Tis the season for iOS boardgaming, as there have been some very big name boardgames released in the past few months. Agricola, Eclipse, and Stone Age to name just a few. Developers have come a long way from some of the sketchy, low feature count ports of the early years. The majority of games now feature multiplayer modes for both local (pass and play) modes as well as multiplayer. The higher-end “big name” titles all tend to sport tutorials to ease new players into the game as well as show old hands how to best use the interface. On the whole, the games are solid with most of them only displaying a few small negatives. There’s no better time to be a boardgame fan who (for whatever reason) is lacking ready face-to-face opponents. And now, on to the rundown (in a very rough recent to older titles order…) Disclaimer: complimentary review copy was provided for many of these titles.
Rivals for Catan ($4, Universal, 1-2p local and online via Game Center, 8 different AIs)
A graphically pleasing and fairly solid implementation of the 2 player card game. The AI is decent and the game provides lots of options (including the base game or using one of the four default “theme” versions.) Several levels of tutorials are included to get new players up and running with the game and interface – including one just for the theme games. The interface is elegant most of the time, allowing one to pinch to zoom one’s game layout as well as scroll it as needed or wanted. Unfortunately, the game falls prey so one simple (and huge) complaint. There are many pop-up decisions (what to buy, which settlements to place, etc…) that take the player away from the game board with no way to access the game state. I can’t believe designers still fail to do this. Questions like “do I need another clay”, which die numbers do I want for a new settlement, etc… are so easy to answer when a quick hop back to the game board is possible. As it stands, this is my only frustration with the game and while it is significant it isn’t enough to dissuade me from recommending the game. Everything else is well-done and the AI even gives a rusty player like myself a run for my money.
Agricola ($7, Universal, 1-5 players online & pass and play, 3 levels of AI)
Due to a combination of the material (2nd ranked game on BGG) and delays in its release have made Agricola the most-waited for boardgame on iOS. It has finally appeared and shows once again Playdek is a force to be reckoned with in the iOS boardgame arena. It has a very polished user interface with helpful tutorials for those new to the game. I like that the game includes the family version of the game (if I wanted to play with my sons) and the solo series game (which makes a nice sort of puzzle/challenge.) Only the “E” deck is included in the game but future decks are expected in a few months via in-app purchases. The game plays well on both iPhone/iPod touch and iPad, although I’d recommend newcomers learn the game on the iPad since cards, etc… are easier to recognize and read. Experienced players shouldn’t have much trouble with the smaller screen. The AI is fairly strong, but with some minor AI analysis paralysis on the highest AI settings later in the game. Multiplayer is through Playdek’s servers, not GameCenter so you’ll need to get your friends into that system. All in all, Agricola on iOS comes highly recommended for its implementation and ease of use..
Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy ($7, iPad, 1-6p online and pass & play, 3 AI levels)
Not having played the boardgame I was excited to get to try it out on my iPad. The interface is very slick, although the game was a bit much for even an experienced gamer, such as myself, to absorb. A tutorial was present so I was able to get up and running but it still took a couple games before I was no longer making silly mistakes. The game can be played with all “human” races with the same starting abilities or with a mix of races, each with some starting advantage. GameCenter achievements were included, which was a nice touch. Unfortunately, I found the game to be slightly buggy with hangs and crashes. I even had the tutorial crash so that I had to start over! One hang even happened at the end of a vs AI game, very unsatisfying. Presumably these issues with get cleared up, but it was a ding against the overall implementation for me. The bugs were not enough of a deterrent to stop me from playing and they were rare occurrence. As with most modern releases, this is a no-brainer purchase for someone who loves the boardgame. Due to its complexity, I’m unsure if it will be able to draw in more casual iOS gamers into the boardgame fold.
The Battle for Hill 218 ($3, iPad, 1-2p online or bluetooth, 2 levels of AI)
In my mind, The Battle for Hill 218 is the perfect iOS game for gamers at large (as in those who aren’t already boardgamers). One can learn the rules quickly and a single game plays out in that short amount of time one might have in a short commute or waiting in line. Having it only as an iPad implementation makes some sense due to the large card layout as the game progresses, but the game style makes it great for the iPhone (if/when that ever happens.) The price is not high, so anyone looking for a fast-playing location-based card wargame should check it out. (Shoot, if you’re looking for something that specific, I suppose this is your only option… :) Since the card game isn’t seen as the glamorous success as some of the other titles in this list, it may be easy to overlook, but I think one could make a case that it makes an excellent fit with the iOS play style.
