafarer’s expansion which includes a campaign mode.  One of the best implementations of this idea is in the fan-made Dominion game for the PC.  It includes numerous achievements to unlock as well as a full campaign mode full of bizarre story options requiring players to try to eliminate their cards by the end of the game, collect insane amounts of cash before winning, some scenarios even adjust the costs of cards just to force players to work that much harder.

Enough about my gaming wish lists, lets check out what’s come down the pike in the past few months for the iPhone and iPad. I’ll try to list the basic statistics first, followed by commentary.  Note that apps that are Universal will run on both iPhones and iPads with a single purchase.  (Obviously, iPhone-only applications can still be run on the iPad using the magnifying feature.)

Reiner Knizia’s Samurai –  Released Aug 22nd (Universal)
Game options:  2-4 players, playable hotseat & online
With a solid interface, and a pretty darn good AI (well, for a beginner like me, but I’ve played awhile and am still reasonably challenged), I give Samurai high marks.  The interface flows easily, information is easy to find, and a nice tutorial is included to teach new players the game.  Playable in a hotseat mode as well as a robust online version gives experienced players many options.  The online mode allows players to set up (and play in) games that have turns lasting anywhere from 3 days down to 5 minutes at a time, letting players pick up and play a turn at their own pace.  Players’ online records are tracked and they are even given a ranking which develops over time.  While I’m not sure this implementation will coax casual players into becoming avid Samurai fans, it does provide everything fans of the boardgame might want in a portable version.

Wabash Cannonball – Released September 28th   (iPhone only)
Game Options:  2-5 players, playable hotseat
If any game genre was made for porting over to video form, it may be the various incarnations of train based economic games.  Wabash Cannonball is a particularly good choice since its beauty lies in its simplicity. New casual players can more quickly grasp the basics of play and simpler rules make an easier time for programming the AI.  I was lucky enough to test drive an upcoming (unreleased) version of Wabash Cannonball that is supposed to have addressed some AI issues better players had encountered.  There was still only one difficulty setting, and while I’m a newbie to the game, it only took a few plays to pick up the details until I was usually winning games.  I never saw the AI do anything stupid, but it wasn’t able to stand up to my intermediate level of play.  The interface runs smooth with quick ways for me to gather important information.  However, there are an occasional point or two where I can’t access game data when making a decision (when bidding for the new, black Wabash stocks for example.)  On the other hand, I love how the computer is able to keep track of all the financial information.  There is even a handy graph (available most of the time) that will display current money totals as well as projected future totals (turn by turn) so players can see the consequences of an given stock bid.  (ex. A player could see that an $8 bid puts them in third place for the moment, but will gain the lead after two more turns of income.)
Despite the minor issues I encountered, the game has just the right “feel” of a boardgame to me.  While I would welcome additions that would open up new game challenges (achievements or puzzles) Wabash Cannonball is a solid game port worthy of any interested fans.  It might even pull in a new gamer or two to the train game fan club.  With almost all information freely available to players in the game, the app is worth its value even if it is used as nothing more than an (extremely) portable version of the boardgame.

Reiner Knizia’s Ra – Released November 2nd  (Universal)

Game Options:  2-5 players, playable hotseat
Knizia continues his effort to corner all app sales with yet another port.  I think they do so well because of the strength of his games’ underlying mathematics.  Ra is yet another title with an excellent interface and solid game play.  All the information I might want is within one (or at most, two) taps away.  The computer comes in six AI levels, each with its own personality and ranking.  Each AI has its own preferences so I find games are more balanced with several AI styles present, otherwise a human can take advantage of a particular style’s preferences. Player performance is also tracked and given a ranking, giving a slight motivation to keep improving one’s play.  Of all the games mentioned here, Ra seems to have the most spit and polish with very nice Egyption-themed graphics, it’s only missing a background “Ra, Ra, Ra!” chant when players are making late-round “draws” from the virtual tile bag.  Since information is open to all, and player decisions tend to be quick and straightforward, Ra ranks high on my list of hotseat-playable boardgames.
***Special Update Feb. 1st ***: The SAME DAY this post went live, an update to Ra went up on the app store.  The update includes Openfeint support including achievements to unlock as well as multiplayer over the internet (2 player maximum but computer AIs can also be included…)  This puts Ra firmly in the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED camp for boardgame iOS apps.

