A reader asked that we take a look at this article and give it a refresh, given how much has changed in digital board games over the past five years. PT regular Michael Coffer kindly went through Owen’s original words and found out what became of the BGG’s Top Ten list as of January 2014. We’ve also provided us with a new list based on the current top ten.
We’ve tried to leave Owen’s words intact, but I’ve made edits where needed and posted updates to each entry to reflect the current situation.
Original Story (Jan 17th, 2014)
We’re in the middle of a board game renaissance. Sales of board games are hot and getting hotter — industry observers called the summer of 2013 “the best summer ever” for the market.
Part of that success is wrapped up in the rise of iOS as a platform for digital board game conversions. I don’t know which one is the chicken and which one is the egg here, but clearly there’s some very influential people who think that digital board games have a very bright future, as evidenced by Silicon Valley-sized investments raised by digital board game purveyors like Playdek. Clearly, we’re going to see a lot more board games on iOS in the next couple of years.
It’s easy to see the appeal for board game publishers. When you decide to port a board game to iOS, much of the hard work in designing the game itself is already done, and you benefit from an existing fanbase for your product who will help spread the word about it — marketing is the toughest part of making a successful iOS game, as a lot of devs can tell you firsthand.
Board Game Geek is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-meets-IMDb of the tabletop gaming world. BGG maintains a database of over 68,000 boardgames, all ranked by the site’s half-million-strong membership. That’s a pretty authoritative list right there.
Which of the board games in BGG’s top 10 can you already play on iOS? And which ones will you be able to play soon? I did a little asking around.
#10 – Le Havre
Status: Available on iOS, iOS again & Android
2008 board game Le Havre is a quintessential “Euro” board game: light on the theme, but deeply strategic. Players collect resources and compete to develop the titular French port city without overextending themselves.
Update: Le Havre is in the rather unique situation of not only sporting more than one version, but more than one version on the same App Store. Due to the recent expansion of Asmodee Digital’s library of mobile board games, they’ve ended up either releasing or acquiring apps for games that have had version made in the past.
Codito’s original 2012 game is available on iOS, titled Le Havre (The Harbor). Asmodee Digital have their own version available on iOS known as Le Havre: The Inland Port, which is also available on Android. We should really do a comparison at some point.
#9 – Mage Knight
Status: In Development
Mage Knight is a big huge genre-mashing game of significant complexity: it marries together lots of mechanics that usually carry whole games by themselves. The one time I tried to play Mage Knight at a board game night, we ran out of beer while we were still learning the game. In other words: an ideal game for a digital conversion, as the iPad can do a lot of the rules interpretation and computational heavy lifting for you.
WizKids, the publishing house who hold the rights to Mage Knight, just launched their very first iPad game: Quarriors, which Dave reviewed for us in December. I asked them about their plans for a digital Mage Knight, and they told me that they were planning on following up Quarriors with another iOS game, they just hadn’t decided which one yet.
Update: It seems nothing became of that plan, because nothing’s turned up in the five years since. However, we did get news back in January that Dire Wolf Digital have recently acquired the rights a whole range of digital board game apps, which includes a partnership with WizKids that starts with Mage Knight.
#8 – Power Grid
Status: No Idea
This network-building game (not hugely dissimilar from the popular and easy to learn Ticket to Ride) is a license that Le Havre makers Codito tried to acquire back in 2012 but were rebuffed when publisher 2-F Spiele told them that a digital version was already in the works.
I wasn’t able to dig up anything more recent. Maybe an iPad Power Grid’s release is imminent. Maybe it’s stuck in development hell.
Update: Development hell is most likely – it hasn’t appeared in the years since, and we can’t find any recent information about it.
#7 – Eclipse
Status: No longer available
This science fiction empire-building game was released for iOS last spring to considerable acclaim — here’s Kelsey’s review of it. Polish iOS board game specialists Big Daddy’s Creations don’t shy away from complex games (their previous release was intricate abstract wargame Neuroshima Hex), and they’re still releasing updates for this one.
Update: Despite critical acclaim and a release on Steam and Google Play in 2016 (the Steam version doesn’t have good user reviews), the developer seems to have gone bust and shut down. Due to the lack of post-release support, you can’t currently buy this on any platform (although if you already own it, you can download and play still). The current rumour is that the license holders are looking to make a new app based on the 2nd Edition of the game with a new studio.
