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.

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