Saturday, October 10

Getting Board-Gamey with Board Games #3: Play Against the Machine

For the first and second parts of this mini-series I talked about playing board games mostly with Cait. Today I want to cover some iPhone and computer versions of board games that have a single player mode against an AI. (Useful for when Cait is blogging.)

The iPhone game I’ve been enjoying the most is Renier Knizia’s Robot Master [iTunes, $0.99]. As a board game I can see how it might give limited enjoyment (its BGG rating is 6.47), but as a solitaire iPhone game it’s tremendous.

In Robot Master, you’re given tiles one at a time and must place them on a 5×5 grid. The tiles are valued between 0 and 5 points, and your score at the end is (Knizia-style) the lowest of all of the row and column sums. Two of the same value tile along the same row or tile scores 10× the tile’s value — lousy for 0 or 1, but pretty valuable for 4 and 5. Three of the same tile in a row or a column scores as 100 points, which is a great use of those low-value tiles.

The “deck” has six of each value, so in each game a random eleven tiles won’t be seen. This adds a good amount of tension as you get down to the last few empty squares and hope that you’ll draw that one 4 you need to go from 11 to 57.

Overall, trying to place the tiles to maximize their values across two axis — while not knowing what will come next — makes for a great game. It plays quickly (I can usually do several rounds during a subway commute) and is perfectly suited for the iPhone’s touch interface.

Against the computer, one player takes the rows and the other the columns. I haven’t actually given this mode a shot because going for high scores on solitaire has been so much fun.

Michael Schacht’s Zooloretto [iTunes, $4.99] is available on iPhone, for play against AI or human opponents. (There’s no hidden knowledge so it works for pass-the-phone.)

The presentation in this app is slick. Not only does it capture the feel of the board game pretty well, but it animates the animals as they’re hanging around in their enclosures, with particularly cute animations for the babies.

In the game itself, players play a series of rounds where they draw random animal tiles and place them on trucks. On their turn, players can instead opt to take a truck and put the animals on it into their zoo. The trucks are open to all players, so you need to balance making a truck that you want while not letting it be so good that another player takes it before you can. You only have a few enclosures, which hold one species of animal each, and you score by filling the enclosures up.

Zooloretto seems to be a fun board game (I actually haven’t tried it in real life but it’s now on my wish list), but it doesn’t translate to the iPhone particularly well:
  • After you choose a truckload of animals for your zoo you pass all your turns for the rest of the round. That means that if you go out early, you still have watch the two, three, or even four AI players go through their thinking and choosing animations while you do nothing.
  • The games are a little too long for a commute, perhaps 15 minutes, but you aren’t doing anything particularly memorable in each one, so there’s not much to call you back to a saved game.
  • There’s a bug that occasionally pops up when you buy an animal from another player: the game will act as if you’ve taken a truck and you won’t get more turns.
  • The app does not explain the rules of scoring or making coins particularly well. I had to read through the PDF of the board game’s rules, which is available on the designer’s website, before I really understood what was going on.
  • I’ve had freezing problems that have forced me to hard-restart. This might be my phone, though. I just tried a full restore and will see if that improves things.

On my laptop, I’ve been playing Race for the Galaxy. The very clever Keldon Jones has implemented this excellent card game and trained up AI opponents to go with it. You can download it for free from his website, for Mac, Windows, or Linux source. (It’s built with GTK+ for cross-platform UI.) This is available with the blessing of the publisher, so the card art is all included as well.

Race for the Galaxy works brilliantly on a computer. It’s ideal for me because Cait doesn’t like game very much (I don’t either with only two players). And, though there’s an nifty little solitaire solution involving dice, mats, and a robot opponent that was included in the first expansion, it’s more impressive that it works at all, rather than being particularly enjoyable. I can blast through a game in 5–10 minutes and have a great time doing it.

The AI players make for fine opponents. Race is already toying with a “multiplayer solitaire” classification, so all you need out of them is to get respectable enough scores to be a challenge, and to pick actions realistically so that you can exploit Race’s single player interaction mechanism, which is to take advantage of actions that you didn’t choose but hoped others would.

I wasn’t a very good player starting out, but after 50 or so games I feel like I’m at the AI level. I’ve been adding in the expansions slowly so as to get comfortable with the cards before seeing new ones. Now I just need to stop coding through lunch so that I can play against real humans at work.

I have a few more iPhone games to talk about, as well as multiplayer online board gaming. Leave a comment if you like what you’ve been reading, and see you next time!