Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The year in iPhone/iPad gaming

For me, 2010 turned out to be the year of discovery, or in some cases re-discovery, of games in the electronic ether. There are several different facets of this personal trend, with several reasons for it to match. I'll break them into a couple of separate posts, starting with the newest electronic platform, smart phones and tablet devices.

I've had an iPhone for a while, and earlier this year, I bought an iPad. The medium is well-suited for ports of actual boardgames to this medium -- simple to operate, easy to handle, better suited for turn-based experiences than real-time twitchfests -- so it's natural that a few board game designers and publishers capitalized on this trend. Here are some personal high and low points, as well as a notable gap or two.

Often, reviewers of iPhone/iPad games give demerits to titles that don't provide an online option. That's more than a little unfair, since the market for online play of any game might be smaller than the market for smartphone and tablet wargames. All the gamers I know have smart phones. I know of only one who has ever played online.
The make-or-break feature of games in this medium is the AI. The better the AI, the more often I'll play against it, even if it's not a game I particularly like. Small World, for example, is something I avoid in the face-to-face gaming world. (Too obvious which race to pick, several duds, fairly obvious strategies in each turn.) However, it is a game that's perfect for a 10-minute diversion, as long as the AI is up to the challenge. Since it is, I'll play Small World on the iPad, despite my feelings about the game in its original incarnation.

After playing several board game ports, I don't see them competing with the physical versions at all. Quite the opposite: playing on the iPhone or iPad a game with which I've had little or no experience makes me want to play it against a real person in the near future. After one face-to-face play of Roll Through The Ages, I was interested in playing again, but not exactly fired up to do so. After playing it a few times on the iPhone, and getting a better appreciation for the game, I'm way more interested in the live version than I was before. The electronic version is a different experience, not a substitute.

My biggest disappointment is the absence of any real wargames for the iPad. Without Java support, we're a long way from seeing an iPad version of Vassal, which allows Internet or solitaire play of dozens (hundreds?) of wargames. No one has ported even the simplest game, either historical (for example, Napoleon) or not (say, OGRE/GEV), While it may be harder to develop an AI for even the simplest block game than Small World (whether or not it's a wargame), the real barrier, I suspect, is commercial.

The companies that publish these games don't have the people or money to develop iPad or Android versions, and it's not clear how much of a market exists for them. The low price point for the average iPad game also makes it potentially riskier to develop one, since you have to sell a lot of copies to make a profit. Maybe a small development shop with mad iPad skills could specialize in doing these ports for Columbia, GMT, and other companies, who lack the technical or marketing skills to succeed on this new platform.


While my sample is certainly small, and maybe unrepresentative, it's worth noting that reviewers give online play for games on other platforms more weight than customers do. The designers of Demigod, for example, expected it to see more online play than offline. However, when the numbers came in, the online play was far smaller than they had expected. To be fair, they had a famous server crash on the day of Demigod's launch, but even after that debacle, online play never really dominated the game experience as originally imagined.

Surprisingly, there aren't many party games for the iPad, even though (1) it's an ideal device for pass-and-play, and (2) unlike wargame publishers, the companies that own properties like Apples To Apples have the means to roll out electronic versions. So, what's the problem?

My guess is that party games are doing poorly for the same reasons that video games based on big-name licenses (TV shows, movies, etc.) often fail: sloppy design. Just as a Star Trek game that sucks won't sell, in spite of being a Star Trek game, iPad versions of Scene It! and other popular party games don't sell if they suck.

And boy, do they. Scene It! is an especially bad offender. The UI for playing various mini-games, such as the disappearing popcorn one, are confusing or clumsy. They're not particularly exciting mini-games. And, worst of all, the selection of movies are hardly classics. Scene It! feels like the non-stop ads disguised as games in movie theaters between showings, a transparent effort to shill some property that the studios desperately want to push. Note to game designers: I won't remember lines from a movie that doesn't have any memorable lines.

To succeed on the iPad, designers have to stretch themselves more to make it easier to play party games, which are by definition games for people who are not serious gamers. Maybe it will take a few successes among games designed for the platform from the ground up, such as Knowsy, to drive home that point.

Here's a syllogism:
Designing a good boardgame or card game takes talent, patience, and

People designing Android, iPhone and iPad games are not necessarily skilled game designers, and they're usually in a hurry to bring their product to market.

Therefore, if someone designs a brand-new game, never before seen as a physical game, chances are it will have game design issues, no matter how well it functions as an app, or as pretty as the graphics may be.

Case in point: Destiny's Blade, an iPad game clearly inspired by Magic: The Gathering. It's a fun game for a while, in spite of some goofy UI decisions. (Why oh why is deck-building so damn hard in a game about deck-building?) The developers are very responsive to bug reports and constructive criticism.

However, even after multiple updates, it's still a blah game with some clear balance issues. For example, one computer opponent has nothing but fast-attack creatures, a horde of velociraptors. It took me dozens of tries to defeat it, because practically nothing trumps that opponent's ability to quickly summon a helluva lot of creatures that dish out a helluva lot of damage. That's the point at which any CCG or LCG player will lose faith in the game system, or the mix of cards designed to operate within that framework of rules.

In spite of the mixed record of boardgames on smartphones and tablets, I'll still keep trying them out. I love the iPad, since it fills a niche that the laptop never did. Among other virtues, it's genuinely possible to read books on it, something that never worked on a laptop or desktop. (No surprise, therefore, I've loaded up the iPad with PDF copies of rulebooks for games in my collection.)

In fact, I'm writing this blog post on the iPad, the first time doing so. I'm, moving as much of my activity from the laptop to the iPad as I can, so I'll continue to be a potential customer for iPad boardgames, both ports and first-time designs.


  1. Look at the everygame app, a Vassal like app to bring virtually all board (war)games to the ipad.

  2. In terms of iPhone / iPad wargames, it is worth looking at Uniwar and Battle for Wesnoth, both of which are hex-based, turn-based wargames. Uniwar in particular has loads of polish and is made for online multiplayer asynchronous play. Wesnoth is a port from the PC platforms, and so is a bit rougher, but still good.

    That being said, neither of those are traditional wargames, so your point does stand. But: i believe we will see more and more wargames on the platform in the coming year.

  3. There is a new one for the iPad called Tactica RTS. It will remind you of those old AH board games, but with the improvements that you would expect from a computer game. Its a simple but lively game.