#6 – Terra Mystica
Status: Available on iOS & Android
Fantasy empire-builder Terra Mystica is much beloved for its dynamic play and asymmetrical sides, but it’s another complex game that would be orders of magnitude easier to play on an iPad or PC.
Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be a digital edition of Terra Mystica in the works, and some off-the-record conversations I had suggested that complex IP rights arrangements with Terra Mystica‘s publishers in different regions might make an iOS edition difficult to work out.
Update: Oh ye of little faith. Terra Mystica would get a mobile release on iOS and Android three years later in 2018, developed by digital board game connoisseurs DIGIDICED. It’s so good, it’s on our list of the best mobile board games.
#5 – Android: Netrunner
Status: Yes & No
This William Gibson-inflected cyberpunk card game designed by Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield has been hugely popular since its release in 2012 and publishers Fantasy Flight Games have fed thirst for the game with a steady drip of expansions.
Fantasy Flight are famously quiet on the PR front and wouldn’t comment, but an industry source told me that Android is in the works. Fantasy Flight have been hiring digital artists lately, and since they’re not producing the recently-announced Witcher digital board game in-house, those new bodies have to be working on something. My bet is this.
Update: Except it wasn’t. An official mobile app of the game never materialised, although you can play it via a web browser thanks to jinteki.net. The physical game was also retired last year after a six-year run, meaning that no new card sets or official tournaments will be happening. So far, FFG seems to have turned a blind-eye towards the browser game so that’s your only means of getting that digital fix.
#4 – Puerto Rico
Status: Available for iOS
The oldest iPad app on this list, Puerto Rico HD has been up on the App Store since 2011 and German board game publisher Ravensburger (who had Codito build the app on their behalf) have updated the game every year to keep it current with new versions of iOS.
Like Codito’s Le Havre above, this game is none-too-friendly UI-wise.
Update: Nothing much more to add here – there was never an Android version, although the successor game San Juan also got a mobile release on both iOS & Android.
#3 – Agricola
Status: Available for iOS (& Android, sort of)
The second appearance on Board Game Geek‘s top 10 for German game designer Uwe Rosenberg (who also designed Le Havre), Agricola is one of the most remarkable digital board games we’ve ever seen. Players run a medieval European farmstead and attempt to increase the size of their farms while managing to keep their growing families fed.
While it’s true to the rules that made the tabletop game such a huge hit, Playdek’s realisation of the game for iOS brings it to life in a way that only video games can, transforming the game board into a living, breathing farm village. We liked this one so much that we named it the Board Game of the Year and our Runner-up Game of the Year for 2013.
Update: Playdek’s version of the game never made it to Android, and the developer later sold the rights to the game to Asmodee Digital. DIGIDICED created a separate game in 2016 that is the digital adaptation of the two-player variant, Agricola: All Creatures Big & Small. They also sold the rights to Asmodee, and that game is available on iOS & Android. I know.
#2 -Through the Ages
Status: Available on iOS & Android
This Civilization-style empire builder is one of our most anticipated games of 2014, though it’s far from a sure thing that the game will come out this year. The iOS conversion was originally in the hands of Le Havre makers Codito, though the board game’s publisher Czech Games Edition parted ways with them in 2012.
Czech Games Edition head (and TtA designer) Vlaada Chvatil told me this week that work is progressing on Through the Ages for iOS, but that his company’s current focus was the digital edition of Galaxy Trucker. Chvatil said that they were re-doing much of the art that had been made for Through the Ages, suggesting that maybe this one’s going to be on our 2015 most anticipated list, too.
Update: Vlaada Chvatil got in touch to say that he wouldn’t rule out TtA for a 2014 release.
Actual Update: Through the Ages wouldn’t actually turn up until September 2017, although it was well worth the wait. Available on both platforms, it’s also on our list of the best mobile board games. In a rare turn of events, Michael actually enjoys playing the digital game more than the table-top version.
#1 – Twilight Struggle
Status: Available in all its glory for iOS & Android
Twilight Struggle is a game that I’ve been getting into myself over the past year. It’s an extraordinarily cerebral head-to-head contest between players taking the roles of the US and the USSR during the Cold War, waging an indirect campaign against one another as you vie for influence with client states and spread your ideology.
