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Meeple Like Us Best Board Game Apps - Introduction
It’s sometimes hard for me to find the time to play physical boardgames, and harder still to find that time when others have time also. That makes board game apps one of the primary ways in which I engage with this hobby. It’s not my favourite way, but it’s a great backup when I don’t have my favourite way available. I don’t own them all, but I own a lot of them. Many of them I have played for hours – dozens, hundreds of hours even. And you know what’s great? There are dozens of these apps. Hundreds, even. Hundreds of games you can play for hundreds of hours. No-one could realistically ask for more from their mobile devices. But still – life, eh? It’s so short. Too short, really – too short to spend time playing anything but the best possible apps. And that’s why I have gathered you all here today. Today I’m presenting my top ten list of board game apps so that you can focus, laser-like, on the best that’s available. That's the topic of our special feature today - the best board game apps that money can buy in 2019.
For this, I have considered games from two angles – how much I like the game, and how much I like the implementation. You won’t find any games on here that are well ported but that I don’t really enjoy. If you did you’d likely find things like Elder Sign, Tsuro, or Kingdom Builder making their way into the post. These are great implementations of games that I don’t hugely care for. I figure here that you don’t want to me to pick games on the basis of an endorsement of their technical merit. Also a game being great isn’t reason enough to include it or you’d find things like Tigris and Euphrates, Suburbia and San Juan on the list. These are great games but with implementations that are sub-par, lacking, or just a little clunky.
The games here then are great implementations of great games, at least in my view, and I’d recommend each every one to your attention.
Since we’re talking about mobile games here, I am not going to ignore accessibility but I’m going to talk about it from a different angle – I’m going to discuss what options the game gives you for fine-tuning the experience and then leave it up to you to decide the rest. Mobile devices already come with many accessibility tools and third-party support is reasonably good. I can’t really assess accessibility in an environment where there is such a wide range of variability. At least with a physical game everyone has the same starting point in the box. Generally speaking though, game apps tend towards inaccessibility and that’s something to bear in mind. If anyone has specific questions, I’ll be happy to answer them if I can in the comments.
As a point of context, all of these were played on android devices (usually phone and tablet). If the iOS version is different or non-existent, blame... I don't know, Tim Cook.
So, with no further ado – on to the list!
Meeple Like Us Best Board Game Apps - Ten to Five
Number 10 - Perudo (Asmodee Digital)
The review of Perudo will be going up on Meeple Like Us at some point in the next few weeks, but suffice to say this was almost our third five-star game for the blog. I love Perudo, full as it is with bluffing, counter-bluffing and exciting moments of doubting and surprise agreement. The app version is very sharp – the game itself is well presented but it also comes with a campaign mode. This isn’t the height of fiction or narrative or anything but it does add an interesting context to everything you do. The graphical design is mostly excellent, and the AI is functional if not especially exciting to play against.
It also has an annoying tendency to keep spamming you about making an Asmodee account. I forgot whatever username and password I set for it and can’t be bothered to go hunt it out when I just sit down to play some dice. If you’re logged in it’s fine. Otherwise – back off Perudo. Don’t be so damn thirsty. Aside from that, it's a fine entry onto our list of best board game apps.
Perudo unfortunately comes with very few options for settings – you can change the language, change volume of the music and sound, and go through the tutorial. Anything else, you’re out of luck.
Number 9 – Among the Stars (Cublo)
I will almost always buy an app implementation of a game I own. More rarely a game is so good it makes me want to buy the physical product as a result of playing a digital version. Among the Stars is one of the latter games. It’s a bit like a spatially explicit Race for the Galaxy where you’re focused on the construction of a space-station as opposed to a galactic empire. It’s Deep Space D9. It’s Babylon D5. It’s absolutely great, and the extra app fripperies and presentation make it especially good.
Its sole problem I would say is that the interface is a little slow – partially this is because of the AI crunching away in the background but partially it’s just a kind of ‘needy’ UX. It wants constant confirmations and reassurances of things that you really should just be able to switch off in the menu and never have to worry about them again.
Still, in a game this good I’m willing to put up with that. And it is good - that's why it's on our list of best board game apps. It has few settings though – the ability to change the sound and pick a language, but nothing else.
