I’ll be very interested to see how this one plays, as Terra Mystica is a notoriously long game: one time through can monopolize an entire game night. My favorite board game apps, unlike my favorite tabletop games, are able to be played in an under ten minute time frame, and I’m wondering if the Terra Mystica app will hit that window.
And if game play is rapid, will it satisfy the same strategy-loving gamers that have currently elevated the game to a fourth place ranking on BGG.com, and to a long list of awards that, when run in a single column, barely fit on my desktop screen? Perhaps making the game more user friendly may make it small in other ways as well…
Online play in the Splendor app is not yet a month old, and it appears to be, compared to other board games on mobile app stores, much healthier in terms of matching a bevy of eager players. It even seems easier to find other players than in the venerable Catan app, and it is much quicker to get the virtual table outfitted as well: from loading the app to picking your tokens takes less than a minute. Also, and most importantly, unlike all other mobile tabletop gaming apps that I own, the app forces players to stay involved by timing each player’s turn. In virtual Splendor, there are no agonizingly long three to five minute turns (although some players take an eon to realize that all they can do, if there are three short stacks, and there’s nothing they can afford or want to buy, is take three tokens or reserve a card). But if the other player’s timer does expire, congratulations! They just forfeited through being inattentive, and you won the game. This means that online Splendor, while slower than Splendor against AI, is much quicker than other games that feature online play. However, it is still quicker than playing Splendor on a real-world tabletop, as most real-world players don’t use a timer, and there’s always that one Splendor player that takes two or three minute turns.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of this rapidity of play is that you are quickly introduced to a wide variety of Splendor strategies. I just finished playing a game with a player that started the game by reserving a red jewel card from the bottom row, and from then on in, was determined not to let me have any red jewel cards on the bottom row, so that whenever one would be placed, she would reserve it. As the green deck was top heavy with red cards, this meant that her first three turns required her to reserve three red cards in a row, so that while I quickly had a card and five tokens, she had three jokers and three reserved cards after the first three turns. Unfortunately for her, the next card placed in the bottom row was also a red token card, and as she had already reserved the maximum of three cards, and I had five tokens and a card, I was better suited to buying it before she did. I’m intensely interested in seeing how this kind of color monopolization strategy might work in another game in which the luck wasn’t as lopsided, but I will probably never play this way myself. I won this game 16 points to 10.
Another player closely scrutinized my till of tokens, so that whenever I was able to buy a point-scoring card, they would reserve it. This probably throws off other players’ games, but as I have played a lot of Splendor, and I have experience in diversifying my strategy, and they can only reserve three cards at most—cards that usually turned out to be useless to them, as they were saving very different colors than I was saving—I won 17 points to 5. However, I will admit to being more annoyed by this player than any other Splendor player, although the feeling was mitigated when I realized that they were stuck with three cards that did not match their game investments, which blocked their ability both to reserve cards and to get joker tokens for the rest of the game.
More than half of the players that I have played have reserved a card from the bottom row. Folks, this is a bonehead move, and tells the person across the table that you have no idea what you’re doing. I’ll allow the exception to this to be the color monopolization strategy I mentioned above, as I have only seen it used in one virtual game and no real-world tabletop games. Color monopolization on the bottom row may very well be a bonehead move as well, but I have little experience with the strategy to say either way. If your first three moves are to reserve a red card, a brown card, and a blue card, though, you’re definitely a mook, as the bottom row cards are inexpensive and plentiful, and are best purchased with a canny economy of three token draws and using prior purchases to make it cheaper to make future buys. Good Splendor players reserve around three cards per game, and they are usually three to five point cards. Sometimes a bottom row card might be reserved towards the end game if it is the color that a player needs to attract a noble.
For instance, if I have three green, three blue, and two white cards, and I need one more white to get the noble above, and the white card that costs three brown is drawn for the bottom row, reserving it to get the joker token to add to the two brown in my till will get me three points in the following turn—as long as another player is not about to take that noble. This is usually the only instance in which I would reserve a card from the bottom row.
There are also the kind of players that you meet in real life, such as the Splendor Gamblers that like to reserve the cheap cards in the middle and top row as an opening move, for example the four point top row cards that only cost seven tokens of one color. While I almost never do this, and only reserve cards that I might play in a round or two, and very rarely reserve compeititively (taking a winning card from another player that will also give me the joker token I need to squeeze out a big purchase), when I see a player reserve a cheap card, it tells me that they know how to play Splendor, and this game will be more challenging than most. Experienced Splendor players fall on a continuum between Splendor Gambling and Splendor Economy, and one of the main disadvantages for a Splendor Gambler is that your early strategic reserves tell the other player that you grok the game while also telegraphing your strategy several moves ahead to your opponent. I may return to the continuum of Splendor Gamblers and Splendor Economists in a future post.
