Reiner Knizia’s Age of War.

I have a draft blog post on Richie Martin, Walker Buehler, and Mike Matuella. This morning’s Klawchat transcript is also up. Definitely a different mix of questions when I hold a chat that early.

Reiner Knizia’s tiny boardgame Age of War is one of the smallest and simplest games I’ve encountered yet; the whole game comprises seven custom dice and fourteen square cards. Its rules are similarly short and elegant, fitting on both sides of one small page, even with room for some images and explanations to avoid potential confusion. It’s lightweight due to the moderate randomness involved in gameplay, but there are also clear strategic decisions for players to make, ones that my eight-year-old daughter could grasp and that give the game good replay value.

Age of War plays two to eight, although we’ve only played it with two and three so far. The fourteen cards are all laid face-up on the table and show one to four “battle lines,” rows of images that match the symbols on the dice. Each die has six different sides: one sword, two swords, three swords (those are all infantry units), a horseman, a bow and arrow, and a “daimyo” unit. On a turn, a player rolls all seven dice, then tries to match one complete battle line row on any card. The player places the matching dice on the card, after which s/he is committed to trying to finish that card for the remainder of his/her term, rolling all remaining dice, matching a battle line, then continuing to roll and attempt to match until either all lines are filled or s/he fails trying. The catch: If the player rolls the remaining dice and can’t match any line left on the card, s/he has to discard one die for the rest of the turn before rolling the remainder. Thus the player eventually will match all lines or be left with fewer dice than open spaces on the card.

When a player completes a card by matching all battle lines on its face, the player takes that card and places it in front of him, still face-up. Each card has a point value, and the cards are part of sets that include one to four cards each, with a higher bonus for collecting an entire set. However, another player can steal that card by rolling to match all battle lines plus the one extra battle line that shows a single daimyo character on it – making it more difficult but not impossible to steal. Once a player completes a set, s/he flips all cards in that set over, making them impervious to attacks from another player.

Reiner Knizia's Age of War, a new light strategy dice game from Fantasy Flight.

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

The game ends once all fourteen cards are claimed, after which players simply add up points from complete sets and points from other cards in front of them, with the highest point total the winner. The game took us 15-20 minutes with two or three players; with more than four players you’d almost have to try to steal cards from opponents, which would likely stretch the game out further, although there’s still the gating factor of the game-end condition to limit how long you’ll be rolling.

The decisions you have to make are fairly simple – choosing which set of cards to try to collect, and then choosing once you’ve made your first roll on a turn which card and which lines to fill. The yellow set contains four cards, the hardest to finish but the most valuable (ten points, three more than the sum of the cards’ individual values). There’s just one green card, so you can’t lose it once you win it, but the bonus for taking it is smaller. And watching what your opponents are collecting is important from the second turn onwards.

It’s a light game, both in mass and in rules, very easy to pick up and a great travel game like Love Letter, Jaipur, or Coup (which I own but need to play more to review). It’s also very reasonably priced, which I think is a new(ish) trend in boardgaming – gateway games $25 and under that can grab people who see the $40-plus price tags on the best German-style games and won’t take the plunge, which I can’t blame one bit. I’m hoping Age of War can be another gateway game to get more folks into the hobby.

Lost Cities app.

I’ve been touting the physical version of Lost Cities, Reiner Knizia’s easy-to-learn two-player gateway game, for about two years now, because of its combination of simple mechanics, modest strategy, and portability, even though it has a little more luck or randomness than I like in most games. The iOS version of Lost Cities is now out, from the same developers as the best-of-breed Carcassonne app, and as you might expect the Lost Cities app looks tremendous and plays very easily and quickly, with just a few minor glitches.

The entire game of Lost Cities revolves around a single deck of 60 cards, containing 12 cards in each of five colors: cards numbered 2 through 10 as well as three coin cards that allow a player to increase his/her bet on that color. Players build “expeditions” in each color by placing cards in increasing numerical order, so once you’ve placed the 4 card in one color, you can no longer place the 2 or the 3 (and must hold or discard it). Each player’s turn consists of playing or discarding one card, and then drawing a card from the deck or any discard pile. You receive points for an expedition equal to the sum of the card values in that expedition minus 20, so you can receive negative points if you don’t place enough cards in a column. Placing one coin card (before you place any numerical cards) doubles your gain or loss, placing two coin cards triples the result, and placing three quadruples it. There’s also a 20-point bonus for placing eight or more cards, including coins, in a single column. Since there is only one card of each number/color combination, the game’s decisions revolve around when to play a specific card – do you play it now, or hold it to see if you can get an intervening card first? Do you hold certain cards to keep them away from your opponent? Do you draw from the deck to move the game closer to the end, or draw from a discard pile to prolong it?

