Right out of the gate, know that I am not a big fan of Apple. I’m not crazy about their computers, I think everything they sell costs two to three times what it should, I despise their immoral vendor lock-in approach to just about everything they do. A lot of people probably wouldn’t think so given that my first game, 100 Rogues, was on iOS only. The reason it was an iOS-only game, as opposed to an Android game, was because back in 2008, Android didn’t really exist, and there seemed to be a lot of demand for new iOS games. Which ties nicely into my main point here.
I got an iPad 2 a few weeks ago, with two major purposes. The primary purpose was for playing digital boardgames. If you weren’t aware, there’s been a wealth of great digital boardgames coming out over the last two years or so. Puerto Rico, Tigris & Euphrates, Le Havre, Caylus and a ton more (I’ll provide a full list later) have all appeared in digital versions on iOS. The secondary purpose was for testing our upcoming game, Auro.
I want to make super clear that the games I’m talking about are not the games that most people think of as iOS games. Shit like Angry Birds, Temple Run, Cut the Rope and Where’s my Water are all bullshit memorization/execution puzzles that are only marginally above “twiddling one’s thumbs” in terms of their level of interest for an adult mind.
Now, I of course already had an iOS device from my 100 Rogues-testing days: a 2nd generation iPod Touch. This device is actually still super solid, doesn’t have anything wrong with it, and should be fully capable of playing digital boardgames (which have the graphical intensity of a website). Unfortunately, Apple basically screwed me and everyone else who bought that generation, and locked us off from getting some OS updates. This means that fewer and fewer (now approaching zero) new games that are coming out can even be downloaded on this machine.
Now, I’m sure they have some technical justification for what that is, but I’d be extremely surprised if I found it convincing. The truth is that they simply said “okay, it’s time for people whose devices from 2008 still work are FORCED to buy a new device.” It’s an advanced form of planned obsolescence: forced obsolescence. They can basically just shut off updates for any device they want at any time, and then everyone with that category of devices is basically screwed. Great.
Back to the iPad
I realize that I’m not doing a great job of convincing anyone to buy any Apple products so far. Here’s the unfortunate truth, though: if you like games (and by games, I mean contests of ambiguous decisions), there is absolutely no better place to be than the iPad.
I hate touch screens. They’re OK in a turn-based game that doesn’t force you to click on small individual things (in Auro, you’re only ever asked to click on 6 huge direction-based areas or 7 large circular buttons below), but a tiny screen also puts a huge limitation on what kinds of games are possible. Any game with cards with text on them is rough, and any kind of “moving units around a map” type of game is also rough. The iPad solves these issues by having a big screen. It still sucks for real-time games, but in terms of turn based games it’s honestly as easy as using a mouse.
In case anyone wanted to accuse me of basically making a “sunk costs fallacy” – that I’m saying “hey everyone, go buy an iPad because I bought one and now I’m forced to think they’re great”, I hope I’ve quelled that fear. I paid just as much for my 2nd gen iTouch actually (I got my iPad used), and I never really said anything good about it to anyone (in fact, I remember saying that the iTouch is probably the worst product Apple sells, and I still stand by this).
I’m arguing that the iPad is right now sadly the best digital game console in existence (not counting PC). This is a combination of the other consoles being almost totally horrible, and a quickly increasing number of actually good, actually interesting games on the platform. So without further adieu…
I haven’t gotten around to playing every good game on the platform yet, as I just got the thing a few weeks ago, but I am getting to it. Here’s the ones I’ve played and think are fantastic. Most of them are digital versions of boardgames, but not all. I want to stress: none of the below games are dumb puzzles, none are tower defense, none are Farmville clones.
Outwitters – I think this is the best original digital game ever made. It’s not based on a boardgame, but its game design is so good you might think it was. It’s a turn-based tactical wargame, a genre that I know very well, and I can say it’s the best one I’ve ever played. It’s extremely elegant, hex-based, super-visually clear, with a great online matchmaking system. It’s just fantastic, and best of all, it’s free to play. There’s extra content that you totally don’t need and won’t make you more powerful.
Le Havre – Designed by Uwe Rosenberg, slightly better known for Agricola, which is currently Boardgamegeek’s #2 game. I’ve been playing Agricola for awhile, and while I enjoy it, I think it has some serious problems. The two biggest problems are the “drawing fourteen cards at the start of the game with tons of unique text on each of them”, and the multi-player solitaire thing, where you’re not really interacting with each other much. Le Havre, in my view, solves these two problems. A great thing about it is that there are common buildings, and when you buy a building, other players can use that building that you now own and pay you to use it. This creates a really cool little economics game between the players. It’s still extremely complicated and far from elegant, but it makes for a great game to play against bots.