Reiner Knizia’s Battleline – Released December 10th (Universal)

Game Options:  2 players, playable hotseat
I was unfamiliar with Battleline before giving it a go on this app.  It was easy to learn from the instructions and I lept into my first few games.  That’s all it took before I was winning handily against the basic AI.  I’ve since upgraded to the higher level AI and have begun using the special power cards, which has put a crimp in my winning streak.  While there is no online play, one nice feature included is the ability to save a single or two person game, for times when you get interrupted, etc…  The interface is decent, although a bit cramped on a small iPhone screen, with only an occasional issue with selecting a specific card from among others.  (Nothing game breaking, but I occasionally needed two or three tries to pick out the card I wanted to play.)  My only information complaint was the effort necessary to look up the special abilities of the power cards. While it will be a non-issue after repeated play it does take a bit of scrolling and searching to look up the abilities of a power card when it is first encountered.  It is probably personal preference for the game itself, but I will primarily be using Battleline for hotseat play as other game apps seem to be attracting my attention.

Michael Schacht’s Gold! – Will be released on February 3rd.  (Universal)

Game Options:  2 player, playable hotseat
In what must surely be a first, a game is being simultaneously released in a physical (card game at the Nirenberg Toy Fair) and virtual (iPhone app on iTunes) at the same time!  I’ve been volunteer beta tester on this game for a few weeks (my feedback has typically been – “looks good to me!”, I’m oh so helpful.)  Since few, if any, of you know how the game plays, I’ll quickly go over the details.
Gold! is a two player game played with a deck of cards numbered 3 to 8 in six colored suits, with an additional -2 of each color called a Donkey.  Players start with one Donkey card and then take turns selecting from a tableau of five cards.  The goal is to create sets of three cards which are set aside and score their combined value.  Score a triplet and you also get to steal a card from your opponent’s hand – provided you don’t already own any cards of that color.  When the tableau is exhausted, it is replenished until the deck of cards run out.  Once the last card is chosen, bonus points are awarded to players who have the highest combined value of each color in their hand.
The strategy of the game comes out in the selection of cards.  Players must always choose the lowest value card available, with two exceptions.  Players can always trade a Donkey (-2) card for any visible card, or they may trade a high value card for any card on the tableau of a smaller value.  This gives players a nice bit of control over what cards they may take but they can also manage who picks first from a new tableau by trading cards (and not diminishing the number of available cards on the tableau) rather than simply picking the low card(s).  There are many layers to investigate, as I suspect managing one’s hand in order to steal good cards may be a key to reliably winning.  For example, if you score a set of three cards but then already have all the same colors that an opponent possesses, you don’t get to steal a bonus card.  Taking a card directly from an opponent’s hand gives a nice card-advantage over the long term and can really add up over time.
I could see the game as a nice filler niche for two players.  There is a nice balance of planning (while players manage the tableau and their hands) with a splash of randomness as new cards are revealed after the tableau is cleared.  (Just to keep those card-counters in check, two cards are removed from the game at the start.)
As for the iPhone translation, anyone who has played Shannon Applecline’s port of Money!, High Society, or Kingdoms will know what to expect.  Nice, large cards and visuals – even on the small iPhone screen.  Simple instructions to explain how to play the game, and tracking of each player’s high scores and win/loss records over time.  As I’ve come to expect, the AI players put up a pretty good show.  There are three difficulty settings, and while I can reliably beat the game at the highest level, if I don’t keep my focus on the game the AI can start stealing all my best cards and quickly run away with the game.
With the game’s simultaneous release in two “platforms” gamers now have a new option available to evaluate the card game.  As iPhone apps tend to be so inexpensive, gamers can give the card game a whirl and then decide if they want to go on and purchase the physical components!  While I’m not sure I need yet another card filler, I expect Gold! to keep my attention for a few more weeks while I explore how to control my hand of cards for best effect.  (There is that win/loss ratio and high score chart to keep in mind, after all!)

