iPhone: The board gamer's paradise

For a board game geek, the iPhone and iPod Touch are fast becoming the best ways to shrink down a lot of cardboard and plastic pieces.

Hive for the iPhone: brilliant fun Scott Stein/CNET

Back when I used to work at Sony Online Entertainment many, many years ago, I became a board game geek. The game designers and producers gathered once a week to share their sizable collections and obscure finds up in Mira Mesa, Calif., and I got hooked. The fact that the Game Keeper chain of stores was simultaneously going out of business and liquidating their supplies encouraged me to start building my own game cabinet, and I profess without shame that I rapidly became a full-blown board game geek.

I still like hunting for new games, and a few years ago at the New York Toy Fair I came across the brilliant and simple tile-based game called Hive.

Like a cross between chess and dominos, Hive's hexagonal pieces are shaped like insects, each of which can move differently on their mission to surround the opponent's queen bee. I tried to order Hive online but it wasn't available, and no local game retailer would stock it. I finally found the game in a small town in Devon, England, while visiting my in-laws, and paid close to $35 for it.

This long story comes to a quick point: I found Hive on the iPhone App Store last week for $4.99, and instantly bought it. I hope this trend continues, and it should.

Hive joins my collection of Settlers of Catan , Go, Mancala, and what I'm sure will be many, many more board games shrunken to pocket-size on my iPhone. It's wonderful, and I feel like it's groundbreaking, too.

While game systems like the Nintendo DS and PSP have had a variety of fantastic titles, they'd certainly never proceed into European board games. The low overhead and microprices on Apple's ever-enormous App Store becomes, for both developers and consumers, a great live petri dish to grow a new legion of board game fans.

Board games, first of all, are cheaper to develop--or should be, at least. Tiles and markers are simple to animate, and most of the brilliance is creating a series of simple rules that in combination create complexity. Board game costs in the physical world are dictated by materials like paper, wood, and plastic, as well as the effort to produce smaller batches than larger companies.

For us, the semi-purchase-shy amateur gamers, $5 is a lot less than the 30-50 for a good-quality physical game. If the experience is addicting, then the physical game can become a secondary buy. Perhaps this can give new hope to the board game world.

iGo is nearly as good as a real board. Scott Stein/CNET

Right now, the collection of quality board games on the App Store is growing. Monopoly, Scrabble, and other mainstream stalwarts are present, but card games like Phase 10, Set, and Troika are, too.

Reiner Knizia, one of the most heralded board and card game designers, has several titles including Knights of Charlemagne. As mentioned, Settlers of Catan and Hive, two fantastic games, are now available. Risk exists in a decent variant called Lux, and of course I haven't even mentioned chess, backgammon, and poker (if that can even be counted in this category).

With the App Store comes the threat of copycats. Hive has a me-too game out there (I'm not sharing the name, I'd prefer the original gets the credit), as does Catan. Scrabble has an excellent and free challenger in Words With Friends. Could this threaten board game makers? Certainly, but I hope the benefits of exposure outweigh those challenges in the long run.

Catan Scott Stein/CNET

These apps are also great ways to learn the rules to games you may be rusty or unfamiliar with, such as Go. The iGo app is great practice before settling in front of a real player.

One of the reasons I wrote this piece was to share some of these apps with you. The other is to ask what board games you've discovered, since they're pretty hard to track down in the App Store, even with the "Board Games" category (which folds puzzles and other crapware in the mix). Any good finds? Oh, and have a good weekend.

 

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