Stone Age: The Board Game ($7, Universal, 1-4p online & pass and play, 3 levels of AI)
When it was first released, Stone Age was strangely only on the iPhone platform but it has since been updated to be Universal – playable on an iPad in full screen glory. Another iOS game that has provided me with a way to play a game of which I had not been able to play a physical copy, I found Stone age to be a very fun game and this implementation to be exceptionally well done – it feels like I’m playing with a real tiny little village in the game. The game comes with a strong tutorial, the interface is straightforward, and the AI is pretty decent. Had I been a fan of the physical game, I would suspect that having the computer keep track of much of the scoring is a very convenient “upgrade” of sorts for the electronic version. In a nice touch, the game even has ELO ranked play with a function to access players’ standings for those who want to get a bit overboard about the game. As the game seems to be a nice middle-weight type affair, I could see the iOS version being an excellent ambassador of “these games of ours” to the greater iOS world.
Penny Arcade The Game: Gamers vs. Evil ($5, Universal, 2-4p online & pass and play, 3 levels of AI)
This is a great example of why I enjoy iOS gaming. While the humor of the game isn’t something I’d like to own in physical form, I thoroughly enjoyed getting try out this deckbuilder. It was a great way to check out the game without paying for the physical edition. Fans of the online Penny Arcade comic strip will not be surprised, but the game is not quite “safe for work”, due to cartoonish violent graphic art and semi-vulgar references. The implementation of the game itself is stellar, I have no qualms with the interface at all. Deckbuilder fans should check it out as it has some very interesting takes on the genre. Players can focus in on two styles of cards, each emphasizing a different currency. The primary goal of the game is to score points by being able to purchase the most expensive and powerful cards. Contrary to many games of this sort, I found the dueling currencies to be an interesting strategic decision rather than a frustrating exercise in trying to manage both at once. Not only does the pool of cards change every game, players are also granted a special power each game, which gives the game even more legs. While the title may not be best for the most straight-laced gamers, other deckbuilder fans need to check it out, while those ambivalent to the genre may still find it some interest.
Battle of the Bulge ($10, iPad (“soon” to be Universal), 1-2p online Game Center & pass and play)
It is always easy to cover games when they offer a free “Lite” version of the program. Just go download it and check it out. Battle of the Bulge is a great wargame with a very focused goal – cover just the Battle of the Bulge and do it well. What sets this apart from many other games in the wargame genre is its care to detail in terms of informing the player of its historical significance through photos, commentary, even some videos. It pushes the game into the realm of an enjoyable history lesson. A tutorial and quick start guide provide help to get new players up to speed, and the interface does not get in the way of gameplay. My one (feeble) complaint is that the game does not fit well with casual play – there’s a lot going on here and it’s not a pick up and play thing for me. I need to dedicate a nice chunk of time if I want to get through a campaign. This is less of a problem for online games, as turns can go moderately quickly and as long as you don’t have too many going on at once they will be perceived to be moving along. Thankfully, there are several scenarios available playable in a shorter time frame. The game even implemented achievements (always fun for me). The price is on the high end but still gives good value. Gamers who become addicted to the game have the option of additional battles available as in-app purchases. As things stand, Battle of the Bulge is one of the better wargame on iOS, and a standout for its care and attention to making the historical background information available.
