Digital Games To Try Before You Buy
As I’ve mentioned before, digital board games will never replace their in-person counterpart for me. However, one of the advantages they offer is a chance to try a game at a lower price point before you invest in that title. When I purchase a game, I not only spend the money to buy it but I must also dedicate space on a shelf (not a trivial matter) and time to play it (definitely not trivial). There are several games that I am interested in buying, but for various reasons have had hesitation about purchasing; fortunately, some of these games were available for IOS.
To highlight how useful digital games can be, I created a “Try Before You Buy” list for myself and documented my experience. I have chosen five different mechanic sets to try to mitigate my bias for/against a particular genre. For this list, I have ranked the games by my level of interest in the game prior to digital purchase. Each entry will include a brief description of the game as well as my initial interest, hesitation and verdict.
One final note before I begin - sometimes there are differences in the way digital implementations play from in person; additionally, sometimes companies simply implement a game incorrectly, which is fixed on a future release. I try to consider this possibility when evaluating the game, since I do not know the actual rules, having never played the game before.
Will I buy some of these games or not? Let’s find out
#5 - San Juan
Mechanics: Tableau Building
Interest: Lots of similarities to Race for the Galaxy, one of my favorite games of all times.
Hesitation: Lots of similarities to Race for the Galaxy, one of my favorite games of all times and a game which is rated higher, so I’d be unlikely to play this often.
Before: 10% chance of purchase. Sat in my wishlist for over a year in case of a sale.
San Juan is the card game version of Puerto Rico and feels like the predecessor to Race for the Galaxy. Each turn, the current governor chooses a phase in which all players will participate and gain some benefit, but only the leader gets the full benefit. Once a phase is chosen, no other player can choose that same phase during the same round. Players can choose between constructing buildings, producing resources, selling resources for cards and drawing cards; there are two options for drawing cards, one in which players choose from a number of cards drawn and one in which only the leader draws the top card. Players can construct buildings using cards in their hand as currency; buildings provide points and bonuses as well as advancing the game, which ends when a player has built twelve buildings.
Verdict: Not going to purchase. San Juan seems like a fine game, but I have little reason to play it because of my preference for Race for the Galaxy. The game’s greatest strengths are also its weaknesses. It is interesting how only one player can select a phase per turn, which can be useful for denying your opponents an opportunity to construct a building since they do not get the discount; at the same time, with more players it is frustrating when the action is taken and I don’t want to choose any of the remaining ones I have left. Drawing cards can be difficult to accomplish and you are very much at the mercy of what you draw. Every game I’ve played has resulted in me almost exclusively purchasing violet cards because that it what I drew, which meant that the produce and sell phases were extremely inefficient and there wasn’t much I could do to alter that. If I were using a produce/sell strategy, I could use this strategy to my advantage, so this reality is both a positive and a negative aspect of the game. I fully admit that I would probably like this game if I hadn’t played Race for the Galaxy before, and I appreciate that there are words on the cards rather than symbols, but this game did not stand out for me.
#4 - Tikal
Mechanics: Area Control, Action Point Allowance, Worker Placement
Interest: Tikal won the Spiel des Jahres in 1999 and I like to collect those games. The designer, Wolfgang Kramer, holds the record for most Spiel des Jahres winners with five and I was curious to play one of his designs. The game also has an Exploration element that most other games lack, as well as Action Point Allowance, a mechanic I love.
Hesitation: The game comes in a very big box and would not work for my shelves. The wide dimension of the box makes travel very difficult. The game’s length is at the upper limit of what I enjoy playing.
Before: 20% chance of purchase.
Tikal is a mix of Area Control, Worker Placement and Action Point Allowance. Players have ten action points each turn to use in conjunction with their finite worker resources. Action Points are required for deploying explorers, moving them, uncovering levels of temples, digging for artifacts and placing camps/guards. Players score points for sets of treasures collected and for having the most explorers on a temple. If you have a majority on a temple, you can place a guard there to guarantee control, but you forfeit your workers there. Scoring occurs when a volcano tile is drawn, where each player scores on their individual turn. It is possible to temporarily send your workers to a temple after another player has scored the temple to overtake them and score it as well. Like Alhambra, the scoring rounds are spaced out so you are never certain when they will occur. The game ends when all tiles are placed and one is placed per turn; a final scoring round occurs at the end of the game.
Verdict: Possibly. If I can get it at a good price and can find a space for it, I would strongly consider buying this game. I’ve never played a game with so many action points before, which led to some interesting turns of mass movement. When you use a guard to guarantee controlling a temple, you lose all the workers there previously, which I baited the AI into doing and was able to control many temples as a result, since they were worker starved. Tikal offers an interesting mix of competing on temples, whose leader can fluctuate, and focusing on artifacts, which are guaranteed points with a lower ceiling. The game proceeds toward a finite conclusion since one tile is playing every turn. I really enjoyed playing this game, although even the app takes 30 minutes, which is usually longer than I want in a digital game.
#3 – Baseball Highlights: 2045
Mechanics: Hand Management, Take That
Interest: I am a big fan of baseball and I’ve heard that this game simulates it accurately. I really like the idea of building a team in free agency. The publisher, Eagle Gryphon Games, has made several games that I really enjoy. The theme is Robots playing baseball, and that alone should sell the game.
Hesitation: The game has an odd player count of 1,2 or 4. Baseball Highlights: 2045 had availability problems and the price was very high for a two-player game, a category which I don’t get to play very often. The price has since come down and the product was restocked.
Before: 25% chance of purchase. Sat in my wishlist for over a year in case of a sale or restock.
