In recent years board games have had a revival – the hobby is growing faster than ever and the diversity of the games on the market is truly extraordinary. Even though part of the appeal of the hobby is its physical and social format, digital board games soon followed its analog brothers and sisters, proving that good game mechanics can adapt to many formats.
Whether you are struggling to get a group of people together to play, or just want to quickly try out a few strategies, or even simply avoid the ponderous rule book and learn the game in an interactive way, digital board games are here to oblige. You might have already been playing a game on your phone or iPad without even knowing that it was originally designed for the tabletop!
Here are some of the best board games that are available in a digital format that you should definitely check out.
Ticket to Ride
We must start with one of the classics, Ticket to Ride, one of the games that helped bring on the board game revival and also made train games fun. In this game players are industrial magnates building railroads across North America. While the objective is simple – gain the most points – there is a simple yet elegant twist that boosts the competitive edge: each player receives destination tickets, and completing a route on the ticket earns them bonus points, however failing to connect required routes results in minus points by the end of the game. Ticket to Ride has also expanded to cover a variety of maps, including Europe, Switzerland, India, and others, as well as having a version for the younger players known as Ticket to Ride: The First Journey. In this more colourful version of the North American Ticket to Ride, destinations have little state mascots to educate young players and help them to memorise the locations. With simple, yet elegant rules, Ticket to Ride is a great first venture into digital board games.
A game about buying jewels with jewels so you can buy more jewels in the gorgeous setting of the Italian Renaissance. If the shiny stones alone are not enough to entice you to try the game, then the robust mechanics and the accessibility of the game will. In Splendor there is no one singular way to win, and testing out strategies and tactics is what makes it so addictive. The digital version of Splendor also comes with a Challenge Mode that is exclusive to the format. It is based on the actual historical events of 15th and 16th century Renaissance jewellery merchants. Both educational and mechanically challenging, it spices up the gameplay by putting a spin on the base rules with its chess-like puzzles.
Carcassonne is another board game classic that has made its way onto digital platforms. In it, players lay tiles to build medieval castles, monasteries, and roads to earn victory points. A gateway game that introduced many to the hobby of board gaming for the first time, Carcassonne has retained all of its great qualities in the digital format. It is very easy to learn and play, and yet it accommodates a myriad of strategies and paths to victory. The game also has a number of expansions that introduce new gameplay features to the tiles, like rivers, and another layer of rules for an added challenge. While the iOS app is a straightforward translation of the physical board game to the screen, Android (and Steam) have a re-released 3D version of the game with updated graphics and features, giving the game an overall fresher and more modern look.
Forbidden Island is a cooperative game where players play against the game itself – in this case, an island that is constantly trying to kill them. Players must work together to find and collect hidden objects before the island sinks, and then escape. Forbidden Island benefits from being played in a digital format with AI controlling the actions of the island, eliminating any player error. The designers of the app clearly understood the appeal of the game – its cooperative and social aspect – and did a great job of integrating it into the app. By a simple act of rotating cards on the screen so they would face players as if they were seated around the table, they made Forbidden Island incredibly user-friendly. As with many cooperative games, Forbidden Island is not easy to win, and with a variety of difficulty modes, there is an increasing challenge to get every move right. However, this makes every win that much more fulfilling.
Lords of Waterdeep
A game based in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, this digital version of Lords of Waterdeep was clearly built with love and attention to detail. Parts of the map are animated – for example, a griffon flying across the screen – and the sound design is also one of the best in any digital board game, making you truly feel as one of the Lords in Waterdeep scheming and conniving to get their way. In this game, players aim to complete quests to earn points – for example, conducting a very important domestication of owlbears – by collecting resources on the map. Whether you love Dungeons & Dragons or you’re a newcomer to this universe, this game will immediately sweep you away with its beautiful art, deep strategy, and yet simple and clear rules. There are also two expansions available for the game, Scoundrels of Skullport and Undermountain, with new tools and features for an added challenge.
If you ever wanted to build a spaceship and travel the great unknown of the Universe, then Galaxy Trucker is for you. The game begins with players building the best spaceship they can with their given components and within the time limit, and then watch it explode and fall apart in meteor storms and space pirate attacks. The spaceship that has been assembled correctly has the most chances of survival, but, actually, the best fun comes from building crazy contraptions, like having all the guns and no batteries to power them, then watching them disintegrate in space from one crazy attack to another. Galaxy Trucker has a great sense of humour but it also a great platform for imagination and creativity. It’s a game that outlines the rules of play and then actively encourages players to break away from them to create the most fun.
Those looking for more in-depth and strategic gameplay will find it in Neuroshima Hex. Based on the Neuroshima role-playing game, it is set in a militarised post-apocalyptic world. It is a fast-paced and tactical game, where players control one of four armies vying for influence and survival. The base game has four fantastical factions (expansions add more factions to the mix), all with their own unique abilities and powers that can be suited to different types of gameplay. The world is a hexagonal board and players draw tiles, representing different military units, with powers and abilities varying depending on their type. They are arranged around the headquarters tile in order to protect it from the opponents, and the team, whose headquarters suffers the least damage during the game wins. The game fits perfectly on a mobile screen, and while the rules are easy to learn, Neuroshima Hex is hard to master.
Onirim is an example of the card game that works better as an app than as its actual physical counterpart. The game’s AI takes care of shuffling and building decks, so players can get to the fun part immediately – the gameplay itself. Eliminating the downtime from setting up the game might be the most basic change expected when transitioning from physical to digital, but in some games, something that simple makes all the difference. A spin on solitaire, Onirim is the game’s equivalent of eating peanuts: once you start, you cannot help but play one more game, and then another one, and then just one more. It is a brilliant time-waster, with each round lasting only about five minutes, with gameplay that is very easy to pick-up and almost impossible to put down.
A game of Wild West and train robberies, Colt Express first caught the eye of board gamers with a beautiful cardboard 3D train and 3D cacti. The latter you still had to assemble, even though they had no gameplay purpose whatsoever. For video games, 3D, of course, is not a novelty, but with some simple animations and a whole cart of wonderful humour, the digital Colt Express recreated the stylistic feel and character of its analog predecessor. In this game, players plan out their train robbery step by step, but secretly from each other, so when their plans are set in motion nothing ever goes as expected. A player may have planned to punch another robber and steal a sack of money, only to find out that they already escaped from the train carriage and the sheriff was there instead. The digital version of Colt Express also has a unique Story Mode for each character, with different objectives and achievements.
Exploding Kittens was one of the first games that took Kickstarter by storm. Coming from creators Elan Lee, Shane Small and Matthew Inman, famous for his webcomic The Oatmeal, this game immediately endeared players through its humorous art style, Russian-roulette style gameplay and, of course, the winners of all things internet and life, kittens. The digital version is the direct translation of the game but with new exclusive kittens and powers. No doubt due to the popularity of the game, this is also one of the best digital board games for online multiplayer with a healthy player base and even a feature allowing to challenge your opponents again after the first match.
Editor’s Note: Alex also helps organise Tabletop Tuesdays, a weekly event in Dalston, London, where participants can play board games, and even win the coveted game of the week. For more details, check out the Meetup page or read more on BigRedBarrel.