Reiner Knizia’s Tigris & Euphrates – A very interesting tile-laying game with some awesome dynamic mergers of cities that is reminiscent of group mergers late game in Go. Unfortunately the game is limited by a really severly important tile-drawing mechanism (if you don’t get enough red tiles, you’re at a major disadvantage and other players can push you around). Also, it doesn’t make for a great online game, but it’s fun versus bots.
Reiner Knizia’s Samurai – Another tile-laying game from Knizia. I think this one is smoother, but probably a little bit less interesting. Makes for a great introduction-to-real-boardgames game, and is much better to play online than T&E. (Sadly, the best of Knizia’s tile-laying trilogy, Through the Desert, did not make for a wonderful app, so I’m not recommending it, although it does exist).
Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion – Fans of Final Fantasy Tactics need to jump all over this one. It’s got a very interesting Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanism (a bit like Fire Emblem but without the randomness), and a great production. The only problem is it’s campaign based and there’s not any kind of endless/randomized mode. This makes it a lot more “videogamey” than the other games on my list.
Zaga-33 – This is a solid, boiled-down roguelike. You can play it free on PC, I recommend you check it out.
Rune Raiders – Haven’t played another game like this. You’re moving upwards on a long shaft of tiles with a party of D&D-role-ish units that are in formation. Feels puzzley, but it has a randomized mode that’s score based. Very cool, although undercut by some annoying metagame and there’s probably too much content.
Tilt To Live – Another game from the creators of Outwitters. It’s a tilting game. You would be forgiven for being completely in doubt about the possibility of this game being any good, but the fact it it is good. Really good. A super simple game that might look a bit like Geometry Wars but is actually a million times more elegant, interesting and difficult.
Knizia’s Labyrinth – A really unassuming little solitaire game that on first glance seems like it might be dull and flat. Actually, it’s challenging and unique. You have to lay tiles, randomly drawn, in such a way as to get to the other side of a map, while getting as much treasure as possible. It’s difficult and your greed will be your undoing! I recommend the free version, as the content added from getting the full version only make the game more luck-based (this also exists on Android).
Wabash Cannonball – This is a re-implementation of the great train-based boardgame Chicago Express. Out of all the serious train-games I’ve played, this is by far the most elegant. Extremely knife-fightey and strategic, and this is one of the few cases where the digital version is just really superior to the actual boardgame. The reason is that the boardgame is a bit “math”ey, like you have to calculate things frequently, and the digital game does a lot of that for you. Very good AI, too!
SmartGo – Like I said, KGS Go doesn’t exist on iOS. While that is unfortunate, SmartGo is a great way to learn to play. It has a long, in-depth tutorial mode, lots of go problems, and a great AI matchmaking system.
Knizia’s Medici – Medici is about as simple of a bidding game as you could get, but it’s great for what it is. It takes less than five minutes to play a full game, and yet it’s interesting and difficult. No online multiplayer, but the AI is pretty good.
Catan – I’m not crazy about The Settlers of Catan, but I know other people are. And I’ll still play it from time to time, when I’m in the mood to be robbed by dice-rolls (which isn’t often).
Battle at Gundabad – I mentioned that I play a lot of Androminion. Well, before that, I played tons of Battle at Gundabad, which is a Dominion re-skin. Great implementation of a game that, while I think it’s a little weak, certainly has its appeal.
Bohnanza – Actually, I recommend everyone get the boardgame version of this. It’s cheap, and an awesome social party-game that isn’t bullshit. There is an iOS version of it that’s pretty good, but unfortunately a lot of the fun of the game – negotiation – isn’t there against the bots, and there’s no multiplayer.
Neuroshima Hex – a very original tile-laying game with a very original gameplay mechanism. Place pieces facing each other, and eventually all attacks happen at once. Limited by a tile-drawing system and shamefully crappy multiplayer, but I still recommend it.
Drop7 – A pretty neat Tetris/Sudoku-ish piece-dropping game. Original rules, which I appreciate. Somehow, I haven’t found the game terribly compelling, although it’s definitely solid and original, and worth playing.
Reiner Knizia’s Money – Did I mention I like Reiner Knizia? This is a bidding game that’s like one notch more complex than Medici, and also one notch better. You’re collecting sets of money denominations to try to gain the highest score by the end of the game, but you also have to use that same money to bid with during the game. Good multiplayer was just added, so check it out!
Blokus – A different kind of abstract strategy game, where you’re trying to fit as many things that look like Tetris tetronimoes onto the board before the game ends. Very difficult and thought-provoking; much deeper than you might think on first play.
It’s Alive – This is such a good example of the iOS platform being the best place to play games. This is a somewhat mediocre boardgame, and even a somewhat mediocre implementation, and yet it’s more interesting than 99.9% of videogames that you can find on XBox, Wii or PS3. Has a cool bidding system where you can buy things outright for full, start a bid on them to try to get them for cheap, or sell them for half-price. Just enough complexity to keep it surprising.
