7 Wonders app.

7 Wonders has been one of my top 2 all-time boardgames since I first played the tabletop version back in 2011 (here’s my original review), and after a bit of a layoff – which happens given all the new games I need to try for Paste and Vulture – I got back into it this summer and found it hasn’t lost a thing for me. It’s just a brilliantly designed, fast-playing game that rewards long-term thinking, has a lot of interaction among players, and leaves players with very little downtime. All that was missing was an app version of the game, which had been promised at least as far back as early 2015 but seemed stuck in perpetual beta.

Well, I have good news: The 7 Wonders app is here, for iPads at least, with an Android version due next month, and it is great – if you already know the game, at least. The AI players are solid, the app itself is easy and intuitive to use, and there’s a lot of info crammed on the screen. I have some questions about whether this would be so intuitive to someone who’s never played the game, given what isn’t shown on the screen, and feel like there is room for some added features before the developers deliver the promised Leaders and Cities expansions.

7 Wonders is a card-drafting game with set collection elements, working much more quickly than most card collecting games do. There are three rounds, and in each round, players will get to buy (or just take) six cards to place on their tableaux. The unique mechanic of 7 Wonders is that you start each round with a hand of seven cards, choose one to play, and then pass the remainder of your hand to an adjacent player. Once you’ve played a few times, you know what cards are in each age, but you can never know what cards will be available to you in a specific game. In a game with six or seven players, the cards you pass will never come back to you; in a game with fewer, you’ll at least get something back from your original hand, but you can’t predict what it’ll be.

The cards themselves typically cost resources to acquire, but unlike many resource collection games, 7 Wonders doesn’t come with bags upon bags of little wood and stone tokens. Instead, you get resources every round from cards you’ve played that produce those, and you can buy resources from your two neighbors for 2 coins per unit – if the neighbors actually produce them. Many cards also give you the right to play specific cards for free in later ages, which can be a very powerful way to rack up points without producing a ton of resources yourself.

There are multiple avenues for scoring points, and while there’s a lot of debate over an ideal strategy, I find they’re all fairly balanced, and often the best strategy is just the one that no one else is pursuing. You can gain military points if you have more military symbols than each of your neighbors at the end of each age. You can rack up science points by acquiring green cards with three different symbols in sets. Blue cards simply give victory points. You can also discard cards to build stages of your Wonder, usually three different stages, each of which confers some benefit in resources, points, gold, or sometimes extra actions. And the purple guild cards in the third age can lead to huge bonuses.

The app version of 7 Wonders looks fantastic, and the developers have managed to get all the relevant info for you on to one screen, with most of the real estate occupied by your tableau and your hand, and with two smaller sections on the left and right sides to show what your neighbors have. Because card play is simultaneous, when you drag a card from your hand (bottom of the screen) to your tableau, your opponents’ moves happen at the same time, and you’re immediately given your new hand of cards.

Each card in your hand will be outlined in green, yellow, or red, with an indication in the lower left of the cost to play it. Green-outlined cards are either free to play or are already covered by resources you produce or cards you have. A check mark in the lower left says you’ve covered the cost; a chain link symbol means you have a card that gives you this one for free. Yellow outlines indicate you’ll have to pay at least one coin to buy resources from neighbors to play the card. Cards you can’t play are outlined in red, and if you try to play them anyway, you’ll get a Not Enough Resources message. You can click and hold any card to see a text explanation of its effects, including cards your neighbors have played. You can also see your neighbors’ current military strength, money, and wonders (including whether they’re completed) at all times.

The app moves fast – I can rip through a game against AI players in about five minutes – which might be confusing to new players. There isn’t a speed setting, although you can turn on an option to require move validation, which would at least make it feel slower. It would be incredibly useful if you could click and hold a card to play and see what its point or gold value would be at that moment, even though it could change later in the age or the game. The game-end scoring screen shows you how many points each player got from each scoring method, but switching back to the game at that point shows you the cards without further explaining the scoring breakdown, which I think would also be useful for new players.

I found the AI players to be sufficiently challenging, and surprisingly agile – they clearly respond to what you’re doing on the military side, which requires you to react in turn – but after a handful of plays over the last 24 hours, I’m finding my winning percentage approaching 50% already. I have won with military, with blue bonus cards, and with racking up guild points, but have yet to win with science – although once I lost to an AI player with 48 science points, which I think is a good sign I just wasn’t paying attention. (If you’re curious, that’s three cards with one science symbol, three cards with another symbol, the wild-card scientists’ guild, and two cards with the third science symbol.)