The app version has incredibly bright, clear graphics, enough that it plays well on the small iPod/iPhone screen, with a very sensible layout that makes it easy to see what’s been played, including coin markers next to the current score in each column. That ability to see the current score is probably the biggest advantage the app version offers over the physical version – the math in the game isn’t hard, but it’s easier to make quick decisions when the running tallies are there in front of you. (It can be a little disconcerting to see a -40 or -60 when you’ve played coin cards but no number cards in an expedition, though.) The app offers four AI players, one comparable to a box of rocks, one very challenging, and two in between. It also comes with a set of thirty in-game achievements that serve as tutorials on mechanics and on strategy, with the higher levels forcing you to handicap yourself in ways that will force you to think about the game a little differently. Online play is available, but I haven’t tested it out yet. I have played over 100 games against AI opponents, with most games taking under five minutes. It’s addictive enough that my daughter complained I was playing it too much.

The main glitch in the game is the proximity of the discard pile to your expeditions, making it far too easy to accidentally place a card in the wrong place. While your placement isn’t final until you draw another card, either from the deck or from a discard pile, if you move very quickly, which I found I was able to do after just a game or two, you’ll likely make a wrong move along the way because it’s so easy to put a card in the wrong place. Obviously there’s a user error element there – if I would just slow down, I wouldn’t make these mistakes – but I’d prefer to see more space between the two areas, perhaps by relocating the discard piles to the center of the board, which is how the game is set up if you’re playing the physical version. I’ve also caught the weaker AI players making what appeared to be extremely bad moves, such as playing coin cards late in the game when the probability of reaching the 20-point threshold in that expedition is very low, so once you’re up to speed on gameplay you will probably just want to face the most difficult AI opponent.

One of the best aspects of the migration of advanced boardgames to iOS has been the high-quality implementations, since the audience is still somewhat of a niche market, willing to pay a few bucks for every title released in this space. The Lost Cities app takes a fun if very simple game and gives it a high-class makeover for iOS, with tremendous graphics, plenty of replay value thanks to the game’s random element and one very strong AI player, and the potential for online play – another top of the line electronic version that matches or even exceeds the quality of the original.

Tigris & Euphrates app.

Codito is the development group behind Tikal, Puerto Rico, Medici, and Ra, solid offerings but none earning top marks from me. Their latest offering, Reiner Knizia’s Tigris & Euphrates, is their best boardgame app yet, adapting a classic 1997 boardgame from Knizia in an attractive format with a strong tutorial and (I think) very solid AI opponents. It went on sale today for $5.99.

I haven’t played the physical version of the game or reviewed it here, so if you haven’t played it, here’s an overview of the game, ranked 13th overall on Boardgamegeek. Tigris & Euphrates uses an unusual tile system where players are represented on the board by icon rather than color – that is, every player has a red leader, but each player’s red leader has his unique symbol on it. Players build “kingdoms” of adjacent tiles in each of four colors (red, green, blue, black) on a board that includes land spaces and river spaces, the latter along two rivers representing those of the game’s title. Players acquire points by placing leaders on the board and then placing regular tiles in those colors in the same kingdom as their leader(s). For example, if you have a black leader in a kingdom and place a black tile anywhere within that kingdom – contiguous with the leader tile – you earn a point in black. Players earn points in each of the four colors, and the winner is the player with the highest low score. In other words, the score that matters most is your worst score across the four colors.

You can also earn points by making a 2×2 square of tiles of the same color and converting it into a two-color “monument” that produces one point per turn in each of those two colors, awarded to the leaders in the same kingdom. And you can earn “treasures,” wild-card points that can be added to your score in any of the four colors, which the app automatically assigns to your current worst color.

On each turn, a player has two actions, which can include placing a tile, placing a leader, swapping any of the tiles from his hand for new ones, or placing one of two “catastrophe” tiles that destroy the tiles (not leaders) on which they’re placed.

Of course, there’s conflict as players compete to control various kingdoms with their leader tokens. You can place one of your leaders on a kingdom with another player’s leader in that same color, triggering a “revolt” that is resolved by the use of red tiles on the board and from your hand, regardless of the color at stake. Conflicts also arise when kingdoms are merged through tile placement; the leader with the most tiles of the same color currently in its kingdom, supplemented with tiles from that player’s hand, wins the conflict. The loser of either kind of battle removes his leader from the board.

