I love boardgames.
I love them more than videogames and, despite the fact that I’m here on Tapsauce every day talking about how much I love apps, I enjoy them more than mobile games. I like the physicality of them. I like being able to gather around a table with friends and enjoy the social aspect of them. I love game mechanics that require thoughtful strategy instead of the quick, arcade-y reflexes found in most electronic games.
As mobile technology becomes cheaper and mobile games find themselves in the hands of more people, we’re starting to see an interesting trends: board game companies are developing app versions of their games, with varying results.
This trend seems have begun with Day of Wonder, who ported their incredibly popular game “Ticket to Ride” to the iPhone and iPad a few years back. As far as board games on mobile devices go, it’s easily the cream of the crop. The game puts players in control of their own railroad empire and has them racing to build the best and longest railroad lines across the nation, each of them with secret objectives that provide them with bonus points if accomplished. It’s an incredibly simple game, easy to learn but filled with all kinds of strategy.
Although it’s missing the social interaction that helps make the tabletop experience such a blast (you really can’t shout “Aha!” or shake your first at a computer controlled opponent), it’s the exact kind of game that translates perfectly to the screen of an iPhone: the gameplay itself is compelling enough to function as a solo experience. The same applies to Days of Wonder’s “Small World,” which is currently available for the iPad.
If “Ticket to Ride” is an example of perfect table-screen-translation, Fantasy Flight’s “Elder Sign” is just a rung underneath it. Like “Ticket to Ride,” “Elder Sign” is built on compelling gameplay, so it doesn’t require additional players in the flesh to make it a fun time. In fact, the game is driven by a randomly generated narrative (supplied by many decks of cards in the physical game), so, in its own way, it’s an even better (and more cinematic) choice for a smartphone game than anything made by Days of Wonder.
Unfortunately, like everything made by Fantasy Flight Games, “Elder Sign” is complicated. Really complicated. Like, “30 page instruction manual” complicated. While “Ticket to Ride’ can be learned in less than five minutes, “Elder Sign” practically requires research to play properly. For mobile gamers, who like apps that can be picked up and played with little to no effort, it may feel like a bust, even though it’s a fantastic game.
Ultimately though, “Ticket to Ride” and “Elder Sign” feel like their tabletop counterparts and play just fine on your phone. They may not offer an experience identical to playing with your friends but it feels close enough. However, the same cannot be said for the app version of the popular “Zombie Dice” from Steve Jackson Games. It’s an incredibly game that translates easily to smartphones, but unlike the other games mentioned above, it requires a table and a group of friends to be effective.
In the game, you roll a series of dice and receive either a brain (good), a shotgun blast (bad) or feet (neutral). You can roll as many times as you want, tallying up the brains you’ve rolled as you go, but if you receive three shotgun blasts before you pass the dice, you lose them all. It’s a ridiculously simple game and the mechanics function fine on the iPhone (it’s certainly not a poorly made app), but by making an app out of it, the game loses everything that makes it addictive and special in “real life.” It’s a gambling game, where you and your friends have to frequently press their luck and hope the dice are in your favor. By taking away the physical dice and removing the competitive aspects, “Zombie Dice” feels shallow instead of simple. When you are throwing dice at a table, you feel like your fate is in your hands. When you tap a button to randomly generate dice rolls on your phone, there’s always that lingering feeling that the game is screwing you. Without an audience and without physical dice, your triumphs mean nothing.
I would love to see more companies develop mobile app version of their best board games for smartphones. There are too many great games that would play beautifully in the palm of your hand. I’m especially happy to see the game companies themselves having a major hand in the development process; both “Elder Sign” and “Ticket to Ride” are gorgeously made and truly capture the games they are based on. However, not all board games belong on your phone. So, here’s my plea to all of the game companies out there: really think about which of your games will make the translation effectively. Pick games that work as solo experiences. Pick games that can function without the social environment. That’s the key to making this work.