The Apple iPad is an incredible device that’s making waves in board gaming communities the world over, but why? What do traditional board games have to do with the iPad? Can physical games with lots of pieces faithfully be converted to a small touch screen device? Are they any areas in which the iPad is actually better than the physical board game?
Despite what many hardcore board game enthusiasts may want to believe, the iPad is actually a great addition to the wardrobe full of bits and pieces, “real life” physical board games. But it will never replace the physical ones – just as it will never replace the experience of gathering around a table with 4 friends.
The size of the screen, for the time being, is the primary limitation on the iPad gaming experience – yet the size is also an advantage. For instance, the combination of the iPad, iPhone, and Nintendo DS have utterly destroyed the “travel” game industry. No longer are we forced to play monopoly with tiny pieces that get lost down the back of the seat! Long trips with the children are a whole lot easier, now. The small screen does mean however that it is not particularly suited to being placed in the center of a large table and sat around. An impressive attempt at small-scale coffee table gaming was by Days of Wonder’s “Small World” board game app, which includes a coffee table mode as well as the standard “pass and play” modes. In coffee table mode, the iPad would detect that it is laying horizontally on a tabletop and automatically keep the board in a fixed position, with each players interface area kept on the appropriate side of the screen. However, this style of play was limited to 2 players, as the interface elements for more than 2 players simply couldn’t fit on the screen. The “pass and play” mode is standard to nearly every board game conversion for the iPad yet, allowing for more players by passing the device around. Indeed, “pass and play” is the only mode possible when games include some element of secrecy regarding players cards – using the iPad to play Poker with a friend sitting opposite you simply isn’t possible with just one device. Obviously, with more than one iPad, we can achieve a somewhat similar experience in terms of gameplay, but the social interaction would plummet – each player may as well be staring at a computer screen.
Which bring us to our next point, one in which iPads really win over on physical board games – the fact that physical games require physical players. A weekly gaming session is difficult at best to organise – scheduling conflicts, gaming preferences – can sometimes lead to an unsatisfactory gaming get-together. With an internet connection, and iPad though – you can potentially be playing with people all over the world who want to play the same game as you, at the same time that is convenient to you. Of course, the social interactions aren’t the same, but the gaming experience generally is. Carcassonne is possibly the best example yet of internet gaming done right on the iPad. When you select to play an internet game, the app doesn’t ask you for usernames, passwords, to choose a game lobby or server – it just goes out to find you an opponent and gives you an estimated time. Most iPad board game conversions sadly have yet to include an internet gaming option.
So far we’ve only talked about how the iPad can replace the physical versions, but I think they can also co-exist and in fact complement them. As I said, getting a gaming group together can be difficult, so taking time to explain a new game and give it a run through before playing “for serious” is time consuming and wasteful. The iPad is a great way to practice before the real social game, to make sure you fully understand the rules and have an idea of strategies that might be played against you. And even if you have some real life experience of the rules, the iPad is a great way to discover new play styles that you might never have seen before – remember that most of the board games apps have AI routines developed by the board game creators themselves, so they usually know a trick or two that your friends might not.
The iPad can also complement the real board game even during those social gaming sessions. Scoring points, for instance, has traditionally been a rather tedious but necessary part of board games – not so with the iPad. “Agricola”, game in which players attempt to create the best farm, is a great example of this. At the end of the game, points are scored according to the size of your house, the material it is made of, the number of family members, how many fields you have managed to create… all in, there are about 15 different metrics you must check on a scoring table for. The Agricola companion app makes it easy to calculate everyone’s score by walking you through each metric and giving you a simply “number dial” element to easily input it all. The app then calculates it according to the built-in scoring tables, makes a total, then shows the results and overall winner. It even stores player data (including a photograph), and you can save every game result as well as where the game was played!
But perhaps most importantly, the iPad opens up the board gaming hoping to so many more people. It has to be said that most designer board games are generally cost prohibitive – without a personal recommendation from a friend, it’s hard to lay down $70-$100 for a board game that you’ve never heard of. Monopoly is the complete opposite of designer board games – it’s known by everyone, and the game play is relatively non-compelling. Designer board games however are known by so few, yet their game play is often magnitudes more interesting than anything in your typical high street retailer. So personally, I love the fact that more people will get to know the board games I love, through the iPad.