What qualities are we looking for in a board game app?
Do we want a straight port of the physical game so we can play it anywhere? Do we need a little something extra like a campaign mode to make it worth the purchase? Is it all about the online capabilities? Let's dive in.
I think there are a few different categories board game app players will fall under:
- Those who want to try new games.
- Those who want a great solo game to play anywhere.
- Those who want to beat the snot out of friends or strangers via online play.
While each of these situations brings a different set of expectations and standards to a game, there is certainly some common ground between them, so let's start there.
What are the things everybody cares about when they decided to throw down their money for an app?
First and foremost, it has to be a well designed and implemented app. Completely ignoring the underlying game and features for a moment, if the thing just doesn’t work, it’s an uninstall. If it is distractingly ugly or has bad controls, uninstall. So what needs to happen to pass the basic eyeball test?
Visual: Sometimes the source material isn’t the most exciting, artistically, to translate to an app. That’s fine, but at the very least, the app needs to accurately recreate the visuals from the board game. If there is iconography in the game vital to game play, the app must not mess it up.
Functionality: The game just needs to work. I’ve had many app crashes, and many more cases where online games get ruined mid-game. There are very few things that will get me to uninstall an app quicker than if I start consistently getting online games which get broken and can’t be recovered.
Controls: Very important for any app, but takes on added importance for a board game port. The source material almost always contains some combination of cards, chits, meeples, dice, tokens, etc… Players are expected to push these around on their devices to perform their actions and the developer’s decision on how to translate the cardboard pushing into pixel pushing can go a long way to determining the success of an app.
Now we’ll go through the most important parts for the three board game app categories listed earlier. Of course in reality most people don't fit neatly inside one of the three, and there is going to be a ton of overlap between the three, but it makes for easy segmenting of this post, so humor me.
The Game Tester
If you play most of your games in person, love pushing the cardboard, shuffling, and rolling the dice, you might look towards board game apps as a cheap way to test out a game. (Friendly Local Gaming Store plug: Many brick-and-mortar stores offer free game trials, if you are lucky enough to have a FLGS nearby, check those out).
The Game Tester is mostly concerned with how well the app represents the physical board game. They are also going to prefer apps with quality tutorials so they can truly learn the game.
Port Accuracy: I want to play a pixelized version of this board game. Recreate it with 100% accuracy and I’ll be happy. This is honestly one of the lowest bars to clear for an app port, but it’s still important to note.
Tutorial: This one is much harder to get right. We’ve seen a wide variety of tutorials in apps ranging from “here’s a link to a website with the 20 page rulebook” to “step-by-step playthrough the a full game, re enforcing rules at each step to ensure it sticks.” The former is obviously not ideal, but sometimes the latter can be a bit overbearing. The most common tutorial is one where a few turns are played out with a predetermined series of dice rolls/card draws/whatever so the tutorial can teach you a specific point. These usually work out fine, but we have enjoyed those with a touch more randomness/freedom (if they can pull it off) as they are more engaging. The bottom line, however, is that the tutorial needs to leave the player prepared to play a full game. 100% rule understanding isn’t very likely, but as long as the tutorial provides a good enough base that you can make it through a full game, you will be satisfied.
The Solo Gamer
Video games are fun, but sometimes you want something a little different when you have a few minutes free to play. The range of board games on the market has expanded to the point where there is bound to be something for everybody. A well made board game app can be a great introduction or a great way to enjoy ten minutes against a tough AI opponent on your phone or tablet.
If you are playing solo, the key features are the depth/variety of the single player offerings and the competence level of the AI opponents.
Play Modes: If you plan on paying money for an app to play vs AI, there better be some meat in the game. A normal game versus AI is the minimum viable option, but ideally the game will add something more such as a campaign mode. If you frequent Board Game Geek you will know there are many fan made campaigns for various games designed to add longevity to a game. If an app incorporates something along those lines, it will go a long way towards keeping players coming back.
AI: It's not fun to play an AI you never lose to. A bad AI will quickly sour a solo player on an app. A good AI will have multiple difficulty levels to scale as the player learns and improves. There are good and awful examples of AIs all across the board game app world.
Longevity: This is really a culmination of the previous two. If you offer a variety of modes and good AI, the game will have longevity. If you are missing one or the other, it won't. Available expansions play a role in longevity as well, if I love a game it's great to see some cheap add-ons I can purchase to bring aspects to the game.
The Online Player
Board games are great, anybody reading this should agree with that. Getting a group of friends together to play board games is even better. Then reality kicks in for some and getting the group together goes from weekly to monthly to quarterly to yearly. Quality board game apps have been great for letting people challenge friends and strangers alike.
Keys for an online player mostly revolve around matchmaking and gameplay options.
Matchmaking: I want to be able to challenge a specific user or jump into a random match. Pretty simple, but amazing how many apps miss the mark here. Many apps require you to wait around in a lobby for playing partner(s) to be found, others have a weak or non-existent challenge system. This is really basic stuff for any modern online game, it needs to be done right.
Gameplay Options: This is a broad term, but I want to be able to play how I want to online. If I want to sit down for 15 minutes and go through a complete real time game, please let me do so. If I want an asynchronous game where I get a notification when it's my turn and maybe I get to it in 30 seconds and maybe I get to it in 5 hours, please let me do so. This one hits close to home for me, if a game doesn't have asynchronous play it is very likely to quickly fall out of my rotation.
The Bottom Line
It's been alluded to, but not said outright, the two most important aspects at the end of the day for a good board game app are:
It has to not suck: Don't screw it up. Faithfully port the game and let me play it how I want to without any quirks like confusing controls or crashes.
It has to be fun: Everybody has different tastes in games so this is maybe the most subjective aspect of it all, but the underlying game needs to be good and it needs to translate well to an app. Some games just wouldn't work on an app, others are prime for a port.
There you go publishers and developers, follow those simple guidelines and continue pumping out games that don't suck and we'll happily continue playing them.