The app has online play and what appeared, on day one, to be an active lobby of players, although today on day two I haven’t been able to connect via the app. You need at least 3 players, on or offline; the 2-player variant isn’t included here, although I’ve never loved that rules tweak anyway. It is not available for smaller screens like iPhones, and while I’m sure that’s disappointing to a lot of users, I can understand why given how much information is required and how busy the screen gets by Age III even on the iPad. I’m completely hooked at the moment, and unless/until I start killing the AI players regularly this is going to be one of my go-to boardgame apps. I’ll update this post when the Android version is out, but if you have an iPad, go get this app.

Eight Minute Empire.

Eight-Minute Empire is pretty much what it sounds like – a Civilization-style 4X boardgame that plays in just a few minutes, promising 8 to 20 minute playing times on the box depending on the number of players (from two to five). The tabletop version came out in 2012, followed by a standalone sequel game, Eight-Minute Empire: Legends, that doubles the playing time by adding another layer of rules, which sounds to me like it might defeat the original’s purpose. I missed the physical games, but did pick up the new app version of the original Eight-Minute Empire, which is out for iOS phones and tablets and Android devices for just under $5, and it’s pretty fantastic. The tutorial is great, the app has some in-game tips for newbies (which you can later turn off), and you can rip through a whole game against 3 or 4 AI players in just a few minutes.

Eight-Minute Empire starts with all players on the same region on a map of multiple continents, with each player getting three military units on that space. On a turn, each player will choose one of six available action cards, which cost from 0 to 3 coins to purchase, and which determine the player’s action on that turn: Recruit new troops, move troops on land, move troops on land or via sea, build a city, destroy one troop anywhere on the board. Different cards allow different numbers of troop movements or additions. Building a city gives you the ability to recruit troops to that city as well as to the start region. Each card also has a symbol of one of the game’s six trade goods on it; collecting more of one type can gain you 1, 2, 3, or 6 points, depending on how many cards with that symbol you acquire.

The game lasts seven to ten turns, depending on the number of players, and while the app shows scoring in-progress, there’s no intermediate scoring – the game is only scored at the end. You gain one point for each region you control (more troops than any other player, with a city counting as +1 troop); one for each continent you control (whoever controls the most regions); and various points for the goods you’ve collected. Some cards have wild-card goods tokens, and the app will automatically place those wherever they’ll gain you the most points. If two players tie, which happens fairly often in my experience with the app, the winner is the player with the most coins remaining.

Eight-Minute Empire distills most of the best parts of map/exploration games to keep it simple for players. Everyone starts with the same number of coins, and you can’t get any more during the game. Turn order starts with open bidding; you can bid one or two coins to get to set the turn order, and there’s an advantage to going later rather than going first because you get to make troop movements after other players are done, thus ‘stealing’ another region or even a continent. Conflict is limited to the handful of cards that let you destroy a troop, which the AI players will use if you have one unit alone on a continent (which gives you control of that region and the continent, so beware). There are no actual battles in Eight-Minute Empire, no trading, no theft. You thus focus on where to put your units, where other players might choose to move theirs, and taking the action cards that will help you with units and/or goods while also potentially taking cards that might help your opponents.

The app comes with three levels of AI players, and I’d say the hard AI players are quite capable, strong enough that I needed many plays to beat them and still don’t do it consistently. (The randomness of card draws helps smooth gameplay out too.) It also offers clearer iconography than the printed version of the game, and the only drawback I see in the presentation is that with over 3 players you can’t see everyone’s points/goods status at once. The base game has two maps, the original (pictured) and a “sister continents” map, with several other maps available for $1.99 each or in a pack for $4.99; there’s also an IAP for the Mountains expansion, which was a free print-and-play addition to the base game, available for $1.99. I’m enjoying the two base game maps so far but I have a feeling I’ll eventually spring for others just to add some variety – the configuration of continents alters game play in a significant way, since the cards that allow movement by sea are rarer than those that only allow movement on land. Eight Minute Empire also plays very well on the smaller screen of my iPhone, which makes it a great little time-waster when I’m stuck somewhere without a book. I give it a very strong buy recommendation.

Tokaido.

Tokaido came out in 2012, the third hit title in three straight years from designer Antoine Bauza (7 Wonders, Takenoko), and like those previous two titles, it combines elegant rules and beautiful artwork into a short game time that allows for frequent replay. This year brought a Tokaido app (iOSAndroid) that has fantastic animations and a solid tutorial, although I did hit one glitch in one game.