Small World – A very cool war-game with lots of fun races and fun powers. Limited by a very obvious “game design band-aid” dice roll and not only no online multiplayer at all, but for some reason you can only play 2 players against the bot, which is particularly strange because I think Small World is far better with 3 or 4 players.
Hive – One of the most unique abstract games I’ve played. There’s no board; you’re dynamically creating the board through adding linked tiles together. A neat insect theme which supports the gameplay actions really well. Decent implementation, for some reason there’s 3D graphics though which is only a bad thing.
100 Rogues – Of course, I can’t be trusted, being the guy who designed this game. However, this was my first experience playing the game on iPad, and it is so much better. Everything is better on iPad, but 100 Rogues really needs it, particularly for those moments where you’re trying to click on a specific tile that you want to throw a rock at, or something.
Here’s even more games that I plan on checking out, but haven’t yet:
Puerto Rico – It’s freaking Puerto Rico. It’s like the best game ever made. I have not had a chance to try this iOS version, largely because I play enough digital PR with the free Java version, Tropic Euro on my computer.
Caylus – A Eurogame that everyone seems to love that has no randomness. I haven’t played it yet but I’m pretty sure within the next month or two I’ll be saying it’s one of my favorite games ever.
Tikal – Don’t know much about this except that it’s a beloved boardgame. That’s enough of a reason to check it out!
BattleCon – Looks like a significantly less-random Yomi-ish game. There’s no card drawing, although there is still simultaneous actions (which aren’t random exactly, but are guessing).
Ticket to Ride – There are two versions of this on iOS actually, and I’m hearing conflicting stuff about which version I should check out. However, I own the actual game and have played tons of games of it online (at Daysofwonder.com), so I know what to expect, and I’ll be picking it up eventually. It’s a random, but elegant family game that has a little bit more stabbyness than you might expect.
McGuire – A clone of Acquire, which everyone says is amazing and looks super elegant.
Ra, BattleLine, Skyline, Deck Buster, Keltis Oracle – More Reiner Knizia games, so of course I’m going to check them out.
Tichu, Haggis – These are both partnership trick-taking card game that look a little bit like a slightly more elegant Contract Bridge. Excited to learn them.
And finally, some games that I don’t like, but I expect a lot of other people will like:
Magic 2013 – It’s Magic: The Gathering. A lot of people like it. I’m not one of them (I’ve written before about why CCGs are horribly doomed). Seems like a decent implementation, but it does have these annoying unskippable timers.
Summoner Wars – I think this game is basically awful, but I wish I had found it when I was in high school, because I probably would have loved it back then. It’s basically M:TG but with a grid, and slightly less collectible. I’ll write a full review of this game later on, because I really think it’s bad. The application is fantastic, though.
Knizia’s Ingenious – The one Knizia game I’ve ever played that I didn’t love. I don’t know what it is about this game; it just doesn’t grab me for whatever reason. Certainly not a bad game.
Hero Academy – This is also not a boardgame, but seems inspired by some of them. I personally think that Outwitters has made this game obsolete, but I know many will disagree with me, so I’ve put it here. A neat tactical wargame.
Get an iPad
Okay, so that’s enough for now, but I seriously could go on, for a long time too. Whoops, I forgot Knizia’s Kingdoms. Oh and Zooloretto. Oh and Knizia’s Keltis Oracle. Plus there are another 5 or 10 I haven’t even tried yet, like Food Fight. I’m sure many who read this can list another 20 that I’ve completely missed.
So with that, I have to recommend that you go get an iPad. It’s the best place to play games right now. I don’t think I’ve told another human being to buy a gaming machine (besides PC which is obviously the very best place to play games ever, ever) since the 1990s, so it feels weird to say it. But go pay Apple corporation nearly twice what you should on a tablet.
I should mention that I have an Android phone, and it’s sadly nowhere near iOS in terms of how many great games are on it. I’ll go over a few. There are literally only two games that I’ve found that are great and only available on Android (not on iOS). Those are:
KGS Go – This costs $15, which is a lot of money, but honestly if you like Go, it’s worth it. Instant match-making on KGS, the world’s best online go service, is something you really can’t put a price on.
Androminion – Dominion is a dumb, but extremely fun game. I’ve played probably 1,000 games of this on my Droid, despite myself. Androminion is free, and has all of the expansions.
Other than that, there’s only about a half-dozen other games that are worth owning, all of which are available on iOS as well: stuff like Blokish, Catan, Knizia’s Labyrinth and a few others.
So! In conclusion: if you like games (and by that I mean, contests of ambiguous decisions), go get an iPad. Things are only getting started now – I think we’re entering a whole new era of difficult, interesting, and thought-provoking games.