While I’ve had a lot of fun playing the online mobile version of Splendor, I would only recommend it with the caveat that if you are not playing this game on a good WiFi connection, you could find it a frustrating pastime. If you have a rocket fast internet connection (I have Xfinity, which does the trick), and only try to play it at home on that network, you will probably have a great time with online Splendor play. If you’re trying to play through a 3G or 4G connection, you stand a good chance of being disconnected from the server, which the app counts as a loss for the player being disconnected. This is such a pervasive problem that on any given time if you enter the Online section of the app, the chat stream is likely to have one or two players venting about being disconnected.
However, even with these two criticisms weighing in, the Splendor app is currently my favorite online tabletop gaming platform, ending a period of several months in which, when I had ten minutes to kill, I would play San Juan or Puerto Rico nearly exclusively.
Days of Wonder has dropped the prices of board game apps by up to 70% off on the Google Play for Android and iOS App Stores, including Small World 2, Splendor, Ticket to Ride, and Ticket to Ride Pocket Edition.
These are all excellent board game apps for you to divert or entertain yourself. Splendor particularly is my personal favorite, not only among all board game apps, but among all game apps.
That said, Small World 2 and Ticket to Ride are excellent for having great options for online play, and local Bluetooth capability as well. If you and your significant other have separate Apple accounts, all you have to do is link them in your settings so that they can download it from your purchased apps, and with one purchase both of you can play each other online. If you have the same Apple account, you can still play each other locally via Bluetooth.
As I’ve noted before on Board of Life, I’m a fan of digital board games done right, and until a few weeks ago, the only game I played on my phone or tablet anymore was Splendor, which I still consider not only a dazzling digital rendition of one of my favorite games, but also a great example of casual digital gaming that can be easily played in less than ten minutes. Recently, Ravensburger Digital was kind enough to send review copy codes for some of their games, and today we’re going to look at San Juan and Puerto Rico HD, which, while they haven’t stolen my affections for Splendor, have certainly stolen any of the time that I make to play board game apps.
Because I have plans to explore Puerto Rico in depth later on Board of Life, you won’t find an extensive review of that game here, nor San Juan, because while I do not currently own tabletop San Juan, the app is so fresh and engrossing that the card game has moved to my Wish Wall. Because, while I’ve stated often on Board of Life that Puerto Rico is one of my favorite games, I play the San Juan app more often than Puerto Rico HD because my taste for board game apps runs to strong tabletop simulations in a minimum amount of time. Tabletop Puerto Rico can take two to three hours, and even given speedy AI, Puerto Rico HD can take ten minutes longer than my ten minute sweet spot for board game apps. San Juan, on the other hand, is timed perfectly, and consequently I’ve played about twenty games of San Juan, and three games of Puerto Rico HD, over the last two weeks. Still, it’s been an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the two games, as well as whet my appetite for owning the tabletop version of San Juan.
San Juan, the card game version of Puerto Rico, has a lot of similarities to its predecessor, except these similarities are scaled back to create a kind of Puerto Rico Lite. For instance, in Puerto Rico, each player every turn picks from one of six role cards: Builder, Captain, Craftsman, Mayor, Settler, and Trader; while in San Juan, players pick from one of five role cards: Builder, Producer, Trader, Councillor, and Prospector. In Puerto Rico, you’re filling the island on the one hand, and the city on the other, while in San Juan this action is conflated so that you’re simply trying to play as many points as you can before someone lays their twelfth in a series of cards that represent both the production of the island and the civil structures of the city.
Puerto Rico’s most unique element, that of socialized strategy, is not only present in San Juan, but due to the streamlining of the other elements, it is easier to observe in action. By socialized strategy, I mean that on every player’s turn, every other player gets to act as well, following the lead of the player whose turn it is. No one gets to act in a vacuum on their turn, as they do in most other board games. Speaking less abstractly, we are speaking of when each player picks their role. When a player picks a role, every other player also gets to act on that role, but at slightly reduced effectiveness. So when each player takes a turn, they not only have to think how their action will affect their own strategy, but also how the action they choose will benefit other players. In this way, strategy—a solitary element in most other games—is socialized in Puerto Rico. While playing the Producer may be drastically effective for you this turn, if it also greatly benefits your opponent, you may prefer to play the Councillor, though you will receive less of a benefit. Alternatively, you may decide to go ahead with the action that is more important to you, even if it means that you watch your opponent thrive due to the unintended charitable side effect of your strategy.
