Friday Indie Game Review Roundup: Digital Board Games (No Assembly Required)
The noble board game has stalwartly staved off elimination in the face of more technologically advanced video games for four decades. Try as they might, video games just can't seem to surpass them as an easy-to-use diversion for large groups of seated indoor people.
Since they can't beat them, video game companies have embraced their board-based competitors by adapting board games onto consoles as long as there have been consoles to do so. Even the Xbox 360, capable of running graphically advanced games like Crysis 2 and LA Noire, still has quite a few good board games in its digital hallway closet. We've decided to take a few for a spin this week and let you know how they stack up to their cardboard and plastic brethren.
The champion of the Xbox board game scene is without question Risk: Factions. Isle of Wight-based Stainless Games, the tabletop game savvy makers of Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers, have faithfully recreated Risk—minus the cumbersome setup and plus one novel feature.
What is the biggest problem with Risk? It takes forever to play. Settting it up takes a long time, keeping track of all the math takes a long time, and taking over the entire world and winning takes longer still. Risk: Factions addresses the first two problems easily by its very digital nature. But the way it deals with the last one is brilliant. Players can choose between two rulesets before they start a game: the traditional take-over-the-world rules or an objective-based mode that shortens the game dramatically. When the latter option is chosen, the game randomly generates ten objectives for players to complete, ranging from controlling X number of capitols, to capturing X territories in one turn. The first player to complete three objectives wins.
Risk purists may balk at this streamlined version of their beloved game. But for the rest of us who don't regularly have six hours to spend playing Risk, making it shorter takes the game from an anachronistic occasional activity to something one can play on a regular basis. At only $10 on XBLA or Steam, far less than the cost of a physical copy of Risk, Risk: Factions represents a welcome evolution of the classic game that every fan of the original needs to own.
Carcassone is one of the most popular hardcore board games, especially among the board game crazy people of its native Germany. Sierra Studios, the development arm of one of the many grand old PC game publishers that has fallen on hard times, managed to release this $10 XBLA downloadable just before they were shuttered by Activision in 2008.
It is much more bare-bones than Risk: Factions, adding very little to the sublime formula of the original game. Really, the only reason to play this version over the physical one is that it requires no setup time, and that's not really an achivement given that any digital board game accomplishes that automatically. It offers online play as well, but Carcassone is already playable for free online on PCs, so that feature doesn't really add anything to the equation either. Unless you don't already own a copy of the physical game and REALLY want to play it on an Xbox, there's nothing great to recommend about this particular Carcassone.
After they finished changing the world of real-time strategy games with Rise of Nations, Big Huge Games decided to take on a substantially easier project. Catan is the oddly renamed Xbox 360 version of another classic German board game, The Settlers of Catan. Like the Carcassone remake, it is faithful to the original to a fault. It offers no game modes beyond playing plain vanilla Settlers of Catan with all the math and setup taken care of.
Unlike with Carcassone, which is relatively simple, this actually helps a lot with Catan. Setting up the board for physical Settlers of Catan is a painfully long and boring process, and not having to deal with that is fantastic. However, given the lack of new features available here relative to the original game, I still can't recommend it as heartily as Risk: Factions. But it is an accessible way to play one of the most fun but intimidating board games around, and that makes it valuable.