I’ve glossed over a few details, but the key takeaway if you’ve never played the game is that each player has to balance a number of different variables: boost your lowest score, protect your existing leaders, build your hand tiles (you get six at any time) to attack an opponent, watch opponents’ lowest scores and try to sabotage them, and so on. It’s very rich, and once you play a game or two, actually quite simple to play despite the seemingly long list of rules. Knizia’s games are often subtly complex yet very intuitive on the surface, and Tigris & Euphrates qualifies as well.

The app is outstanding. The board is extremely clear and easy to navigate on the iPad; the icons on tiles are very clear, and it’s easy to see what you have available to you at any given time, as well as the percentage of the tile stack remaining. Leaders are labeled with a number indicating their current strength. Conflict resolution is straightforward and the game includes optional confirmation dialog boxes for any move, which prevents you from accidentally tanking the game through an incorrect move. You can undo either or both of your previous moves before you end your turn, unless the move was a conflict that has now been resolved. (One quibble: When playing only AI opponents, you still can’t undo a resolved conflict; since playing AI players is more like training or an extended tutorial, this might be a nice feature to have so you can get a feel for the success rates of conflicts.) Most importantly, your point totals are clear and obvious, with your current low score highlight, and the app handles the treasures for you.

I’ve found the AI players to be strong enough to keep the game challenging. There are five difficulty levels, and after waxing two low-level AIs in my first game I dialed both up to four … and then lost seven straight times. (At least.) The eventual victory, followed by a victory against two level-five AIs, were quite satisfying. There’s some predictability even in the harder AIs, especially early in the game, but their strength is that they don’t miss obvious moves and don’t hesitate to attack via all three methods (revolt, merging kingdoms, catastrophes). I’d like to try this online, but as a standalone app it’s very strong because the AI players are so well-designed. The game also comes with one of the longest, most detailed tutorials I’ve come across, reminiscent of the one in Samurai, which would be my previous gold standard for app tutorials. It takes a while, but it’s worth it.

I’ve ranked boardgame apps without grading them, but I’d say the inner circle of apps – where the underlying game is strong; the app runs well, looks good, and plays easily; the AI players are strong; and online multiplayer works – would now include five games (links go to reviews): Carcassonne, Samurai, Battle Line, Ticket to Ride, and Tigris & Euphrates. This most recent addition is the most complex of the five for those of you looking for a more hardcore experience, but plays reasonably quickly, with three-player games against two AI opponents taking me 15-17 minutes. I highly recommend it if you’re slightly obsessed with these games, as I am.

Full disclosure: I received a free version of this app from the developers prior to its release. Also, would anyone object to me including T&E on the forthcoming updated board game rankings, even though I haven’t played the physical game?

Lines of Gold app.

Boardgame designer Reiner Knizia has been active in pushing his games into the app space, with at least ten adaptations of existing physical games already available for iOS. He’s also moving into the puzzle-app space, with his latest release the $0.99 app Lines of Gold
icon, one I found strangely addictive even with a heavy element of randomness.

In Lines of Gold, the player has a board of 12 spaces connected in multiple lines of three that run horizontally and diagonally and must place tiles one at a time to try to create patterns where all three tiles match in at least one attribute across those lines. Tiles appear one at a time from the stack, so there’s little advance planning. Each tile has three attributes: color (copper, silver, gold); image (coin, bar/trapezoid, or wine glass); and number of images (1-4). A line with three of a kind earns points or extra tiles in the stack to extend the game; a line of three identical tiles earns a bonus round with entirely random results of more points or tiles.

However, any line of three tiles without any pattern costs the player two ways. There’s the loss of a tile from the stack, and there’s the loss of “pressure.” Every successful pattern moves up two gauges, one for scoring multipliers, another for “pressure” that in turn makes the scoring multipliers gauge move faster. A line without a pattern drops the pressure gauge back to zero – even if the same tile play produced a pattern on another line.

Once placed, a tile can’t be moved for any reason, and the limited number of spaces means you will often be forced to place a tile that will prevent you from creating a pattern on one or more lines. You get new spaces on the board once you fill the bottom two lines plus the left and right spaces on the line above that, at which point the board drops the bottom line and adds an empty line at the top.