In addition to being able to more easily contemplate this socialized strategy in simplified San Juan, the scaling back of Puerto Rico into its card game cousin also makes for a leaner game, which in terms of comparing the respective apps, means that the San Juan app takes about half as long to play as Puerto Rico HD.
I’ve been extolling a lot on San Juan‘s virtues, so what’s left for Puerto Rico? Well, while San Juan is the definite winner in terms of speed of play and a simplicity that makes it easier to grok the socialized strategy of these games, if I was using purely objective criteria, Puerto Rico HD would be superior to San Juan.
Puerto Rico HD has excellent cut scenes, more articulate music and graphics, smoother animation transitions, and the speed of play for the AI is still fairly rapid. Puerto Rico HD also has the advantage in online play, as it continues to find a match for you in Gamecenter while you are doing other things, or even playing a game against AI. San Juan will just back out of Gamecenter and tell you that it can’t find players. That said, it takes an interminable time to find other Puerto Rico HD or San Juan players through Gamecenter, so you’re better off recruiting your friends to buy this game so they can play with you online directly. Even if you can only get one friend to join in on a game with you, better that and filling up the rest of the table with AI than waiting and waiting for players to drop in.
Despite the discouraging online game waiting room in both of these games that has so far prevented me from enjoying an online game—which means that any of my deep thoughts on socialized strategy in Puerto Rico were ironically gleaned antisocially through interaction with AI—these are much more entertaining and intellectually stimulating than throwing birds at pigs or playing one of those many games with jewels in them. I recommend them for what they are. Because at the current stage of development for board game apps, the best that can be hoped for is that the tabletop enthusiast has a kind of a digital speed bag that they can hammer away at with great speed. The days in which we can satisfy our desire for a long form strategic tabletop bout with a cell phone or a tablet computer are not here, and they may never be, as the interface doesn’t seem to be the issue, but simply the fact that there aren’t enough, and will never be enough, players waiting to be joined to online games. They’re playing these games at game night, or in Meetup Groups, or with players they met on Reddit or in a Facebook group. Technology is bringing these players together in the real world.
To celebrate their new Ticket to Ride update, enhanced with new maps for the Ticket to Ride Europe, Days of Wonder has slashed the prices on some of their perennial favorites on iPhone, iPad, Android, and Steam. Additionally, some of the in-app map purchases in Ticket to Ride are on sale as well, with the best deal being that if you buy the Europe board, you get their new map update, Europa 1912 Destinations, for free.
Whether you’re big fans of the tabletop versions of these games, or just looking for something other than throwing birds at pigs, you’ll find these are some of the most entertaining apps on the App store. Days of Wonder not only creates some of the most easily playable and understandable board games, they also have great app developers, and these games are worth paying for at full price.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig, one of my favorite games, has just joined the growing digital board game collection that’s available on the iOS and Android App Stores.
Nominated for 6 Golden Geek Awards, and winner of the Meeples’ Choice Award and the Mensa Select Award, Castles of Mad King Ludwig has always been a game that appealed to intelligent and discriminating board gamers, and now it appeals to board gamers that are budgeting money or time. Not only is the App version a fraction of the cost of the boxed version, it can also be played on not just tablets, but phones, so that busy people can find some time to play vs. AI on their break at work.
Those that like to play digital board games with real people, whether via Bluetooth or online, will be disappointed, as the app version of Castles of Mad King Ludwig currently only supports “pass and play.” However, players can post their castles on Facebook or Twitter through the app, rather than the long way around of taking a screenshot and inserting it into a post, as most board game apps currently require you to do.
That digital board games are a big deal in App Stores can be read by just how fast the digital version of Castles of Mad King Ludwig is climbing the charts: as of this writing it is already number 283 on the list of paid apps in the Amazon App Store (as well as number 2 on the list of paid board game apps on Amazon, which is more attributable to the game’s great word of mouth among board gamers). I can attest that is is really hard to resist buying a game digitally that you already have great fun playing on game night.
