My wife bought me an iPod Touch 4G for Christmas – we exchanged gifts early because we’re visiting family for the actual holiday – and, as you might imagine, the first thing I did was load it up with board game apps. I’ve already mentioned the incredible adaptation of Carcassonne (my #2-ranked board game), which I purchased for my wife when she got her own iPod Touch a month ago, but they’ve tweaked the app since then and now offer a higher-resolution version compatible with the iPad as well. If you’re a fan of the original board game, or if you’re interested in all these games I discuss but haven’t had a chance to try any, this is an outstanding app to buy.
Carcassonne itself is a tile-laying game with no actual board; players build the board tile by tile as the game progresses. Players take tiles one by one and place them, with no stored tiles in anyone’s hand. Each tile contains some combination of road, city, and farmland, and the player must place it adjacent to one or more existing tiles while ensuring that any shared edges line up – if the new tile has a road on one edge, it can only be placed next to a tile with a road on the shared edge. Players earn points by placing “meeples” on cities, roads, and farms; city points are doubled when the city is closed (that is, the city walls are complete), while farms only earn points based on how many closed cities they abut. The catch is that you must have the most meeples on any city, road, or farm to earn points for it. The majority of the time that won’t be a problem, but a player can force a merger of two or more structures to try to take over the points that another player might have earned from it.
The iOS implementation is phenomenal. The graphics are dead-ringers for the board game, but also bright and clear for easy reading on the small iPod Touch screen. Placing tiles is intuitive – slide into place, tap to rotate, click and hold to relocate. Any legal placement for the tile is shaded so you can survey your options much more quickly. Once you’re happy with where you’ve placed the tile, click on the meeple in box on the right, after which you’ll have the option to place the meeple in any legal spot on that tile. Areas on the board that can’t be filled by any remaining tile are covered with a large X. Most impressive is the easy screening – the zoom level will change automatically as the board expands, and you can modify it manually if you want to see more or less of the board.
The app comes with nine different AI players – two each at easy, hard, evil, and “weird” levels, plus a simple AI I haven’t tried. There are even local ELO scores, so you can watch yours increase if you beat either of the hard AIs. The easy players are not awful or stupid and won’t make moves obviously against their own interest, but aren’t quite as aggressive about trying to horn in on cities and farms you’ve already created. I’ve found the hard players to be an ideal challenge – beatable, but only with effort, which is all you can ask from what is essentially a spreadsheet and a decision tree. And the game’s mechanics, with tiles appearing in random order, mean that playing the same AI doesn’t get old as quickly as it might in other games.
The app also includes multi-player capabilities, both locally and over the Internet, as well as a solitaire version I haven’t tried. The only thing it’s missing right now is the ability to play with any of the board game’s numerous expansions, but the developers have said for some time now that they intended to work on adding those as in-game purchase options once this month’s major update (including iPad compatibility) was released. I imagine the AIs will require some tweaking for certain expansions that alter or enhance the point-scoring rules, but either way look for the game to continue to improve over the coming months.
I’ll review some more apps over the next week, but the next one will be a Reiner Knizia game, Samurai, that has proven similarly addictive and is faster to play than Carcassonne. And apparently my colleague Jorge Arangure is just as hooked.