Mad Barrington’s Gyre++ (Free, iPad or iPhone, 1-2p pass & play, 3 levels of AI)
Gyre++ is somewhat of a deckbuilding economic/stock manipulation game. Players buy cards with “bottlecaps” for their deck which, when played provide more “bottlecaps”, count as stocks, or provide other special abilities. There is a central supply of 6 types of stocks and their purchase price is dependant on the supply – just 1 “BC” to buy when all 5 are available and valued at 6 when they’re all already sold. When drawn, stock cards can be sold for 1 less than the current price. However, they can also be “stashed” out of the game which provides their final market value for your final score. Thus it is “fish or cut bait” – do you sell them now for more funds or set them aside for the end of the game, hoping you’ll be able to push their value up? All in all, I found the game (once I figured out how to play) fairly intriguing. However, the game has some problems. Let me just start with “it has 19 pages of rules”. Yes, a somewhat unknown game title comes to iOS with a pile of text for rules, no tutorial, and graphics that are so clip-art style they are almost painful to watch. To make matters worse, touch-sensitive contextual explanations are missing from one’s own cards and context help on what the central pool of cards do is actually a feature that must be first turned on! If you find you clicked on the wrong card, too bad! There’s no undo button anywhere. Here’s a handy tip I found after playing through several games – if you click on the random blimp on the first game screen, it actually shows you the gameplay screen with some overlay text on what’s going on! You know, “blimp-help” and all that. There are some bright spots in the title, you can play the game with one of 16 special powers for each player, adding to the “festive” nature of the game. An “adventure mode” has a series of 10 special game setups to try to conquer, and the game even has Game Center achievements. As one might suspect from a name so similar to the C++ operating system, Gyre++ is not for the faint of heart. However, the price is right! It’s worth a shot to check out for any deckbuilder fan, economic/stock card game fan, or simply folks who have too much time on their hands and not enough iTunes cash! My best praise has to be that I think there’s a pretty interesting game here but I think it still needs a slightly better budget before it can go mainstream. If you’re a boardgame developer, maybe you should check it out.
Forbidden Island ($5, iPad, 2-4p local, Co-op game – no AI needed)
Forbidden Island is another natural candidate for an iOS port. It consists of a relatively small layout, has few game states of which to keep track, and is an open information cooperative game. The transition to iOS is well done, sporting (recently improved) clean graphics, a slick interface, and even allows players to set up the iPad to play by passing around the iPad or in an “across the table” style where the iPad is kept still and the menus move to each player. The recent update also added in an action counter to help players keep track of their actions during a turn. A tutorial is included for new gamers, and a “quick play” button is handy if you don’t want to set up all the options – and there are a lot of options. The game board comes in two formations (10 more if you buy them), roles can be chosen or randomly assigned, the difficulty level can be adjusted, and (of course) the number of player pawns can range from 2 to 4. Anyone wanted to have an extremely portable game of Forbidden Island will not be disappointed with this implementation.
Levee en Masse, Levee en Masse HD ($3 or $5, Universal or iPad only, solo game)
Levee en Masse is one of those solo boardgames where you play against a pre-programmed system of cards, etc… that challenges you to manage the political scene of France by keeping the political winds blowing towards Republicanism while simultaneously fending off the advance of foreign powers who might be trying to take advantage of the situation. Each turn a special event occurs (which typically has a bit of historical background) modifying the game state and then a player spends a limited number of action points to adjust political views and defend against approaching armies. Most actions are determined by a roll of a die, with modifiers present – typically a bonus if Republicanism is riding high. Enemy army markers are moved closer to Paris via five different tracks, and if any enemy finishes its turn in Paris, the game is lost. The game has a nice tutorial and plays well. There are a number of options including 3 levels of difficulty and three ways to deal with events: completely random, the style of the original boardgame, or an attempt at putting them in historical order. One additional high note, the game tracks the top ten best scores played so there’s a chance to work on a personal best or display some bragging rights. Since the game is an iOS implementation of a solo game, I think its a great setup. All fiddly bits are taken care of for you, all you have to worry about is playing the game!
