Through the Ages.

Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization is currently the #2-rated game on Boardgamegeek – a ranking that tends to skew towards longer, more complex games – even higher than the original version, which is ranked #18, so it was perfect fodder for an app version, especially since the game requires a fair amount of accounting work to keep track of all of the resources and options. The app dropped last week for $9.99 for iOS devices and Android, and it is really stunning – great graphics, smooth gameplay, no glitches, and decent AI players – although I have to admit I’m not sure I love the game underneath it.

Through the Ages is essentially Sid Meier’s Civilization in card form, with a few tweaks. Players are competing to build tableaux of cards that represent growing civilizations from the stone age to the present day, playing cards that generate food, stone, knowledge, and happiness; making new workers by growing the population; adding new technologies; developing new military units and growing armies; raiding or declaring war on opponents; constructing Wonders, because every game of this theme has to have that; upgrading their government types; and probably six other things I’ve already forgotten.

On each turn, players get a fixed number of civil actions and military actions that allow them to take cards, grow the population, research technologies, or build buildings. The number of each is tied to the government type, with more advanced governments giving players more actions per turn. Everything in the game is dictated by the cards available on the rolling display; the first few cards cost one civil action to take, then the next group costs two, and the last three, with some penalties for certain card types. You’re really building a giant engine that will produce enough of the different resource types to allow you to rack up points in the end-game without creating unrest or running short of what you need to keep up with your opponents’ armies or feed your workers or lose resources to ‘corruption.’ There are substantial bonuses for finishing Wonders and in the Politics cards that will appear later in the game or at the end.

Through the Ages is incredibly layered, and requires more oversight, active management, and long-term planning than most games I’ve ever played. It has reached the point in some games where I thought, “Maybe I should write down what I’m doing so I remember what to do on my next turn,” which I think is a clear sign that a game has become work. I also had to monitor the AI players’ moves in the game log just to figure out why I was getting so thoroughly trounced (by the medium level, no less), and eventually pieced together a sort of rough strategy that involved getting Knights, Iron, Irrigation, and a couple of key military and science cards; it doesn’t work every time but I did finally beat the S.O.B. by doing that and ensuring I was never at a military strength disadvantage for the entire game.

The biggest bottleneck in the game is the need for an ‘idle worker’ to build or create anything new, whether it’s a building (farms, mines, labs, temples, and later versions of the same) or a military unit. You need a certain amount of food to grow your population, an amount that increases as the game goes on, and then those people need to eat, so you have to keep producing food to grow your population and build more things, or to destroy some of your weakest buildings to put those workers on more productive jobs. (Of course, they don’t actually earn any more for being more productive, as all benefits flow to you, which is one way in which Through the Ages reflects our modern economy.) There are yellow resource cards in the carousel that give you immediate, one-time bonuses of food, stone, or science, but taking one burns an action that you might need for something else.

And those actions are a second major bottleneck. Every player starts the game under Despotism, and can take a unique government card to upgrade to more modern systems that grant more actions – some give more civil actions but fewer military ones, some more military ones but not many more civil ones – and then burn either a whole turn or several rounds’ worth of science points for a “revolution” that changes your government type. You have to do this once to win, I think; I don’t know if doing it twice would pay off. But late in the game you’ll need more than the four civil actions per turn you get from Despotism.

Whereas in Civilization and other 4X (video) games, you can pretty much build whatever you want if you have the resources, Through the Ages dramatically limits your options because it’s card-based. There’s a ton of luck involved in the card draws, because the rolling market turns over quickly, with the leftmost three cards moving after every player if not selected; it’s easy to miss a card you need, especially those with just one or two copies in the deck. (All leader and wonder cards are unique, and you can’t take a wonder card if you have one currently in production.) The political cards aren’t quite a function of luck, but if you end up behind in military strength, your opponents can hammer you every turn, deepening your deficit by robbing you of population, resources, points, or buildings. Players play these cards into a LIFO queue, so playing one into it pushes the oldest one out, and many of those cards really stick it to whoever has the weakest army, more so as the game progresses.

Through the Ages never eliminates anyone, but deficits can grow exponentially, and it can be clear halfway through the game that you’re just not coming back. It also has one of my least favorite game features – players can have actions available without any way of using them. No one likes the frustration of having the right to make a move but not having the ability; some of this is a function of insufficient planning, but you can also just get stuck even if you did the right things earlier.