At some point – I still haven’t figured out when exactly – a storage area opens up so that the player can store one (and eventually up to three) tiles from the stack, which makes the game play a good bit less random. In the first stage, you’re at the mercy of whatever tile comes up next, so other than understanding what tiles are more or less common (e.g., the copper tile with a single coin is the most common), there’s not a ton you can do to plan ahead. With two tiles available at any moment, you can sketch out a little more of a strategy – but at that point there are more tile types in play, so the game isn’t easier, just more of a thinking game than a quick-move puzzle game.

I certainly got my 99 cents’ worth by playing it four or five times over the weekend – a full game lasts 10-15 minutes once you get the hang of it, and I had one of about 20 minutes that put me (temporarily, I’m sure) on the global leaderboard – but overall I’d rate it behind the other Knizia puzzle app I’ve tried, ClusterMastericon, which is free to download but offers a 99-cent in-app upgrade to get more options within the game. ClusterMaster involves placing pieces of up to three colors on a hexagonal board of hexagonal spaces where you need to organize colored hexes adjacent to each other to make them disappear from the board. The “stress” game only lasts about 90 seconds, and there’s a lot more advance planning involved because of the limited number of shapes you might see and the balance between going for a large bonus (where you blow up a bunch of hexes at once through multiple patterns) and ensuring you don’t run out of room.

* My quick reaction to the Derek Lowe trade is posted now.

New ESPNU show + Through the Desert app.

As you might have heard on Wednesday’s podcast, I’ll be appearing on a new studio show on ESPNU called College Baseball Live, every Thursday night at 7 pm EDT/4 pm PDT from now until May 12th. (There’s one more show on May 19th but I had a scheduling conflict.) The show will cover college baseball in general, with an emphasis on the SEC, as well as a modicum of draft chatter, and will be followed by an SEC game of the week, beginning this week with South Carolina vs. Tennessee. I’ll appear again on a brief postgame show.

This is probably as good a time as any to mention that I’ve also signed a new contract with ESPN, which has made much of this year’s extra content across all media possible. I have always appreciated the comments from readers who ask me if I’ll join their favorite team’s front office, but this is where I want to be right now, not least because life on the media side has always worked better for my family.

My weekly Tuesday column yesterday was on some rookies who were surprising Opening Day roster additions.

Reiner Knizia has been as aggressive as any game designer in licensing his games for iOS app development, producing a few of my favorites so far (notably Samurai and Battle Line). His two- to four-person boardgame Through the Desert is now available in a beautifully rendered app, but on the iPod Touch there are some implementation issues that have made the game trickier to play.

Knizia’s Through the Desert ($1.99 for the regular game, $2.99 for the iPad/HD version) is played a board of hexes with several oases and watering holes scattered more or less evenly throughout it. During the setup phase, each player places one camel in turn, with players rotating until each player has placed all five of his starting camels. (Players begin with five camels, each a different color.) After the setup, players place additional camels (drawn from a communal pool) adjacent to those they have already placed, building “caravans” that can accumulate points in three ways:

* By abutting an oasis, which is worth five points.
* By crossing a watering hole, which is worth three points for a large hole and one for a small hole.
* By fully enclosing an area within the caravan; between the caravan and the edge of the board; or between the caravan and the small, impassable mountain range within the board. The player receives one point for each enclosed hex, plus any bonuses for surrounded watering holes.

The only restriction on placement is that a player cannot place a camel next to a camel of the same color placed by another player.

There are also game-end bonuses of ten points apiece for the longest caravan (most camels) of each color. The game ends when there are no more camels available in any of the five colors.

The game offers a lot of decision-making with zero randomness involved. I’ve found the bulk of my thinking during the game is spent trying to anticipate each opponent’s next move or two, both to see if I can block anyone and to make sure I’m not going to end up blocked. The problem is ultimately one of resource constraints – you can only place two camels per turn, your number of turns is finite (but not known exactly), and your number of possible moves is restricted by the board and opponent placement – with the board big enough that the game is different every time, especially with three or four players.

The app itself is perfectly stable, but the way the developers implemented the game has proven frustrating. For one thing, there’s no way to tell whose turn it is, and there’s no way to see the current score of any player other than the one whose turn it is. In the four-player game, the bottom row of hexes on the board is obscured by the silly waving carpet at the bottom of the screen, and I couldn’t figure out how to place a camel there. I’ve also found the hard AIs to be a little light – in at least a dozen games, I’ve only once had an AI player make a move to block me, and that came in a four-player game where one of the other AIs was about as challenging an opponent as a sack of hair.

