Thoughts on Board Game Apps

Recently, my wife and I had a chance to vacation in Australia for 2 weeks.
We saw Kangaroos, Wallabys, Koalas, Wombats, and some other cute creatures.


Part of the Australia experience is flying that loooooooong 14 hour flight from the United States into Sydney. I am not great at sleeping on  planes, so I had to keep myself busy/entertained. I ended up trying a lot of solo board game apps on iOS; in other words, a lot of solo play! Strictly speaking, not all the games I played were cooperative, but solo play is something I like to discuss here occasionally too.

Here are the apps I looked at/played for 14 hours!

  • Star Realms
  • Pandemic
  • Agricola
  • Sentinels of the Multiverse
  • Splendor

I was originally going to write a “review” of each of them, but I realized there were some things they all shared in common (or didn’t share), so I thought I’d touch on those items instead.

No Scrolling

There was a time when I was the Agricola champion in our group. This grew, partly, out of my familiarity with the game. I would play the solo mode of Agricola over and over, trying to amass the most points. (The ‘recommended’ solo mode has you play a campaign, but I preferred the single solo game, where you take some random selection and play it a few times trying to get the best score). It was even so ridiculous that I would play on the airplane! That doesn’t SOUND ridiculous , but this was before there were applications on an iPad!  So how did I play? I took pictures of the cards I drew, then I would “play” the game, writing out my progress. I could fit an entire play on a small piece of paper. Here’s a sample of a few of my plays.


So, when I found the Agricola app, I was ecstatic! No more silly piece of paper! But, then I played it and ergh. I was very frustrated very quickly. Why? I think it boils down to the fact that the actions were all scattered all over the place and you had to “scroll” to look around. Ergh. I didn’t play it much because I was constantly looking and scrolling to see what the actions were. What I WANTED was one screen, with an overview of everything where I could zoom in if I wanted more information! I realized I wanted something like my weird little pictures.

I also downloaded the Pandemic app just before I left for Australia. Pandemic is probably a top 5 game for me. It’s great. I used it when I taught an intro Python course. (I’ll discuss this more in a later blog post). I looove the game. It does a great job … but … it scrolls. Ergh. I want everything on one page. So, again, I didn’t really play it very much.

I also played Star Realms, Sentinels, Splendor on my plane trip. I ended up playing these three things a lot more. Splendor has no scrolling, and Sentinels and Star Realms have minimal scrolling.

My conclusion: I don’t like apps that scroll. Splendor is simple enough that everything can be on one page. Star Realms does a great job of “zooming in” on cards if you want to read them, as does Sentinels. If you get too many cards, both Sentinels and Star Realms have to scroll through.

I want everything on one page so I can get an “overview” of the game, just like playing a real board game. I want to be able to look at the page and get a sense of everything. If I want more information, I want to just click on a card (kind of like picking up a card and reading it during a game).

So, Agricola and Pandemic are fails for me on that front, while Star Realms, Sentinels and Splendor work well.

Apps Might Be the Best Way To Learn

My Star Realms card game has been sitting unplayed for some time. I bought it because some the Dice Tower people really liked it, and it was cheap. I remember opening the box to read the rules, and was just “underwhelmed” by the one sheet of rules. It wasn’t even a booklet, but a kinda pamphlet. Ugh. It was kind of hard to read. So, I put the rules down and moved on to something else. Star Realms remained unplayed.


BUT, the iOS app has a great tutorial! While in Australia, I downloaded it because it was the right price (free with in-app purchases) and because I already have the card game!
I was up and running in about 5 minutes. It was also easy to try stuff and just see what happens. The Star Realms tutorial is the way to learn the game. Don’t (blech) learn from the rules “rulebook” (notice the quotes).


While in Australia, I wanted to teach my nephew and niece Pandemic. We couldn’t find a copy of Pandemic board game (not even at Australian Target), so I showed him the app. That was the right way to do it! I could easily go through the rules, show him a lot of the cards and the roles. We never found a copy (surprisingly), but I think he might be getting one for Christmas! The app was just enough to get him interested.

As much as I didn’t enjoy playing the Agricola app, its tutorial was great. Sentinels and Splendor seem to have good tutorials too.

One of the conclusions from this trip: the iOS App might be the right place to teach and/or learn a game! Besides YouTube videos and forums and the rulebook, the iOS/Android app is another resource for learning a game.

Where’s the UNDO?

I had a loooooot of fun playing the Star Realms app. But one thing continually frustrated me. I would hit a card wrong and accidentally play it instead of looking at it. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Could I back-up and replay that? Nope. I was just stuck. THERE WAS NO UNDO.

If I were playing Star Realms with my friends, I could say “Whoops! I meant to get the coin not the Authority … is it okay if I slightly redo that?” I am not talking completely redoing a turn, just a minor glitch.

Nope. No UNDO.

When learning a game, it would be nice to be able to “take back” a turn to see if you could do anything different. Or if the plane is “jostled” and you accidentally hit the wrong space!

Sentinels gets this right. You can do a slight UNDO (usually replaying up to 3 turns previously). If you mess up, or just meant to do something else, you can just backup with the UNDO.

I didn’t get far enough into Pandemic or Agricola, but neither Splendor nor Star Realms have an UNDO. Only Sentinels.

I want an UNDO in my iOS games! It is much more like the board game experience: you can a replay a turn, or slightly re-try something. It frustrates me that so few apps have this feature. To me, it is my goto feature for apps.

Music Control

When I play Sentinels, I either put some music on in the background or watch a video (more like “listen” to a video). Sentinels has some good theme music, but you can turn off the theme music so you can listen to your own music. I really appreciate how thoughtful Sentinels was with this level of control.

Splendor and Agricola also worked on this front. I was able to watch a video (“picture in picture”) or listen to my own music. There were controls for the level of music and sound in the game.

Star Realms failed in this regard. I had to listen to its music. It has good enough music. But, after a while, I want my own.

It sounds silly, but I want to be able to control the Music I listen to in a game.

Final Thoughts

  • Star Realms was fun as an app, despite its frustrations with Music and NO UNDO. I’d give it 7.5/10 as an iOS app.
  • Splendor was particularly fun, and except for it’s lack of an UNDO, was great.
    I’d give it 8.0/10 as an iOS app.
  • Sentinels is, in my mind, the prototypical app and fun fun fun. 10/10 as an iOS app.

Agricola and Pandemic were well done and beautifully implemented. But I didn’t
want to play them because of the scrolling. I can’t rate them because
I didn’t want to play them.  I’d rather play Agricola with my weird little pieces of paper.


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