The app version is extremely well-done, with a tutorial that should be a model for other developers looking to port (or just create) complex boardgames to tablets. (There’s even a clever joke within it.) And the app has built-in reminders to cover numerous situations where you might forget a free action, fail to use all your actions, lose resources to corruption, or lose all production on your next turn due to an Uprising (in essence, if you don’t have enough happiness points to cover your population). There are so many cards with special functions that it’s easy to forget what you can do, and the attempt to render some depth to your civilization means wonders are in the way back, at least one of which, the Ocean Liner, gives you a new benefit each turn, fall out of sight and out of mind.

There's a lot going on here.

I found the light AI to be more of a training module, but the medium AI throttled me repeatedly before my first win. That doesn’t mean the medium AI is good, just better than I am as someone new to the game. It was instructive to watch the AI’s actions, and the game log, available by tapping a button on the upper left, is clear and useful. The game also has an easy undo function that lets you go back as far as your last irreversible move – such as something that involved revealing cards or a battle against an opponent. There’s a lot on the screen, but everything is brightly colored and clear, and once you get the hang of some of the images they’re using – like having a light on in a building to show that it’s occupied by a worker – they’re straightforward.

Through the Ages is above the level of game difficulty I prefer; it’s long and involved, requiring too much thought and planning to make it truly fun for me. I understand why players would love the game’s intellectual challenge and the reward of building something successful, but I prefer games that move a little faster and let me act more spontaneously. If playing a game with a beer in hand would make you demonstrably worse at it, it might not qualify as fun in my book. But if you like Through the Ages, or just generally like intricate games with long cycles, this app is just what you want.

Stick to baseball, 9/16/17.

For Insiders this week, I wrote two pieces, one on eight top 100 prospects who had disappointing years in 2017, and my last minor-league scouting notebook of the season, covering Yankees, Pirates, Nationals, and Cardinals prospects. I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday. My next column for ESPN will be my annual “players I got wrong” piece; if you have suggestions, throw them in the comments. I try to stick to players who’ve beaten expectations for more than just one season, although sometimes I waive that if there’s a particular story I want to tell.

Over at Paste I reviewed Yamataï, the new boardgame from Days of Wonder, which hasn’t fared that well critically or commercially but which all three members of my family really liked. It’s also a gorgeous game, which never hurts around here.

My book, Smart Baseball, is out and still selling well (or so I’m told); thanks to all of you who’ve already picked up a copy. And please sign up for my free email newsletter, which is back to more or less weekly at this point now that I’m not traveling for a bit.

I have a ton of links from the NY Times this week, which requires a subscription above a certain number of free articles. I normally try to spread my links out across many sources, but the NYT had so much great content this week that I stuck with it. I’ve tagged a few of them as such for those of you who don’t subscribe (I do, obviously). And now, the links…

Jaipur app.

Jaipur has long been my go-to recommendation for a pure two-player game, whether it’s as a “couples’ game” or just something light and quick to play with a friend or your kid. The mechanics are simple, the game moves very quickly, yet most turns involve tough decisions around what’s best for you now and setting yourself up for future moves while also avoiding helping your opponent. Asmodee Digital, who have quickly become the top publisher of app version of popular boardgames, released an app version of Jaipurearlier this summer, and it’s excellent across the board, including four levels of AI difficulty that provide me with a real challenge. (It’s possible I’m also just not very good at this game.)

I reviewed the physical version of Jaipur back in 2011, so I’ll just give a quick overview of the game this time around before focusing on the app. In Jaipur, players try to collect sets of cards, depicting six different goods or gems, to exchange for points. You may hold up to seven goods cards in your hand at any time. Trading in cards first nets you more points, as the point values decline for most goods as more of them are redeemed. The three gems – diamonds, gold, and silver – can only be redeemed if you have at least two cards of that type; you can trade in the other three goods with just one card, which can be a strategic move to grab the highest-point token first before your opponent trades in a big set. There are also bonuses for trading in sets of three, four, or five goods of a kind, the last ones ranging 8-10 points and kept secret until the end of the round.

Players acquire cards from a central market of five, which can include goods cards and camel cards; there’s an end-of-round bonus of 5 points for whoever has the most camel cards. On your turn, you can take one goods card from the market, take all camel cards there (not just one), or exchange camel and goods cards for two to five cards from the market. There’s a tactic here of trying to rig the market so your opponent gets a market of five camels and has no choice but to take them all, which will give you five new cards from which to choose on your next turn. A round ends when the deck is exhausted or when all of the tokens in three different types have been redeemed.