The AI problem isn’t a huge deal since the game allows for network play, and the hard AIs are good enough to make the game a nice diversion. It’s just not as challenging as it could be, and the lack of any kind of scoreboard or indication of who’s up is annoying and completely avoidable. I’m hoping at some point there will be an update to at least fix the bottom-row glitch and provide a score option, although the AIs probably are what they are for the long term. I’d recommend the game if you’ve already grabbed the two I mentioned above as well as Carcassonne and Ingenious and are looking for a change of pace; if I see any improvements come down the line I’ll repost with a stronger recommendation. And if any of you should try the iPad version, let me know if any of these issues are resolved.

Reiner Knizia’s Medici app.

Chat today at 3 pm EDT. New draft blog post on Dylan Bundy is up. I’m back on the Baseball Today podcast today; we just finished recording slightly before noon Eastern, so I expect it’ll be posted at that link shortly.

The iOS game Medici is just 99 cents until April 4th and since it’s another Reiner Knizia game there was a zero percent chance I would let that sale go by. It’s worth far more than that, a clever auction game that in typical Knizia fashion uses simple game play to create complex results. The scoring is a little trickier than other great Knizia games like Lost Cities or Battle Line, but after botching my first game I was able to grasp the concept.

Each player represents a trader in Renaissance Italy, bidding on lots of goods to fill up the five spots on his ship in each of three rounds of scoring. There are six goods available; on a player’s turn, he selects a box from the right side of the screen, after which it’s opened, revealing one to three goods in any combination, with each good carrying a value of 0 to 5 (or, for gold, a fixed value of 10). Players bid on the set of goods in a single-round auction, with the player who selected the box getting the final bid. Bidding can be fierce early, but as players’ ships fill up, players can score bargains later in a round … or they could be stuck with goods that don’t help as much in the scoring.

That scoring is the one slightly difficult part of the game to understand, at least from the in-game rules (I’ve never played the physical board game), but it’s also what makes the game brilliant. You earn points in three ways:

* The ship with the most value in each round earns 30 points, with declining bonuses after that depending on the number of players; the player with the least valuable ship receives no bonus at all, but all other players receive at least 5 points. A ship’s value is merely the sum of the values of each of its five goods, but those values are only applicable to this type of scoring. They lose all meaning when it comes to shipping goods.

* After ship values are scored, players ship their goods other than gold, which is only counted towards the total ship values. The player who has shipped the most of any specific type of good up to that point in the game receives 10 points; the player who ships the second-most of that good receives 5 points; everyone else gets zero. That is, the scoring for the quantity of, say, dye shipped is cumulative. Players tied in goods shipped split the available points, rounded down.

* Players who have shipped at least five goods of a specific type get a five-point bonus in each scoring round. Six goods shipped yields a ten-point bonus, and seven goods shipped yields twenty points. These bonuses are not split in case of a tie.

The ideal strategy, of course, is to ship lots of goods that no one else is trying to ship, which is harder to do the more players you involve in the game. (Medici requires three players with a maximum of six.) There’s also an inherent strategic conflict between acquiring goods with high values to grab that 30-point ship bonus and acquiring goods to ship to try to rack up points and bonuses for shipping one or two specific types of goods. Balancing those two goals when you can’t control what goods come up for auction while competing against other players who might want the same goods makes the game interesting and highly replayable.

The implementation on iOS looks good and works reasonably well with a few small hitches. The scoring pyramids where numbers of goods shipped are displayed is quite small on an iPod touch, and selecting boxes from the right side of the screen doesn’t always work on the first try. The app comes with nine AI players with different strategies and difficulty levels; I’ve found the top three or four to be challenging but the ones below that are best left behind once you’ve learned the game. There’s no online play option at the moment.

The mechanics make this game well worth the purchase, and it’s a solid implementation that has proven very stable for me across multiple plays and interrupted games. It also plays very quickly given how many players it can have and how much is going on behind the scenes, and I find the more I play the more I’m getting used to the tiny scoreboard for goods shipped.

I’m still testing out another Knizia app, Through the Desert, that recently came on the market; my initial impression is that it’s a great game but one best suited to the iPad (and there is indeed an HD version) rather than a smaller device.

Battle Line game and app.

Battle Line is another two-player card game from the prolific Reiner Knizia, the man behind Lost Cities, Samurai, and Ingenious, one that brings a little more randomness to the table than Lost Cities offers but with plenty of opportunities for strategy – the type of randomness that forces you to rethink your approach to the game, rather than the kind that makes you throw up your hands in frustration. There’s also a very good Battle Line app available for iOS, with good graphics and a solid AI but as yet no online play option.

