January 22, 2014

Crossing the Digital Veil

Given that iOS Boardgames has been posting their 2013 year-end wrap ups and best of’s, it seems appropriate timing to tackle the subject as well. Back in August, I was gifted, courtesy of my wife as a birthday present, an iPad Mini – which I had hinted at wanting but assumed it wasn’t in the cards. So imagine my surprise when opening that up!

I had been using an older iPod touch for a few years, and managed to find a few boardgame App’s that worked on the older iOS version, but not many. With our growing family, I’ve been finding opportunities for face-to-face boardgaming becoming more sporadic as expected. There are a lot iPad only boardgame apps, and most needed a few version of iOS than the old iPod would support. So the iPad Mini would provide a way to play a much expanded library of games with friends (or other gamers) online, or even solo against the AI.

As a general note – while I do enjoy gaming (or boardgaming) on the iPad, it certainly isn’t the same as being face to face. For some games, it isn’t a huge deal breaker on my enjoyment of the game – but for others it can be. And yet other types of games are just never going to work as well in an online format.

Regardless, now five months later I wanted to reflect back on some of the games I’ve picked up, and some of those that I’m looking forward to. I also recently posted a Geeklist attempting to “Digitize” my boardgame collection through a combination of iOS apps, websites, and PC programs. If you are curious to see the full list and look me up to game with, drop by that list.

Hot Boardgame Apps
This first group are boardgame Apps that I’ve really enjoyed playing, and expect to continue enjoy.

Small World
I recently bit the bullet on this App over the holiday’s, and I’m glad I did. I like Small World quite a bit and was holding out purchasing this app until they released a full version that supporting the full game (more players, etc.) and online play. I still prefer Small World primarily as a 2-player game, but I don’t mind it with more. The app is really nice and polished.

Stone Age
I have been pretty turned-off on Stone Age as a boardgame after my first few plays a while ago. I just didn’t find the game terribly interesting given the timeframe it takes (however reasonable that is). The game feels very scripted to me, and not terribly dynamic. Yet – the Stone Age app really worked for me. I can knock a game out vs. the AI pretty quickly, and the app itself is very nicely done and pleasing to play.

Tigris & Euphrates
This Codito app feels a little rickety and is showing some age – but everything works just as it should, is clear, and efficient. I love Tigris, so anything that lets me play it more is a good thing.

A Brief History of the World
I haven’t played this as a physical game prior to trying out the App (another Codito app) – and after figuring out WTF I was doing after a few games, it’s really taken off for me and is one of my favorite apps. It’s not fancy or flashy, but it works well and more importantly the game is great. It’s reminiscent of Small World in that each turn you are building on top of old empires with a new one – yet I find the decisions more strategically interesting and tense compared to Small World. The timing and turn order is vitally important, and often it can be worth taking sub-optimal moves in one Epoch to keep your score low to get 1st pick of an empire for the next Epoch. Interesting balance and tipping points with enough uncertainty to keep things interesting.

This was another game I hadn’t played prior to trying it on the iOS. The PlayDeck implementation is outstanding, and I’m really sad to hear that it may not be supported by them in future due to a rights / licensing issue. The gameplay is interesting enough (and addicting on the iOS) and good for a quick play of something – but it does feel pretty solitary even with playing against another player. There isn’t much interaction or tension in the game.

I’d only had a minimal bit of experience with Eclipse prior to the app. The app itself is exceptionally well produced and developed. I’ve played quite a number of games against the AI and against my friends. While the game itself is enjoyable, many rapid plays of the game only reinforces my gripe about the levels of randomness in the game forcing players into one direction or another. This is fine if you’re willing to put your competitive personality on hold and enjoy the unfolding narrative. The game’s mechanics ARE great, fun, and interesting from that standpoint, but as a deeply strategic game I find it lacking.

NON-Boardgame Apps
So there are tons of non-boardgame apps out there (obviously). I wanted to point out a few of them that might appeal to the boardgamer in all of us.

Sorcery! Part 1 & Part 2
These are old Steve Jackson Gamebooks that have been ported to iOS. Pretty awesome apps across the board in terms of functionality, design, etc. The books and stories themselves are interesting and quite challenging, particularly Part 2. I’ve been having a lot of run working through these games.

This is an abstract strategy game, vaguely reminiscent of Go in terms of the wide open decision space and placement of pieces. Except you have three difference pieces you can place. And you can place pieces on top of other pieces which creates a cascade of changes, almost like Othello. Mix in variable map layouts and conditions, and it creates a very challenging and diverse game system. Definitely worth checking out if you like abstracts.

Starbase Orion
The ultimate 4X game for iOS users. Check out my monstrous review here. I still enjoy this game, and usually have a few multiplayer games underway. But I’m now longing for a change or evolution for the game. Excited to see what the developer may do with it in the future.

This was the big AAA blockbuster ported down to the iOS. Overall, very solid and well-designed game – although after playing for a while it started to feel a bit dull. I don’t find the tactical combat part of the game terribly interesting, and the base/operations management aspect of it is ultimately fairly trite and non-interesting despite appearances. I so want to love this game, and I do enjoy it - but I'm struggling to find the motivation to make it across the finish line.

XCOM recieved a lot of praise - but for a different point of view consider this review over at the Scientific Gamer. Excellent piece of critical writing.

Empire: The Deck Building Game
I was sold on the game based on the designers blog and writings on the topic of civ games. Empire seemed poised to respond to many of my grievances about 4X/civ games. But when I sat down to play it, I didn’t find it all that engrossing. The game is far too limited to scope to be a proper civ/empire game, and while I applaud the bold design ideas, the execution just felt illogical to me. Why the 3 city limit? Why random arrangements during combat? Too many leaps of faith.