Number 8 – Terra Mystica (Digidiced)
This is an intimidating game. It’s so full of dense charts and complex interface elements that you spend a lot of your first exposure feeling overwhelmed rather than entertained. Terra Mystica though has a great tutorial that works by partitioning all the mechanisms into their own self-contained lessons and it soon makes you familiar with the intricacies of this wonderful game. It looks gorgeous too, although it might take a bit of time before you feel something less than alarm at the various menus hidden behind the game interface.
We haven’t yet got to Terra Mystica on the site, and that’s not because I haven’t played it – it’s just because the app is so much easier and convenient than the physical game that I haven’t actually played it non-digitally. Its time will come, because this is a tense and tight game of settlement building, cult domination, and ritual magic. I like it an awful lot. You can probably guess at that given it's on our list of best board game apps.
Settings here are pretty much the same as we’ve already seen – language, the ability to switch music on and off, but there’s also an option to speed or slow-down the gameplay. You only get three settings here but it’s good to see it. It also has an option to send feedback directly to the developer, which is nice.
Number 7 – Race for the Galaxy (Temple Gates Games)
This is about as perfect an implementation of Race for the Galaxy that you could hope to encounter. It’s still complex, complicated and baffling in its iconography but explanations are embedded into each part of the interface. It’s thus much easier to learn here than it is with what you get in the physical box. More than this though, Race for the Galaxy has easily put up the stiffest AI competition in any game I have played. It will give you a real work-out to best your opponents and it feels like you’re actually playing with real people with evolving plans and strategies of their own.
We talked a lot about how difficult it is to find the right people with which to play Race for the Galaxy when we reviewed it – it’s a game people will enthusiastically play but not enthusiastically teach. It’s easy to love, not so easy to recommend. The app as a result bridges a major gap – I don’t need to teach the game to anyone to have a fun and interesting challenge right there on my own tablet. It’s an almost flawless implementation of a flawed, but excellent, game. And if you did fancy training up a new generation of meatspace opponents, you can start them off with the app to great effect. In a list of best board game apps, this is definitely one of the bestest.
Settings here are a little more granular than they are for the other games we’ve looked at – music and sound effect volumes can be changed independently, as can the animation speed and the quality of graphics used. Language settings are also provided.
Number 6 – Star Realms (White Wizard Games)
I don’t really care all that much about Star Realms as a game. It’s fine – perfectly enjoyable but not something I go out of my way to play. Not so the with app. It has the speed and aesthetical appeal to nudge Star Realms into a higher class of enjoyability. I sometimes play Star Realms just to explore the synergies available in the different styles – high blob/federation combos that stack on heals, damage and additional card draws. Machine and imperial fleets that are highly efficient and predictable, with the ability to lock down an opponent to the point of intense impotence. The rapid play of the app version makes this kind of experimentation enjoyable in its own right.
However, I think what makes the Star Realms app especially notable is that its multiplayer support is excellent and it has given the game a rich, vibrant life outside of the confines of your device. The app is the only exposure many people have to Star Realms and it’s a credit to the implementation that it should thrive when this is so. No prior affection for the real-world equivalent is necessary.
The settings here are reasonably granular – sound and music levels can be set individually, as can the speed of opponent animations. If the animations in the game make you feel a little queasy it lets you set a static camera, switch off the dynamic starfield, and also set the level of graphics quality from the fastest to the best looking. It also provides a bug-reporter icon that can be integrated into the game, and a way to directly contact the developers.
Meeple Like Us Best Board Game Apps - Five to One (baby, one in five)
Number 5 – The Castles of Burgundy (Digidiced)
Castles of Burgundy is probably the ugliest game I own, with the most unpleasant graphic design of any game I like. It’s actually visually exhausting to play, with the weirdly perverse palette adding a cognitive burden to every action that you take. That it’s a great game despite all of this is a good sign – an aesthetically appealing digital edition has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
And that’s exactly what you get with this app – I could have done without the unskippable animations, but it’s a lovely looking game with a clear interface design and an appealing aesthetic that violently deviates from that of the physical game. I think some of the visual chrome may be over-compensation and I would like the game to be faster rather than prettier – that doesn’t stop me regularly firing it up though and that's enough to get it on our list of best board game apps.
We’ve already seen a Digidiced game appear on this list (Terra Mystica) and its setting menu is exactly the same. Language settings, the ability to switch HD graphics on or off, toggle sound and music, and set the gameplay speed. Even at fast though this isn’t a fast game and it’s because every time you finish making your choices the board rotates away underneath a kind of trapdoor and the next player's board rotates up. If this were made optional I could see Castles of Burgundy rising higher up this list. Sometimes the only thing getting in something’s way is its own self-indulgence.
