As soon as any new computer hardware or software becomes commercially available, most niche groups try to find ways to apply it to their area of interest, especially if those groups are already somewhat nerdy. This is why porn and Star Trek are always the first two third-party applications of any new tech. Boardgamers are no exception.
While boardgames are often presented (in the title of this column, for example) as an alternative to videogames, there’s no reality to this. Boardgames have always coexisted peacefully with computer games (just ask Deep Blue) ever since personal computing devices showed up on the scene. More people have probably played computerized versions of Mastermind and Othello than have played their analog counterparts. Computer versions of classic and modern games do fairly well, and recently a number of favorite Eurogames crossed over to success on the Xbox 360. The idea that folks who play with joysticks and folks who play with dice are separate camps is belied by the thousands of gamers who happy exist in both worlds.
The most recent technological doodad to excite the masses is Apple’s iPad. Despite having made its debut only a few months ago, it already has a wide array of games available for it that are treatments of or comparable to some actual cardboard-and-wood boardgames. Having recently snagged one of these gizmos for myself, I tried out a few of them for “research” because, gentle reader, you’re worth it. Here’s what I got.
Small World ($4.99) — This game was my personal pick for Game of the Year last year, and playing it on a friend’s iPad is what helped convince me to get one of my own. The interface is gorgeous, and the gameplay is handled nearly flawlessly (I’d really like a way to take back an action.) It currently only handles the races and powers from the main set (and not all of them, I believe), but there are rumors of future expansions. Right now it only plays with two human players (who are both at the same machine), but an update with AI (as well as a slight price increase) will change that.
Carcassonne ($4.99) — Gamers think of the Settlers of Catan (available on iPod but not iPad yet) as the gateway game, but I think Carcassonne, with its easily grasped rules and scalable nature may be supplanting it. Unlike Catan, “Carc” has no trading element, so AI is easier to program, goes from two to five players without any problem, and even has possibilities for solo play. This implementation underlines all of that. You can play with multiple people, in person or over the Internet, and some of them can be AI. There’s also a solitaire version that is pretty neat. The board looks fine and everything works intuitively. Some folks might feel that the game does a little too much for you (showing you all possible positions for a tile or for meeples, denoting when some spots are impossible to be filled), but that’s seldom a complaint you get to hear. This is the standard to which future boardgame translations should aspire. (Currently this is only available as an iPod game, which is still playable on iPad, but when the iPad version is released later this year purchasers will get the upgrade for free.)
Boggle ($2.99) — I’m a huge Boggle fan, and this is probably the game I’ve played the most of. It’s pretty well handled on the iPad (you even can, if you want, shake the device to “shake” the cubes) though tracing along the letters could be better (you often stop tracing when you don’t want to or include letters you don’t want). It plays either solo, with others (where each player takes a turn and then passes the iPad to the next player), or (I think), over the Internet. The main issue I have with the game is that you can’t use some words. While “tit” and “ass” are okay, “whore,” “slut,” and “orgy” are verboten, probably because they only have, I guess, sexual connotations. Yet “queer” is also prohibited which is just, well, queer.
Words With Friends ($2.99) — Here’s where I went a different way. I enjoy Scrabble (my Facebook account exists solely as a Scrabble game front-end) but went with WWF because I already had friends who were playing it. It’s a Scrabble clone done the way most Scrabble clones are done: by changing the layout of the board and some of the letter point values. Otherwise it’s the same, and seems to use the standard Scrabble word list. The changed board layout seems a little more thought out than usual (often it’s clear that the cloners gave no thought at all to how changing the layout would affect play). I’m enjoying WWF, but there are some really bizarre omissions to the game that bug me. First and foremost, it doesn’t tell you how many points a word is worth until after you play it. Sure, you can calculate it in your head, but it seems that since I am holding a computer in my hand, it might step up to the task. Second, there’s no button to rearrange your tiles. One of the ways I like looking for words on Facebook Scrabble is randomizing my tiles until a word jumps out at me. Here, the only way to change them around is to drag them individually. And finally, why not a dictionary? Since the game won’t let you bluff with a bogus word anyway, go ahead and let me check on “foozle” before wasting my time with it. Especially when, if you do play an illegal word, it doesn’t tell you what the illegal word is — annoying if you’ve created several at once. I assume the iPad Scrabble game is very similar to the Facebook one and if so, I’d recommend it over this, but hey, at least I get to play my friends.
Roll Through the Ages ($2.99) — This one is notable because it’s a game that, in its normal version, I’m not very keen on. Like many dice games, it’s kind of boring to play with multiple people because on their turn all you do is watch them roll dice. There isn’t a lot of player interaction or reason for anyone else to be there.
Consequently, I hadn’t planned on buying the app. I did anyway because I thought it might have more appeal to me as a solitaire game, since it wasn’t the game itself I had a problem with, but how well it worked as an entertaining social activity. Sure enough, for a solo game it plays just fine, and everything is implemented pretty well (though the instructions are simply embarrassing and unprofessional, with lazy typos throughout.) I haven’t played it with multiple players yet and am not in a huge rush to do so because see above. Still, it does include the “Late Bronze Age” rules fix that makes the actual game slightly more interactive and interesting. This again is an iPod release that will eventually be upgraded to iPad.
There are a few other games I haven’t tried out yet — like Reiner Knizia’s Money and Keltis: the Oracle, for example, (largely because I’m not familiar with their analog versions – as well as knockoff versions of existing boardgames, but these are the ones I’ve grabbed for now.
The question is: why pay $600 to play Boggle? Is this really an optimum way to play games? In some cases, yeah, it is, for the same reason that playing any game electronically is often worth it: because it allows you to play games with people you normally couldn’t. I have a Words With Friends game going with a pal in South Carolina, and a Carcassonne game going with a friend I don’t normally get a lot of gaming time with because of our schedules. Some games simply work better in a digital medium, where the computer can handle a lot of the routine. And if you add up the prices above, the total is less than a single Eurogame would run me. The social element is still there; I can just as easily play Carcassonne with four other people in the room with me on the iPad as I can with the regular version (moreso, in fact, since I don’t own the regular version).
And of course there’s the fact that neither I nor anyone else bought an iPad to play Roll Through the Ages. That’s just gravy. Sure, a copy of the Small World boardgame only costs about $40, but it can’t also read comics, send email, browse the web, play music, or show me movies. So I guess what I’m saying is, I wouldn’t run out and get an iPad if all you plan to do with it is play boardgames. But if you have one anyway, the boardgame options on it are pretty damn sweet.