Posts Tagged ‘ game center ’

Web-Based Board Games: Introduction

I’ve been playing board games for years, but I always insisted on playing them in person, “as they were designed”. I saw online implementations a couple times, and they were always so messy and hard to follow that I had no interest in trying them out. Besides, I had a lot of opportunities to play games in person, so I wasn’t trying too hard to solve this problem.

But this year, I’ve changed my mind. Shortly after becoming a father and missing most of my in-person games, some friends recommended web-based game sites Boîte à Jeux and Yucata. They turned out to be nothing like my preconceptions. Above all, they’re faithful adaptations of the games, with all the art licensed and even the pickiest rules implemented correctly. If you already know the game, sitting down in front of the web page feels just like seeing the game set up on the table in front of you. They have ranking systems that help you find fair matches and also create a sort of meta-game that keeps every match interesting. Even once you know you’re going to lose, it’s still better for your ranking to come in third place than fourth! And most surprisingly of all, the sites are free and keep their ads very minimal. (Both do request donations.)

A game of Trajan on Boîte à Jeux. (Or at least what fits in the browser window at once.) Notice that the area on the upper right has tabs to let the user look at one person's play area at a time.

A game of Trajan on Boîte à Jeux. (Or at least what fits in the browser window at once.) Notice that the area on the upper right has tabs to let the user look at one person’s play area at a time.

These sites are turn-based, meaning that you could be playing many  games at once, and when you log in you might see that it’s only your turn in two or three of them. Not all games work well when they are spread out over days or weeks, but it’s great with others. Personally, I find it pretty easy to play about ten games at once, as long as they are all different types of games. That seems to put me at odds with a lot of players, who sometimes start up dozens of complex games at the same time. They don’t care if one or two of their games can go days without a move, but for me that means my only match of that type is stalling. Even so, I can usually find good people to play with.

The most surprising thing is how fun these are to play on my iPhone, even though I’ve largely lost interest in playing board games on iPhone apps. Many of the web implementations are too big to fit on my large computer monitors, but I still find it more natural on the iPhone to zoom in and out of the detailed screen than I do to follow some apps that attempt to make the playing area manageable. iPhone apps do typically offer decent tutorials, while these websites just have a rulebook to read, so many new players will probably want to stick with the apps. Much of it comes down to personal choice.

Playing a game of Targi (on Yucata) with my iPhone.

Playing a game of Targi (on Yucata) with my iPhone.

One thing really sets these web games apart from iPhone apps, though:  Both Boîte à Jeux and Yucata offer great systems to find matches with other players. Game Center on the iPhone is absolutely awful. It works ok for two-player games, or for explicitly inviting friends, but it’s almost impossible to find a multiplayer game with people you don’t know. Everyone has to choose exactly the same options as you, and by the time Apple has matched you together, one person has usually lost interest and never comes back. On these websites, you can browse the list of invitations, or make your own and leave it up until other people accept. No more hoping that enough other people happen to put in the same options you did in the few minutes before Game Center times out.

Online games don’t always replace in-person ones with friends, but this has been a great addition to my life over the past several months. In my next couple articles, I’ll look at each of these two sites more closely.

Advertisements

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

 

Letterpress (iPhone Game Review)

Letterpress in playThe new iPhone game Letterpress was just released last weekend, but it attracted enough players so quickly that people are wondering if it’s responsible for overloading Game Center. I wouldn’t be surprised: Game Center never gets much attention, and it’s an easily-ignored option in most apps that use it, so one big push may overload it. Personally, I think the fact that Letterpress requires Game Center is a major strike against it: The system feels a little sloppy, I didn’t like agreeing to the EULA for yet another information-gathering service, and as we just saw, the game is now at the mercy of hiccups in a service it doesn’t control.

Despite all that, Letterpress is worth checking out for its clever approach to word games. Players make words from the letters of a 5×5 grid, and each tile becomes “owned” by whoever used it last. But if a player manages to own a tile and every one it touches, it cannot be captured even if their opponent uses it. The unique thing about this system is that letters can be used without being adjacent, but the system of ownership and protection creates a map of shifting territories. You need to create a word not just from the 25 letters available, but using the specific letters that will most help your position. Another thing I appreciate is that the game rewards long words, which means that they’re almost always familiar to the players. It feels like a more natural use of language than word games that require you to memorize words like “QAT” and “XU” in order to be competitive.

The dark blue tiles are protected, as they are surrounded by light blue ones. The blue player is close to victory.

Also, of course, the quantity and positions of the letters change from game to game. A game with multiple ‘E’s, ‘R’s, and ‘S’s available plays very different from one with lots of ‘Q’s and ‘Z’s.  You’re never allowed to play a word if it has been used before, or if it is entirely contained within a previous word. This means that variations of words might come up repeatedly, but you’re forced to move forward without getting stuck in a repeating loop.

The app is well designed, but bare bones. That Game Center integration, for example, lets the game match you up to network opponents with little effort on the developers’ part, but adds a few seconds of delay every time you launch the app to play your next move. It has a clean interface that makes it easy to play, though I miss features like chatting. And given that this game works best when played quickly back and forth, this game screams out for options such as time limits and in-person games shared on one phone. (The app itself is free to try, and 99 cents for the “full” version which allows multiple games at once. The first time your game gets hung up because an opponent stopped responding for a while, you’ll realize how vital that multiple-game option is.)

I haven’t had any issues like the network trouble other people allege, but I have run into one annoying bug: Ever since a player resigned against me, the Letterpress icon on my home screen has told me I have one game waiting for my move. Even turning the phone off doesn’t make that go away.

As for the game itself, the beginning and middle are great (other than my aforementioned wish for time limits – this really is a game that demands to be played quickly). The endgame can be frustrating, though. Whenever all tiles are claimed, whichever player owns the most has won. Since the score tends to seesaw back and forth with every move, you’ll want to make sure you leave enough tiles neutral to keep your opponent from ending it. This is clever in theory, since your territorial considerations now include which tiles you need to leave untouched. In practice, though, that means that if players are fairly evenly matched, neither dares open an endgame opportunity for the other. It can be obvious who is going to win long before it becomes viable for that player to claim a victory.

Letterpress has the potential to become a great game, but it isn’t there yet. I’m not sure if the developers plan to keep adding to it, or if they consider it to be complete. Either way, though, it’s fast and free to try out, so it’s easy to recommend that you give it a chance. As long as you’re willing to give Game Center a chance, too.

Grade: B


Quick Update:One week later, I am still enjoying this, and have learned to play so that my issues with the endgame aren’t as significant. I also managed to get rid of that extraneous notification about a waiting game by deleting that one from the history of played games. I’ve run into enough other issues to reaffirm my belief that this feels rushed and incomplete: After the multi-second delay for the app to log you in to Game Center, there is another pause before your games are updated. Since there is no visual clue as to whether this is still loading, and also no hint about whether it is your turn in games other than the one you’re currently looking at, playing multiple games is frustrating. When a game ends due to my opponent’s move, it is moved immediately into the app’s list of my previously played games, and I won’t notice it ended unless I think to look for it. And this morning, I finally did experience several hours in which my games wouldn’t update even though I knew one of my opponents had moved.

My basic conclusion is unchanged: This is an addictive but clunky implementation of a clever game that would be best played in person.