Having lived in three different states in the last six years, I have encountered a problem that is becoming increasingly common: most of my closest friends live painfully far away from me. For board gamers this presents an additional challenge. How do you game with long distance friends? I mean sure, you could each set up a chess board in your respective homes and smoke distinguished pipes while sending each other letters describing your next move via carrier pigeon, but that’s not practical for most of us. Also, imagine keeping a game of Small World pristinely set up in an untouched room in your house. Let’s be real, most of us have cats. It’s not an option. So, I turned to technology.
Apps in board gaming aren’t new. Some serve only to enhance the game experience (like the turn timer/atmospheric background noise app for Sheriff of Nottingham), while others facilitate the game by taking on the role of the moderator/DM player (Werewolf, Mansions of Madness). Some are just there to help calculate those pesky scores (on behalf of all of us who count on our fingers, THANK YOU). But what I had never tried until recently was an app version of an entire board game.
I started with Star Realms. The app itself is free and includes solo play and campaigns, but to play online (either to challenge a specific player or be randomly paired with an opponent) I had to pay five dollars. I appreciated being given the chance to see how I liked the game before spending money. The tutorial is basic, and the in game reminders aren’t intrusive. I enjoyed the campaign feature, where you play against AI with a specific goal such as winning with no cards of a certain type or with a certain amount of health remaining or in under a certain number of turns. Honestly, I probably like this game more as an app than I would as a physical game. It’s easy to learn and play multiple games in a short time, and I don’t have to worry about calculating scores and bonuses. I’m loving the ability to play a quick game on my lunch break or stage a longer game over a day. The app allows for real time play or an extended option where you have 48 hours per move; think “Words with Friends” mode. What’s especially nice is that unlike in a physical game, you have the option to look at your deck/discard pile and that of your opponent. While you obviously can’t see the order the cards are in, it’s convenient to be able to remind yourself which cards you have, especially in an extended game where your last move isn’t fresh in your mind. Within minutes, I was totally sold on this game.
Unfortunately, my next experiment was with Carcassonne. This app set me back 10 dollars, which I initially balked at. I mean, come on. Pokemon Go is free, am I really about to pay ten bucks for Carcassonne? When the physical game only costs 30? (As a side note, yes I understand that good apps cost money, and I don’t want to be bombarded with ads in the middle of a round of Catan. But oh my goodness these apps are expensive! Sure, $5-10 isn’t much for one game, but factoring in that you’re likely to want the app versions of games you already own? Yikes. Surely down the road there could be an option where you automatically get the app built in with your physical game purchase.) But yes, my friend assured me it’s a good app, and obviously it’s worth it to me to spend a little money to be able to game with friends I see once or twice a year if I’m lucky. So I took the plunge. It is, as advertised, Carcassonne. The in game prompts aren’t overly intrusive, the AI is fine, it’s a perfectly fine app. But this is when I discovered the biggest board game app issue: cross platform compatibility.
All the most important people in my life (AKA the people I could most easily convince to spend the bulk of their lives playing board games with me on their phones), my hetero lifemate, her fiancée, my partner, they’re all iPhone people. Whereas I am a stubborn Android user. Guess what game has completely different apps for iPhone and Android? Nooooooooooooooo! Why? The frustrating thing about this is that there really isn’t a good way to tell what is compatible and what isn’t. My version of Carcassonne is by Asmodee Digital, the same company that made the Small World, Ticket to Ride, and Splendor apps. His was the first one that had popped up in the iPhone app store. But neither of us realized we had different versions of the game, and after a frustrating experience trying to find each other we were both seriously disappointed. I’m not about to switch phone teams just for gaming convenience, and I can hardly expect him to shell out another ten dollars just so we can play this one game together. Fortunately, Splendor seems to work for both of us, but it’s tedious to go through each app and hope. Meanwhile, I’m stuck with my version of Carcassone that I can really only play against AI, unless I want to jump into playing with strangers (which, no thank you). It would be wonderful to have compatibility clearly stated somewhere in the store before you buy.
My only other complaint is that that there is no in-game communication option. Going back to the Words with Friends example, it’s pretty great to be able to chat with your opponent during the game. Hell, trash talking and lamenting your bad hand is half the fun of gaming! Plus, if the point is to maintain a connection with long distance friends, it’s a shame that you have to separately text to discuss that awesome play you just made. I think the best possible outcome would be game apps that have a Skype or FaceTime type service built in. Also more attention needs to be paid to how players can start games The current chat room style “hey, someone come join my game” feature found in Splendor and elsewhere isn’t really useful for anyone (although you can start a private, password-protected game), and being able to send invites to people directly or be matched at random with other players for quick games is something I appreciate in Star Realms.
Overall, I really like the idea of being able to play some of my favorite games without having to set everything up, clean my house/invite people over, or leave my house/put on pants. I’m also beyond excited to be able to continue playing (some) board games with my friends no matter how far apart we are. Aside from phone compatibility and the lack of communication available, I don’t have any major complaints. However, I do have this nagging feeling that playing games this way doesn’t “count”. I’ve long resisted e-books, but after being gifted a Kindle and realizing I could save money on books I want to read but don’t want to physically own I gave it a try. (Yes, I’m aware libraries exist. I am physically incapable of borrowing a book and then having to give it back.) I’ve read two books that way, and although it’s technically no different than reading a physical book it feels different. It’s the difference between turning a page and tapping the side of a screen. It’s the difference of the weight in my hands, of smelling the pages, of being able to see how many pages I have until I finish instead of a percentage completed. It’s the same reason I don’t believe listening to audiobooks really counts as reading. For me, reading is an immersive experience. If you’re doing something else (driving, cleaning your house, working, checking Facebook), then to me you’re not reading. You’re listening. It’s not that you’re not taking in the information, you’re just having a very different experience of that book than someone who can’t put it down and go to sleep until they finish just one more chapter. Similarly, playing a game while making dinner, half watching TV, or waiting in line isn’t the same as focusing on a game you’re playing with another person in front of you.
Board games are, obviously, a social experience. They’re not designed to give us the same experience of video games; my partner is an avid gamer who will play his classic Atari for hours but struggles to get through more than one board game in a sitting, whereas I can do a level or two of a video game before I wander off but could play board games all day. Games are the expensive toys we buy ourselves as adults, but for the most part they force us to socialize with other people; they’re meant to be shared. A not insignificant number of the friends I’ve made since moving to a new town have been the result of me going to board game meetups. Taking advantage a slow fifteen minutes at work to blow up spaceships with a stranger (or even a friend) on my phone is definitely not the same as opening a box and setting up beautifully made components. I wouldn’t want to replace my semi-regular game nights with apps, and I definitely would prefer to invite a couple of people over for beer and gaming than play Catan with a lot of strangers who may as well be AI for all the interaction we have. But as a small way to keep in touch? I’ll take it. Have you tried any board game apps? How do you feel about apps that facilitate real life game play vs. entire games in app form? Would you be interested in individual reviews to get a sense of how each app plays before you take the financial plunge? Does anyone want to fight me in Star Realms? Let me know.