The Settlers of Catan has one of the best game board designs. The modular, variable design paved the way for the Seafarers and Cities and Knights expansions to enable ambitious players to terraform an entire game night into a vast sprawling event in an epic setting. It’s like when you’re a boy or a girl, and you do an action figure or doll mashup, combining in play all the diverse franchises that you own.
Even as an adult it’s only natural to want to mingle these $40-$50 expansions all at the same time, and get your money’s worth. They all have the same size box, the same font, the same magazine styled rulebooks, the same hexes, and identically colored wooden pieces. The separate Catan boxes have such a sense of identity and belongingness that I’m sure there are dozens of other Catan gamers that have wished, along with myself, for a cardboard enclosure, not unlike the box in book box sets, to contain all the Catans. That sense of closure can only be obtained by arts and crafts people, currently, but any Catan and Catan Expansion owner can throw down a Catan archipelago of knight-ruled islands.
And so, most Catan gamers have no doubt had a night of Catan-mageddon or Catan-gasm—take your pick—in which the main theme of the evening was a megalo-masochistic masterplan of crushing every Catan into one game: a Cities and Knights / Seafarers sweeping eighteen point scenario. The Catan iPhone app actually has several of these Catan-Pangaeas* (Greater Catan, Enchanted Island, and Great Canal), and they’re pretty entertaining when played against AI, but interminable torture when played with other people online. Catan veterans know they’re in for a two hour tabletop game when it’s a ten point island; eighteen point supercontinent juggernauts can take three or four hours.
For those of you that feel that you have satisfied your desire for Catan expansion ad absurdum, you may wish to avert your eyes from the following image (posted by the blogger Kurisu on the website 9to5.cc), as it can only lead to unrequited longing:
Too much expansion, of course, eventually leads to a desire for a Catan diet, and a return to basic Catan, that Edenic island on which most of us played our first Eurogame and learned there was another, more satisfying way than Risk or Monopoly for adults to play board games. But you can’t confine yourself to just one island forever, once you’ve had that vision of Catan island chains. You start to miss the ships and even the pirates.
I’ve only found one other version of Catan that can satisfy the need for a return to simplicity: Catan Explorers and Pirates (2013). Explorers and Pirates has the virtue of being uncombinable** with the earliest expansions, Seafarers or Cities and Knights, so that it is only played with basic Catan. For while it might be possible for an enterprising gamer to combine Explorers and Pirates with Cities and Knights if they really wanted to, it would ruin the distinctiveness of E&P, and players would be discouraged from getting fish and spices while they level up their knights. There is no possible way to combine Seafarers and Explorers and Pirates, aside from combining the map pieces to make a larger Catan setting, as the rules of ship movement in these oceanic expansions are not compatible with each other. Explorers and Pirates also changes a lot of other rules in the direction of simplicity, such as eliminating the harbors, which makes all trade follow the same rules of 3:1 resources or 2:1 gold, and also making all habitations produce only one resource. It makes all these streamlining changes, however, while satisfying the Catan players’ needs for a monolithic game board, as the Explorers and Pirates scenarios have the largest maps in any of the expansions.
Here’s my own contribution to the vision of Catan-Pangaea—inspired by scenarios in Seafarers and Explorers and Pirates—for you to play on your next board game night if you have a really big table, and at bare minimum, basic Catan and E&P. Create an island of four alternating wool and lumber hexes in a rhombus shape. Place 6s on the starting wool hexes and 8s on the starting lumber hexes. Place harbor settlements and settler ships from E&P on each side of the island, and place water hexes under the settler ships where they border their starting hex, so that the settler ships are sitting on the border of two hexes, as they should be. Make a stack of every hex from every Catan box you have. This means you’re using the fish, spice, and pirate leader boards from E&P. Also, use the turn sequence from E&P, ships move exactly as they do in E&P, use 3:1 trade and gold from E&P. As the ships move, hexes are flipped, a resource bonus or gold is given out, and numbers are drawn randomly to mark the resource hexes. To satisfy Cities and Knights enthusiasts, you could say that cities can be built starting with your second settlement, but as soon as the first one is built, the barbarians start to attack using the rules in C&K. How big can you make that Catan mash-up before someone scores twenty victory points?
**Explorers and Pirates also has the virtue of giving players gold when they’re unlucky with resources, which is probably the most charitable evolution in the history of Catan, an island that has historically been cold and inhospitable to the unlucky.