Board games have come a long way in the last 20 years. Whereas once popular board games were generally games of chance built upon the roll of the dice, many of today’s most popular titles are more complex, emphasizing strategy and deep levels of resource management over sheer luck. Just as common in dorm rooms and apartments as family game nights, board games have grown up.
Of course, it can be difficult to get people together for a board game night whenever one wants, and even then they can be a mess to clean up. Thankfully, many popular board games now feature digital editions, nearly all of which are readily available for the iPad. Below are some of our favorites for Apple’s trademark tablet, whether you prefer feats of grand strategy or the simple pleasures of twiddling knobs.
Tiles, cards, and adventures in space
Although many of the most popular board games can be mindbogglingly complicated — many a naive player has braved the sprawl of Arkham Horror, only to be left a quivering mess — sometimes simpler is better, especially when it comes to the iPad, where the touchscreen naturally emphasizes fewer systems. Carcassonne, a German game set in the famous French town, is one of the paragons of European board game design, with a basic set of rules and short duration that mask a surprising amount of strategic depth.
Carcassonne is notable in that players build the board as they go. The board consists of 72 tiles, one of which is the “main” tile placed at the start of the game. The rest of the tiles are placed face down and shuffled around, and each turn a player draws a tile and places it next to one already on the board, gradually building a map. Each tile depicts partial features such as fields, cities, roads, or monasteries, and on placing a tile, a player can also place one of their limited stock of pieces (called “meeples”) onto one of these features in an attempt to claim it. This can be a messy process when you’re dealing with the physical game, but on the iPad, there’s no need to shuffle or worry about the size of a table, making the whole experience smoother.
As players build the map, they attempt to complete the roads, cities, and monasteries, at which point the player with the most pieces gets points. Winning at Carcassonne thus requires players to think not just about how to build the longest road or biggest city, but also how to impede their opponent’s progress.
Fans of board games may likely remember collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering, in which players assembled decks from hundreds of possible cards and battled one another in dorm rooms and cafeterias across the country. Many who once enjoyed such games may also have stopped playing, as the need to constantly purchase new sets of cards made them an expensive hobby. Enter the deck-building game, a young genre in which a group of players all acquire cards from the same pool, building their decks as the game progresses. Ascension, designed by former pro Magic players, is among the best in the genre, with diverse cards that allow for a variety of strategies and tactical improvisation.
There are two primary resources in Ascension: power, used to defeat monsters, and runes, used to acquire new cards. At the beginning of a game of Ascension, every player starts with a deck consisting of Militia and Apprentices, which provide a small amount of power and runes. Cards and monsters from the main deck are laid out in the center of the table, and players take turns slaying monsters and purchasing new cards for their deck. Acquiring cards and completing certain actions will net players points, called Honor, and at the end of the game the player with the most honor wins.
The iPad version of the game lays everything out well, utilizing the space available on screen. Cards are rendered beautifully — although players will obviously not have the tactile pleasure of holding them in hand —and all the important information, such as card types and resources, is easily readable. The quick pace of the game is also perfectly suited for online play, and those who develop an addiction to the game will enjoy the fact that expansion sets are much cheaper on the iTunes store than at a physical game shop.
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Galaxy Trucker ($5)
Galaxy Trucker is designed to appeal to two main demographics: people who like to build things, and masochists. The game consists of two main phases. The first is a building phase, in which players must draw tiles from a pool and arrange them in order to build ships before the timer runs out. Once the building phase is complete, players then draw event cards as they try to reach their destination, acquiring credits along the way. This is where the aforementioned masochists will have fun, as the universe portrayed by Galaxy Trucker is vast and cruel. Any number of dangers, including space pirates and asteroids, can wreck a player’s ship. It is not uncommon that no ships will make it through a round alive.
The build phase is crucial to success, as even a minor flaw, such as an exposed piece of connective tissue, can be a fatal weakness. Players will also need to equip their ships with tools such as laser cannons and shield batteries to survive the various dangers of the galaxy. Luck is the biggest enemy in Galaxy Trucker, and much of the fun comes not from success, but from trying to survive outrageous circumstances.
Even the best board game can be ruined in transition to the iPad if the developers are careless. Thankfully, this version of Galaxy Trucker is adapted well, with all the moving parts laid out intuitively on screen. The digital version includes both pass-and-play and online modes, making for a great multiplayer experience on the iPad. There is also a single-player campaign unique to the iPad version, for those who would rather blow their ships up in private.
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Blizzard’s second attempt at a World of Warcraft card game, Hearthstone has been a runaway hit despite its modest development (the original team consisted of 15 members). Hearthstone is an entirely digital card game, giving players all the fun of building decks and battling opponents without the necessary storage space for cards. Of course, some might argue that the feel of cards is part of the fun, which is why the game attempts to emulate the physical experience of playing a game. Players drag on drop their cards from their hands to the board, slamming them down with an audible thump.
Designed for both tablets and computers, Hearthstone streamlines the traditional card game experience. Players cannot take any actions on their opponent’s turn, which keeps the pace moving quickly, although some would argue this robs the game of the tactical moments that games like Magic excel at. There is plenty of strategy present in Hearthstone, however, with nine different classes to choose from, each with their own unique cards and strengths. The mechanics of the game are simple enough for anyone to pick it up and start playing, but with enough depth for more advanced players to distinguish themselves in all degrees of amateur to professional competition.
Of course, Hearthstone is a collectible card game, and the collectible part may prove a bit of a wall for new players. Everyone starts out with a basic set of cards for each class, and more can be unlocked by simply playing the game. The vast majority of cards will need to be acquired from booster packs or expansions, both of which can be purchased with gold earned through daily quests or with cash. There are hundreds of cards in the game already, with more added every so often, and building a complete collection is a daunting task. Still, for players who enjoy collecting cards and customizing decks, Hearthstone is easily the best CCG on the iPad.
Perhaps including Spaceteam is stretching the definition of a board game a bit much, but between its simple interface and great potential as a party game, it seemed fitting to bend the rules. Allowing for two to eight players, Spaceteam puts each player in charge of a specific station on a spaceship. The game requires each player to use their own tablet or phone, which will display a control panel as well as information about incoming crises and what players need to do to counter them. Thus, players need to communicate effectively in order to progress.
Despite its simplicity, Spaceteam can be incredibly hard. As orders come in more and more quickly, players will often devolve into shouting over each other in order to relay the information in time. Quickly recognizing when you need to do something is essential, and the game’s interface is basic enough that novices can pick it up easily.
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