The Asmodee app is just about perfect, other than the lack of an undo/confirmation function in case you tap the wrong thing. The original graphics are bright and easy to see on any screen. The actions are easy – everything is a tap, rather than swiping or moving goods from one spot to another. When you tap on a goods card in your hand, the app automatically assumes you want to sell all of those, which is always the correct move, rather than making you tap all such cards. Animations make sense – you can see what your opponent sold, you can see which bonus token your opponent got – and I suppose you could write down what’s happening to track your opponent’s points. The app offers pass and play as well as online modes, the latter requiring an Asmodee Digital account (which you should have if you like playing boardgame apps at all).

The AI comes with four difficulty settings, and even level 3 is reasonably challenging. The AI is clearly keeping track of the cards you take, and also employs the strategy of exhausting the deck faster if it’s winning and the cards are almost gone. It’ll sell one good of a type you’re collecting to try to grab the highest-point token before you do. It’s particularly good at setting up that tactic I mentioned earlier, trying to force your opponent to take all five camel cards from the market, so you have to change your strategy in turn to avoid it. I haven’t even tried level 4 because level 3 is about an even match for me so far, although, again, I may just be really bad at Jaipur.

The app also includes a ‘campaign mode,’ which presents you with a number of variations on the game’s base rules, like changing the hand limit from 7 to 5, or changing goods values so that they don’t decline as more goods of any type are traded/redeemed. You earn rupees for your points in each game in the campaign, and then can spend those to open up new areas on the campaign map, each of which has a new rules tweak or gives you a harder opponent. There’s a light story in here, but it’s really just another way to play the game, forcing you to try some new strategies and changing up the base game if you get tired of playing the AI (or if you’re just better at it than I am).

Friday boardgame and app.

The boardgame Friday is a bit of a unicorn, pun intended, as a truly solo boardgame – there isn’t even a coop mode shoehorned on to it as in some other one-player titles – in a field of games that really play best with three or more. Taking a Robinson Crusoe theme, the game forces you to build your deck in large part by destroying it, working to remove unfavorable cards (but at a cost) so that your deck is strong enough to survive the greater challenges you’ll face at the game’s end. The game is now also available as a fantastic app, one that handles the nuisance of accounting for points and is a perfect experience even on the small screen of a phone, available for iOS devicesand android.

All cards in the Friday deck have two functions, shown at the top of the card and the bottom. The top gives a point total you must match to obtain the card – like a challenge to defeat – by drawing cards from your deck and adding up the values from the bottom. The bottom parts of most cards also include special abilities, like regaining lost life points, destroying a card you’ve already played this turn, doubling the value of a card you’ve already played, or drawing two more cards from the deck. The totals on the top of the card come in three colors, representing three rounds; in each round, the number you have to match with your drawn cards to ‘defeat’ the challenge card increases by a lot, so if you haven’t dispensed with most of the negative-value and 0 cards in your deck by the time you reach the third round, you’re probably screwed. And if you survive that third round, then you have to defeat two pirate ships in the same fashion.

Each card you have to defeat also comes with a fixed number of cards you can draw to try to match its point total. Up to that number, every card you draw is free, but beyond that you must give up one of your “life points” to draw each additional card. The number of points you have at the game’s start varies by difficulty level, with the app giving options from 16 to 20. If you succeed in defeating the card, you get to take it into your deck. If you fail, you get a certain number of points to use in destroying cards you’ve played that turn – usually your negative-value cards first, then the zeroes. The basic deck has mostly cards with -1 values and I think one -2, but higher difficulty levels add cards (with fun titles like “very stupid”) with values of -3 or worse.

You can’t win without making frequent use of the special abilities on the cards in the deck, and learning how to use them and combine them is a big part of the game. The Vision card lets you see the next three in the deck and rearrange them however you’d like, so you can do that and follow with an Equipment card that lets you draw the next two – or one of the destroy cards if you want to ensure your next draw is a card you need to trash. Destroying cards is particularly powerful, but most destroy cards carry 0 point values for the direct approach to meeting a challenge, so you need to strike some balance in deciding which cards to acquire and when. There is a particularly powerful card that lets you use the point value of a challenge card from a lower round than the one you’re in (first-round value in the second, second-round value in the third), but that also carries a 0 value.

