There’s been a small explosion in adaptations of quality boardgames to the iOS platform since the last time I wrote up this ranking in September of 2011, enough that I could double the size of the rankings and still dump a few titles that no longer belonged. For these rankings I consider both the quality of the underlying game and the strength of the app, including graphics, stability, tutorials, online multiplayer mode, and quality of AI opponents.
Linked app titles go to my reviews here on the dish; linked prices go directly to iTunes for you to purchase the apps (and yes, I get a tiny commission on those sales). I’ve taken out some apps that appear to be abandoned or broken or that don’t work for iPad. None of those was really worth the money anyway.
1. Carcassonne. ($9.99) Still best of breed, featuring great graphics, a range of AI opponents (including good “hard” opponents, and “evil” ones too), online multiplayer, and three of the game’s real-world expansions available as in-app purchases.
2. Samurai. ($4.99) The best port of a Reiner Knizia game, which says something since you’re going to see his name quite a bit on this list. The AI players are very tough and there’s a thriving community of online players that has been active for years.
3. Agricola. ($6.99) The best example of an app where the developers chose to rethink the game for the tablet platform, taking advantage of the format to make a good but complex game work better on the iPad than it does on the tabletop. Two additional card decks just became available as IAPs, and the only complaint I’ve heard is that the toughest AI opponents aren’t tough enough – but they’re not easy unless you’re already a solid Agricola player.
4. Ticket to Ride. ($6.99) Days of Wonder has done its app development in-house, which doesn’t always work for publishers, but in DoW’s case it’s been a boon for players, as their apps look great, work extremely well, and are actively supported with in-app purchases (IAPs) and expansions, including Europe, Switzerland, Asia, and the 1910 card set. The family of Ticket to Ride games also Pocket versions of the US ($1.99) and Europe (also $1.99) games for the iPhone/iPod Touch. There’s a big online player base as well, and this is our favorite game for pass-and-play with my daughter, who also likes Carcassonne and Battle Line.
5. Caylus. ($4.99) Like Agricola, Caylus fares better on the iPad than it does on the tabletop, and the Caylus app would still get my award for the best graphics – their use of bright colors and clear icons makes it much easier to stare at the screen for the ten minutes or so it takes to play this complex strategy game. The AI opponents could be a little stronger.
6. Tigris and Euphrates. ($4.99) Always a favorite of mine, this adaptation of a Knizia classic improved substantially with a graphics update about two years ago, and works well with online multiplayer or with local AI opponents (they’re good, but could also be tougher).
7. Stone Age. ($6.99) One of the best family strategy games on the market came a little later to the iOS platform, but the developers did a great job of reimagining the game, which relies on a big board with a lot of elements, for the small screen, coming first to the iPhone and maintaining the same format for the iPad. The AI players are solid and there’s a large online community, including an organized league with rankings.
8. Small World. ($9.99) Days of Wonder boosted this last summer with the 2.0 update, which included online multiplayer and support for 3-5 players. It’s gorgeous and one of the best apps for two players to play face to face with the iPad between them.
9. Pandemic. ($6.99) The challenge in making a cooperative game for iOS is lower than that of any other game, since coop apps don’t need AI players and online multiplayer is not a critical feature. That aside, the Pandemic app is superb across the board – the graphics are great, gameplay is easy to follow, and it’s easy to customize the game however you’d like, just as you would with the physical version. The On the Brink expansion is now available as an IAP if you want to raise the stakes a little.
10. Battle Line. ($2.99) One of the best two-player games out there, Battle Line’s app has a simple, clean implementation, with basic and full modes (basic doesn’t use the ten event cards) and good enough AI opponents to keep the game interesting. I’ve noticed some minor bugginess here, especially on older iOS devices. It’s one of the best games for the smaller screens, since most of the top 7 either require an iPad or just play better on one. This is also a Reiner Knizia game.
11. Puerto Rico. ($4.99)Much, much improved after an update a few months ago to step up the graphics – it’s easier to follow what’s going on (not perfect, but better) and the screen isn’t as tough on the eyes now. The AI players are some of the best I’ve come across, as Puerto Rico has one very strong strategy (produce and ship) and the AI players will try it. I don’t like the representation of buildings by shapes on each island, without labels, so it’s hard to know at a glance who has built what.
12. Ingenious. ($2.99) Yet another Knizia game, this abstract two-player game is a natural for iOS because the scoring is a little tricky – and I think abstract games, which are often heavily math-based, translate very well to app versions with AI opponents. (All of Knizia’s games are math-based at heart anyway.) The app can be frustrating in a fun way, because the hard AI opponent is very good and because you need to look or think a few moves ahead to avoid getting trapped. The $1.99 iPhone version is a separate app.
13. Through the Desert. ($2.99) Oh, hey, more Knizia, this one a territory-claiming game where players compete to cordon off sections of the board and to reach specific landmarks. The AI players are fair, and it’s a little tough to play on the smaller screen because the board is shrunk to a level that even good eyes may have a hard time seeing (and even little fingers may have a hard time pressing accurately).
14. Le Havre. ($4.99) Like Caylus and Agricola, Le Havre is so complex that moving it to iOS makes it easier to play because you lose all the setup and cleanup time involved with playing the physical game. This implementation is very faithful to the board game, with pretty good AI players – they’ll make good use of the special point-accumulating buildings available late in the game – but there’s so much information crammed on the screen that it becomes hard to find what you need, and some players may find the smaller text hard to read even on the iPad, let alone on the iPhone.
