iBoardgaming – Fall 2010

Yes, you read the title correctly (go reread it if you didn’t pay attention).  This is a rundown of boardgame-related iOS apps that were released in mid to late 2010.  This originally appeared over at BoardgameNews before it folded (and moved) and since this article is no longer available online, I thought I’d take advantage of the summer lull in game analysis to repost it for posterity (and anyone who may have missed it the first time around.)  I’ve taken the liberty of checking the current (US) price for each title as of early June 2011, and listed that along side each short review.  However, I haven’t made any significant changes to the text of the reviews so some game play experiences may have changed (primarily added features I assume) since this was originally published.  I’m tempted to go and make adjustments but have held off, knowing that with the recent iOS improvements to GameCenter, there may be an upcoming wave of boardgame app improvements in the near future.  (It was announced that asynchronous game play will be built right in to the operating system…)  Without further ado, here is the article as it appeared last fall…

Fall is upon us and the holidays are approaching.  For me, the holidays always imply a fair bit of travel.  Sure, I pack up a few games here and there to bring with me as we visit my extended family, but more and more I’m appreciating the fact that I can take quite a few quality boardgames in a tiny space – my ipod touch.  It has been a little while since I last wrote an update on boardgames available on the iPhone or iPad, so I’m a little overdue.  The trend of porting boardgames into the electronic handheld realm continues unabated and there is a nice crop of recent games to whet the whistle of any boardgame fan who’s looking for something they can take with them in their pocket (or large purse, in the case of the iPad.)  Let’s take a look at the boardgames: Ingenious, Keltis, Medici, Neuroshima Hex, and Kingsburg with a brief glimpse of a few cardgames: Money, High Society, and Tichu.

Ingenious –  ($2 iPhone, $3 iPad) 1 or 2 players, Opponents can be human or one of 3 levels of AI skill

It has been out for some time, but is still one of the better abstract boardgames available for the platform.  The game boasts regular games against a single opponent as well as a tournament and solitaire mode.  In the solitaire mode, players must cover up the entire board in an attempt to get the highest score.  The scoreboard is twice as long (36 points) and no bonus turns are provided (which wouldn’t make sense since players just take another turn anyway.)  The tournament mode is quite fun, and is provided as a series of more and more challenging opponents.  Interspersed throughout the tournament (and always an option for a quick game) are timed games where a chess-clock style timer keeps track of a limited time for each player.  The computer AI does a decent job, but what tends to call me back to the game is the tournament mode or to try to better my current solitaire high score.  Since abstracts aren’t my favorites, I’m only partially fond of the boardgame version but the electronic version plays so quickly my abstract aversion isn’t an issue.

Keltis – ($4 iPhone) 2 to 4 players, Opponents can be human or one of 3 levels of AI skill

More than any other designer, Knizia seems to have made a second home on the iPhone platform.  Perhaps it’s because so many of his games have an underlying mathematical basis, making them easier to program.  I had not tried Keltis until playing around with this app and found it quite to my liking.  The similarity to Lost Cities and (slightly) Can’t Stop were enough to make it enjoyable.  Besides, it has a heavy green theme – how could it go wrong?  The game is straightforward and the interface is nice, making it a solid but not particularly outstanding port of the title.  I was happy to see a campaign mode included which greatly increased the fun of the game for me since each level of the campaign changed around the way game is played.  However, that enjoyment soon turned quite sour as only a little way into the campaign I was presented with the opportunity to take advantage of an in-app purchase to get the rest of the campaign.  I felt the victim of a bait-and-switch trick.  Sure, I could think of the small portion of the campaign I got to play as only a teaser of what was to come, but I would have GREATLY preferred to know that the campaign was an additional purchase when I first began using that mode.  It may be that the campaign is worth the extra money, but I was too disappointed in the surprise request for additional payment to want to pony up the money to play further.

Medici – ($2 iPhone, $3 iPad) 3 to 6 players, Opponents can be human or one of 6 types of AI skill and styles of play

In my mind, Medici is one of the simplest auction games around and yet it works so elegantly to provide a rich gaming experience.  I traded for a used copy a few years back but rarely get it to the table, so I was thrilled to see the game come to the iPhone platform.  In keeping with the game’s clean, streamlined style there aren’t man bells and whistles in this application.  However, the style of game can be quite varied since games can be run with 3 to 6 players and each of the six AI skill levels boasts a slightly different gaming personality.  With such straightforward rules, no hidden player information, and cleanly presented game information, Medici is in an excellent position to provide a boardgame experience for multiple human players clustered around an iPad, while passing around an iPhone serves as a fairly decent stopgap position as well.  I don’t see this app coming off my iPod touch any time soon.

