Find out which 2017 board game apps stand out as the best of the best.
What a year it has been for digital board games. Many classics were ported this year and we also got major announcements all over the place for games to look forward to next year. The board game world has been growing rapidly for a while now, and all indications are that the digital versions of these games are starting to experience similar growth. For example, two of the most recent releases to hit the BGG Top 10 (Scythe and Terraforming Mars) are both slated for digital release in 2018, a mere two years after their physical release. Regardless of what 2018 holds, 2017 was a heck of year for mobile board game fans.
Some ground rules for our list. 1) Each game could only “win” one category (see “Honorable Mentions” to see what other categories a game excels in). 2) That’s pretty much it. Click the screenshots to read our reviews, click the app store links to get the games. Without further ado, the 2017 Pixelated Cardboard Awards:
Biggest Bugaboo: Lack of System Notifications
We wanted to keep this list positive to celebrate the great games released this year, so we’re not including anything like “most disappointing” or “worst” here, but there was one negative aspect we couldn’t help but discuss: lack of system notifications for online games. An unbelievably high number of 2017 releases (any number over 0 should be unbelievable, but there were quite a few!) shipped without system notifications for online games. What’s the point of an asynchronous online game if I don't know when it’s my turn? A few of them offer email notifications (often right next to their broken system notification option), but it’s 2017, players shouldn’t be asked or expected to check email to know when they need to open an app. The root cause is debatable, this may be an Android 8 issue as they changed the way notifications worked. Regardless, we’ve uninstalled many a great game this year due to lack of notifications. How quickly would you uninstall a new email app if it didn’t notify you that a new email had arrived? Why is this remotely acceptable? That it is even something to discuss at this point gives us headaches. Please devs, if you do one thing different in 2018, give us across the board system notifications that actually work. Phew, glad we got that venting out of the way. No more negativity for us, onto the great games…
Best Non-Port: Age of Rivals
This is a pretty narrow field and in keeping to the games we covered here, there were only three options, all of them being a lot of fun. Having said all of that, Age of Rivals is a fantastic game which is most rooted in the strategy board game mechanics we tend to favor. The head-to-head game has players taking turns buying cards, with those they pass on being put up for grabs to their opponent, to build up their empire in a number of categories. The game zooms by in a crisp 15 minutes or less, but the number of strategic choices provided by multiple victory paths make the game much deeper than its playtime would suggest.
Honorable Mention: Miracle Merchant, Triple Agent!
Best Update: Paperback (Online play)
This is cheating, an excuse to bring an older game into this list, but we’re okay with that. Earlier this year Paperback received an update which added online play to the great deckbuilding/word game mashup. To the surprise of no one, the online mode plays wonderfully and has become a fantastic replacement for older, more stale word games for many of us here (sorry, Words with Friends).
Honorable Mention: Lords of Waterdeep (iOS, Cross-platform play, but not landscape mode)
Best Visuals: Onirim
Asmodee Digital’s games are always great looking. They clearly spend the time to get their ports looking great, and Onirim is a prime example. For a simple card game, the graphics pop at every turn. They aren’t the most detailed or extravagant, but they are visually pleasing. The nightmare animations are a great touch and every piece of information you need to play the game is readily available. The menus are clean and functional and the controls throughout are incredibly intuitive. Maybe the biggest compliment we can give this port is that the theme of the game is carried out well through all aspects of the app.
Honorable Mention: Jaipur, Burgle Bros
Best Quick Game: Eight-Minute Empire
Eight-Minute Empire came out of nowhere for us. We hadn’t tried the physical game and really didn’t know what to expect. When the app was released we were impressed by the polished app (although lack of online notifications don’t help) and the straightforward, fun gameplay. EME is an area control and set collection game in which players have a limited number of options each turn as they try to conquer the world. The in-app purchase pricing was a little off base to start, but they’ve added some cheaper, “buy it all” options which help. The real kicker to this great game is that it actually plays easily under eight minutes in app form. False advertising aside, the game is a treat and packs a big punch in just a few minutes.
Honorable Mention: Onirim
Most Surprising Game: Jaipur
Jaipur is a fantastic entry level two player game. There is a reason it is always brought up in response to “what games should I play with my spouse?” posts on /r/boardgames. It’s simple, easy to teach, and a lot of fun. So why were we surprised by its digital port? The campaign mode. Nothing about the simple set collection game screamed “campaign mode”, yet there it was when the app launched. The “campaign-ness” of the mode is okay, you come across some characters along the way which give you directions, try to extort you, or whatever else. That’s fine, but the real revelation here are the game variants that you unlock through campaign mode. Again, Jaipur doesn’t exactly scream variety, but here we are. Altering prices, reducing available tokens, reversing token order, reducing/increasing hand size are just some of the variations added. Some work better than others, but the collective sum add so much to the game it’s hard to imagine them not existing at this point.