The main deck in Battle Line includes 60 cards, 10 cards numbered 1 through 10 in each of six different colors. Players begin with seven cards in their hands and on each turn play one card and draw one replacement. In between the two players sits a line of nine flags, and at each flag players place cards to try to create a winning formation, one that ranks higher than the opponent’s formation at the same flag. A completed formation contains three cards. The first player to either win five of the nine flags or to win three adjacent flags wins the game.

A formation’s value is determined by the numbers and colors of the cards it contains. The game has its own lingo, but you’ll notice a correlation to poker hands as well. The top formation is the game’s royal flush – three consecutive cards in one color, with a tie going to the formation with the highest sum on his cards, leaving 10-9-8 as the best possible formation in the game. (If a player completes a 10-9-8 formation at a flag, he wins the flag even if his opponent has yet to finish his own.) Next highest is three of a (numerical) kind, followed by a flush, a straight containing more than one color, and last just any assortment of three cards. When both players have identical formation types at a flag, the above tiebreaker applies. It’s also possible to claim a flag before the other player has completed his formation if it is no longer possible for the second player to create a formation to top the one that’s already on the board.

The twist in the game is the existence of a second deck of ten Tactics cards, each unique, which may be drawn instead of cards from the main deck. These cards run from the lifeline (Hero and Champion, two wild cards that can stand in for any card you want, although each player is limited to playing one of these per game) to the attack card (Traitor, stealing a card your opponent has played and using it yourself; or Deserter, trashing a card your opponent has played). The number of Tactics cards you can play is restricted by how many your opponent has played – the delta must not exceed one, so once you’ve played your first Tactics card you can’t play a second until your opponent has played one.

Battle Line strategy breaks down into two major areas. One is deciding how to fill out formations – if you have the green 9 and the green 8, do you play those together and hope you get the 7 or 10, or do you break up the 9 and 8 to try to build the easier three-of-a-kind formations? But the more interesting part is deciding when to fill out formations. Holding back the second or third cards in a strong formation might entice your opponent to waste a valuable card there – but playing that second card might open the door for him to waste your cards by dropping a stronger formation there. And do you challenge his formations early or try to play at empty flags and create large obstacles in the center of the board? It’s one of those “simple rules but different every time” games, like Lost Cities, that work very well for a quick two-player match.

The game’s card constraints are more confining than those in Lost Cities, which makes it a little more random because of how much you’re at the mercy of the deck. In Lost Cities, you’re just waiting for a larger card in any color you’re using, preferably not too much larger. In Battle Line, you have more formations in play but are often looking for a specific card or one of two in a specific color, and can’t discard a card without using it as you can in Lost Cities. If you want a change from Lost Cities, however, Battle Line is the most comparable two-player game I’ve found.

The Battle Line app (a.k.a. “Reiner Knizia’s Battleline”), from Gourmet Gaming, features two AI opponents, allows you to play two-player against someone sitting next to you, and offers a basic game that involves six cards in your hand and no Tactics cards if you want a tutorial. The strong AI player uses Tactics cards well, doesn’t do anything stupid, and will seize on player mistakes nearly every time. Flags are claimed automatically regardless of the winner, and the graphics involved are very clear. The app had problems with crashing and with incorrect values on two Tactics cards, but both glitches appear to be gone since an update about three weeks ago. It’s been my go-to app of late when I don’t want to get sucked into a long game of Carcassonne since you can knock out a game quickly and there’s enough random variation to keep it fresh.

Ingenious app.

I’m starting to feel like the president of the Reiner Knizia Fan Club, as I’ve raved about two games he designed, the card game Lost Cities and the Samurai app (an adaptation of a board game he published in 1998). I’ll now do the same about (the app for Ingenious, another award-winning board game that is a perfect candidate for adaptation because the machine can ensure the scoring is done accurately. And since Ingenious plays very quickly, it’s become my go-to app when I know I have just a few minutes for a quick game. At $1.99 for iPhone or $3.99 for the iPad, it’s a steal given how often I play it.

Ingenious is an abstract game, meaning there’s no theme or graphics, just a large hexagonal board made up of smaller hexes, with six per side. Each vertex is filled with a single color, each color unique (that’s six colors for the Jack Morris voters in the audience). Players place two-hex pieces on the board – most contain two colors but some contain two hexes of the same color – and receive points for placing them adjacent to the same colors on the board, including any pieces beyond the immediate piece that extend out in a straight line from the piece the player just placed. Points accumulate in each color, so each player has six separate scores.

