Board Games on iPhone: Le Havre and Ticket to Ride

For years, I’ve insisted that board games were designed to be played in person, and therefore were generally best that way. But since becoming a father, it’s been a lot harder to find time for in-person gaming. I’ve finally started playing more online, and found that a lot of turn-based games are fun that way. The results are mixed – if there are going to be long delays between turns, it’s generally best to play weightier games where each turn is significant instead of ones where people make frequent simple moves.

Today I’m looking at two iPhone board game apps. I’ve found myself with very mixed opinions about iPhone gaming. It is very convenient to have the apps everywhere I go, and to find out it’s my turn through push notifications. On the other hand, Apple’s Game Center is still pretty frustrating. It’s fine for starting games with friends, as long as you know enough people who have iPhones and want to play the game, but it almost always fails if I try to start a game against random opponents. It seems to be at least partly because Game Center looks for people trying to start exactly the same game as you. I may be happy to play a three, four, or five-player game, but I still have to choose one before Apple will match me. It would be nice to know that, for example, there was a four-player game just waiting on one more person to join before it could start up. It’s even worse when the games have multiple set-up options, because whatever you choose has to be matched exactly by someone else or they won’t join your game. For anything with more than two players, it seems that usually by the time the game starts up, at least one player has wandered off and never thinks to check back. At this point, I’m willing to say that Game Center games are good only for friends or playing against a single random opponent.

The two games I’m reviewing today are ones that I already know and like in tabletop form. I’m not focusing too much on gameplay here, but rather in how well they provide the same experience in mobile form.


Le HavreLe Havre

Le Havre is a long, complex game that requires a large table and involves a lot of cards with detailed text and symbols. I was curious to see how someone could fit all that into a playable iPhone game, and the answer turns out to be that they couldn’t. They make a valiant effort, with different areas of the board that you can tap to expand. In the normal collapsed view, the cards are “stacked” so that the titles are readable as long as there aren’t too many yet. It even shows everyone’s play areas, with the current player’s given a little more space. All the information is there as long as you tap the right spots to get into it. However, it’s very hard to follow. I’m an ok Le Havre player, but I act like a complete novice in the iPhone app because I don’t notice everything that’s going on. Yes, all the information and actions are there (including a slow-to-page-through log of past turns), but I just can’t take it in on the phone.

Part of me feels like cutting the creators some slack, because this was a valiant attempt to fit so much complexity onto a small screen. They definitely did a better job than I would have. But the ads in the app destroyed my good will. It’s a $5 game, a premium price by App Store standards, but it still has frequent ads. Admittedly, they’re for other games by the same company rather than third-party ads. But still, they appear frequently and have “close” buttons that are almost impossible to hit on the first try. I’ve never had so much trouble just trying to hit a simple “X” button, and every time I fail, it takes me out of the app and into Safari. (Also, sometimes you may tap an option on the normal menu, and the app decides that you clicked a not-yet-seen ad.) I don’t know whether or not they intentionally tried to increase their hit rates by making it so easy to follow the advertised links by accident, but they couldn’t have done a better job if they had tried. (Oh, and did I mention that the screechy in-game music is so bad that I need to keep my phone on silent whenever I play?)

I’m told that Le Havre is playable on the iPad, and I can believe that. But it’s sold for the iPhone, and that’s what I’m reviewing. In that format, it’s a confusing, unplayable mess. I give them some credit for the complexity of the implementation, but that’s the best praise I have.

Grade: D


Ticket to RideTicket to Ride

The physical version of Ticket to Ride is one of the classic “gateway” Euro games, and from what I hear, the app has been just as successful. I think it deserves that. It’s a near-perfect implementation of the board game, with all information fitting neatly on the screen. Your hand goes across the bottom, the cards you can draw from across the side, and your specific “tickets” (missions) down in a corner. You do have to cycle through the tickets one at a time, but that’s rarely necessary because the app automatically highlights every city you need to connect. The view of all required cities is usually all you need to know, unless you’re trying to decide which missions to give up on. Keeping track of those locations on the map yourself can be the most frustrating part of the game, so the app has a big advantage over the tabletop version. Though there’s no log of all past turns, it also does a nice job of displaying everyone’s most recent move in a status bar across the top. That bar also summarizes the number of cards and train tokens players are holding, so everything you could normally need to know is covered at a glance. I can think of several more obscure things I’d like to know: How many wild cards did an opponent use when they built that last track, or at which specific point since I last checked in did the available cards refresh? However, I would rarely use this information.

The app’s main flaws are outside of the game. The Game Center hassle goes without saying, and it’s debatable whether Ticket to Ride should be blamed for that. But it’s also difficult to enter and leave your existing games. When looking at a gameboard, the only way to back out to the main screen is a (hard-to-find) button labeled “Quit”, which I was scared to press at first. Then from the home screen, to get back to a game in progress, I have to go through all the steps of setting up a new game, even going as far as the Game Center dialog that looks like I’m going to invite new people! The news items (all ads for Days of Wonder products) can also be annoying, since they add to the count on the app’s icon, making it look like you have games waiting for your move. And you need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the news post to clear it from your count.

Still, all these hassles are peripheral to the main experience. Once you actually get a game going, this feels exactly like playing classic Ticket to Ride.

Grade: B

 
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