The app lacks sufficient undo functions if you tap the wrong thing, but otherwise is an excellent adaptation that takes the annoying accounting aspects of the physical game out of your hands – especially in terms of ensuring that, for example, you’ve used all your potential to destroy cards when you fail to defeat the challenge. I’ve also had some issues with resuming games if I switch out of the app for any reason, but it doesn’t seem to be a consistent problem and I’m not sure what triggers it. I’d still recommend it but would only try to play it when you’ll finish a game (10 minutes or less) in one shot.


Onirim is a solitaire card game app from Asmodee Digital, based on a solo or cooperative card game previously published by Z-Man (now part of Asmodee’s growing empire). It’s simple to learn and very quick to play, but calibrated to be reasonably challenging through several plays, especially with the Glyphs expansion. It’s available for free on iTunes and Android with in-app purchases of expansions for $0.99 apiece.

Onirim is played with a single deck of cards that, in the base game, contains cards of in four different colors with three shapes apiece on those colors (sun, moon, key), as well as eight door cards (two in each of the colors) and ten “nightmare” cards. Your goal is to unlock the eight doors before the deck runs out of cards, working with five cards in your hand at any given time. Every time you play or discard a card, you replenish your hand by drawing from the top of the deck.

You can unlock a door by playing three consecutive cards with the same color but different symbols – sun-moon-sun is fine, but sun-sun-moon is not – or by playing the correct color of key card from your hand when that color door appears from the deck. You can also choose to discard a key card to look at the next five cards in the deck, rearranging any four of them and restoring them to the top of the deck while trashing the remaining card. When the next card you draw to refill your hand is a nightmare card, however, the trouble begins, and you can dispense with it in one of four ways:

* You can discard all remaining cards in your hand.
* You can discard the next five cards from the top of the deck. Nightmare and door cards are ‘recycled’ rather than discarded, but color cards of any shape are gone from the game.
* You can discard a key from your hand.
* You can recycle a door card that you’ve already unlocked.

When you unlock a door, the remainder of the deck is reshuffled, so if you played a key and knew what was coming, well, now you odn’t.

The game is balanced enough that I could win comfortably more than half of the time, but rarely won by much (going by the number of cards remaining in the deck, which is one of the ways the app determines your score). Onirim requires sacrifices; it gives you enough ways to unlock doors that you can plan around the nightmares, but have to make tough choices, often discarding cards you were about to use because a nightmare appeared. There are more sun cards than moon cards, and more moon cards than key cards, so you’ll probably find yourself ditching sun cards to get something better in your hand, or playing a moon card just to ‘reset’ the board, since the last card you played in the preceding triple (to unlock a door) still factors into the rule that you can’t play two consecutive cards of the same shape.

So far I have only tried the Glyphs expansion, which adds a fourth shape, glyphs, to the deck, but also requires you to unlock twelve doors rather than eight. You can use a glyph as you might any other shape card, but you can also discard a glyph card to reveal the next five cards in the deck. If one of them is a door, you can unlock it immediately, regardless of color. All non-door cards then go to the bottom of the deck, which can be good (nightmares!) or bad (that moon card you were waiting for!). Unlike the rules for doors unlocked with keys or card triplets, the deck isn’t reshuffled after you open a door with a glyph. Playing a key card and then a glyph can be powerful if the key shows you a door in the next few cards, but doing so knocks out two cards that might otherwise have been useful in completing sets of three. The expansion makes the game a few minutes longer, but I think it’s better; there are more decisions to make and the challenge of completing that many doors is harder, while recycling an unlocked door becomes a much more reasonable choice than it is in the base game.

There aren’t many good solitaire boardgames out there, and only a few I know – Friday is another, and I’ll review that soon – so Onirim would be an easy recommendation even if it weren’t free for the base game. The screen layout is different on the iPhone vs iPad, but both work – the iPhone makes good use of the space and I preferred having the doors laid out along the topic so they were always in sight. The publisher really could get away with charging a buck or two for this given the amount of time I’ve already spent playing it.

Lanterns: The Harvest Festival.

Harper Collins is running a sweepstakes to win an early copy of Smart Baseball and a 30-minute phone call with me before the season starts – click here to enter with your email address. You can also preorder the book here. It comes out April 25th.

The light, colorful boardgame Lanterns: The Harvest Festival came out in 2015 but somehow never hit my radar until the app version came out at the end of 2016, which sold me on the game quickly with great graphics and a strong tutorial. The game itself has simple mechanics, but a clever twist has you giving your opponent something of value every time you do something to help yourself, a quirk that helps keep scores close till the very end.

