Who doesn’t love digging out a board game box, cracking it open, and handling all the pieces as you set it up on a table? Game night is a wonderful tradition, but it suffers from the same main drawback as with other tabletop games – working adults have a hard time organizing get-togethers.
The good news is that computer games haven’t killed off board games. No, in fact some of the best board game action can now be found on your tablet, computer, or phone. While it can be pretty hit and miss, many developers have absolutely nailed the feeling of playing a board game.
The best part is that most of these games support local and remote multiplayer. Sometimes two people can even play on one device! What this means is you can still play with friends in the same room if you want. It also means you can play by yourself against a computer opponent – good practice for when you finally get a chance to school your friends on who the board game king is.
Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is one of the best-known and beloved board games of modern times. It was first published in 2004, but quickly became a classic.
The object of the game is to connect two ends of a route depicted on the game board. Other players don’t know which points you are trying to connect. At the end of this game the points are tallied and those who have gotten the longest, most complete routes take the win.
Ticket to Ride is a lot of fun, and the versions of the game has only gone from strength to strength. It was first released in 2011 as two separate games – one for iPad and another for the iPhone. Today it is a universal application, and as I write this in 2018 it received an update less than two months ago. This is a game you pay for once and then have full access, but there are optional expansions which can be bought with in-app purchases.
The game’s interface has been updated incrementally over the years so it still looks beautiful and polished. Given how much devices have upped their screen resolutions in the last seven years, I suspect the developers have had to redevelop significant parts of the game. It has a single-player mode against computer opponents as well as cross-platform multiplayers. There’s also pass-and-play, where five people play with one device. The game has a built-in tutorial as well, in case you have no idea how to play.
If you’ve never heard of Settlers of Catan then you must have been living in a cave for the last 23 years. Published in 1995, this strategic masterpiece pits you against as many as four other players as you build settlements on the island of Catan. You expend resources to build your settlements in the quest to earn 10 victory points. The first person to do so wins.
This game used to be known simply as “Catan”, but with the release of games like Catan Universe, which is more a video game than an adaptation, the app now has “classic” in the name to indicate you’ll be getting the same experience as the physical game.
It’s not just the name that’s changed, either. The original version didn’t have any online multiplayer, but as of version 4.0 you can now play with other people at a distance. In fact, the game has received a steady stream of improvements, to the point where it’s basically completely remade compared to version one.
Catan has been a staple of board game fan shelves for decades now, and having it available as an app is just amazing. This is one any strategy players will love.
Talisman – Digital Edition
Talisman was a pretty ambitious board game when it was released back in 1983. This game is another creation from Games Workshop, the same people behind the massively popular Warhammer tabletop strategy games. Since 2008, however, it’s been handed over to Fantasy Flight Games, which keeps it up to date and supports it. The Fifth Edition of the game is expected any day now.
The point of this fantasy adventure, role-playing board game is to seize the Crown of Command. You do this by making it through three regions: outer, middle, and inner. In order to get from the outer to the inner region where the crown is, you need to pass through the Valley of Fire. You can’t do that without a Talisman, so that’s where the game gets its name. That sounds metal as hell, right? Would you believe the original game was about trying to become the prefect of a boys’ school? Talk about changing your themes!
The iOS version of the game is based on the current 4th Edition rules. Despite being first released in 2017, the game has received constant updates and is current in 2018. One of the consistent complaints about Talisman is how almost everything that happens in the game relies on random number generation to some extent. This means many players don’t feel it’s particularly fair or an expression of skill. The game is, however, quite simple to learn. If you like your fantasy and don’t want to sweat out a complex tabletop experience, this is a wonderful way to kill time on a tablet.
Hitman, Lara Croft, and Deus Ex GO
Unlike the games above, these three games are not based on a physical board game. However, they look and feel so much like real board games that one believes they could have been real at some point.
These three games are based on three major, full-on video game franchises, but play nothing like them. Instead, they are single-player puzzle games that challenge you to move your player piece through a level and get to the other end without getting killed. Each level is a gorgeous diorama and quite mind-blowing for a mobile game.
In Hitman GO you play the assassin 47. You and the enemy pieces take turns; by sneaking up on them, you can take out the “bad” guys that stand between you and your target. The game becomes incredibly challenging very quickly, especially since the game ramps up the introduction of new game mechanics as you progress.
Lara Croft GO has the same core mechanics, but since this is a Tomb Raider game it also introduces vertical movement. Deus Ex GO is more of the same, but incorporates mechanics that fit in with the parent franchise and its cyberpunk aesthetic.
Yes, it feels a little like cheating to include these digital-only games that would be very hard to do in real plastic, but it appeals so much to the board game fan’s sensibilities that I’ll give that a pass.