Neuroshima Hex  – ($5 Universal iOS, Free Lite version available) 2 to 4 players, Opponents can be human or one of 3 levels of AI skill

Neuroshima Hex is another game I hadn’t yet tried “in real life” so was excited to see it make its way into the virtual realm.  Included in the game are the four basic army sets: Borgo, The Hegemony, Moloch, and The Outpost.   I enjoyed the variability of each army and most of my games use the “quick game” option to assign a random army to myself and my opponent.  The interface is nice and clean, seeming to work well for its purpose.  I enjoy the game quite a bit, and only have two main gripes with the program.  First, there are so many unique abilities running around that it can sometimes be slightly overwhelming to a new player.  The game does a very good job of giving one an outline of how to play the game, but every once in a while I would be playing and something completely unexpected happened that made me suspect I had encountered a bug or something.  In nearly every case, after a bit of research in the extensive in-game rules, it was simply a matter of yet another rule exception occurring from one of my or my opponent’s army tiles.  I realize there is only so much that can be done to teach new players the game, but some sort of an undo option (at least to the turn just before an attack takes place) would have been greatly appreciated.  I suspect my second complaint is with the game itself and not the implementation.  I have resorted to simply restarting the game after 3 or 4 turns of completely horrible tile draws.  Far more often than I prefer I am faced with a series of tile draws to start the game that seem particularly harsh.  At least with the electronic version, there is no one to complain when I prematurely “concede” a loss and start over for a new game.   <Spring 2011 Update:  There are now two new armies available for in-app purchase, something like $1 each or so…>

Kingsburg – ($5 iPhone) 3 to 5 players (unlockable), Opponents can be human or AI

Kingsburg is one of my favorite games to present to new boardgamers.  Sure, it is a bit more complex than other choices out there, but the inclusion of dice as a way to randomly generate resources is a great draw for the many teenagers with which I play.  When I heard it was coming out for the iPhone I was looking forward to having a way to take the game with me everywhere I went.  Unfortunately, I’ve been a bit disappointed with the game.  I can’t fault the graphics, even from the beginning the game presents a very nice animated graphical introduction (which doesn’t seem to have a way to skip or turn off).  The rest of the game is very pretty to look at and it is clear the programmers didn’t skimp on artists.  However, the interface is far from perfect.  After a game or two, it is easier to maneuver between all the relevant points of information.  I realize there are limits to the amount of information that can be presented onscreen at one time, but I was constantly wishing more could have been done to provide the player with easier access to the entire game state at any one time.  As it stands, I’m constantly shifting between screens to keep track of what materials I desire the most to complete my next buildings.  As things stand, I cannot recommend the game to anyone unfamiliar with Kingsburg.  There are simply too many things going on behind the scenes that would make it very difficult for a new player to pick up.  For example, during the dice placement stage, there is no way to see large sections of the game board.  The special abilities granted each combination of dice are only displayed by selecting one’s dice to create that total.  So if I have the option of choosing anything from 9 to 13 (due to special powers) I have to slowly click through all the combinations of my dice (turning on and off abilities) to see what each number would provide.  I do play the game somewhat regularly but I don’t recall exactly what each number (1 to 18) provides.  Another example in this vein is the end of the year opponent card.  There is no way (that I can find) to check the possible levels of an upcoming enemy.  Sure, there are only five years in the game and the possible enemy values are the same each game, but I don’t always remember that year one has enemies with values of 2 to 4 and so on…  The only solution is to write down the numbers presented at the start of the year (where the enemy card back is shown) so as not to forget it in later rounds.  Finally, the computer AI has only one setting and it isn’t very strong.  However, since I can always simply attempt to better my own personal high score, I don’t see a somewhat weak AI as a deal breaker.  I can’t recommend Kingsburg to newcomers to the game, but any fan of the boardgame will find plenty to enjoy.  In fact, the more familiar a player is with the boardgame, the less issues they’ll find with the electronic game interface.

