We might not understand the board games pulled from Egyptian tombs or Viking ships, but they do prove that such games have been beloved of humanity for millennia. While video games once relegated board games to the closet, board games have since gone digital, with mobile app versions of new classics and some games that even blur the line between the physical and the digital.
What Is a Mobile Board Game?
One of the advantages of being the writer of this article is that I get to choose what goes in it. That’s why I am about to go on a tangent about the definition of board games, and mobile board games in particular. You, dear reader, can of course exercise your own prerogative and skip ahead to where I tell you which ones are good.
What qualifies as a board game matters, because computers allow us not only to recreate existing board games, but also to create entirely new ones. Games like Hearthstone and Armello were digital games first, but are still definitely board games. After several days of meditation, the three simple, defining features of a board game appeared to me in a dream.
First, a board game must use traditional gaming elements, such as dice, boards, and cards. Second, a board game must have some kind of scenario or theme, to separate it from games like poker or baseball. Finally, to draw a distinction from tabletop roleplaying games, such as Warhammer or Dungeons & Dragons, board games must have a distinct ending condition.
The Benefits of Adaptation
While I absolutely admire a simple and elegantly constructed game like Vye, I take sadistic glee in board games that are packed with widgets. The more miniatures, charts, tracks, and mats there are, the better. It’s one of the wonderfully silly things that make board games unique. But keeping track of all those pieces, and putting them away, is a real pain in the ass. Worse, the most miniature-packed games tend to be the most expensive.
Digital board games solve both of those problems with ease. For instance: the physical version of Lords of Waterdeep retails for $50.00 on Amazon, has more pieces than you can shake a stick at, and somehow never quite fits back in the box. The Android app costs only $9.99, requires no cleanup after play, and will always fit snugly on your phone.
Putting games into a computer has the advantage of automating rules and number crunching. That’s great for games like Carcassonne, where complicated scoring mechanics for farms can make the game intimidating. Some digital board games will even politely remind you of abilities or mechanisms you might have forgotten. I always forget to draw a card after settling a planet in Race for the Galaxy. My app never lets me forget.
That said, mobile board game apps are far from perfect. The social aspect is frequently lost in the translation, as most digital board games rely heavily on asymmetric turn-based play. That’s when someone takes a turn, and then the opponent(s) take their turn minutes, hours, or days later. When your opponent is on the other side of a screen, you may as well be playing alone.
Android or iOS?
A few years ago, I would have said that the iPad was unquestionably the best device for digital board games. The iPhone, a close second. That’s not so true anymore. Google Play now has near parity with the Apple App store, and has a strong slate of high-end phones that are a joy to use. Where Android still comes up short is with tablets, but you might be able to dig up a Pixel C, or give the new ChromeOS powered Pixel Slate a try.
One small note is that some blockbuster apps still debut exclusively on the iPhone and iPad. It took months for Monument Valley 2 to make its appearance on Google Play. And in a few isolated cases, such as Carcassonne, the iPhone versions are radically different than the Android versions.
That said, I doubt anyone is buying mobile devices specifically to play board games. Rest assured that, no matter your device, you’ll be able to get excellent games.
The Future of Board Games?
In the past few years, physical board games have tentatively embraced digital components. The World of Yo-Ho, for example, is a pirate-themed sailing game where players move their smartphones around a board to interact with each other. Other games, like Mansions of Madness and 7 Wonders, have smartphone apps that do some of the heavy lifting and number crunching for you.
We may be on the edge of some remarkable new experiences. The latest handheld devices from Apple and Google both excel in with augmented reality, or AR. Augmented reality apps use your phone’s camera to overlay digital elements onto the real world. We got a taste of this real-life interaction with games like Pokemon Go, but it’s easy to imagine interactive games suspended before our eyes or overlaying traditional, physical elements.
Whether you started playing decades ago or just in the past few weeks, digital board games are adding an entirely new dimension to the hobby. They can teach, they can keep score, they can keep you connected to friends miles away or across the table. Here’s a look at our top picks.