Amber Route
An interesting little card-based game where you are moving across a landscape in competition with another player to deliver something to furthest location. Cool concept, beautiful presentation. The gameplay is interesting but not exceptional though – but still worth checking out.

Skulls of the Shogun
Snagged this only played it a bit so far. A somewhat amusing and cartoonish tactical combat game of samurai, archers, and cavalry causing a commotion in the underworld. Woot!

Autumn Dynasty
So this one is more of a real-time strategy game, using various gesture commands to issue orders. It's visually quite engaging and fun to play, although I haven't found it terribly challenging. The narrative is interesting and I'm almost through the campaign. Interested in finishing it out for sure.

This an interesting game that combines world exploration / questing aspect of the play with a card-based tactical lane combat system. I'm not terribly far into the game, and despite there being IAP's I'm not seeing much of a need for those at the moment. Cool looking game that I want to play more.

Ancient Battles: Rome
More of a tactical level wargame with ancient units. Still working through the training missions and faring decently thus far. It's not a super easy game by any stretch, but it's been fun so far.

Hunters (1/2)
These games are from the same developer that went on to make Warhammer Quest. I thought these games were great fun, as you built up a team of mercenaries and took on various missions to earn cash for more gear. Hunters 2 included a small campaign as well that dovetailed with the sandbox environment too. I'd love to see the developer revisit and expand on the series more, building a more robust meta-world around the tactical level gameplay. Definitely worth checking out if you like tactical games.

Non-Boardgame Pending Play or Purchase
These are apps that I've picked up but haven't got to yet.

Battle of the Buldge
I keep hearing great things about this one - so I picked it up recently but haven't given it a play yet. Really looking forward to it.

Frozen Synapse
I remember being excited about this game when it came out a while ago on the PC, but I never pulled the trigger. I picked this one up recently as well, but haven't fired it up.

Roads of Kings
A game that was just released that seems to be a world exploration RPG game, but at a more strategic level? Look cool - haven't purchased it yet.

Less-Enthused Boardgame Apps
These are apps that I’ve played and I’m pretty cool on, either due to the implementation or the game itself, or some combination of both. I’m not enthusiastic or interested in playing these much anymore, although I might if the mood suddenly strikes.

Warhammer Quest
I played through all the content in the basic game, and had a good time. But, maybe this is just my abundance of experience with tactical miniature games (emphasis on other Games’ Workshop games), but I just didn’t find it very challenging or engaging. After a while, the quests became very monotonous feeling – and while IAP’s provide expanded content, I don’t see that fundamentally changing the gameplay in a way that would provide more longevity for me. So for now, I’m done with it.

After hearing various GeekBuddies slobber on about Ra, I tried it on the iOS to see what the mechanics were all about. I suspect this a game that works much better in person given the nature of the game. Yet the iOS implementation was nicely done, so I can’t fault that at all.

I only played this one a few times on the iOS. It’s interesting and well regarded game. I haven’t played it in person, but I hear grumblings that it can be an AP-inducing nightmare, given the 10 action points you have to spend all at once on your turn. As a consequence, I’d probably enjoy the game more in the iOS when played asynchronously – but I just haven’t found myself too drawn to playing it more.

Played it a few times in person and bought iOS app on a whim. I struggle with the interface on this one, as much as I want to like it. I find it challenging to figure out exactly what’s going on at a glance and find it draining to try and play. I WANT to like and play this one more, I just struggle each time I pull it up for some reason.

Le Havre
My bias against resource conversion games is perhaps starting to show. I’ve gone through the tutorial multiple times and find the whole experience infuriating. The app seems well produced and executed, but I just can’t get myself excited about playing this game at all. I find the whole thing needlessly finicky, convoluted, and incremental in its gameplay to very interesting.

San Juan
A decent app in the iPad (unusable on an iphone BTW, due to image scaling making text unreadable) – but the gameplay itself doesn’t excite me much. I’d rather play Race for the Galaxy or many other games, as San Juan is pretty dry across the board.

Neuroshima Hex
I’ve heard awesome things about this app, but I just can’t penetrate it for some reason. I haven’t played the physical version before, and I suspect that might be my issue with it.

I really enjoy this Knizia game, and the app is nice. But I prefer to play the game in person.

The Watch List – High Priority
Apps I’m keeping an eye on and will probably pick up when I’m looking to make another purchase.

Kingdom Builder – Want to try the game, but have heard spotty views on the quality of the app itself.
Lords of Waterdeep – Lots of praise, want to see what the fuss is all about
Scotland Yard – looks good, and I’ve heard good things about it
Suburbia – looks good, but waiting for the kinks to get worked out
Pandemic – app looks awesome, but not in a huge rush to play

The Watch List – Low Priority
Other apps I’m watching but am no rush to try. I’m either not very interesting in the game design itself, or there is a big issue with the app itself that needs to be resolved first.

Agricola – Not the biggest fan of the game, AND I can’t stand the graphic direction of the app. Sorry!
Alien Frontiers – incomplete features
Cyclades – incomplete features (2-player pass and play only? WTF?)
Dominant Species – incomplete features
Elder Sign – low game interest
Ingenious – low game interest, app isn’t too pleasing visually
Qin – why would play this over Tigris?

That's a wrap on my 4-5 months of more serious forays into the world of iOS boardgames and strategy oriented games. It's been a good ride so far and I've played a lot of terrific games. Looking forward to the rest of 2014! How about you?

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