Money – ($3 Universal iOS) 3 to 4 players, AI opponents only with 3 levels of skill

Over the past year, BGN’s own Shannon Appelcline (if we can claim him) has been hard at work developing several Knizia card games for the iPhone platform.  He was kind enough to send me a copy (and I’ve even done a little beta testing on newer ones) since even Board 2 Pieces’ author Ted Alspach would probably have to lampoon Shannon if he tried to post reviews of his own iPhone applications.   The idea behind porting the games was to use a similar interface for each game, to make programming easier as well as to keep things simpler for gamers who want to play each title in the series.  Shannon has done well with the first game, Money.  I had played this off and on with the local club but didn’t really get in a lot of plays until I tried it out on my iPod Touch.  Despite the small screen size and large number of cards, the interface does an excellent job at conveying information while still providing a smooth interaction between the player and his or her cards and choices.  Aside from the crisp and informative visuals, perhaps the best aspect of the game is the AI.  The computer players at the highest difficulty settings can get pretty competitive, causing me to occasionally get frustrated at their “luck” in play.  Shannon has recently added in a high score list as well as a page displaying each player’s (human and AI) winning percentages giving those of us who care about statistics yet another reason to play just one more game.  My only gripe would be for a way to play the game with multiple human players using a sort of “pass around the table” mode of play.  However, I realize that would slow the game down quite a bit and isn’t all that optimal of a way to play.  (These are small box card games, after all, why not just get the game itself out and play it?)

High Society – ($3 Universal iOS) 3 to 4 players, AI opponents only with 3 levels of skill

The second port in Shannon’s work with Knizia’s card games continues everything that was seen before.  The interface is good, and the AI’s are still pretty competitive.  Everything I said about Money goes for this title as well.  With slightly fewer cards to manage at one time, the interface for High Society might even be a little bit easier to manage.  As always, I’m a sucker for stats and high scores so I’m glad to see them included again – now if I could only convince Shannon to put in some sort of silly “achievements” to unlock I’d be in gaming Nirvana.

Tichu – ($3 Universal iOS) 4 players, Human (over Bluetooth) or AI opponents each with 3 styles of play and 5 levels of skill

OK, I admit it.  I’ve never played a game of Tichu.  Well, up until I put this app on my iPod.  I think it probably loses quite a bit when not playing against human opponents, but I have to admit this is one of the most impressive ports of a card game I’ve seen.  The programmer realized Tichu has a huge history in boardgaming circles and has provided many different ways to try to help the Tichu newbie learn the ropes during their first few plays of the game.  I’ve only played a few full games on the application but I’m beginning to see how the overall game is played.  I would have given up the game as nearly incomprehensible if it weren’t for the heavy hand-holding possible within the game’s large (and flexible if you want to turn it off) help system.  Flexible is the word of the day for the entire program with many different options, bidding conventions, and even AI selections available.  You can choose your AI players to play conservative, standard, or aggressive and further set them up with five different levels of skill.  Unfortunately, I’m still a Tichu newb so will not be able to give a ruling on how strong the high end players play.  If you simply have to play the best, you will have to settle for human opponents which can be played over Bluetooth by multiple players each with their own iPhone or iPad.  From the extensive help system to the huge number of game options, it is clear that this game was programmed by someone who really loves the game.  That care and devotion shows through.  There isn’t much for bells and whistles like campaign modes or achievements, but the program focuses on providing a strong Tichu experience and in that, it scores a resounding success.

Well, that’s all I’ve had the time to check out over the past few months.  In the future I’ll be eyeing the upcoming release of Kingdoms (the third Knizia game from Applecline) and hope to get my hands on the recent iPhone version of Wabash Cannonball, once the next AI update (v 1.0.1?) is released.  Until then, enjoy your gaming whether it is online, on-table, or traveling around in your pocket!

As a full disclaimer, many of the above games were provided free for review purposes, and I’ve already mentioned my recent beta testing connection to Shannon Appelcline’s upcoming iPhone game.

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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3 Responses to iBoardgaming – Fall 2010

  1. Doug says:

    Enjoyable read, thanks. I did buy in for the Keltis Campaign advance, and regret it as the last level is impossible to defeat. I’ve had at least 50 attempts at it. My wife had a go as well, and was greeted with a different final level layout that was no less impossible. Frustrating.

    The conversions Shannon have done are very clean and functional, and a joy to play.

    Ingenious and Medici are both superb ports, and I’ll definitely get Neuroshima Hex one day, as I enjoyed the boardgame.

  2. Matt J Carlson says:

    I finally bought the campaign extension as well and was also disappointed. My biggest problem lies in how you can’t start over… it seems as if I’m locked into the campaign. I figure if I play exceptionally well early on and save up all my powerups I might be able to finish the campaign, but it doesn’t seem that “starting over” the campaign is an option…. poorly implemented in my opinion…

    • Doug says:

      That may be my problem… I burnt up my power-ups getting to the last level. A restart option would be nice.

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