15. Hey, That’s My Fish! ($2.99) The one game on this list that’s more aimed at kids than at adults, Hey, That’s My Fish! is one of my daughter’s favorite apps and also one of her favorites to play with me, even though she’s had it for about two years. The board is bright and colorful, and the penguins (your tokens) look great, with some animation twists that make the game more fun to play (such as when a penguin falls into the sea). Completing achievements unlocks a number of different boards, but since about half of those achievements are simple I’m not as bothered by the requirement.
16. San Juan. ($4.99) The card-game version of Puerto Rico got a better app treatment right out of the chute than the master game did, and still looks really good, with strong AI opponents and clear graphics and text, even on the iPhone.
17. Lost Cities. ($3.99) More Knizia, and another two-player game, this one a very simple card-collecting/arranging game that looks great on smaller devices with big, bright graphics, since it was designed specifically for the iPhone 5. The AI players aren’t very good, but I’ve played this a number of times online and gameplay through GameCenter is as smooth as it gets.
18. Scotland Yard. ($4.99) An old-school title gets the app treatment, benefiting from the translation because of how intricate the board is (unless you’re intimately familiar with streets and bus routes in London). The developers even accounted for the fact that, in pass-and-play mode, one player’s actions have to be hidden from the others. The soundtrack is a nice touch. The AI could be a lot stronger, however.
19. Rebuild. ($2.99) I’m bending my own rules here, as Rebuild is the one title on the list that isn’t based on an actual board game. It’s a solo title, but it’s a board game from start to finish, just one that takes advantage of what you can do on a tablet (or computer) that you can’t do, or can’t do as easily, on a tabletop. Build up your community to recapture City Hall before the zombie hordes take you out, but don’t let that fundamentalist group get too powerful.
20. Settlers of Catan. ($4.99) Just called “Catan” in the App Store, this adaptation has always disappointed me in several ways. The underlying game is the same as the classic that spawned the boom in better (German-style) boardgames, such as the Cones of Dunshire. The app is very limited, however – the AI players aren’t good, trading is very awkward, the graphics are bright but too ornate, and all you get is the very basic board. Everything else is an IAP, including Seafarers and Cities & Knights ($4.99 each), which also unlocks some campaign scenarios. The $4.99 iPhone version is a separate app.
21. Elder Sign. ($6.99) A cooperative title based in the Cthulu universe, this app would rate higher if you got the full game. Instead, you get the game without the end battle against the big foozle (if you don’t defeat him before that, in the app you just lose), and you only get four opponents, with each additional one costing another $2.99. A few other rules are cut out as well. It does look slick and it helped us understand a few of the rules in the physical game we didn’t grasp the first time.
22. Qin. ($4.99) This Knizia title came out in 2012 as a board game and as an app, the first simultaneous release by a major designer that I’d heard about. It’s an abstract tile-laying game where players try to claim control of several landmarks on the board while also building up their tile chains so they can’t be taken over by other players. I’ve seen it described as Acquire meets Tigris & Euphrates, which is pretty apt, but I think both of those are better games than Qin.
23. Hacienda. ($0.99) A solid implementation of a good-not-great tile-laying, territory-claiming game. I wish the maps were a little clearer – sometimes adapting the precise graphics of the board game works to the app’s disadvantage – and the AI players were easy to beat after a few plays. Through the Desert does the same kind of thing, but better.
24. The Battle for Hill 218. ($2.99) A simple-to-learn, hard-to-win two-player card game where you are fighting to take over your opponent’s home space on his side of the titular Hill. The game is currently out of print, so pick up the app while you wait for it to come back around, and, if you’re like me, prepare to get your clock cleaned.
25. Medici. ($1.99) Another Knizia game, one I’m probably a little light on because the mechanics didn’t grab me – you bid against other players for shipments of goods coming into a Renaissance Italian port, and try to get the most of certain good types to rack up points, with bonuses available for having the most valuable ship in each shipping round and for shipping certain numbers of goods over the course of each game. It’s a good implementation; I just don’t think the game is that exciting.
26. Lords of Waterdeep. ($6.99) A D&D-themed game where the theme seemed patched on to a poor adaptation of the physical version. The board is overdesigned for the iPad – in thise case, I think it’s just the physical game itself, with no adjustments – and it doesn’t do the resource-constraint mechanic as well as Agricola or Caylus. A UI overhaul would go a long way.
27. Suburbia. ($4.99) Great UI, bright graphics, awful AI players, and bugs. It just came out on December 12th, 2013, so I’ll give them some time to improve the app. I haven’t used the save game feature without a crash yet, either.
28. Tikal. ($2.99) Much better in an app than in a physical game – it’s the only game I’ve bought and later sold – and even in app form it can take a while because each player gets 10 action points per turn. A software upgrade about two or three years ago made this much more stable and easier to play.
29. Ra. ($2.99) The last Knizia app on the list, this is another auction-based game that never grabbed me, but remains a favorite over at boardgamegeek. The app looks clean and easy to use but the tutorial (when I first tried it in 2010) was terrible.
30. Dominant Species. ($4.99) I just reviewed this last week and was not impressed. The underlying game might be great, but it’s very complex and the app’s UI is terrible, as is the tutorial. The AI players are also kind of dumb; I shouldn’t be beating them by wide margins when I don’t even understand all of the rules. I recommend this only if you want to try the game out before spending $60-plus on the physical version.