Great Digital Board Games

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Great Digital Board Games

For me personally, digital board games will never replace their physical form. Even as an AI programmer, I prefer human competition for many reasons, particularly humanity’s inherent unpredictability. Furthermore, online multiplayer is a rarity for me, as I am a data plan minimalist and I prefer the act of playing in person. However, a great digital implementation of a game can enhance the title’s overall experience by providing a means to learn the rules, practice strategy, or experience a new game at minimal cost.

There are many great digital board games, including some that you may have already played, but the focus of this list is to introduce players to games that they might not have known. In my experience, IOS has better game support than Android, but I have tried to consider both platforms when making this list. Here are five great games in five different genres you might not have played that have great digital implementations. Each of these entries can be played by yourself with AI although many of them also support multiplayer.

#5 - Onirim

To win Onirim, players must unlock each colored door (right) by forming sets of three colored symbols where no two adjacent symbols are the same (Sun, Moon, Sun; Moon, Sun, Key  etc)
To win Onirim, players must unlock each colored door (right) by forming sets of three colored symbols where no two adjacent symbols are the same (Sun, Moon, Sun; Moon, Sun, Key etc)

Mechanics: Set Collection, Hand Management
Platform: IOS, Android

I do not understand why solitaire board games exist. I do not feel a draw to play them, because video games solve the same problem – providing content for me, by myself – with much more engrossing gameplay and much less setup. Onirim, with its frequent shuffling, is the very type of game I would never play in physical form by myself, even if I did enjoy solitaire games. Yet its puzzle nature has translated very well into an app, particularly because the shuffling is automated. Players have a hand of cards that they are trying to arrange in specific patterns while Nightmare cards randomly appear and inhibit your progress; players are competing against the game and are encouraged to try to beat their best score. The app is currently free, making Onirim a great opportunity to experience the board game equivalent of a puzzle at no cost. There are additional expansions for purchase that will increase the difficulty.

#4 - Ascension

All players may purchase cards or defeat monsters from the center row that is formed from the main deck. Players have to be flexible in their strategy since cards may come out in any order
All players may purchase cards or defeat monsters from the center row that is formed from the main deck. Players have to be flexible in their strategy since cards may come out in any order

Mechanics: Deck Building
Platform: IOS, Android

Ascension was my first IOS game, although I had the physical game before. This app is also free for the base game, like Onirim, and the AI is fairly competitive. I have played this app so much that I will likely never play the base game again in physical form because I have mastered it. But for new players, Ascension remains a great introduction to deck building at no cost to them. Unlike Dominion’s stack based deck building, Ascension introduced the single deck/lineup structure seen in games such as the DC Deck Building Game or Star Realms. Ascension may not be the best deck builder, but it is a solid game and this implementation set the tone for many future digital games. Did I mention it is free? There are expansions that can be purchased, however, which add more cards and mechanics.

#3 - Small World (Small World 2)

The two-player Small World map. Terrains may provide defensive abilities, victory points or other bonuses depending on the race and special power combination
The two-player Small World map. Terrains may provide defensive abilities, victory points or other bonuses depending on the race and special power combination

Mechanics: Area Control, Variable Player Powers
Platform: IOS (iPad only), Android

Small World is an inherently antagonistic game with more than two players, where revenge and team-ups are par for the course. These concepts do not work well with AI, unfortunately. However, two player Small World is still excellent, and the digital implementation removes some of the nuisances of its physical form such as scoring correctly, calculating the proper number of units to capture a territory and having to constantly make change. In Small World, players are competing to control a board that is not big enough for everyone. Players will choose a combination of race and special power to give them unique abilities over the course of the game, abandoning their races when they are no longer useful. There are many unique combinations of races, all with their own strengths and weaknesses, which keeps the game fresh after numerous playthroughs. For me, Small World is everything I wanted Risk to be in a shorter timeframe.

#2 - Race for the Galaxy

In Race for the Galaxy, your starting world provides direction for your initial strategy. Cards from your hand may be placed into your tableau or used as payment when placing cards
In Race for the Galaxy, your starting world provides direction for your initial strategy. Cards from your hand may be placed into your tableau or used as payment when placing cards

Mechanics: Simultaneous Action Selection, Hand Management
Platform: IOS, Android

Race for the Galaxy is currently my favorite digital game (and I’ve been Beta Testing Smash Up) for one simple reason – the AI is unforgivingly difficult. I lose about 40-50% of the time on Hard, which means I have to be extremely precise in every game, which I greatly enjoy. Race for the Galaxy is a difficult game to describe and even more difficult to teach because of its symbology, but the app shows explanatory text for every card, which helps players tremendously. In this game, players are choosing one of five phases in which to participate; this is done simultaneously. Only the phases chosen are undertaken, with the player who chose that phase receiving a bonus for doing so. You will need to choose what is beneficial to you but not too helpful for any other players, while also not being predictable since your opponents can factor in your plans into their plans. Race for the Galaxy is not for everyone, but if you are looking for a challenge, this game is well worth it, even at $7. This would easily be my number one entry, but the learning curve will not be for everyone.

#1 - Stone Age

Each circle represents a possible destination for your workers. Players will place their workers one at a time in turn order, so desirable locations will not be open for long
Each circle represents a possible destination for your workers. Players will place their workers one at a time in turn order, so desirable locations will not be open for long

Mechanics: Worker Placement, Resource Management
Platform: IOS

Stone Age is a well-regarded game that is constantly going in and out of print, making it very difficult to acquire. The game sat in my wishlist for over a year before it finally came back into print and I purchased it immediately, but I had the digital form to keep me engaged in the meantime. In my opinion, Stone Age is the best introduction to worker placement and plays extremely well with all player counts. Each player starts with five workers that they can assign to stations in order to collect resources, produce bonuses, obtain extra workers or score points. However, you must feed your population every turn, so workers must be managed carefully; additionally, desirable locations are not available for long windows of opportunity, so players must recognize which spots are the crucial ones to pick at every turn. The game comes with four different AI characters who each pursue a different strategy, and they are great to mix together in a four-player game. There are several viable strategies in order to win, and because of the rarity of the game and the accessibility of its gameplay, Stone Age is my top endorsement for digital board games. Unfortunately, this game is only available for IOS.

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