Fluxx ($3, Universal, 1-4p online and pass & play, 2 levels of AI)
OK, I am not a fan of Fluxx. I admire the simple gameplay, the way rules change at any time, really I can work with the whole extreme chaos thing when played in the right company. Where the game falls down is in the odd excruciatingly long game that just can’t seem to end. This seems to happen most often when one or more players are simply trying to take the game too seriously. Fluxx on an iOS system manages to up the speed factor of the game – I no longer fear the game running on too long, but it does lose much of the face-to-face zaniness found whith the physical card game. All that said, Fluxx was ported over to iOS by the wizards at Playdek and it shows. The bright color scheme smartly sets off the game. It has a smooth interface and most things seem intuitive ( with a tutorial included for those who need an introduction to the game.) Lots of options exist to get the playing environment you wish (game speed, animation speed, popup advice/confirmations turned off, etc..) I suspect where I would enjoy this game the most is in a sort of travel-mode Fluxx where several players are playing online, but in the same room. It is a pity there isn’t a local, multiple iOS handheld mode so internet connectivity wouldn’t be required for multiple iPad/iPhone gameplay. It is possible to use the pass & play mode, but I find pass & play modes with lots of hidden information to be suboptimal.
Hacienda HD Family Board Game by Wolfgang Kramer ($5, iPad, 1-5p pass and play, 3 levels of AI)
Kramer gets into the “add my name to the title” game pioneered by Herr Knitzia. Hacienda is a pretty little implementation of the boardgame. It has the standard tutorial to teach the game rules and basic strategies – good enough to get me going since I had not previously tried the boardgame. They even tout a “left handed” interface option of the game for lefties! The game includes two different maps, one touted for novices and the other for “experts”. While I found the game to be fine (I’m not a huge tile-laying fan), I have to give the game high marks for presentation. It’s weakest link is the interface being slightly touchy. At times, I would mistakenly place the wrong tile or in the wrong place. This might not be so bad, but there is no undo feature. While I might live with one or the other, I found the two combined to be extremely frustrating. It isn’t a game-breaker, as when I was careful I never had an issue. However, I would occasionally become lax in my playing and have to suffer for a misplaced tile. I consider it a fine translation as-is, but not a top-tier one as some others on this list. I do have to admit that the game does lend itself well to the pass and play mode as most of the board is easily observed and a game can move along at a fairly good clip.
Gubs (Free – $1 to remove ads, Universal, 1 human vs 2 AI players)
A very nice implementation of a card game I just don’t enjoy. I have no problems with the game interface, and you can’t beat the price (the ads are really just an unobtrusive splash screen advertising the card game when you exit), but I plan to delete the game as soon as this article is finished. Gubs simply has too much “take-that” aspect with very little control. I felt like my first few games were nearly random. The strategy that finally began to work for me was to simply hoard my cards as much as possible, biding my time until I could “make a move” to score big and end the game with one fell swoop. That style of game simply isn’t for me. On the plus side, I have to admire that there are achievements… I’m a sucker for achievements, it’s almost enough to get me to continue playing the game… almost.
Magic 2014 (Free – $10 unlock, iPad (2 or better), 1-2p online and local vs AI)
The first collectible card game, Magic: the Gathering, is back again on the iPad, with a new year after its name. As with last year’s entry, one can try out the app for free and play with three different deck styles vs an AI opponent through a short, story-based campaign (complete with cutscenes). However, pony up the $10 to unlock the full game and many more game options open up. As before, there is online play, puzzle challenges, seven more deck styles to unlock (and many more cards to unlock for current and new decks), as well as access to future content upgrades. The biggest thing about this year’s app is the sealed deck play. There is an offline mode that simulates a sealed deck experience – you are given a few booster decks and given a chance to make the best deck possible from them. You can then take your deck through a short campaign mode (including winning additional “booster packs” along the way) to see how it fares. (The free version has deckbuilding in it, but does not allow you to play your deck in a campaign.) My main complaint about past versions of the program was that they lacked any of the major custom deckbuilding opportunities found in the physical game. With the sealed deck mode, players now have a completely unrestricted opportunity (for good or ill) to build custom decks and try them out. With this new addition, I feel the game finally has come into its own in terms of its ability to demonstrate just what is so captivating about Magic: the Gathering. (Note: the game is also available on the PC – via Steam, Xbox 360, and PS3 systems for the same $10 price, but online play is only between players on the same platform.)
Have a few favorite recent boardgame releases I missed? Feel free to add them to the comments below! Be aware I still have another whole run-down on the back burner, as it were, of strategy/puzzle/RPG style games that I hope to post up soon (a week or two…) so if I’ve missed a favorite recent non-boardgame related game, it might still be coming along in a short while.