The Witcher Adventure
It’s no secret that I’m a massive fan of the Witcher video games. Well, not so much when it comes to the Witcher 2, but the other two have eaten up hundreds of hours of my life. Given the popularity of the franchise, it should be no surprise that some spin-off titles have come from the main games. One of these is a trading card game known as Gwent, which I’ve discussed in the trading card articles on the site. The other is a curious digital board game known as the Witcher Adventure. Now, you might think that this is another digital-only board game, but it’s actually an adaptation of a physical board game of the same name.
Unlike many other tabletop-simulating digital board games, this game does not hold your hand. It’s a combination board and card game. It starts off with each player choosing between two random “quest” cards. The first person to complete a set number of quests, depending on circumstances, is the winner. Quests are completed by accumulating points in the game.
It’s not a terribly complex game, but it is steeped in Witcher lore and visuals. The game has a significant reliance on dice rolls, so the outcome isn’t always determined by skill. However, how you decide to approach completing the quest does require a bit of thinking. If you like a purist board game experience and like the Witcher franchise, this is a great example of a no-frills digital adaptation.
Chances are you’ve already heard about the board game Risk. It’s one of the oldest serious board games, having been released all the way back in 1957. It’s a game based on diplomacy and the hard decision of when to initiate war.
In Risk, the object is to take over all the territories of the world. Players can partner up temporarily and apply many strategies, but in the end there is only one winner. Risk is still a very popular game, but one of its defining features makes it very hard to adapt digitally – its length! Risk games can take hours to days before they’re finished. That’s not something that’s going to work for a digital multiplayer game, so Risk was reimagined into something a little more streamlined. That’s when we got Risk: Factions.
While there are faithful adaptations of the game, Factions takes the core gameplay of Risk and then brings in things like objectives, new maps, and more. On a technical level the game is a little middle-of-the-road, but if you love Risk and want a taste of it that doesn’t require tediously organizing a game night, this is a good choice. These days the only place to play it is on PC via Steam, but it is very cheap.
Chess is one of those board games that has received the most digital conversions of all. It was big news all those years ago when Gary Kasparov lost to a computer program running on a supercomputer. That computer, Deep Blue, is about 30 times slower than my iPad is today. So chess-simulating computer games have come a long way.
Chess Ultra is a great example of how refined chess computer games have become. You can buy it on PC, on premium game consoles, and on the handheld Nintendo Switch. The game is absolutely gorgeous, with rich environments and all sorts of cool themes. From a cozy library with leather chairs to fantasy matches atop a mountain, you can choose many ways to play.
It has “grandmaster approved AI”, 4K visuals, and full VR support. Holy pawns, Batman! It’s also another game that’s pretty cheap to buy, and if you love chess there’s no more gorgeous game that I know.
Available on Steam, Xbox, Playstation and more.
Due to its nature, I mention Tabletop Simulator often on this site. That’s because it’s not actually a digital recreation of one particular tabletop game. As the name suggests, this program simulates the tabletop environment, which means you can play just about any board game just through physical simulation.
So, in other words, if you play something like chess or dominoes you are playing with “physical” pieces where the rules are not specifically enforced by the computer. Although, there are helper plugins for the various games that make it easier to play them and keep track of things like scores. Tabletop Simulator is endlessly flexible and even has full support for virtual reality with motion controllers. So you and your friends can play as if you’re really sitting around a table together, despite being miles apart.
The core game comes with a heap of free game assets built in, but you can expand it with paid add-ons easily. It’s one of the best pieces of software for lovers of tabletop games. It comes with quite a lot of games bundled with the base package. These include chess, poker, jigsaw puzzles, dominoes, and more. It’s also set up so you can run full-on tabletop RPGs! Up to 10 people can play together and it supports voice chat. This is a must-buy for tabletop fans of any stripe and board game players in particular.
If there is one major criticism that I can level at Tabletop Simulator is that there’s no mobile version of the software. Luckily, another developer has stepped into the void and created the Tabletopia app. Right now it’s in Beta, and only on iOS, but eventually it will be cross-platform with full multiplayer over the internet. The game is free and includes content from many base games, but you can also expand it with in-app purchases. Obviously, it’s not as technically complex as its inspiration, but it’s the best attempt at such a sim on a mobile platform to date.
Digital board games have done a lot to keep board game designs alive and well. Rather than making people give up board games for “better” video games, it’s simply broadened the appeal of board games and lowered the barrier to entry. Tablet computers and now VR are also providing intuitive ways to play these games with a physicality that wasn’t really possible with a keyboard, mouse, or gamepad. So, in short, if you love board games now is an amazing time to be alive.