The twist, however, makes the game … well, I’ll call it clever. The winner is the player with the best “lowest” score among his six. If you neglect one of the six colors, you’ll lose. There is some benefit to maxing out a color at 18 points, as you get a bonus turn after doing so, but chasing 18s may leave you too unbalanced and you can absolutely win a game without reaching 18 in any color even if your opponent does.

For example, in that screenshot above, the player has a tile with red on one half and purple on the other. If he played that tile in the one open space on the top right with the purple side at the top, he’d get four points in purple (adjacent to two tiles, each of which extends out in a straight line for one more tile) and four points in red (adjacent to the top-left red tile, adjacent to the tile below that plus two more extending down and to the right in a straight line). And since red is his lowest color, that’s probably his best play.

The Ingenious app plays just two players and has no online component, but the AI has three levels and is very competitive, with the hardest level considering what you need in late-game moves and blocking you if possible. There is a solitaire mode which I haven’t played (I’d much rather play an AI opponent than a modified game for solo play).

My only real criticism of the app is that rotating tiles can be a little tricky. To move a tile into place, you just drag it, which works fine, but to rotate it, you have to make arcs around the tile, which only works well if the tile is well away from the bottom edge. If you’re placing it towards the bottom of the board, it’s better to press and hold on the tile until it pops to the foreground, rotate it there, and then drag and place. It’s a minor nuisance overall for a very simple but consistently challenging app.

I’ve never played the original board game Ingenious, which appears to play up to four players, but would be curious to hear any of your thoughts on it and how it differs with more than two players.

Reiner Knizia’s Samurai app.

It’s up about $20 from yesterday, but The Wire: The Complete Series is still over half off at $96.49 on amazon.com.

I mentioned the other day that I’ve become extremely addicted to another iOS app, Reiner Knizia’s Samurai, by the prolific designer behind my favorite two-player game, Lost Cities. Samurai is based on a board game ranked in BoardGameGeek’s top 100, but I’ve never played it (I’ll be buying it after the holidays) so my impressions of the app won’t include any comparisons to the original.

The board Samurai includes an island or set of islands representing Japan and broken up into hexes, some of which have one or more icons representing peasants, soldiers (helmets), or buddhas. The object of the game is to capture as many of those icons as possible, but the victory condition is more based on capturing a plurality of each icon type than on the overall total of icons captured – you can, in fact, capture more icons than your opponent in a two-player game and still lose if he captured more in two of the three categories.

You capture an icon by surrounding it with tokens that influence it in your direction, placing one regular (“slow”) token per turn. Your slow tokens include peasant, soldier, and buddha tokens of varying strengths (1 to 4 points) and samurai tokens that influence all icons. You also receive “fast” tokens, of which you can place several each turn in addition to your one slow token; the ronin token is worth one influence point and goes on land, ship tokens are worth one or two points and go on sea hexes adjacent to land, and special tokens allow you to replay a slow token you’ve previously played or to switch two icons on the board to snatch one out from under your opponent’s thumb. When a hex bearing an icon is surrounded on the land side, it is captured by the player whose adjacent tokens exert the most influence. The game ends when all tokens of any single type are captured, or when four tokens are surrounded but uncaptured because of a tie in influence.

Samurai plays very differently as a two-player game versus a three- or four-player game. In the two-player game, it’s much easier to set up your next move or try to force your opponent to make a specific move, as well as to deduce some of your opponent’s strategy. With three or four players, your degree of control is so much less that your moves are more turn by turn rather than part of a larger game-long strategy, since it’s harder to predict what two or three opponents will do before your next move, leading to shorter setups for captures and more thought required in how your one move will push your opponents to do (or not do) something specific. It’s a simple mechanic that plays out in complex ways, yet with short turns still moves very quickly.

The iOS implementation has outstanding graphics and a very clear tutorial to get you started. I’ve found the AI to be very strong, especially in two-player games; in three-player games I’ve run into the occasional less-than-best move (unless I just didn’t understand what the AI was doing) but would never say I’ve had an easy win. Knizia is a mathematician by training, so his games are highly mathematical in nature, and I think that lends itself to stronger AIs because the programmer can model the game more easily. In Samurai, not only does that lead to more optimal moves by the AI, it also means the AI won’t miss a complex opportunity to end the game early by capturing the final icon in one category.

How addictive is Samurai? I had to leave my iPod Touch uncharged at one point to stop myself from playing the game when I should have been packing for our trip. I can’t seem to put it down unless I’ve won at least one game, because often I know I lost because of just one wrong move. I’ll have to pick up the board game, but I have a feeling this will be a top ten board game for me, maybe top five, given how phenomenal the app is. And I’m not the only ESPNer to think so – Jorge Arangure tweeted that he’s a fan too.

