When game maker Chris Ewington and his team at Codito Development Inc., a Canadian software company, approached veteran board-game designer Reiner Knizia to allow them to make versions of his games for tablets such as the iPad, he was more than happy to oblige. “Reiner Knizia was one of the first and still remains one of the most active and progressive designers in terms of licensing his games for new platforms,” Ewington says. “Fortunately, when we contacted him, the licences we most wanted were available.”
Nearly all the popular board games from around the world have been converted into apps for mobile and tablet devices over the last year. Many more are under development, with releases planned in 2011. These include the usual suspects, such as Scrabble, Monopoly, Uno and The Game of Life, as well as cult favourites such as the German game The Settlers of Catan and Chinese card game Tichu. Board games are tactile in nature, making them perfect for touch-screen-based devices. The artwork in board games benefits from the crisp and bright displays that tablets possess, and is enhanced by the ability to bring animations, music and sound effects, additions that aren’t possible with the printed version.
A lot of targets for conversion belong to a particular genre of board games called the “European” style—which favour shorter play times and elaborate themes and usually downplay luck and elimination. Games in this genre already available for mobiles and game consoles include Zooloretto, in which players build competing zoos and take care of animals; Ticket to Ride, where players build train routes across Europe and the US; and Small World, where players vie for conquest of a zany world populated by bizarre warring groups.
Game on: (from top) Zooloretto; Carcassonne and Small World.
Knizia’s works belong to the European style. Ewington and his team started by developing an adaptation of Medici, a game that simulates a financial risk market (before turning to board games, Knizia was a quantitative analyst). “Medici was a slightly less complicated implementation and a better chance to ‘test the waters’, so that was our first release,” Ewington says. Since then, his team has released a version of Ra, another Knizia title set in ancient Egypt, and is working on at least five more titles.
Far from cannibalizing sales of the traditional printed board games, the apps have helped focus attention on them. “Certainly, the most gratifying feedback we have had is when users have told us that they are buying a printed version of the game as a result of having played our electronic version,” says Ewington. “We believe there’s plenty of room for both electronic and printed games, and that each have their merits.”
The apps have moved these titles into new areas of interaction. “There are quite a few groups of people that use it as a kind of social network,” says Martin Pittenauer, co-founder of The Coding Monkeys, a game studio which developed an iOS version of the award-winning German game Carcassonne. “They connect with friends that moved far away after finishing school, playing a round of Carcassonne while chatting about their days.”
These board games offer a compelling niche for these platforms, differentiating them from big gaming consoles or other hand-held devices such as Nintendo’s DS or Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP). “These devices are a great platform for board games because of their multi-touch capabilities and networking features,” says Pittenauer. “But it takes a lot of dedication to make them really shine and feel right.”
“Board games are not likely to utilize some of the cool mobile features like location awareness or the accelerometer,” Ewington says. “But it (the iPad) is one of the first devices that is large enough for people to physically sit around and interact with in much the same fashion as a printed board game.” Accelerometers, which detect tilts and rotations, are used in many action-oriented games, while location awareness uses a device’s GPS capabilities to pinpoint where you are.
The underlying algorithms that drive board-game mechanics, which are extensively tested, make them easy to convert to a computer program. This helps make business sense for small design studios as the dominant consumer base for board games is online (in communities such as BoardGameGeek.com, which has over 250,000 members worldwide). “These games are known and loved by an existing online customer base that made it easy for us to reach that initial target audience,” Ewington says.
Especially with European-style board games, there is a large benefit in an app’s ability to, in Ewington’s words, “manage the game pieces and enforce the rules”. Where the printed versions are visually attractive and sound fun, many face a barrier of entry posed by the complexity of rules, compared with more mainstream games such as Monopoly. “Even fans of Euro games complain sometimes about the set-up time, the number of rules and the subtle nuances of those rules,” he says. “With the iPad, much of that goes away—there is no set-up time, the rules are explained and enforced as you play, and turn times tend to be shorter (sometimes much shorter!).” Added to this is the advantage of online play, which means that now you can play these board games with friends who are far away.
Ewington and his team at Codito are now hard at work converting the venerable Puerto Rico, a game developed in 2002 by German designer and financial analyst Andreas Seyfarth, which sees players develop plantations and manufacture goods, and is the highest-rated board game in the world according to user rankings on BoardGameGeek. “We have plenty of work to do now, and we’re very excited about doing it,” Ewington says. “Our hope is that, by that point, we will have made enough of a name for ourselves that more doors will open and we’ll be able to develop other top board-game titles.”
Carcassonne, Medici, Ra, Zooloretto, The Settlers of Catan and Small World are available in the iOS store at prices starting from $1.99 (around Rs90). The Settlers of Catan, Medici and Ra are due for release in the Android market in mid-2011.