The Tokaido was the most important of the Five Routes of the Edo period in Japan, all government-regulated paths for travel and trade, with the Tokaido connecting Edo (now Tokyo) to the imperial capital of Kyoto. In this boardgame, each player takes on a specific character of a Japanese traveler who will move along a straight track that includes various stops where the player can take a specific action, as well as four inns where the player can buy a meal for victory points. The order of the stops varies along the track, and the player who is furthest back on the track gets the next turn. There are six distinct types of stops in the game: gain 3 coins; take one “encounter” card (which gives you something good at random); donate to the temple for one point per coin; buy one or more souvenirs; take a hot springs card for either 2 or 3 points; take the next card for one of the three panoramas in the game. The souvenirs come in four types, and cost 1 to 3 coins each; you gain points for each different type you collect in a set, 1 for the first card, 3 for the second, 5 for the third, 7 for the fourth, so potentially 16 points for each quartet you collect. The three panoramas are all different lengths, and you gain points for each card you collect; the longest is five cards, and you’d get 15 points for completing it (1+2+3+4+5).

At each inn, you can choose to buy a meal, each of which is worth six points. Some cost 1 coin, some cost 3, and the first person to reach the inn thus gets first choice of all of the meals for that round (you draw one card per player plus one more). If you get there last, you get the last choice, and may have to pay more, but you will be the first to leave the inn for the next round. You can’t buy the same meal twice in the same game, however.

There are also seven bonus cards for 3 points apiece. The first player to finish each panorama gets a 3-point card. The player with the most encounter cards, the most meal cards, the most hot springs cards, and the most souvenir cards at game-end gets a 3-point bonus card for each as well. The temple gives bonuses to the most generous players, 10 to whoever gave the most over the course of the game, then lower bonuses to each donor below that.

The nature of the game means blocking other players can be an effective strategy, especially given the way the scoring rewards players for hitting the same destination type (or color) repeatedly. I think it’s more valuable in 2- or 3-player games, where only one player can occupy any stop on the track at a given time, than in 4- or 5-player games, where some track locations have a second spot for another player. You may wish to stop another player from finishing a panorama, or keep a player who’s low on cash from hitting the 3-coin space. That said, even in a smaller game, I wouldn’t use this as a primary strategy; there’s a big opportunity cost to skipping spaces if you’ve visited that color type earlier in the game.

Although you can move as far along the track as you want on your turn, in reality, your best move is nearly always to take the next open space. Skipping spaces can give other players additional turns before you get to go again, so until the fourth section (the last set of spaces before the game ends), you’ll probably want to take the next space every time, maybe occasionally skipping just one space to get something specific, like moving to a yellow spot to get 3 coins if you’re out of cash. In the fourth section, it can make more sense to move ahead to complete a panorama or try to get the fourth souvenir in a set because those deliver higher points rewards than other moves. Those will depend on what you’ve accomplished earlier in the game, and sometimes what others have done – there’s a 3-point bonus for being the first to complete each panorama, and end-game temple bonuses depend on who donated the most – will alter your choices.

The app, by Funforge’s digital division, looks fantastic. Rather than simply implementing the boardgame as a 2D experience, they’ve animated everything, so you see the board from an isotropic view and the player-characters jog from space to space. There’s also a line at the bottom of the screen that represents all the possible stops between inns, so you can see what’s coming up, and you can press there to select your next destination or you can scroll through the 3D view to get there. Each time you stop at any place that will require a decision, you get a fresh screen that shows you all of your options – for example, at the souvenir stand, you’ll see the three choices for you at that stop, and on the left side are the four symbols with numbers indicating how many of each you already own. (I played the iOS version.)

I did experience one bug in the app, just the second time I played it, and it hasn’t recurred since: one of the animated AI characters ran to the next stop but couldn’t quite get there and ended up sort of running in place. I had to kill the app and restart it to get out of that. There’s only one level of AI player, but I’ve found it to be perfectly competent, enough challenge for me as a relative newbie to the game.

Bauza’s got quite a track record of successful designs, and I’d rate Tokaido behind three of his better-known titles – 7 Wonders, Takenoko, and the two-player game 7 Wonders Duel – but ahead of the Spiel-winning coop game Hanabi or 2016’s Oceanos. My daughter, now 11, loved it right out of the box and picked up the strategy pretty quickly, so I’m comfortable recommending it as a good family game that you can easily play on a school night given its 30 to 40 minute playing time.

Asmodee Digital app sale.