Bang! – Unreleased – should be “soon”

Game Options:  3-5 players, playable hotseat and online
I’ve been playing a beta of the Bang! app for almost a month on my iPod Touch.  Since it is only a beta, I’m not sure how much I can say.  However, the interface seems like it is shaping up.  I like the simplified symbols for cards, card deck symbols (spades/hearts, etc…) are replaced with icons that directly relate to specific cards (horseshoes for luck, actual dynamite symbols for cards that would cause an explosion, etc…) There are two AI levels available at the moment.  I’m only playing with the basic set and without player powers, the links are all there.  I’m assuming expansions will be released as in-app purchases or some sort of thing.  The most important thing to relate would be the plans for online play.  Fighting against the computer in a sort of “take that” style of game is only going to get you so far.  Games can be played in hotseat mode, but I do not expect it to be used very often since there the many player interactions require constant passing of the handheld back and forth.  The developers have grandiose plans for world-wide online play so fans of Bang! will need to be on watch for its release.
And that’s all the boardgame related titles I’ve come across lately.  I realize I failed to give many details to some of the games listed above, but I tried to hit just the high points of whether the overall port works or not, and whether there were any other tricks or features that make the game rise above other boardgame ports available.  Feel free to chime in in the comments with your own personal recommendations.  Thoughts from a few of the Opinionated Gamers can be found right after the standard disclaimer…

Disclaimer:  Most of the above titles were provided to me for review purposes.  I don’t have any connections to the designers or publishers, although I have done some beta testing for Shannon Applecline on his port of Gold! (as I mentioned in that review…)

Opinionated Gamers:

Doug Garrett – My wife Shelley was skeptical about the games I had downloaded to the iPad…then she tried Carcassonne and Samurai.  Now I’m guaranteed a game of either of those two games when we travel.  She still doesn’t want to play them when we’re at home – “Let’s pull something off the shelf” is her comeback, but as a travel gaming device she is (and I am) sold.

Dale Yu – There are a few other games that I’ve been screwing around with – which could be briefly mentioned now and then could serve as the base of the next iPad roundup: Carcassone, Clue: Secrets&Spies, Pictureka, Scrabble, Roll Thru the Ages, the Score app by Ryan Christiansen which included modules for scoring many popular Eurogames, Gipsy King, Button Men, and all of the Dominion Randomizers.   And it probably might be funny to note that there is at least one iPad to board game port — Angry Birds is being turned into some sort of toy/boardgame by my brother’s cronies at Mattel.

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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9 Responses to iBoardGaming – Winter 2011

  1. Valerie Putman says:

    I should also put in a plug for a great Tichu scoring ap for Android phones done by a friend of mine. It’s called TichuToo.

    • Matt J Carlson says:

      The Tichu game app is one of the more impressive small developer boardgame apps I’ve seen. Unfortunately, it still hasn’t made me a Tichu fiend yet.

  2. Brian Leet says:

    I’ll plug the Tichu app and Small World as both also worth mention.

  3. Toucana says:

    I echo the author’s sentiment that repeated plays of a game online (or offline) can rapidly lead to burnout. I love the game Yspahan by Ystari but played a lot of it on my computer. Subsequently, I actively avoided the board game when my buddies came around for game nights. It has been almost two years since I last played the game, but the desire to play the game has only started to resurface. Sad fact is, I sold the game shortly after I got tired of the game. I am now a little wary of playing anything online or in digital format for fear of hating the actual board game. Maybe it is just me, but I wonder if publishers are actually hurting themselves when digital versions of the game come out. Perhaps its just me.

  4. Mike Chapel says:

    I would like to plug my availability as an excellent AI for both Samurai, Ra and on occasion Wabash Cannonball. I am a most challenging player, but not un-winnable. I also make for a most interesting character, and I tell very funny anecdotes. However I am not ported on the iPhone nor the iPad, and am only available on wednesday nights. I am also almost completely burnout proof, and run on beer and pretzels.

  5. Frank Hamrick says:

    I have enjoyed Zooloretto, Catan, Carcassonne, Ingenious, and Small World. Nice to have Small World on an iPad for portable play while on the road.

  6. Matt J Carlson says:

    Note, I just found and downloaded the update to Ra… wouldn’t you know an update would be released the day my post goes live. I put in a couple updates above, but the gist of the upgrade is Openfeint support including multiplayer over the internet (only 2 players but can add AI) and achievements… was someone reading my wishlist at the top?

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