Number 4 – Galaxy Trucker (CGE Digital)
Galaxy Trucker has always struck me as two games in one – a fun, frantic and hilarious game of comically inept ship-building followed by a long, ponderous and not very entertaining scoring round. The digital version of the game compensates for this considerably by getting rid of the admin and just concentrating on the fun of anarchic space-ship misadventure. Add to this a great and funny campaign, excellent visual effects, and a series of game-modes that are fun and enjoyable in their own rights.
If Galaxy Trucker were just a pitch-perfect implementation of the board game, it would deserve a place on this list by virtue of how well it’s done. However, the fact it makes it a better game by emphasising the best parts is what puts it as high as it is here. The best board game apps elevate their games in some way, and that's certainly true of Galaxy Trucker.
In terms of settings, I like how it gives you an option to set your handedness in the profile creation – a literal accessibility option - but otherwise it only lets you change the sound and music volume. It does though at least let these be done independently.
Number 3 – Twilight Struggle (Asmodee Digital)
Twilight Struggle is an amazing game – an important, weighty game that has been justifiably praised for almost fifteen years. Its model of self-destructive brinksmanship is deeply educational and imparts real insight into the madness of the cold word with every revealed card. ‘I would never have brought the world so close to annihilation’, you say as you take possession of your first hand of military and political options. A few minutes later you’re the one pushing the world to the edge of war just to see who blinks first. As an encapsulation of cold-war doctrine and game theory it’s hard to beat – but it’s also fun. This is educational in its best possible sense – gamification of history in a way that is all about the game and precious little about the ification.
The app implementation is almost perfect – dark sinister music is overlaid onto a period appropriate aesthetic where the sound of static and Morse code is the backdrop to your own paranoia. Graphical elements are typed onto the screen before they are redacted away. It’s immersive in a very satisfying and visceral manner. Added on to this it smooths out a lot of the interaction grumbles you’re likely to have playing the physical game. It just feels a lot cleaner, and a lot more enjoyable as a result.
I’m also pleased to see it comes with a bevy of options – you can change the resolution (although mine gives me no alternatives) and put it in windowed mode (which reveals the soft keys if you want them). You can change how the announcements are presented, change the card types, and adjust the music, effects and ambient sound volume. There’s nothing here to slow down the interface if necessary, but to be honest the AI grinds so much you’re unlikely to ever need it.
Number 2 – Lords of Waterdeep (Playdek Inc)
There isn’t anything spectacular about this implementation – it doesn’t change the nature of the game or fix problems of physical play. It’s just a very solid version of an excellent game and I have sunk hundreds of hours into playing it. It’s here purely on the basis of how much I enjoy it, and that’s ‘completely’. To be fair you also need to buy the DLC expansion to really get the most out of it, but once you’ve done that there’s a game with vast amounts of replayability and depth to be found behind its unassuming icon. Some of the games on our list of best board game apps are there because they make the game better in the porting. Not so here - it's just an excellent game that I have enjoyed far in excess of its price tag.
The sole problem here is that there’s an odd little cyclic strategy AI bug – one intrigue card that’s available is ‘inevitable betrayal’ and it allows you to steal from an opponent at the cost of passing this card into their hand. Unfortunately when that happens what you usually see is your opponents massively over-prioritising intrigue missions to trade that card between them allowing you to dominate the rest of the board unmolested. Occasionally the random number generator at the heart of the game will pass that card on to you, but that may be several rounds later. It’s annoying when it happens, but it doesn’t ruin the game.
Options are slim – you can set the theme of the aesthetic (if you have the expansion), adjust the animation speeds, and individually set music and sound levels. You can also switch off ambient sound and remove the map parallax. That’s about it.
Number 1 – Through the Ages (CGE Digital)
It couldn’t possibly not be Through the Ages at #1 on our list of best board game apps because the digital implementation is genuinely revelatory. The board game is slow, ponderous to the point of being marked by geography rather than chronology, and legendary for its overbearing complexity of resource representation. I like the game a lot, but I don’t consider it to be worth four hours of my time to play it with four people. If I have that amount of time available I can refine it into denser forms of fun. As such, it’s a game that I liked enough to keep but not enough to play. The app though takes a four-hour game and condenses it down into about half an hour. In that time frame, suddenly Through the Ages becomes wonderful. It’s a civilization game that feels epic in its scope, complex in its interactions, and robust enough in its playtime to be a constant delight.