A bunch of the best boardgame apps out there are on sale right now courtesy of publisher Asmodee Digital, and since there are too many to squeeze into a tweet or FB post, I’m going to list my favorites among them (they have over 20 titles on sale) here with links to my reviews and to the iOS/Android stores.

Ticket to Ride ($1.99): Review, iTunes Store, Android version

Splendor ($1.99): Review, iTunes store, Android version

Pandemic ($1.99): Review, iTunes store, Android version

Small World 2 ($1.99): Review, iTunes Store, Android version

Jaipur ($0.99): Review, iTunes store, Android version

Ticket to Ride First Journey ($1.99): Review, iTunes store, Android version

Also, I have only played Twilight Struggle ($1.99) on Steam and haven’t reviewed it, but it’s also on sale for iPads and Android tablets. It’s a two-player game that I think requires a lot of playing experience to play it well because you must be familiar with the cards in your deck.

Alhambra app.

The boardgame Alhambra is a modern Euro classic, winner of the 2003 Spiel des Jahres award and a host of other prizes, and still rated fairly highly on Boardgamegeek even thought it’s a bit light for that crowd. It’s also one of my least favorite Spiel winners, and one of my biggest disconnects between what I think of a game and what the gaming community thinks. I reviewed the original game back in 2011, and while I’ve softened on it just a little bit, it’s still not something I’m eager to pull off the shelf.

But there is now an Alhambra app (for iOS devices and Android), and because I take my responsibility to all of you seriously, I have played it for the purposes of reviewing it. And … I still don’t like the game that much, and I find the app a little clunky to use; after I’ve been spoiled by a run of Asmodee Digital apps and a few other super-clean ports, this one fell short of the mark for me. The AI players are solid, though, so it’s a good challenge for solo play, so if you enjoy the tabletop game, you may find value in the app that I didn’t.

Alhambra is a tile-laying game where players use money cards selected from a rolling display of four cards and use them to buy one or more of the four tiles currently in the market. You get one action per turn and can use it to buy a tile, take money cards (one card, or several if they add up to five or less), or move a tile already in your palace to storage/move one from storage to the palace. If you buy a tile and pay the exact amount, you get a bonus action, so in theory you could get five actions in one turn: you buy each of the four tiles for the exact amount, and then get a bonus action to take money or renovate. There are six tile types, and you score for having the most or second-most of each type, with three scoring stages during the game and points increasing at each scoring. Tiles also have wall segments on zero to three edges; at every scoring, you score one point for each edge on your longest contiguous wall.

The app version of Alhambra has two different views – a standard top-down look and an isometric view with graphics on the tiles to give them 3D textures, with the isometric one much more comfortable to look at in my experience. You can also tailor the app speed if you want to see AI or opposing players make their moves, or if you’d rather speed things up and have cards just disappear from the display as they’re taken.

Making moves in the app is not intuitive in the least. First, you must select your action from a box at the top of the screen – buy, take money, renovate. If you’re buying, then you must select the money cards you intend to spend to buy the tile, and selecting the cards is a pain because of the way they’re laid out, overlapping each other, forcing you to click on the edge of a card to select it. Then you pick the tile you’re buying. If you pay the exact price, the app automatically gives you a bonus action by asking you to select a new action type. If you don’t have enough money to buy any tiles, that action is greyed out.

Any tiles you buy go into a temporary storage bin on the screen until your turn is done, after which you place all of the tiles at once. You drag the tile you wish to place over towards your board, and the legal spaces for it light up in green, then go back to retrieve the next tile if there are more in your tray. Once you place a tile, I don’t think there’s a way to undo it. The isometric view only fails in this one spot – it’s hard to distinguish walls on the ‘far’ side of tiles.

The game ends when the supply of tiles is exhausted, at which point there’s a quirk in the rules – the remaining tiles are assigned to players based on who has the most money of each color, whether or not those players have enough to buy the tiles. That can also mean you acquire a tile you can’t place, and the app wants you to place that tile in one of your renovation slots … which I only figured out from trial and error. If you don’t know this, you’re stuck.

The app is stable now after some early bugginess, and some expansions are available as in-app purchases, but I find the UI here too frustrating – and, again, I’m not wild about the game underneath it. If you love the base game, go for it. Otherwise, I’d give this one a miss.

Ticket to Ride First Journey app.