Honorable Mention: Cottage Garden, Eight-Minute Empire
Best Solo Game: Burgle Bros.
Burgle Bros has players selecting a band of would-be robbers to pull off an elaborate heist. The playing area is a building consisting of multiple levels and guards roaming on each intent on catching you in the act. The entire concept is just plain fun. The game is a fantastic co-op and we were very excited when we heard it was getting a port. Thankfully, the port is a great implementation of the game. After a few updates it started to shine even more by adding a bunch of options to allow you to make the game easier or more difficult, as well as a few more map setups. Speaking of difficulty, like many true co-ops, Burgle Bros is outright brutal. If one of your characters gets caught a few times, your whole team is done. The more difficult setups are huge and require the team to explore a large number of room tiles, with potential danger lurking in each one. Of course, like any good game, you can mitigate that, in this case by peeking into unexplored rooms to know the danger ahead. Naturally, that slows down your progress and may leave you more open to being caught by a guard. It is the constant risk/reward decision making that drives Burgle Bros and the end result is an extremely tough challenge with a hugely satisfying payoff if you can make it out with the loot.
Honorable Mention: Onirim, Through the Ages
Best Online Game: Race for the Galaxy
Race for the Galaxy is a classic and it is great to see it get such a strong digital port. Players choose from a handful of actions each turn, attempting to build their empire more successfully than their opponent. The wide range of cards that may come up and the ways in which their abilities play off of each other are the reason this game has had such legs over the years. The app is clean, easy to use, and does a great job presenting a game which relies so heavily on iconography. Online play is well implemented with an easy to use lobby system, asynchronous options, cross-platform play, and working system notifications. It is simple, yet effective. We always like to see a random matchmaking button, but in this case the lobby system is so easy to use that we can’t really fault it. The game is well suited for online play with its series of small decisions and actions. It plays well both real-time and asynchronously, and the three expansions available add to the already deep base game.
Honorable Mention: Terra Mystica, Through the Ages
Developer of the Year: CGE Digital
This was not an easy decision. CGE Digital only released one game this year while others released a handful of really good games. In the end, we decided to go with CGE Digital because we’d rather play one nearly flawless implementation of an incredible game than a handful of flawed ports of lesser games. That’s not to discount the games made by our Honorable Mentions, but in our minds (spoiler alert!) Through the Ages is head and shoulders above the rest, not only in 2017 releases, but most releases in previous years. CGE simply got everything right. It’s exceedingly rare to see really well implemented online play, but CGE nailed it with easy to join, “join and forget” online games with snappy notifications (even extending to in-game notifications so you can easily switch if you are playing solo). A game as long as TTA doesn’t really lend itself to a campaign mode like CGE added for Galaxy Trucker, so the solo mode here (outside of simply playing the really strong AI, which is great fun in its own right) is a series of challenges which add unique alterations to the game, such as reducing costs of goods or limiting you to one leader for the entire game. Great achievements, cross-platform play, etc… are all here. The lone item we think is missing is stat-keeping, but we can’t be upset about that given the total package CGE presents here.
Honorable Mention: Digidiced, Temple Gate Games
Game of the Year: Through The Ages
If you're surprised by this, then you clearly don't read the site very often. We covered a lot about this one in the previous entry, what do we talk about now? We know the implementation is spot on, how about the actual game? Through the Ages is a civilization building game that plays out over three primary ages, from Moses to Bill Gates. Players start with straw huts to produce food and end up with advanced computers producing technology points. The victory points in TTA are culture points, which can be won by building culture-producing buildings like operas or movie theaters, but players can also go different routes such as building up a substantial military and forcefully pillaging culture from opponents. The latter is incredibly fun to do, but incredibly frustrating to be on the wrong end of. You also get to build wonders, upgrade to more advanced governments, colonize islands, develop fun things like professional sports and the multimedia, etc… The game is a joy to play, despite personally being quite bad at it, because each game will play out differently than the last. Want to ignore military concerns and simply produce heaps of culture? Go for it, until your opponent starts building fighter jets and coming after your culture points with force in the form of acts of aggression or outright declarations of war. There’s a reason this game ranks so highly on the BGG top 100 list, and we are all lucky CGE choose to implement this one themselves, they knocked this one out of the park.
Honorable Mention: Race for the Galaxy, Burgle Bros.