On top of this, there is a glorious sense of humour threaded through that is hard to top. There’s a moment in the tutorial that is so laugh out loud funny that it might well be the single best executed joke I’ve ever seen in a game of any type. It’s good-natured, well designed, well implemented, and challenging enough to keep you engaged. Absolutely top notch.
It also comes with a set of options – you can change the nature of notifications as well as the sound levels of music and effects. You can choose the language, but you can also change the nature of the way opponent turns are replayed – how and how quickly the information is presented.
Meeple Like Us Best Board Game Apps - Closing Remarks
Honourable Mention: Splendor (Asmodee Digital)
I include Splendor here not because it almost made the cut, although it did. It was on the shortlist at about #13. Mrs Meeple would undoubtedly rate this as #1 if this were her writeup, but it’s not. Instead, I include Splendor because in many ways it is an ideal exemplar for the way it lets people choose how to experience the game. Its settings menu is extraordinary. It lets you change the size of avatars, the size of components, how much of the screen to use, where the screen is located, and the size of the elements that represent your hand of gems. This is on top of options that let you change not just the difficult of opponents but their style of play.
It also has colour blindness settings, shrinking of elements that shouldn’t be a game focus, a set of options for those on smaller screens, memory aids for play and more. It’s a bit of a shame that the text on the buttons is so difficult to read, but I wholeheartedly support the intention behind each of these options.
The splendour app is genuinely great in its own rights, but what makes it worthy of some of your attention is the approach it takes to giving players the options (and thus in many ways the direct accessibility support) they need to decide for themselves what is comfortable to play.
The Ones That Nearly Made the Best Board Game Apps List
Making a list of ten apps, given the huge number of great ones out there, was always going to be difficult. There were a few that were credible candidates for a while but in the end just didn't quite make the cut. Splendor I have already spoken about, but I would also likely direct your attention towards:
Essentially with these we get a 'top sixteen best board game apps' list. Jaipur is a great implementation of a great game, but it missed the list because in the end it's not majorly more convenient than the physical game. Jaipur plays quickly, supports only two players, and as such it represents something of an opportunity cost. If I play the Jaipur app - a game i can regularly play if I want - I'm not playing apps of games that are more difficult to get to the table. Onitama has a similar issue - it's quick and easy enough to arrange an actual game so it feels a little like a waste to play the app all that often. Patchwork was the one that came closest to making its way onto the list but I am refusing it that honour until I beat the viciously difficult Uwe level of the AI. Sorry Patchwork, but I'm a petty man.
Ganz Schon Clever pulled me in deep for quite some time, and you'll see that's obvious from our review of the game. The implementation is... functional. The game is extraordinarily addictive until you work out the trick, and even then it still has the ongoing psychological pull of a loot-box. It's just not quite so polished as some of the other games here though and so it didn't quite manage to get past the incredibly selective bouncers that police this list.
Stockpile is an app I enjoy an awful lot, and it comes packaged up in a very effective implementation. However, one thing you can say about all the other games on this list is that if you want to play the physical game it's still an option. You can buy them all. Stockpile isn't, as far as I can tell, a game you can purchase in physical form any more except as exorbitant markups. It's not that it's an app only game, which would put it outside the scope of this special feature. It's just that it's effectively an app only game for those of us that didn't back the Kickstarter. I appreciate it's a weird objection, but hey - you can write your own top ten if it's that big a deal to you.
There are other great apps out there, but none that I have played that would make serious candidates for inclusion on a list like this. Your mileage, as ever, will vary.
That Table of the Top ten Best Board Games Apps in Full
Here's the full rundown, with Amazon affiliate links to take you to each game should you be interested in picking it up.
|9||Among the Stars|
|7||Race for the Galaxy|
|5||Castles of Burgundy|
|2||Lords of Waterdeep|
|1||Through the Ages|
So that’s it for our top ten board game apps list – it’s a new kind of thing for us because we don’t usually talk about digital representations of board games here. We floated an earlier test balloon with our review of Zombicide: Tactics and Shotguns and I'm keen to know if this is something that people like. Is it a direction you’d like to see us taking? There are a lot of apps out there, and usually they’re not really given a lot of critical attention outside of video game outlets. Would you like us to do more of that kind of thing? I’m willing to write if you’re willing to read. Let us know!