Much of the joy of board games comes from the intimate nature of huddling around a table with friends and scheming over the clatter of rolled dice. But on those lonely evenings when a like-minded group of players can’t be found, the iPad makes a fine substitute. Board game apps have been available for the device since it was released, but a recent crop of games have gone beyond a straightforward cardboard-to-digital translation by taking advantage of the iPad’s strengths. The tablet isn’t just a convenient way to find a match whenever the mood strikes; it’s also an excellent tool for learning new, complex games without enduring the bored sighs that ensue when one poor sap is forced to interpret the rulebook. Better yet, the iPad never complains about setting up the game or putting it away, and it’s always, always the banker.
By and large, the board games I grew up with, like Monopoly and Risk, are referred to by game snobs as “Ameritrash.” Lightweight and overly luck-based, there’s not a whole lot of game in them. Roll some dice, and eventually one person whomps everybody else. Yet I still have a soft spot for the games that sparked a thousand childhood arguments, hence my love for Small World 2 (published by Days Of Wonder, $10). Thanks to the power of Kickstarter, Days Of Wonder has expanded their original Small World app with additional maps and extra options for online play. The result is Risk without the boredom. Players assume one of 20 different races and invade each other’s space in a battle for territory. Like Risk, whoever has more armies mercilessly crushes her neighbor. But there’s a twist: At any time, a player can abandon his minions and start fresh with an entirely new race. Each creature has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some enjoy attack bonuses, while others get extra armies or score points for controlling different parts of the map, so players have to adjust their strategies every few turns.
Small World is a perfect example of where the iPad shines as a board game machine. It remembers how to play so you don’t have to. The game’s rules change constantly—+1 for this, roll again for that—and on the table, it’s easy to overlook the small details. With the iPad in charge of keeping score, it’s comforting to know the app won’t “accidentally” forget to count your Commando Skeleton bonus points.
If you like your fantasy characters kicking the crap out of each other with a more sober theme, Summoner Wars (Playdek, free) is a customizable card game in the vein of Magic: The Gathering. Players deal out cards representing various wizards and warriors to create a battlefield on the table between them—think Stratego with magic spells. Summoner Wars is free with one character class, and additional decks are available as in-app purchases. (All the games discussed here include a tutorial, and with the exception of the cooperative games, all offer online play against actual opponents.)
In contrast to “Ameritrash” games are the vaunted “Euro”/German-style games, which downplay conflict and generally have more abstract themes. Settlers Of Catan is often credited with being the “gateway game” that gets people into Euros, but Ticket To Ride (Days Of Wonder, $7) and Carcassonne (TheCodingMonkeys, $10) are two other terrific points of entry. In Ticket To Ride, you’re competing to control train routes across a map of the United States. Carcassonne sees you laying tiles to build medieval French cities. Both games rely on strategy but are easy enough to learn that a new player can be competitive. And if your friends are jerks, both offer ample opportunity to screw your opponents over by taking that one last tile or train card they need. Ticket and Carcassonne were two of the earliest board games to be released on the iPad, and they’re pretty straightforward translations of the tabletop versions, but the fact that the online lobbies are still busy is a testament to their enduring popularity.
Stone Age (Campfire Creations, $7), on the other hand, has been given a fresh coat of paint in its leap to digital. You take charge of a caveman family locked in a mortal struggle to evolve faster than the other caveman families in the valley. Players take turns placing their workers on the board in order to collect resources like wood, stone, and clay, which are used to construct huts and score points. Amorous cavepeople can also retire to the “love hut” for a little baby-making. More family members means bigger harvests, but it also means more mouths to feed. Stone Age is a great introduction to the hallmarks of Euro games, like worker placement and resource management, and its cartoony prehistoric art makes it more approachable than the dry-as-dust economic themes of some other titles.
For those sensitive souls who don’t enjoy forcing grubby cave children to starve, the iPad hosts a handful of cooperative games, in which players work in concert against the game rather than against each other. Ironically, around the table co-ops have a tendency to stir up just as much conflict as competitive games. Because the game’s behavior is predetermined, whoever knows the rules best often does the thinking for everyone, instructing the other players on the “correct” move in a given situation. Ghost Stories (Repos Productions, $6) heads off the personality clashes by letting you take on all the player roles in a solitaire game.
And good thing, too, because Ghost Stories is brutal. Up to four players (or one multitasker) assume the role of monks who are trying to exorcise a sleepy village of its hellish demons. Each round, ghosts are drawn from a deck and added to the board, and the monks take turns banishing them, as monks do, by rolling their Tao dice. Meanwhile, the ghosts have paranormal abilities of their own, most of which involve making your fancy Taoist monk magic not worth diddly squat. The players win by busting all the ghosts. If the monks are overcome, everyone loses. Get ready for this to happen over and over and over again.
Forbidden Island (Button Mash Games, $5), created by the designer of the popular co-op tabletop game Pandemic, also makes a good showing on the iPad. Hapless adventurers are dropped on a tiny island that’s rapidly sinking beneath the waves, and they must work together to scoop up treasure before being sent to their watery graves. Sure, the stakes aren’t as high as Pandemic, which sends players around the globe trying to eradicate a suite of deadly infections. But it’s the small scale that make Forbidden Island and Ghost Stories claustrophobic as hell. They’re tight, unforgiving games that work great as solo iPad experiences.
Perhaps no iPad title was more anticipated by board game aficionados than the translation of Agricola (Playdek, $7). Currently the No. 2 game of all time on BoardGameGeek’s rankings, expectations for Agricola’s digital version were high, and Playdek has delivered a gorgeous product that represents a big step forward for iPad board games. Agricola tells a tale of poor 17th-century farmers who, despite their perennial starvation, can’t resist competing to build the biggest estate. Players upgrade their farms by building rooms, plowing fields, and raising livestock. And yes, as in Stone Age, you can also crank out kidlets to increase your workforce. (Child labor laws weren’t much of a thing back then.) A true Euro, Agricola is tough. It’ll take a few plays to figure out how the many moving parts work together, but the game counterbalances the intricacies that are inherent in many German-style games by giving players the sense they’re creating something. It’s rewarding to watch your family grow and your pastures fill with sheep.