Lanterns is a set-collection game at heart. There are seven colors of Lanterns, and players try to collect Lantern cards of each color so they can turn them back in for points – either a set of one of each color (so seven total), three pairs, or four of a kind. To gain these cards, on your turn you place one square lantern tile from your hand of three, with a color on each side. You get a card for the color of the side facing you – and then each of your opponents gets a card for the side facing him/her. If you managed to match any of the four sides with the color of the piece it’s now touching, you get a card of that color too. Usually, you’ll place a tile and get two colors, although a three-card move comes along every now and then.

There are also wildcard “favor” tokens available, which you get with special lantern tiles that have platform symbols in the middle of the four colors. When you get the chance at the start of a turn to exchange Lantern cards for points, you can spend two favor tokens to swap one Lantern card for a card of a different color. The supply of Lantern cards in any color is limited, however, so it’s possible you won’t be able to complete such a swap, or even that you won’t get a card you’ve earned via tile placement – and sometimes you’ll want to avoid trading back a card into the supply if that color is currently exhausted.

The point values of those sets declines over the course of the game as players turn in more sets of each type. The first seven-color set turned in is worth 10 points, the first three-pair set is worth 9 points, and the first four-of-a-kind set is worth 8 points. When a player turns in a set of any type, s/he takes a “dedication token” showing the point value of that set from that type’s stack, and the token underneath might have a value of one point less than the one just taken. (In a two-player game, this is always true, but with more players set values might go down every other token instead.)

Once the supply of square tiles is finished, each player gets one more turn in which to exchange a set of Lantern cards for points; after this, the cards and leftover favor tokens have no value at all. Players just add up the points from their dedication tokens to determine the final scores. Games take maybe 30 minutes, and the only downtime for anyone comes as each player scans the open spaces for possible moves to find the most advantageous one. Cacao is a similar tile-laying game, but those decisions take longer.

The app is stunning – the game’s beautiful artwork looks even better on the iPad screen, with fun animations of the lanterns, and the AI is good, maybe not quite tough enough on the hardest setting, but fine for casual play. I usually beat AI opponents but I’m never routing them, which is a testament to the game’s built-in damper on runaway scoring. The publisher has an Android version as well but I haven’t tried it. I highly recommend the iOS version, though, for solo or pass-and-play use.

Colt Express.

Colt Express won the 2015 Spiel des Jahres prize as the best moderate-level boardgame of the year, beating out Machi Koro (which I think should have won) and something called The Game, which was apparently named by designers who wanted to be sure no one could ever Google their product. Asmodee, the publisher of Colt Express and now owner of the boardgame and app publishing studio Days of Wonder, has just released an app versionof the game, and it’s a solid adaptation with a couple of major frustrations built into it.

Colt Express pits players against each other as bandits in an old-fashioned train robbery, with the twin goals of collecting as much loot as possible while also shooting as many of your opponents as possible; the final scoring rewards the gems and purses you collect, and gives a bonus to the ‘best shooter’ who’s discharged the most bullets. There’s a marshal on the train as well, and if you happen to run into him, you get shot and forced up on top of a train car.

All movement and action takes place via cards that are played to the table at the start of each round, most visible to all players but some hidden when the train passes into a tunnel, but not actually enacted until all cards for that round have been played – it’s a two-phase process, playing all cards, then going through the pile and letting players act on those cards. Cards allow for movement along the train, movement up to the top of a car or back down into one, punching an opponent (which forces him/her to drop one item), picking up an item from the floor, shooting at an opponent, or moving the marshal one car in either direction. If you’ve been shot, you also get a neutral, useless bullet card in your deck, which just reduces the options in your hand for your turn. You can also pass on a turn to draw three more cards from your deck if you’re looking for a specific card. A round can involve as few as two card plays or as many as five; sometimes the order reverses, sometimes you’ll get to play two in a row (very valuable for sneaking up on someone and poking him in the snoot). Some rounds end with a special rule, such as any character on top of the car that contains the marshal draws a neutral bullet card.

The entire strategy of Colt Express involves guessing what your opponents are likely to do and planning out your cards to anticipate those moves and/or give yourself flexibility to react on the fly, once the cards are played but before they’re used. When a player plays a card at the start of the round, that player doesn’t have to specify, say, how far they’re moving or in which direction, or who the target of a shooting or punching card would be, so you need to see what’s played and keep track of the tree of potential decisions from that. The only random aspect of the game is the card draw, but there’s a ton of luck involved in the guesswork – you can plan well and still whiff because another player did something unlikely or unanticipated.