First released in 2005 (and designed by XCOM: Enemy Within designer Ananda Gupta), Twilight Struggle has been in the works for PC for years now and release is perennially six months away. Publisher GMT told me that there’s “no concrete plans” for an iPad edition, as all of their efforts are currently focused on the PC version.
Update: The PC & iOS versions of Twilight Struggle would eventually be released by Playdek in 2016, and it was glorious. An Android release followed shortly afterwards, and there was much rejoicing.
Board Game Geek’s Top Ten Board Games March 2019
Now that we’ve resolved 2014’a list, let’s have a quick peak at the list as it stands today, and see where we’re at in terms of digital adaptations for mobile.
10. Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition)
No, and not in the pipeline, as far as we know. Stretching back aeons (okay, 1997,) this scifi game featuring seventeen playable races in its present incarnation (4th ed.) is epic in duration and execution. Its ambitious design has stood the test of time, offering a related tabletop version of the intricacies of 4X genre, what with the conflict of warfare being counterbalanced by technology, economy and general politicking and ‘diplomacy,’ which is as genteel a front for betrayal and vendetta as any.
9. Great Western Trail
Pfister’s proven himself a designers-to-watch since Mombasa, and his Great Western Trail does not disappoint. Long past are the days when victory point games were inevitably about homeland and empire, now it’s more en vogue to have peripatetic ‘journey’ themed games (Voyages of Marco Polo, the Century series of games). The Great Western Trail tasks players with a herd and a dream and sees them wrassle with dust and disaster. It’s fresh but already feels like a staple of many a game night.
The thirst for an app is ‘being shared with the team’ but no concrete plans have been announced or rumoured so far. 2016 is relatively young in board-game years, and unless you happened to be an Asmodee property, the turnaround for digital editions is years, not months, so don’t hold your breath, this one is likely but only in the far-flung future.
In Scythe, mechs of fearsome size harvest and gather or wage war across Europe. This Eurogame strikes a tight balance between territorial conflict and engine-building and is well-beloved for its starting factions and their distinct identities and powers.
Asmodee Digital are publishing the Digital Edition, and it’s being developed by newcomers Knights of Unity. The game has been in beta Early Access on Steam for some time now but has yet to make the leap to iOS or a full PC release, though both are planned and likely to hit sometime this year. There have stretches of silence and delays up to this point, though, so until a hard date is available odds are 50-50 it’ll be delayed again.
7. Gaia Project
Definitely maybe, especially since its spiritual precursor, Terra Mystica, already has one. If Terra Mystica were reimagined from the ground up and shot into space, it would look something like the Gaia Project, which is a little more sandbox-y and a little less blueprint-y. Still every bit as cutthroat but, going with that space theme, a more capacious and innovative design.
6. Star Wars: Rebellion
No and probably not happening, for a few reasons. Like Twilight Struggle, this game simulates a struggle between two factions for ultimate control and is heavy on bluffing and deception. No reason an AI couldn’t reasonably emulate these qualities, however FFG, generally speaking, doesn’t make digital versions of games to play solo. They haven’t digitised games featuring duels between two players and have given no indications to start. Oh, and Rebellion is a premium product of a premium I.P. so it’s exclusivity on that front means a digital version might cheapen the game’s status, from a business standpoint.
(While not on iOS, you should all check out the late-90’s grand strategy game of the same name, which is available on Steam. The board game is pretty much a replica in physical form-ED)
5. Twilight Struggle
Present and accounted for, see above.
4. Terraforming Mars
Coming soon™ since 2018. We’re closer to the finish now that the PC version is out, but this is one of those recent hits which rapidly had its app ambitions announced too long ago, and now everyone is collectively stuck tapping their watch, waiting.
3. Through the Ages
Present and accounted for, see above.
2. Pandemic Legacy: Season 1
Unlikely, given that Legacy games stake their niche on physical alterations and a permanent end-state, concepts which don’t exactly translate well to a digital app. The original game, Pandemic, already has a digital version that’s quite good, so we imagine that’ll be enough for most people.
If any game needed a digital conversion, it’d be this behemoth of an Adventure/RPG. It’d certainly be a load off everyone’s minds (and backs, for the game weighs 10 kg). Last we heard, Asmodee Digital were making a digital version but they’ve only said it’s coming to Steam so far, so its unknown if it’ll ever come to mobile.
We hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane – let us know if there are any other older articles you want us to take another look at and update!