Tabletop games, be they of the board, card or role-playing variety, are a lot of highly social fun -- but it's not always easy to get people together to play them with you.
It's fortunate, then, that a significant number of board game designers and publishers have worked together with mobile game developers to bring us digital adaptations of some of the biggest names in tabletop gaming, many of which can be played asynchronously at your own pace across the Internet. Not only that, but at a fraction of the cost of the physical versions, iOS board games are a great way to learn mechanics or try out new games before you splash the cash on them.
With that in mind, then, here's a selection of some of our favorites. If we missed something you're a fan of, be sure to share it in the comments!
Uwe Rosenberg's Agricola is a game about medieval German farming, which may not sound terribly exciting, but it's actually a very deep, strategic and complex game that will get you thinking a lot. (It also puts most of the other farm-themed games on iOS to shame by sheer virtue of actually having some "game" in there beyond tapping on things mindlessly.)
Board game aficionados would describe Agricola as a "worker placement" game. This means that you have a limited number of actions each round, represented by a pool of workers -- in this case, family members. Each of your workers may take a single action in a round, and in doing so they prevent other players from taking that same action except in certain special circumstances. Actions vary from plowing a field on your farm to gathering resources required to construct new rooms in your house and subsequently expand your family, which in turn gives you more actions per turn but requires that you gather more food to feed them every time a "harvest" round comes around -- something which happens with increasing frequency as the game progresses.
Agricola can be an overwhelming game, and one that is challenging to win against experienced players, but it's a rewarding one to learn and get good at. The iOS version offers the ability to play by the official solo campaign rules as well as asynchronous online play against both friends and strangers, and features a well-designed interface that is friendly to both newcomers and those who know the tabletop game well. It's a bit fiddly to play on the tiny screen of the iPhone, but on iPad it's a winner.
Download it here for $6.99.
Matt Leacock's Pandemic is many modern board gamers' first foray into truly cooperative gaming, and it's an excellent game in its own right. Playing the role of disease control specialists, it's up to the players working as a team to find the cures for four different diseases and save the world from horrible, dribbling, oozing, painful death.
Pandemic's mechanics are quick to get your head around -- it's essentially a game about collecting sets of like-colored cards -- but there's a surprising amount of depth and variety that comes in the various different roles each player can have. One character requires fewer cards to discover a cure, for example, while another is more efficient at curing disease outbreaks. It's a game about using your actions efficiently, thinking strategically and, if you're playing with multiple players rather than simply commanding all the characters yourself, communication.
It's also really, really hard. Don't be surprised if most of your games end in horrible failure. But that's part of the fun; an easy victory in a game like this would be a hollow one for sure.
Download it (for iPad only) here for $6.99.
Klaus-Jürgen Wrede's Carcassonne is a modern classic, and a great "gateway game" to introduce new players to the hobby. With its straightforward rules but surprisingly deep strategy, it's an addictive and highly competitive game that lends itself extremely well to asynchronous online play -- each turn takes just a few seconds to play, so it's easy to fit in around whatever other things you happen to be doing.
For the uninitiated, Carcassonne is a game about laying tiles to build up a map of the French countryside, attempting to complete various features and score points for them in the process. You claim features by placing your limited stock of workers on specific parts of the tile you've laid that turn, and get them back along with some points when the feature -- be it road, city or cloister -- is completed. The rules prevent you from adding one of your own workers to a feature another player has already started constructing -- but there's nothing stopping you claiming an unconnected feature, then later joining it to something someone else already owns and denying them a significant lead.
Carcassonne is easy to play and its iOS version is highly polished, with excellent visuals, sound and music that capture the feel of the tabletop game perfectly while remaining accessible to newcomers. It also offers a fun solitaire mode with brand new rules for those who want to play alone, and works equally well on the small screen of the iPhone as it does on iPad.
Download it here for $9.99.
