Board Games Gone Mobile: Vol. 3

Board Games Gone Mobile is a bimonthly column covering the growing trend of board and card game mobile apps as they are adapted from tabletop classics. Included here are reviews, previews, and news about iOS and Android hobby gaming.

It's been another two months, but the steady march of new hobby gaming apps has not abated. 2011 continues to shine as a potential "golden age" of digital board games, as fans who could previously count the number of faithful adaptations on their fingers are now overwhelmed with choices in their mobile app stores. That being said, let's take a look at some of the recent noteworthy releases:

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer

Deckbuilding card games finally arrive on the mobile gaming scene with this adaptation of Ascension. For those not familiar with the game, you can read my full review of the card game, but know that Ascension aims to condense the popular deckbuilding format into a shorter playtime while also spicing up the formula with randomized card selection. Instead of card stacks that players must repeatedly choose from throughout the game, Ascension uses a constantly changing row of six cards to provide variety.

As far as gameplay is concerned, Ascension works flawlessly from the moment a match begins. Intuitive zoom controls allow the app to condense an incredible amount of card information onto a tiny screen, while giving players the option to easily read full card text at any point they desire. The UI is clear, and players are given visual indications of whose turn it is and what moves must be performed next.

The problems with this app arise during the process of getting a game started, as Ascension has some serious shortcomings in the matchmaking department, so allow me to go on a bit of a rant here. The most egregious of these oversights is the lack of any indicator as to whether a game should be played in real time (in one sitting) or asynchronously (taking turns across a span of days as time permits). What this means is that if you are to join a game in the online lobby, you are most likely going to get a mix of player types and the game will stall out, causing you to have to forfeit and return to the lobby for another attempt.

I've racked up 11 such games, the exact number of which I know because a bug in the app causes these games to reappear in your active games list even after you have forfeited out. When trapped in a stalled out game, there is also no way to communicate with the other players to confirm that they are not just taking a long time with their turn, as there is no chat, and most opponents do not even have a displayed username (they are simply referred to as "remote player"). The best way to get a game of Ascension going is to start your own and wait for live players to join, or to find friends with the app and use Game Center to set up a match.

Overall, Ascension is still an app worth purchasing because it knows what it is, and is priced appropriately. A-list board game apps charge $10, while Ascension is only $5 for a universal app that works on both iPhone and iPad. Knowing these tips on how to best get a game started, you can easily get more than $5 of entertainment from this app, so it's a solid buy. If you did not know how to navigate the matchmaking, though, you might be convinced that the app did not work at all.

Puerto Rico

When a game such as Puerto Rico launches for the iPad, it is what most gamers would call "a big deal." Take a look at BoardGameGeek's database, which holds over 52,000 games, and you'll see the Puerto Rico sits up top as the second highest rated board game of all time. Yes, this game is a big deal.

The epitome of European-style board game play, Puerto Rico has players making intensely strategic decisions to set up a victory point machine. They'll use worker placement to perform different actions on each turn: build farms, plant fields, trade crops, ship goods, etc. Throughout the game, each action must serve to set up future ones in a grand strategy in order to maximize the amount of points a player will accrue. This may all sound a bit confusing, but know that Puerto Rico sports one of the best interactive tutorials of any app to date. Even if you've never played a euro game before, there's enough hand-holding to make you a veteran after a few rounds.

Codito (the game's developer) went back and forth with game publisher Ravensburger for weeks in order to clean up the UI, causing several rounds of delays. Brad Cummings over at BGG's iOS Board Games blog got his hands on an early preview build and highlighted the improvements in his review of the app. The change is staggering, with the final version spotting a high level of polish as compared to the early potential release.

As for online play, the app relies fully on Game Center, which means that only real-time play is currently supported. With the upgrade to iOS 5, Game Center will support asynchronous games, so it is likely that Codito will update the app. Puerto Rico works wonderfully online, but the one major shortcoming is that players cannot mix live humans with AI. Some of the best apps on the market support this feature, which is the ability of an AI to jump in should a human leave the game early.

In the end, gamers are just happy to have Puerto Rico on their iPads, and the delays turned out to be well worth it for the improvements made. Puerto Rico will sell for $10 in the iOS App Store, but is currently reduced to $8 during its launch sale.

Ghost Stories

A co-operative game from famous designer Antoine Bauza, Ghost Stories is an app that is a bit harder to recommend than Ascension or Puerto Rico. In Ghost Stories, players take on the role of taoist monks, moving around a 9-space board to defeat wave after wave of evil spirits. Eventually, an incarnation of the evil Wu-Fend shows up to provide a final challenge. If players can defeat this end boss, the game is won.

Critiquing the Ghost Stories app involves a bit of critique of the physical game and the entire co-operative genre as well. Co-ops are, by nature, more akin to puzzles than they are games. They can be very enjoyable as players try to decipher how to solve them, but once solved, they lose much of their replay value as players are just repeatedly implementing their known solution. Ghost Stories attempts to solve this dilemma by making the game incredibly difficult to win.

The high difficulty level makes the game addicting. You have to beat it because you know you can! Yet while there is a sense of accomplishment once you do, the difficulty presented to is largely due to a heavy reliance on random dice rolls and the arrangement of the deck. While I will admit that many of the best games use a deck of cards to add some appealing level of chance, the cards in this deck contain some monsters so powerful that if players make only one or two mistakes, the entire game is lost, so having a bad shuffle can sink a game regardless of what players do. The equivalent here is a jigsaw puzzle where 5 pieces pop out every time you try to place a piece that doesn't fit. Does this sound like an enjoyable time?

The truth is that the game actually can be fun to play if you have three friends at a table that can make it an enjoyable experience. Ghost Stories has a lot of fans, but this iPad app only supports 1-2 players, not up to 4 as the board game does. It also has no support for network play, so you might as well break out the physical game if you all have to be at the table to play anyway. For $6, this app will give you a few rounds of fun, but it quickly tires. Save the money and buy the real game if co-ops are a favorite genre of hobby gaming for you.

Upcoming Releases:

Over the next few months, keep an eye on the app store for these games, all of which are adaptations of highly-rated board games:

September: Tigris & Euphrates

October: FITS

November: Le Havre

Beyond that, El Grande is launching in March of 2012, and several other great games have been announced as in development with no release schedule. These include Thunderstone, Nightfall, Pandemic, Food Fight, and Summoner Wars.