The current explosion in popularity of European-style boardgames has tended towards older players, adults or teenagers, without as much emphasis on the youngest players who, at least historically, were a prime target for boardgame publishers. A few companies have produced stripped-down, introductory versions of their Eurogames for kids aged 8 and under, but until now none of them had appeared in app form. Asmodee Digital changed that with today’s release of their Ticket to Ride: First Journey app for iOS devices, Android, and Steam, and as you’d expect from an Asmodee product, it looks incredible, plays smoothly, and is extremely stable and reliable. At $4.99, it’s a steal for folks who want to introduce their younger kids to the glories of tabletop gaming.

Ticket to Ride: First Journey is a simplified version of the boardgame Ticket To Ride, which is itself among my top five games all time for its own simplicity and universal appeal, with First Journey – sold exclusively at Target – aimed at kids six and up (and probably fine for kids as young as four, as long as they can match colors). The board itself is smaller, with fewer cities on it and fewer trains required to connect cities that remain – there are no five-train connections between cities, for example.

If you’re already familiar with the rules and mechanics of the full versions of Ticket to Ride, here are the main differences between that game and the First Journey version:

  • You draw two train cards from the deck rather than choosing from five visible options.
  • You start the game with two route tickets (and have no choice).
  • When you finish one ticket, you get another ticket.
  • Everyone knows when you’ve finished a route.
  • Each ticket is worth one point; first to six points wins.
  • You get a point for building a continuous route from coast to coast.
  • There is no penalty for failing to complete a route.
  • Even in the two-player game, players can use both routes between two cities, and you can’t occupy both routes to block another player.
  • Each player has 20 train cars; as in the regular game, if a player places all his/her cars, that also triggers game-end.

The board is streamlined, and the cities on your route cards are animated in the app until you complete them. Each city has a unique icon, like a beaver in Montreal, a totem pole in Seattle, or a movie camera in Los Angeles. The pictures are bright and the text is very clean – not quite Comic Sans, but in that vein. You can drag your train cards to a route to place them; it’s a little fussy about your placement, but the app zooms in on the two cities to help you direct the arrow to the correct route. When you have two colors of tracks between cities, the one you can use is evident and the one you can’t use shows up with lock symbols on it. Some of the routes are extremely short – one track of three trains, two tracks of one or two trains each – so it doesn’t take long to complete your tickets.

On a turn, you have just three options: take two train cards, place trains on the map, or trash your two current route tickets and draw two new ones. That keeps turns quicker than in the base game, since no one is hemming and hawing over which train cards to select, and gives you an out when other players have done something to prevent you from completing a route card.

The route-planning aspects of the main game are still here but much simpler. There’s no longest route bonus, just the “coast to coast” bonus, so building a more efficient route that encompasses your two initial tickets is more about hoping you’ve already completed tickets you’ll draw later in the game or will at least be closer to finishing them. That means less need for the long-term planning of the original game, which makes it easier for younger players to keep up with the adults.

For the youngest players, First Journey might still present the frustration that comes from getting boxed out of a route, especially with three or four players. You can use your turn to trash your two current route cards, however, and draw two new ones, which at least gives you a chance to draw something you’ve already completed or at least will be able to complete. It also means that showing other players your route cards isn’t a negative, so if parents want to help their kids it doesn’t hurt the parents’ ability to play their own hands. The game still has a fair amount of luck involved in card draws of both types, and it’s possible to just have an unlucky game, which cuts both ways with younger players since they can be helped by randomness as well as irritated by it. There are three levels of AI difficulty; I only played against the Hard AI, which I think would be hard for a young player new to the game but isn’t challenging for someone who’s played the full Ticket to Ride.

The game appears to end immediately when one player reaches six points, rather than allowing all players a final turn as in the base game, which seems to give the first player an advantage. It’s possible, therefore, to have a player complete his/her fifth route and then draw a ticket for a route s/he has already completed, ending the game on the spot.

The game comes with a U.S. map and players can unlock a Europe map with a free Asmodee online account. The Europe map will be a standalone game in physical form (due out to U.S. retail in January) and includes a coast-to-coast style bonus, which is more of a west-to-east bonus with players connecting Dublin, Brest, or Madrid to Moscow, Rostov, or Ankara (represented by a samovar rather than an iron fist). There are also collectible stamps within the app for players to earn with each victory.

The First Journey app is ideal for players too young for the full game, with the inflection point probably somewhere around age 7 or 8 depending on your kids’ experiences with better boardgames. For older kids and adults, I recommend the Ticket to Ride app itself, which is among the best boardgame apps available and allows you to buy different maps as in-app purchases to give you different experiences and new rules tweaks.

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.