Lords of Waterdeep
For those who prefer a little more fantasy in their worker placement games, Lords of Waterdeep is a great choice. Set in the titular city, focal point of many a Forgotten Realms Dungeons & Dragons campaign, Lords of Waterdeep sees each player dispatching agents to various buildings in order to perform actions and collect resources -- here represented as iconic D&D classes such as clerics, fighters and wizards. Success in the game is largely dependent on completing various quests through collecting the right combination of adventurers and other resources, though there is plenty of opportunity to mess with your rival Lords through "intrigue" cards.
Lords of Waterdeep is a somewhat complex and challenging game that has a fair amount in common with Agricola, but some will find the familiar D&D fantasy setting and theme more relatable or enjoyable than Agricola's rather dry-seeming premise. There's a lot more interaction with other players than in Agricola, too, which for the most part sees players doing their own thing and hoping they don't get denied an action by a rival. In Lords of Waterdeep, meanwhile, the intrigue cards allow you to specifically attack (or at least inconvenience) the other players in your attempts to be declared the supreme ruler of the city.
The iOS version is a very faithful adaptation of the board game with beautiful art and an intuitive interface. Like Agricola, though, this is a game best played on the larger screen of a tablet than squinting at an iPhone.
Download it here for $6.99.
Elder Sign is an enjoyable, challenging Cthulhu-themed dice game. It's a spinoff of the notoriously lengthy Lovecraftian adventure board game Arkham Horror, and plays in a fraction of the time while maintaining a lot of its sprawling sibling's theme and atmosphere.
In Elder Sign, you play a group of investigators checking out strange happenings in a museum. Various horrible things happen in the museum, and you'll have to roll various combinations of symbols on a set of dice to overcome these challenges. Items you find will make things easier, but prowling monsters will make things a lot more difficult. You'll have to try your best to overcome the game's numerous challenges without either dying horribly or succumbing to insanity -- and more often than not your attempts will end in failure. This is Lovecraft, after all.
Elder Sign is a simple game to pick up and play, and its iOS implementation is friendly to both solo play, in which you take on the role of all the investigators, and pass-and-play multiplayer, with one player taking on the role of each of the investigators. It's a pity there's no online play, but given that the game doesn't feature a lot of true cooperation or interaction between characters, it's debatable how much it would add to the experience as a whole.
It also features the narrator from The Stanley Parable as the tutorial voiceover, which is nice.
Do you think the best thing to do in space is conquer it? Then you're in luck! Eclipse is a game about conquering space while attempting to prevent other people from doing likewise. Or peacefully coexisting, but where's the fun in that?
Eclipse is an interesting, complex game whose tabletop incarnation comes with hundreds of satisfying little plastic ships and bits of cardboard to track your conquest attempts. Despite the number of components, though, the game somehow never manages to become overwhelming, and in actuality is one of the more accessible examples of tabletop 4X strategy games out there.
The iOS version does a great job of translating all those bits of cardboard and plastic into an intuitive, easily readable interface, and also serves as a fantastic means of learning and teaching the game. You can play with up to six players in total -- any combination of human and AI -- and the game supports asynchronous play for those who don't have the time to sit down for the lengthy session a complete playthrough demands. For those who enjoy sci-fi strategy -- or those looking for an accessible in-road into one of the more complex varieties of board game out there -- Eclipse is a great choice.
Download it (for iPad only) here for $6.99.
Ticket to Ride
Pretty much every experienced board gamer probably has at least one incarnation of Ticket to Ride in their collection, and the two iOS versions are great digital adaptations of this simple-to-learn but highly competitive game about set collecting and route claiming.
Ticket to Ride is a fast-paced game that sees you collecting cards, then using sets of like-colored cards to claim train routes across the board. The eventual aim of the game is to score as many points as possible by claiming as many routes as possible, with bonuses on offer for connecting specific cities to one another. Be careful, though, because failing to complete one of these "tickets" will sting you with a score penalty at the end of the game.
There are a variety of different maps and expansions available for the tabletop version of Ticket to Ride, and most of these are available as additional in-app purchases in the iOS version if you like a bit of variety. The only slightly frustrating thing about the game is the "Ding! Chooooo chooooo!" sound effects, which will probably make you want to fling your iPad out of the window after five minutes. Mitigate this problem by turning the sound off and listening to some nice relaxing music instead.