I was impressed by how well Baseball Highlights: 2045 simulates baseball. There is an interesting Rock Paper Scissors system with Naturals, who are good at fielding and handling runners, Cyborgs who are good at pitching and Robots who excel at hitting. Each turn, a player plays a card that threatens a certain number of hits; the opponent plays a card in response that may alter or ignore the hits, while threatening some of their own. This continues until both players use all six cards and a winner is declared. Additionally, there are three speeds – slow, average and fast – that determine how quickly runners move around the bases, as well as many other special abilities to keep cards versatile. There is also an opportunity to reserve a card for pinch hitting purposes. After a game, players move to free agency, where they can purchase new players and send weak players to the minors.
Verdict: Not going to purchase. I did not get a good feel for the game and had to look up the rules in order to understand what happens in between minigames. The majority of your team is unused each game, only using up to seven of the fifteen cards. Without knowing what a player can do, this game is very difficult to win. My team had several cards that negatively affected opponent Cyborgs; unfortunately, my opposing team did not have any. I felt very much at the mercy of my current draw; additionally, in free agency I could only replace the team members of my previous team, so I wasn’t always able to remove the weakest card in my deck, only the weakest card on my previous team, which won’t take effect until the team was fully depleted. In fact, I wonder if the outcome of the minigame is decided at the moment the cards are dealt, where one player cannot win because the other team simply has better cards. At times, I enjoyed playing the game while I was frustrated at other times. You need to play this game a lot to be good, yet I do not know with whom I would play this game in person to reach that level of saturation.
#2 – Medici
Mechanics: Auction, Set Collection Push Your Luck
Interest: I enjoy Reiner Knizia games and I like the mathematics of his games. I had heard good things about this game and a card version recently came out. It supports six players in a reasonable time period.
Hesitation: The game’s availability fluctuated over the years it was on my watchlist, so it’s been hard to assess the game’s value. I’m not the biggest fan of auction games.
Before: 40% chance of purchase.
Medici is played over three days. Each day, players have five slots in their boat to receive goods, where each good has a type and a weight. The current player forms a group of one to three goods, which are drawn blindly from a collection of four per player; additionally, no particular good is guaranteed to be in the collection. Once the group is chosen, each player starting with the player to the left has one opportunity to place a bid on the group or pass; the current player has the last vote. If no one claims the group, these goods are discarded. Play continues until each player has filled their boat or all goods are depleted, and the round is scored. Players receive points for having heavier boats than their opponents; in addition, each resource has its own track that increases with each space allocated to specific good. The two players with the most and second most of a good receive ten and five points, respectively; additionally, players may earn five, ten or twenty bonus points depending on the number of goods of a type they collect over the course of the game.
Verdict: Definitely going to purchase. I wish I had purchased Medici when I had the opportunity, as the bidding mechanic is perfect for this game. Since each player only gets one chance to bid, they have to evaluate the group very carefully. No player knows what other goods are in the collection, so a better set may not exist in subsequent turns. You can stay out of the bidding and hope that you can get quality goods for the minimum cost, or you can bid for exactly what you want. If you bid too little, players can obtain desirable goods for considerable value; if you overpay, players will pass consistently and try to obtain value elsewhere. Players have to be very careful about what goods they collect – sometimes a good has no value in your set but provides crucial weight. There are many interesting decisions over the course of Medici, and the fact that it only lasts three days creates an urgency in trying to collect goods of the same type to extract the set bonuses early and often.
#1 – Paperback
Mechanics: Deck Building
Interest: I really enjoy Deck Building games and I thought that the concept was fascinating to make the cards letters, to be used in forming words.
Hesitation: I have a lot of deck buildings and most people I know don’t like the mechanic.
Before: 75% chance of purchase. It had been sold out on previous occurrences when I attempted to buy it.
In Paperback, players start with an identical deck of five wild letters and the letters R, S, T, L and N. There is also a common deck from which players can borrow a vowel or gain the vowel permanently if the cost in word length is met – these special vowels are worth points at the end of the game. Players are using their hand to make words; cards successfully used may provide abilities and/or cents to purchase more letters or fame cards that are worth points. The game ends when either the common deck is exhausted or two piles of fame cards are exhausted; the player with the most points is the winner.
Verdict: Not going to purchase. I was surprisingly disappointed by Paperback – I really thought I was going to love this game. There are three possibilities: 1) I am simply terrible at the game, 2) I have the worst luck possible or 3) the game simply does not work; I am open to any three of these being the case. Most deck building games have the concept of dead weight cards, like Estates in Dominion. The problem is, the wild cards are necessary for providing key vowels but do not contribute to the score. In Dominion, if you draw three estates on one turn, you have a bad hand this turn but are probably going to have a great turn next. In Paperback, however, drawing four or more Wilds not only means you will only have two scoring cards (including the commons, which is worth one cent), but you will also be extremely vowel starved on your next turn. Almost all of the cards you can purchase are consonants, and the few vowels you can purchase are inexplicably trashed after each turn you use them. Every time I played this game, I found myself stuck with bad draws, unable to make a word of decent length to buy better cards or even fame cards. I tried using an anagram program and the possibilities simply did not exist given the letters I had. I only won once out of at least ten games, many of which I restarted because I simply could not progress in the game. I was sure that I would purchase this game, but trying it in digital form saved me quite a few dollars.
With the aforementioned games, my experience may be different from yours, which is OK - we all have different interests. If you find any of these games interesting, consider the low cost investment of a digital game, particularly if they are on sale. In some cases, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed a game; in others, I saved a lot of time, space and money. Sometimes you have to try before you buy.