The app version looks great, as all Asmodee and DoW apps have, with strong graphics and bright colors, and it ran smoothly on my iPad Pro. (I just upgraded from a five-year-old iPad 2, which couldn’t run a full game without crashing.) The app allows you to play in Classic mode with any number of the game’s pre-set characters – each of whom has some special ability; I think Cheyenne’s is the best – and has the potential for you to play with some variants, although those aren’t immediately available.

There are two real flaws with the app, one easy to fix, one less so. The app comes with a story mode that includes five short missions for each of the five characters, and completing all five missions for a character unlocks a variant for you to use in the base game, such as having the last car on the train detach at the end of a round. I have never liked this concept in app design, where certain aspects of the game are inaccessible unless you complete something else; Catan made this mistake and it is one of the main reasons I don’t recommend that particular app. If you pay for the product, you should get the whole product up front. I completed the stories for two of the characters, but the missions generally are more like puzzles than full games, because you’re often ignoring what the AI characters are doing; you’re completing one or two tasks, while the AI characters are playing the game normally. Just make the variants available from the start and use Achievements to reward players who complete the stories.

I’ve also found the AI players to be a little dumb, at least in terms of card choices. Obviously, you’re playing a little blind, not knowing what other players will play or do over the course of a round, but there are certain cards that you know you won’t be able to use, or are maybe 5% likely to be able to use – for example, punching another character when there won’t be anyone in your space, or picking up an item from the ground when the ground is empty. The AI players tend to do that a couple of times per game, in total, and there’s no excuse for it; AI players have the advantage of calculating every possible set of moves in a game this limited, and moves that are 5% (or less) likely to work should be discarded.

There’s one technical glitch that could also have been user error (meaning I may have screwed up). When you play a card to shoot or punch another character, you have to select the target, and sometimes you have more than one choice (e.g., you’re in a car with two other characters). Choosing the right target is occasionally tricky when you’ve got several characters bunched up together in a car. Twice I thought I clicked on one target but the game selected the other one, so either 1) it was not clear which selection button attached to which target or 2) I just did it wrong.

The app is $3.99 for iOS devices or $4.99 for Android; I have only played the iOS version. I think the game itself is enjoyable enough for a $4 price, but I think you’d get more out of it if you use the online multiplayer feature instead of facing off against AI opponents.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig app.

The app version of Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a very rich implementation of the game, with a lengthy tutorial and an involved, challenging solo campaign. The physical game is one of the top 100 games on Boardgamegeek, although after playing the app for several hours, I’m starting to think that I love the app more than I like the game itself.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig takes the very common mechanic of “build some stuff, collect some bonus cards, build stuff to max out the cards” that is in more games than I could even count and adds a layer of puzzle-completion on top of that. Players select room tiles from the display to build out the castles on their boards, but space is somewhat limited, and the points you get from placing a room depend on where you place it – specifically to what type of room or rooms you connect the new tile. Completing a room tile, which means connecting it successful through all doors (little spaces) on the tile’s edges, brings a different reward or bonus depending on the room type. There are seven room types plus stairs and hallways – you need stairs to build basement rooms, which can be as ridiculous as the mold room or the bottomless pit – but the biggest bonus comes from completing orange utility rooms, which have just one door (reducing future expansion options) and give you another bonus card for end-game scoring.

Part of my dislike for the game is aesthetic. You are filling out a puzzle without completing it: you will often block doorways, which means you don’t complete those tiles for bonuses, and also means the resulting castle is ungainly. And part is that the sheer variety of tile types, shapes, and sizes (size does matter, here, Donald) means that with just seven tiles on display for purchase at any time, you’re frequently left at the mercy of the market, like in Alhambra, which makes any kind of planning ahead difficult. The best strategies are to leave the maximum number of options open on your board, or to get really lucky.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig screenshot

The app, however, does a great job of implementing this game’s complexity. There are just so many rules to understand here around the different room types, and the app’s very detailed tutorial doesn’t just lay them out, but has you play through a series of mini-games with specific goals to teach you the game’s mechanics. The campaign is pretty difficult – you often have to win against one or more AI opponents and meet two other tough criteria, or to reach three criteria in a solo game – and thus serves as a further teaching tool as well as an enjoyable challenge. I do find some of the text in the rooms hard to read before I zoom in on my old iPad 2, and I wish the pass button were located away from the rotate and cancel buttons, but those are minor, especially the first point, which I assume is less of a problem on better screens. The AI players seem strong enough to me, a novice player, although there’s a certain amount of game-theory stuff (e.g., knowing I’m unlikely to take a certain tile) that no AI player in any app can do.

