I’ve been promising this for a while, and kept delaying it to buy and review more apps, but I think we’ve reached a brief lull in major boardgame app releases, so here’s a ranking of the 15 that I’ve tried so far. All but two are iPad compatible – several are iPad-only, in fact – and all are adaptations of existing physical boardgames. Most include multiplayer through GameCenter and I believe I’ve highlighted (and downgraded appropriately) those that don’t.
If I’ve reviewed an app in full, I’ve linked to that review in the game’s name. The link on the price goes to iTunes for you to purchase it (yes, I get a 5% commission if you click through and buy).
One extra bit of awesome from all these games, at least for me, has been playing some of you – not coincidentally, all four of the games where I’ve played readers appear in the top five.
(EDIT, 12/26/11: One app that came out after I produced this ranking that I also recommend is Tigris and Euphrates, which I’d rank fourth, just after Ticket to Ride.)
1. Carcassonne. ($9.99) The best boardgame implementation on iOS happens to be of one of the best boardgames, period, although its ranking here is based more on how incredible the app is. The graphics are superb, the toughest AI players are very good, the easy AI players are still enough of a challenge for rookies, and the game offers networked play that works easily and smoothly. It’s the most expensive app on this list ($9.99 for a universal app) but absolutely worth the cost.
2. Samurai. ($4.99) Seven of the ten apps on this list are adaptations of Reiner Knizia games, led by this one. It’s classic Knizia – a simple concept leads to complex game play: Players compete to control specific hexes on the board, with special pieces that allow players to steal hexes at the last second. The AI player is also very good and despite the small board the game is very playable on an iPod Touch.
3. Ticket to Ride. ($6.99) Days of Wonder, the publisher of Ticket to Ride and Small World, put a tremendous amount of work into their apps, which are clean, bright, and robust. Ticket to Ride falls short of the two above here because the AI players are so weak, but DoW linked GameCenter multiplayer to their own thriving online multiplayer community, so finding games is easy at all hours of the day. They currently offer three in-app expansions as well, of which I’ve purchased one, the essential 1910 expansion.
4. Battle Line. ($2.99) A two-player card game from Knizia where players compete to capture five of nine flags (or three adjacent flags) laid out in a line between them, using poker-line hands of three cards at each flag. It’s simple and quick, made better by the use of tactics cards (you have the option to play without them, but you should use them). The AI player could be a little stronger, but the randomness of the cards tends to flatten out the game to make the AI more competitive. Note: The linked review was before a major software update that all but eliminated crashing, added GameCenter multiplayer, and added much sharper graphics.
5. Puerto Rico. ($7.99) A good implementation of a complex (and very, very good) boardgame, with competent AIs and functional multiplayer, including a two-player variant that makes it a little easier to get a game going. The screen is fairly busy and I imagine the app would be confusing to someone who’s never tried the boardgame, so the in-game tutorials are a must. You can beat the AIs pretty regularly with a shipping strategy (corn/harbor or corn/wharf), but if you eschew that you get a tougher challenge.
7. Small World. ($6.99) Another Days of Wonder app, without multiplayer but with a somewhat better (but not great) AI player. The app only plays two players (the physical game plays two to five), but with a clever tabletop mode that allows the players to sit across from each other without having to move or rotate the iPad. Graphics are superb, although an “undo” option would be nice considering how easy it is to drop a token in the wrong spot. A multiplayer option would bump it up the list, but if you’re looking for a really slick two-player game you can play with someone who’s sitting next to you, this is a great option.
8. Through the Desert. ($1.99) I really like the underlying game and the graphics on this app are strong, but it doesn’t play that well on the iPod and the glitch where you can’t see the bottom of the screen in four-player mode on small devices still isn’t resolved. The AIs improved noticeably after the last update. It’s another board-control game with lots of opportunities to sabotage other players, if that’s how you roll, and at $1.99 for the iPad version it might be the best value on this list.
9. Tikal. ($3.99) After a recent update this moved up out of the cellar, and while it’s available for all devices the small graphics play much better on the iPad. It’s a solid strategy game with aggressive AIs that play fairly predictably despite multiple difficulty settings; GameCenter integration was a big boost.
10. Wabash Cannonball. ($1.99) A no-luck, auction-driven, train game where players compete for shares in railroads that they then develop across the map from the eastern seaboard to Chicago. This app, adapted from the boardgame Chicago Express, gets the award for the cleanest presentation of in-game information, of which there’s a lot. However, the app is designed for iPhone/iPod screens, not for iPad, and really needs online multiplayer. Give me those two things and I’ll rank it higher.
12. Zooloretto. ($3.99) One of the best-looking games on here, with fun sound effects and an unlockable (free) in-game expansion … but the lack of networked play is a real handicap. It looks to me like the developers have walked away from this one, which is a shame since it functions properly and looks so good; better AIs or networked play would help. I did discover a strange bug as well, where the in-game expansion somehow relocked itself after I didn’t use the app for a few months.
13. Catan. ($4.99) The AIs improved with the Seafarers expansion, but they’re still not very tough. It’s a good introduction to Settlers of Catan if you’ve never played the physical game and want to try it out before investing, but once I had defeated the AIs in every level I didn’t feel the need to go back to the game. The first major update improved the graphics, but the AIs still aren’t great, although it added multiplayer through GameCenter.
14. Kingsburg: Serving the Crown. ($4.99) This app looks great, runs smoothly, includes what I think are competent AIs, offers GameCenter multiplayer, and takes absolutely forever to play. I’ve never played the physical version, which probably doesn’t help matters, but one of the things I look for in a good boardgaming app is the potential to bang out a quick game, whether solitaire or online. The game is currently iPhone/iPod only, although an iPad port has been promised as “coming soon” for several months.
15. Ra. ($3.99) I’ve never reviewed this game here, mostly because I didn’t care much for it. It’s another Knizia game, with an auction component but way too many moving parts and an AI that I beat the first time out despite not knowing what I was doing. Medici takes a similar concept and executes it better.