From Scrabble to Catan, we look at board games that survive the transition from physical to digital
Board gaming has undergone something of a renaissance recently, and iOS gaming is getting bigger and better by the day. It’s really no surprise, then, we’re in for a real treat that when these two mediums collide. The majority of successful board games are ported to the App Store nowadays and the choice can be overwhelming, so we’ve picked the wheat from the chaff to present our favorite iOS board games.
We’re looking for apps that capture the spirit of the originals without losing too much in translation. Though some of the social aspects of board gaming are inevitably lost when adapted for mobile, a host of unique benefits more than make up for it.
Compared with their physical counterparts, digital games can be played anywhere, don’t need packing away, and are easy to learn without digesting an entire rulebook. Animation and audio can build on the spirit and style of a game’s world, while AI characters and online match-ups ensure you’ll never be short of opponents. Oh, and they’re much cheaper, too. Board games are notoriously expensive, with these apps presenting the chance to test the waters before splashing out on the real deal.
For each title we first look at the concept of the original game, and then how well it works as an app. We’ve split our selections into categories to help you better find something to suit your tastes, and with the wealth of great games on the App Store we’re certain there’s something for everyone here. Let’s get rolling.
If you like… quick play sessions
One of the most adorable card games we’ve seen, Sushi Go! pits its players against each other around a virtual conveyor belt of tasty snacks. Players pick from a rotating hand of sashimi, maki rolls, nigiri, and other familiar sushi dishes, before passing on their hand and picking again until all the cards are gone. Each player’s meal is then scored, based on criteria unique to each dish – tempuras only score points in pairs, for example, while every dumpling you collect is worth more than the last. It’s a fast-paced, playful affair that’s quick to learn but requires luck, skill, and good planning to excel at.
The iOS version of Sushi Go! adds to the super-cute artwork of the original with delightful animations and charming AI characters – who put up a good fight, by the way. Meanwhile if you want to play against some real-life friends the pass-and-play mode works a charm. Online play is present too, but it’s asynchronous and matches tend to drag on quite a bit, which is a shame for such a fast-paced game. Local games only take 5-10 minutes to complete, though, and it’s a fantastic way to kill a few spare moments… though it may leave you feeling peckish!
Patchwork is a game about sewing quilts. That may not sound terribly exciting, but mundane settings can often breed the best games. This is a two-player game, and it’s pretty fast paced. Players take turns buying up patches of fabric, stitching them onto a grid, Tetris-style. Your aim is to finish as much of the quilt as possible by the end, while amassing as many buttons as possible. Bonus points are awarded for completing a 7×7 square with no holes, which is harder than you might think! Though not a complex game, there’s just the right level of strategy here for some seriously competitive quilting.
Though it loses a little of the tactility of arranging the fabrics by hand, this adaptation retains Patchwork’s charm thanks to its delightfully childish aesthetic. The interface is a little crowded, but a quick tutorial hosted by a friendly owl (who else?) ensures the rules are easily absorbed. Whether competing against an AI or human opponent, the games are relatively quick, lasting around 15-20 minutes each. You can have multiple matches running simultaneously, with a choice of time limits depending on how busy you’re feeling. Who knew virtual sewing could be such a blast?
If you like… conquering maps
Settlers of Catan is a bestselling strategy game popular with avid game geeks and casual players alike. Players compete to build the best empire on the fictional island of Catan, harvesting and trading natural resources before using them to build roads, settlements, and cities. Space and resources are limited, and you’ll have to contend with your opponents for both. Catan combines the domination of Risk with the bargaining of Monopoly, while significantly reducing the playtime. It all results in a game that offers plenty of strategy without feeling too overwhelming for new players.
We’re pleased to report that the iOS version of the game looks and plays just as well as its physical counterpart. You can play online against players from around the world, or you could just gather your friends around an iPad and play locally. Additionally, the app includes a very solid single player campaign against increasingly difficult AI opponents. If you’re new to the world of board gaming, this is a great place to start – and if you’re a long time Catan fan, it’s a good way to get your fix on the go or try out the expansion packs at a decent price.
Ticket to Ride
If you like the sound of racing to take over a map but aren’t so keen on trading or fighting, Ticket to Ride could be the answer. Competing to build the best rail network across America might not sound hugely compelling, but this is a really satisfying game of luck, risk, reward, and strategy. Players collect colored train cards, which can be traded in to build routes between cities. Points are earned by connecting the cities on your tickets, but conflict soon arises when players start fighting to route their trains through the same cities. Then it’s a case of assessing your options, figuring out the most efficient routes, and ultimately ignoring all logic and simply blocking your rivals’ routes out of spite.
Take note, developers: this is a really good board game adaptation. In real life, the board is huge – but the app’s interface has been designed to work well even on small screens, and there’s a fantastic in-game tutorial to show you the ropes. For solo play, there’s only one game mode, but it’s hugely customizable and the AI opponents are well-rounded. Elsewhere, the local and online multiplayer components work well and provide some extra longevity. The many expansion packs aren’t cheap, but if you tire of the USA there are a host of other maps and game variants to unlock featuring India, Legendary Asia, and Europe in 1912.