Returning to the mechanics of the game itself, one aspect that was novel (to me at least) was that in each round, the first player gets to rearrange the five to seven tiles on the market across the seven spaces, each of which has a price from one coin up to fifteen. Other players buy tiles by paying the first player, not the bank. That player then goes last in the purchasing phase, so s/he gets to take in a bunch of coins and can manipulate the market to try to make other players pay more for tiles they want, or to try to rid the market of tiles s/he doesn’t want. I think that would make playing the game in person against multiple opponents a very different experience from playing via an app or playing against a single opponent, because your decision set would include how to maneuver the tiles to best suit you and deal any disadvantages to other players.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig lists for $6.99 on the iTunes app storeand on the amazon Android store. I received a review copy from the publishers, but I’d say I’ve gotten well more than $7 worth of value from it given how many times I’ve played it just working through the solo campaign.

Forbidden Desert app.

The iPad app version of Forbidden Desert is absolutely stellar, one of the best adaptations of any physical boardgame i’ve seen to date, and I can verify that the game is highly addictive – in some ways even more so than the strong app version of Pandemic. Forbidden Desert just could use a little more fine-tuning to help it run more quickly, but the app is stable, the graphics are bright and clear, and the game – which I gave a fairly positive review when it first came out – showed itself to be more difficult than I’d realized after a couple of plays of the physical game.

Forbidden Desert is from Pandemic designer Matt Leacock, and the mechanics are similar to those of Pandemic and Forbidden Island. Two to four players, each with a specific role and power, play team members stranded in a desert that’s represented by a 5×5 grid of 24 tiles plus a central dust storm. On each turn, one player takes four actions, which can include moving to an adjacent tile, flipping a tile over to reveal what’s underneath, or clearing one sand token from atop the tile. You can only flip a tile once there’s no sand on top, and you can’t occupy a tile with more than one sand token on it; if you’re on a tile that ends up with two or more sand tokens on top of it, the tokens are also on top of you and you must clear all but one before you can move. After each player’s turn, the team draws two to six cards representing the progress of the storm, which may move the central storm and add sand tokens, increase the number of cards drawn each turn, or show the sun beating down on players, reducing their water supplies. The goal of the game is to find the four pieces of the escape vehicle and get all players to the launching pad before any of the various loss conditions occurs: one player dies of thirst, the supply of sand tokens is exhausted, or the storm level reaches the end of the track.

The app plays beautifully: Everything is clear, there’s a great undo function (although you can’t undo a tile flip or a storm card), and the app makes it immediately evident what you’re allowed to do. Cooperative apps are easier to develop than competitive ones because you don’t need to create AI opponents; the opponent here is the clock, so to speak, but the developers did hit just about everything else you’d want to see. I did have two minor complaints with the app. First is that some indicators end up covering others temporarily, such as the location of a vehicle piece covering up the indicator that a tile contains a tunnel, in which players can hide from the effects of the sun beating down. The second is that flipping a Storm Picks Up card causes a needless delay to show the board shaking, an effect that players should be allowed to turn off. They’re both pretty minor, really.

Indeed, any issues I have with the app are really issues with the game, like the need for a few more role choices to give more diverse options for replay. The game comes with six, and while I did beat the app without the Water Carrier, the challenge is more reasonable when you’ve got a Water Carrier (who can retrieve more water during the game than other players and can pass water to other players more easily) among your team. Even just adding a role similar to Pandemic’s Generalist, who has no special powers but gets a fifth action each turn, would help boost replay value. I probably played the app 40 times on the normal setting and only beat it four games, way below my typical rate on Pandemic, so I have to think this game is much more challenging than I originally thought.

Two other apps of note: Reiner Knizia’s The Confrontation originally had a Lord of the Rings theme in the physical version but has been rethemed (sort of like The Shinning) for the app version, which treats the two-player game to a hybrid board/videogame treatment. It’s an unbalanced two-player game where the victory conditions differ for the two players, and conflicts between pieces are resolved in a separate screen that adds animations to the battles. I thought it was well-done and the hard AI was appropriately hard but not unbeatable, but I own an iPad 2, which is below their recommended hardware levels, and the app does run too slowly on my device for me to play it often. When I eventually upgrade, I’ll likely play it a lot more, since I think I like the game and generally enjoy Knizia’s products.

