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.
The definition of 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 be 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 and craps. 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, and requires no cleanup after play.
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 even use a new Chromebook.
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 better 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 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; feel free to add your favorites in the comments section.
Often thought of as a gateway to other board games, Carcassonne is easy to learn but challenging enough to allow many different strategies. Simply place tiles on the board to build walled medieval cities. You compete against the other players to earn the most points for cities, roads, and farms. Despite straightforward play, calculating a final score in the physical version of the game has always been challenging. Thankfully, that's an issue this app handles easily. at
Using nothing but cards on a three-by-three grid, Card Thief manages to create a strategic stealth experience. Guide your thief through well-guarded manor houses, avoiding the light and pick-pocketing guards. Nab the treasure and escape undetected, and you live another day, safe until it's time for the next job. This follow-on to Card Crawl has similar, cut-out style art and takes place in the same fantasy universe. at
3Castles of Mad King Ludwig
In Castles of Mad King Ludwig, you're one of the greatest architects in the land. The trouble is that your latest client is the notorious Mad King Ludwig, whose flights of whimsy demand castles that defy construction. Try to please the King while also outdoing your fellow architects, and you won't have to worry about the tedious work of scoring or putting all the castle pieces away when you're done. at
Often considered a gateway to modern board games, the physical version of this game, known as Settlers of Catan, never really struck a chord with me. The app, however, changed my mind a bit. This excellent adaptation makes the game easy to learn and even easier to play. It's clearly lovingly made and does a great job of simplifying Catan for the touch screen without dumbing it down. If you love this Catan, this app lets you get right to building the longest road. at
5D&D Lords of Waterdeep
Gather recruits, complete quests, and earn influence in this massive game set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. But this is no RPG; instead of earning skill points, you allocate workers. Need some wizards? There are always a few down at Blackstaff Tower, but if it's rogues you're after, you'll find them at The Grinning Lion Tavern. The app handles Lords of Waterdeep's complicated mechanics with aplomb, and it also ensures you'll never have to worry about losing a warrior cube ever again. at
6Elder Sign Omens
Set in Fantasy Flight's sprawling Arkham Horror universe, this adaptation of the eldritch dice game Elder Sign: Omens is both challenging and captivating. You take on the role of investigators trying to stop an ancient horror hidden in a spooky museum from bringing an end to all things. The Arkham games are notorious for being as hard to learn as they are to win, but Omens will get you started in no time flat. at
Unlike most board games, Forbidden Island is cooperative. You and the other players must work together, or you all lose the game. It's a neat twist, and while this app doesn't quite realize its potential, the game is still worth playing in any format. at
I was incredulous, to say the least, when I heard that Blizzard was creating a WarCraft-themed collectible card game. But somehow, the stars aligned and created one of the most fun experiences that can be had on a phone or tablet. Deck construction is a snap, and the play is brisk and light but not without strategy. Best of all, Hearthstone can be played entirely for free. It's a great example of what board games can be when there's no board at all. at
In Lost Cities, the app developers took a game already divorced from its theme of exploring ancient ruins and ran with it. The result is a beautifully made game where you insert cards into slots, trying to get the most of a particular color and placing bets on the different tracks. Lost Cities shares the same developer on iPhone as Carcassonne, and both are benchmarks for quality. at
From the same developer as Card Thief and Card Crawl, Miracle Merchant sticks with cards and a fantasy setting, but takes little else from its predecessors. Here, you take the role of an apothecary filling the magical prescriptions of your clientele at an all-night potion shop. Bright and colorful, it's a fun and challenging addition to any mobile device.
Frequently out of print (and sky-high in price as a result), San Juan is a streamlined variant of the legendary game Puerto Rico. In San Juan, you purchase buildings and produce goods in response to a frequently changing market. It's a clever twist on an economy-building game, and well worth your time, despite a few quirks in your app. at
12Small World 2
Small World 2 answers the question, "What if you made Risk actually fun and also set it in a fantasy realm?" In this game, you play as rotating armies of fantasy creatures, each with unique abilities. Once your civilization is spent, put it into decline and grab a new one. Fun in any format, the app has the added advantage of not having any fiddly pieces to look after. at
Most board game apps try to simplify the physical experience, but not Star Realms. Every aspect of this card-based game is lovingly, painstakingly re-created in the app. That makes for some awkward moments, but thankfully you'll probably be having too much fun leading your spaceship armada to victory to notice. at
14Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is one of those board games that has almost joined the ranks of classics like Monopoly and Scrabble. The difference is that Ticket to Ride is actually fun. In this game, you aim to build a network of railroads, connecting cities across the country. With some intriguing press-your-luck elements, it's the kind of game you can teach the whole family to play. at