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Boardgames on the Go: ESPN's Keith Law on Boardgame Apps

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Boardgames on the Go: ESPN's Keith Law on Boardgame Apps

In this month’s installment of The Leaderboard, boardgame fan and ESPN senior baseball writer Keith Law explains what makes a good boardgame app for tablets.

I’m a huge fan of the smarter, more challenging boardgames generally called German-style games or Eurogames, of which the best-known is probably Settlers of Catan (immortalized in a Parks & Recreation episode). Settlers shifted the paradigm in mainstream boardgaming, opening the door for other, similarly sophisticated games to find commercial success here in the United States. The next paradigm shift might be an even bigger one, however—the transition of many boardgames to mobile devices, especially the iPad.

I was already an avid player of German-style boardgames before I owned any iOS devices, but when I joined the Apple cult by buying an iPod Touch, the first app I purchased was Carcassonne, then and now the best of the breed of boardgame apps thanks to its clean, bright graphics and strong AI players. Since then, I’ve gotten an iPad (for work purposes, of course), and I’ve bought every significant boardgame app I’ve come across, at least 20 to date. What was originally, for me, a way to bring games I enjoyed playing at home with my wife or with friends out with me when I wasn’t at home morphed into a way to try new games without having to make the $40-plus investment required to purchase their physical adaptations.

Take, for instance, Agricola, one of the highest-rated games on the site BoardgameGeek. It’s a complex strategy game where players act as farmers and must balance the need to grow their farms (acquiring more points) against the need to feed their families at the end of each round. The game involves many decisions and even more options, so a game can easily take up to two hours to play. And it costs nearly $50 to purchase new. If you’re interested in a game like this, you could lay out that cash, but you’d still have to find a few friends willing to try the game out with you, after which you’ll inevitably play it wrong because the rules are long and, really, who wants to read all that when there’s a game sitting in front of you?

With the iOS version of Agricola, however, you can drop $6.99, learn the game against competent AI opponents, avoid rules errors, and see if you like the game enough to purchase it and play it with friends. Or if, like me, you’ve got a wife who likes boardgames but happens to dislike Agricola—she says it feels too much like work—you’ve got the option to play it online as well.

I’ve used app versions of boardgames for several reasons beyond just my interest in playing games. One is exploring new titles, as with Agricola, Caylus (another complex strategy game given a gorgeous treatment on the iPad), or Through the Desert, a game by the prolific designer Reiner Knizia, and one which I picked up in physical form after playing it on my iPod for a few months. Another is to try to learn to play games correctly, or just more successfully; games with lots of rules, or poorly written rulebooks, seem a lot easier when the AI player has kicked your ass a few times, and you can also start to toy with new strategies without a massive time investment. And the third reason is that you can’t just bust out the Carcassonne bag between innings at the ballpark, but you might get in a half a game on your iPod between the third out and the end of the commercial break.

Given the rising popularity of these smarter games, it’s a little bit of a surprise that it’s taken years to get most of the best-reviewed titles on the iOS platform, with some games receiving poor implementations and weak support. That’s not true of Days of Wonder, the boardgame publisher behind the enormously successful Ticket to Ride franchise, which you can even buy in Target and Barnes & Noble. Days of Wonder is unusual in the business in that they develop their app versions in-house, and have been very aggressive in moving their two best-selling physical titles online. Small World, their second most popular franchise, was available the day the first iPad launched, and just received a makeover in September that expanded the initial app in several ways. Ticket to Ride was available for free on Days’ web site, but the company took more time to develop that app, knowing that there was likely to be a large online community waiting to play it; it’s been so successful on iOS devices that they recently released an Android version as well.

I asked Mark Kaufmann, VP of Sales & Marketing for Days of Wonder, what effect app releases seemed to have on sales of physical games. He said that they “see a tight connection” because they’re handling app development themselves. “Post-release of our iPad versions, we’ve seen jumps of 35-40% in our physical game sales,” usually after 4-6 weeks, according to Kaufmann. “We saw a built-in base of people chomping at the bit to buy the iPad versions.” Those initial sales bursts pushed the apps to the tops of Apple’s best-seller lists, which put the titles in front of new audiences who’d purchase the app and then come back to the physical games.

My favorite boardgame app for iOS remains that first one I purchased, Carcassonne, as it took an outstanding game—boasting simple mechanics that can lead to complex play—and gave it a best-of-breed implementation that remains the standard for other boardgame conversions. Carcassonne’s best attribute is its strong AI players, including both hard options and an “evil” option if you want to play against a computer opponent who just wants to screw with you, and it works extremely well in online play against human opponents. Samurai, another Reiner Knizia game, also checks those boxes, a great game in physical form that received a stellar treatment on iOS.

And that’s the key to great boardgame apps on iOS: If the game itself is good, it has a chance of being good on a tablet or a phone. You can’t save a mediocre game with flashy graphics or elegant play on an iPad; the game itself has to be good. When that’s in place, then we can talk about AI opponents or clear tutorials, but the best boardgames on mobile devices are, and will always be, the best boardgames, period.

Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog/.

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