I may post again this weekend, but if I don’t get back before Saturday, Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it, and please be careful if (like me) you’re out on the roads.

Lost Cities.

As much as I love the new wave of German-style boardgames, the category lacks viable two-player options. Many games, like Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, require a minimum of three players, while others, like Zooloretto and Power Grid, include two-player variants that don’t work as well as the three-plus rules do. We’ve found a couple that work well for two players – Carcassonne, San Juan, and Dominion are probably the best – but the list is relatively short.

Lost Cities is a real rarity among great German-style games in that it’s strictly a two-player game, only the second (along with the card game Catan, a two-player offshoot of Settlers) in our collection, and it has the twin virtues of being quick to learn and quick to play, so that you can run through several games in an evening rather than devoting the entire night just to setting up Puerto Rico. Lost Cities – which went in the less common direction by spawning a multi-player game, Keltis, which ended up winning the Spiel des Jahres – is simple, portable (just a deck of cards and a small board that isn’t fully necessary once you know how to play), and has an excellent blend of strategy and chance that prevents the game from becoming repetitive yet gives the player some control over his fate.

Each player in Lost Cities may begin, over the course of the game, up to five “expeditions” using cards; each expedition costs 20 points once initiated, but there’s no cost associated with an expedition that’s never started. The deck of cards contains twelve cards in each of five colors, representing the five expeditions: One card each from numbers 2 through 10, and three “investment” cards that allow the player to double, triple (if he plays two), or quadruple (if he plays all three) his profit or loss from that particular expedition. On each turn, a player plays one card to an expedition or discards one to the board and draws a single replacement from the deck or the discard piles. When the deck is exhausted, you add the values of the cards in each expedition, subtract 20, and then multiply the result by 2, 3, or 4 depending on the number of investment cards that expedition, gaining another 20 point bonus for any expedition that contains at least eight cards.

The catch is that cards must be played in order – investment cards come before card 2 – but the deck is fully shuffled and players only hold eight cards in their hand at any given time. Thus, players face decisions like holding on to high-numbered cards while hoping to get lower numbers or investment cards to fill out the expedition, or risking beginning an expedition where he isn’t close to the 20 card points required to turn it profitable. If you discard a valuable card, your opponent may pick it up, unless his expedition has already gone past the number of the card you’ve given up. When the game is nearly over, a player may choose to pick up discards rather than draw from the deck to try to delay the end and allow him to play more cards – but the other player can just keep drawing from the deck to try to end it sooner.

Once we got the hang of it, we found that games only lasted ten minutes or so, meaning that one of us can try avenge his/her losses in the same night, breaking up one of our major frustrations with the Catan card game or massive multi-player games like Puerto Rico and Agricola*. There’s no particular skill required beyond arithmetic, so even the most ardent RBI-lover could handle the math, and the basic strategies are straightforward and shouldn’t take long for new players to figure out. I’d boil down those strategies to two archetypes that the players can blend as needed: You can try to hit home runs on one or two long expeditions with investment cards, or go for 5-10 points on four or all five expeditions. Your optimal strategy or mix of those two depends on the cards you draw, but since you only see eight at the start the game, you have to make some educated guesses – you could argue that there’s a little probability involved here but I’m not saying anyone needs to bust our their old permutations formula – and at some point will end up at the mercy of the deck and your opponent.

*Yes, I now own Agricola, a birthday present from a determined wife who bought one of the last copies from the game’s last print run – it’s out of stock just about everywhere until at least August – and we’ve played it twice. When I get through a few more games, I’ll write it up.

The simplicity of Lost Cities meant that I could even play with my four-year-old daughter, who wanted to play as soon as she saw the cards in my bag while we were in St. Kitts. We never keep score, but to make it interesting for her, I told her she just had to make sure each card she put down was bigger than the one before it, she had to match the colors, and her goal was to make each column add up to more than twenty (she’s not adding to twenty yet, but it turned into a whole conversation about how you add numbers together). We’d play the game and she’d be excited that, say, three of her five expeditions reached the magic number of 20. Those of you with children probably understand this more than those of you who haven’t crossed that chasm yet, but it was fun for both of us to play like that, and she enjoys playing games she sees mommy and daddy playing.

One final advantage to Lost Cities: It’s cheap for a German-style game, and so in many ways this could serve as a gateway game to the bigger, more complex entries that tend to dominate the rankings at BoardGameGeek.