If you like… cooperative gameplay
Many people think of board games as highly competitive argument starters, but there are a handful of games that reward teamwork and cooperation. Pandemic is possibly the best of these, forcing players to work together lest they all suffer the same grisly fate; everyone wins, or everyone dies. The game focuses on a team of everyday medical heroes trekking around the globe to combat viral outbreaks. You’ll have to keep symptoms in check, stop viruses from spreading, and ultimately try to cure the diseases entirely before its too late. There’s nothing quite like saving the world with your pals, right?
Pandemic for iOS has a superb user interface, and a great soundtrack that adapts to the dangers of the game as you play. It’s designed primarily for pass-and-play multiplayer with real life friends, but although it’s mostly a co-op experience you can also play solo – we won’t judge. There’s no online multiplayer, which is a shame, and the tutorial can be a little confusing if you’ve not played before. It’s worth persevering, though, because once it clicks this is a very well made port of an excellent game. For a couple bucks each, you can unlock expansion packs including extra characters, events, and a super tough difficulty level.
Mysterium is a unique, unusual game on many levels. One player takes on the role of a ghost, sending the other players otherworldly “visions” in an attempt to reveal the details of its murder. These visions come in the form of highly detailed illustrations – often full of bizarre or abstract elements – and your goal is to guess the correct suspect, location, and weapon based on these visual clues. Sort of like a supernatural version of Clue. It’s a mostly cooperative game, with plenty of communication amongst players, especially during the tense final round. Meanwhile, the ghost is forbidden from speaking for the whole game, only able to communicate via the vision cards.
One thing the digital adaptation lacks is the fantastic social aspect of the original, though in fairness there is a live text chat built in when playing online. It’s not quite the same as conferring with your buddies around a table, but the silence helps build the atmosphere and really focuses the game onto the vision cards. Alternatively there’s a lengthy solo campaign in which you play a rookie psychic, which doubles as a decent introduction to the game’s mechanics. The artwork is gorgeous, with a draggable magnifying glass allowing players to take in even the smallest details of the visions.
If you like… the classics
You’ve played Scrabble before, right? It barely warrants explaining, but just in case: two to four players take turns to build their hand of seven random letters into words on a crossword-style gridded board. Scrabble is a stone cold classic that’s stood the test of time better than any other word game; a great test of both tactical nous and word-smithing abilities. Playing digitally is a little different from playing face-to-face – there’s no penalty for wrong words, for example, and you can look up ideas in the built-in dictionary any time. That doesn’t make it any less satisfying to use up all your letters in one go for that coveted 50-point bonus, though!
Hasbro’s iOS adaptation of Scrabble is pretty good, and for our money the authenticity of the board layout and letter scores makes it a winner over alternatives like Words With Friends. Online matchmaking is pretty easy, whether you want to challenge a similarly-skilled stranger or someone from your Facebook friends list. You can also play against the computer if you want to hone your skills in private, and the app will point out missed opportunities to help improve your game. The app is fairly pricey, but if you can stomach a few ads there’s also a free version [US/UK] available.
Really Bad Chess
This app is a bit of an outlier in this roundup, as it’s our only choice without a direct equivalent in the real world. Really Bad Chess is an adaptation of – you guessed it – Chess, and despite the name it’s actually very good. The conceit here is that the pieces are the same as they ever were, but the layouts are completely randomized, and different for each player. Maybe you’ll have six bishops and three queens, or you might have an army of rooks but not much else. Forget the opening gambits you thought were important to chess: this game makes you think on your feet, with no two match-ups the same.
One of the nice features of this game is the ranked mode against the computer. You’ll start off with easy matches, where you have way more pieces than the opponent. But as you get better, the challenge get tougher. Before long you’ll be tasked with taking down a wall of Knights with just a ragtag handful of pieces at your disposal. Everyone loves an underdog, and winning against the odds feels great. Most of the game is completely free, with the full feature set – including versus mode, no ads, etc. – unlockable for an additional $2.99/£2.99 in-app purchase. If you’re a veteran player looking for a new challenge, or a chess newbie who feels intimidated by the regular version, this is a great addition to your iOS board games collection.
If you like… even more choice
All this, and we’ve still missed some great games! We really are spoilt for choice when it comes to board gaming on iOS. If you enjoyed the selection above, here come ten more quick-fire recommendations, roughly listed in increasing order of complexity.
Exploding Kittens, the fast-paced card game that was the most backed project in Kickstarter history. Download [$1.99/£1.99]
Tsuro, a beautiful and relaxing game of interconnecting pathways. Download [$4.99/£4.99]
Coup, a quick-fire game of bluffing, deception, and manipulation. Download [Free]
Splendor, if you’ve always wanted to be a sneaky jewel merchant in the Renaissance. Download [$6.99/£6.99]
Colt Express, the unpredictable and action-packed train robbery simulation. Download [$4.99/£4.99]
Carcassonne, the classic game of Medieval landscape building. Download [$9.99/£9.99]
Brass, an Industrial Revolution-era entrepreneurial challenge. Download [$6.99/£6.99]
Agricola, a farm-building strategy game set in 17th Century Europe. Download [$6.99/£6.99]
Galaxy Trucker, in which you’ll need to build, fly, and fight spaceships to win. Download [$4.99/£4.99]
Castles of Mad King Ludwig, a deep and strategic game of building castles. Download [$6.99/£6.99]