Tsuro: The Game of the Path is a very simple boardgame for two to eight players where the goal is to build a path that keeps your token on the board the longest. On each turn, you place one of three tiles in your hand, mostly trying to keep yourself on the board, but also trying to limit your opponents’ options late in the game and occasionally even getting the chance to run an opponent’s token off the board or, most fun, making two opponents smash together, eliminating both at once. It’s a basic game and there is a lot of luck involved as well as a disadvantage for the first player – if everyone manages to stay on the board till the end, the first player to play will be the first eliminated.

Steam: Rails to Riches app.

Steam: Rails to Riches was itself a reimplementation of an earlier game, Age of Steam, both by designer Martin Wallace, the man behind the game Brass … which, like Steam, was also just adapted as a an app for tablets. The Steam: R2R iPad app (no Android version available) had an early bug issue to work out, so I played and reviewed Brass first and tried Steam last week. Like Brass, it’s a solid implementation if you already know the game, but the AI players could use some work and the tutorial isn’t very thorough. Unlike Brass, Steam still has a few glitches to work out, particularly if you change your mind while doing something on the screen.

Steam: Rails to Riches (just “Steam” from here on out) came out in 2009, shortly after the release of the third edition of Age of Steam, cleaning up some flaws in the first game’s mechanics and starting what appears to be a long debate over which version of the game is superior. Since Steam is the one we have in app form and I’ve never played or even seen Age of Steam, I’m going to pretend that debate doesn’t even exist and will focus on the app.

Steam is a train game, but rather than just connecting cities and building routes as in Ticket to Ride, Steam players have to raise funds, lay tracks, and then ship goods along the tracks they’ve laid (and sometimes tracks opponents have laid) to earn either recurring income or one-time victory point bonuses. The base game’s map covers the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, with various cities already placed on the map as stations with cubes representing the different types of goods in five colors.

For each round – the number of turns varies with the number of players – there’s an auction to determine the turn order, which also determines which special ability or benefit each player gets in that round, which can include the ability to turn a town (marked on the board) into a full-fledged station, to add goods to a city on the board, or to increase the player’s locomotive power, which determines how far that player can ship a goods cube. After the bidding ends, each player gets three actions: one to build tracks, and two to ship goods. Each player can use a shipping action to upgrade his/her locomotive power. Each stop on a track – a station or a non-upgraded town – counts as one segment, and a player can only ship a goods cube along a number of segments equal to or less than his locomotive power. The maximum locomotive power is six, so obviously getting to that mark and then shipping as many goods as you can along six-segment paths of your own tracks is the optimal strategy. You can ship a good along another player’s track segment, but that player gets the bonus point or boost to recurring income.

Once upon a time there was an engineer…

Of course, building those perfect routes is difficult with other players chasing the same goal and frequently blocking your path or stealin’ your goods. The AI players in the Steam app are good enough to teach you the game, as they all tend to build delivery loops – tracks that appear to be convoluted but provide 5- and 6-point plays for shipping cubes. (There’s no reward for efficiency here; if anything, inefficient delivery networks are key to racking up points.) But they’re often not aggressive enough in bidding for turn order, and they appear to struggle with creating enough options for big-point deliveries in the final round or two. I went from having never played the game to consistently beating the best AI options in 3- and 4-player matches – only by a few points each time, but never losing, even once in a game where I accidentally borrowed $0 in round 2 (which meant I could do almost nothing that entire round).

That’s the main issue with the app, but not the only one. The tutorial is too simple and probably wouldn’t suffice to teach anyone the game if s/he hasn’t played it before; I didn’t understand the rule around building through undeveloped towns (and how that could be beneficial – it adds a segment to a line between two cities). Turning a track tile to orient it properly is a little more finicky than it should be, and the app itself often “guesses” wrong with its initial orientation after you drag a tile on to the desired space. I also ran into frequent graphics glitches if I started to drag and drop a track hex from the array at the bottom of the screen to the map, but changed my mind and tried to return it – the image would remain in the middle of the screen unless I backed up to the main menu and resumed the game. The app also will let you take the City Growth action even if there are no more cubes to add to cities on the board, which makes it a wasted move. Tightening up the AI players should be the top priority, but I’d like to see these other hiccups addressed before fully recommending the app for solo play.

There’s a new, free, official Dominion app available today for iOS and Android tablets, but the early comments on Boardgamegeek’s post are overwhelmingly negative. It doesn’t seem to work well, and in-app purchases of expansion decks are $15 a pop. I love Dominion, but this sounds like a pass for now.