Thursday, August 12, 2010

Board Gaming on the iPad

I'm primarily a video gamer, but I play my share of board games. I would rather play Settlers with than talk to people at parties, I have stress dreams about Arkham Horror, and I've recently started teaching and running board games at a local yearly convention, Templecon. While friends and co-workers often provide enough of an outlet for board gaming, I often find myself wanting to have a similar experience in a more solitaire or smaller scale.

Apple marketed the iPad as being a magical, revolutionary device. While most people will be a little critical of that statement, I can wholeheartedly agree that it has opened up a new form of board gaming. With several implementations of popular board games, offering simpler set up and single player modes for a few of my favorites, the iPad has the potential to at least be a small revolution in board gaming.

SmallWorld is a great, fun game that is generally accessible and appealing to new gamers, yet deep enough to have legs for veterans. But with over a hundred tiles and tokens to maintain, it can be a little unwieldily. Anybody ever ask you if you want to play a quick game of SmallWorld? It's not really possible. While experienced players can complete a game in 20 or 30 minutes, the setup, teardown, and tile pushing during turns extends that a significant amount. The iPad version, while limited to two player games only, makes a strong case for digital board gaming. Setup is instant, stacks of tiles are a breeze to manipulate, and the medium suits the game perfectly because SmallWorld doesn't have cards, and therefore doesn't require closed hands. The device can sit in between two players and emulate all the good parts of the real world experience. The art really shines on the iPad, and the display's high resolution faithfully represents the board and pieces.

Settlers of Catan for the iPhone and iPad fares less well. The problem here is that hands are secret, so there's a lot of dialog boxes like, "please hand over to player 2." When it comes time to trade resources, each trade requires multiple handing back and forth of the device. However, as a solo experience against AI, it's great; I can finally play Catan when I want, where I want, and with a bunch of dumbass opponents who I can usually beat. The creators did a good job with this version, but if they could solve the problem of hidden hands, maybe like how Scrabble has done by allowing iPhones and iPods to act as peripherals to view your tiles privately, this would be a fantastic iPad game. The same developers are working on an iPad version, so we'll see.

I picked up the tile-placing game Ingenious on the iPhone without having played it in board format, and after seeing the digital version, I don't think I ever want to. The game requires tactics that live up to its name, but I can only imagine that scoring by hand is Infuriating. Here's an example of computers doing what they do best; calculating numbers. I love the game, but I would never want to have to count all the points each player is getting every turn. There are a few other Reiner Knizia card games out there which fare as well.

I've also been logging a lot of time in the solitaire version of Carcassone for the iPhone, which has the player placing gorgeously rendered tiles to build roads and castles in a particular order. The multiplayer version is as good. At some point in every game, though, I just wish the screen were bigger; as the game progresses, the board's play space only gets larger, and a device like the iPad can only be surpassed by one with a larger screen. Please port this to the iPad! Perhaps Apple can start thinking about a table-sized device like Microsoft's?

As much disdain as you might have for the explosion of casual games on the iPhone and iPad platform, there are some really great ports of board games coming out, made by developers with obvious love for the games. If anybody knows of any others, please share! Until then, I'm waiting patiently for an iPad version of Arkham Horror.

PC Gaming

I've been a Mac user since 1990. I saw SimCity in a store, and was captivated by the colors, the menu system, and the iconography. I demanded that the next family computer be a Macintosh LC. I bought a Mac Classic with my own money on which to run a BBS. In the late 90's I installed MkLinux on a Powertower 180. Gaming without a discrete graphics card, BBS server on an all-in-one, and Linux on a closed platform; for a very long time I have been using the right platform for the wrong reasons. Ironically, the advent of Steam for Mac finally inspired me to build a gaming PC.

My current computer is an iMac from 2007. It has a huge, beautiful 24" screen that looks just as good as the day it arrived. I originally bought it to placate my World of Warcraft gaming, but soon after gave up the game. Since then it's been a fantastic machine for all that other stuff that you use computers for, like spreadsheets and Flash games. And when Steam came out, I thought I'd finally get to play some real games on it. I downloaded Portal (which I had played years earlier on Xbox, don't worry), booted it up... and found out that my video card was too old. What do iMac owners do when faced with such a problem? They have to buy brand new computers.

That's just wrong, right? I want a gaming computer, but one that I can plug into my TV and use from the couch. After looking at new Mac prices, considering the underpowered 2010 Mini, and doing some research, I found that I can build a machine that will play everything I wanted to play on the PC right now for $800, while a comparable Mac would cost twice as much or require me to sit at a desk. Apple just isn't interested in making a gaming computer for me.

What Steam for Mac really did was make me realize how much I was missing by not being able to play PC games, and by offering me some of that, it made me want the whole thing. So come this fall, probably with the release of Cataclysm (which I just want to check out, just a little, I promise), I will be building a gaming PC.

Batman Arkham Asylum

I picked up a copy of Batman: Arkham Asylum based solely on reviews, despite having no interest in the subject matter. The podcast Gamers With Jobs, whose tastes generally fall in line with mine, raved about it when it came out, but it took the accolades of co-workers before I gave it a chance. I mainly picked it up because it was cheap and reportedly had a fantastic melee fighting system, but before I knew it I was totally engrossed.

Engrossed--despite the subject matter. I don't really like the old DC Golden Age treatment; I think the heroes and villains have goofy names and look dumb, but I think the game walks a good line by making Batman and Joker interesting characters. But the animation and character art of Batman totally sold me. I still find myself using Batman's door opening animation on the bathroom door at work, pulling it open as I whip my cape around and hurl myself through the doorway. I set myself up to only like only the combat mechanics, but ended up loving the character treatments and animation.

I honestly didn't really get the game at first. I played an hour or two and was confused by the scope. I wasn't sure where the game was going to take me and how big or small it would be. Then I picked it up when I was home with a cold and played it for three days straight. Batman has exactly what I like about Zelda and Metroid games: overworlds and repeated trips through content that is opened up with new items. It has a perfect mix of size and variability that rewards exploration, yet I could pick up the game in the middle and instantly know where to go and what to do next with solid level design and a good map system. It's rare for a game to leave that kind of impression on me, especially when I wasn't really looking for it.

In fact, I kind of hope that the new Zelda learns a little bit from Batman. I really appreciated that the combat and item use mechanics in Batman built up evenly through the entire game, and that all boss battles up to the final one used skills you had learned throughout the game. It never switched things up and introduced a new mini game you just had to pound through to kill a boss; every boss battle had me feeling prepared and confident, yet still challenged me and left me feeling accomplished. The combat permeated the entire game, and it was simple, elegant, deep, and satisfying, and reminded me that a game franchise doesn't have to break new ground to be just right.