It is one of the iconic childhood images. Parents and their children gathered around a kitchen table, or even a fireplace. It is family time, and that usually means a board game. It could have been one of the classics like Chutes and Ladders, Clue, or Monopoly. Or a more modern game like Balloon Lagoon (a favorite in our house). Now, I have no clue whether other families still do things like this. We try to, at least to the extent our kids are old enough.
Of course, the iconic image does not give you the reality of playing board games. The boxes they come in are all made of cardboard, which is easily mangled. As a result, pieces are lost, resulting in this scenario, "Let’s play Parcheesi. You be blue, except we only have two blues, the dog from monopoly, and the green Candy Land guy. I’ll be red. But we have no red pieces…" Anyway, you get my drift. The second problem, of course, is portability. I still remember trying to play board games on vacation. We bought these tiny magnetic sets. They were so small you almost needed tweezers to grasp the pieces, and the magnets in them were never glued well. The result was usually pretty much the same: a pile of random, unrelated board game pieces on the floor of the car.
Well, that was over 25 years ago (except the cardboard boxes which still drive me crazy) and this is today. Surely, with all of this technology, there must be a better way. I think so, and Astraware seems to agree. They have just released a brand new game pack containing eight classic board games. How do they fare against the real thing? Jump past the break to find out what I thought of Chess, Checkers, Backgammon, and more.
Installation and Trial: Download and installation work the usual way. Just download the correct file for your device and install via Activesync. Once you have installed it, you can play up to 20 new games before you will be required to register. This allows you enough time to try every game at least once, and really experience one or more games in greater detail before deciding whether to purchase the full package.
Overview: Imagine, if you will, all of your favorite childhood board games fitting into the palm of your hand. You can take them anywhere, and never have to worry about broken or lost pieces. That is exactly what Astraware faced when they set out to design their latest creation. In fact, here is a picture from their company blog of the early stages of the brainstorming and game selection process.
Man, that Howard Tomlinson is a taskmaster. Making them play all of those games at work in order to find the perfect combination. And I think they did do a great job of selecting eight classic games which everyone should be familiar with (although I will admit that there was one I had never played before, it is now my favorite).
One thing that did surprise me were the lack of extra features. In the past, I have noted extremely favorably Astraware’s reputation for successfully weaving in extras which do not seem to belong, such as unlocking new card backs and Trophy Deck (shown above)in Solitaire or the trophy room in Hammer Heads. There was nothing like that here. Personally, I would have loved to have seen a trophy room where you could earn awards for completing a variety of in-game tasks which were not necessarily related to winning the games. I think it adds an element of fun to the games, and really ties the package together.
Menu: When I reviewed Astraware Solitaire, I was extremely impressed by the main menu. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Astraware Board Games adopted an identical format.
The title menu can be found in the lower left portion of the main screen. It allows you to scroll through the icons for all eight games. Due to the semi-circular arrangement of the icons, five games are always displayed on the screen: your current selection and two in either direction. Arrows allow you to scroll in both directions.
Tap the icon for the game you wish to select and the name of the game will be displayed at the top of the screen. Next to that is a personalized welcome message (nice touch).
Underneath the game title is another box which scrolls through the following information:
- Number of players
- Game Difficulty (compared with the other games in the pack)
- Average Time to Play
- Whether the Game is Based on Luck or Skill
I found that the games seemed to offer a great balance of all of these factors, with several two player games, as well as a some games which could be played with up to four players. The game difficulty and average time to play were also well mixed. I did note, however, that there seemed to be a disproportionately high number of skill based games and few luck based games. This is not terribly important, however, because until you develop some skill, they are really all luck based games.
The Games: Astraware Board Games includes a total of eight games. As I mentioned, most of them are probably already old favorites of yours, so playing this game should feel a lot like snuggling back into your favorite easy chair. Included in the package are:
- Snakes and Ladders (aka Chutes and Ladders)
- Reversi (aka Othello)
- Nine Men’s Morris
- Ludo (aka Parcheesi or Sorry)
Anytime you have to narrow a large group down to a small list, there will always be some games which someone says you forgot. Astraware could have made this a 100 game pack and still there would have been a 101st which someone wishes had been included. While there are many games which I felt would have been worthy of inclusion, I was surprised and disappointed to find Chinese Checkers, an old family favorite, was not included. Hopefully, Astraware will consider a follow up pack of Astraware Board Games II, and include Chinese Checkers there.
Nonetheless, I felt the selection of eight games included in this pack was well rounded and clearly designed to appeal to an extremely broad base of players. It is clear that quite a bit of research went into the initial game selection.
Since these are all games which I expect most of you are more than familiar with, I will not go into a lengthy overview of each one. I did want to mention, however, an interesting anecdote about one of the games.
When Snakes and Ladders was selected for inclusion, the team quickly realized that this is a game which really never changes. The snakes or chutes are always located on the same numbers, as are the ladders. Well, I will let them tell you how this problem was resolved. From the Astraware blog:
One thing that was problematic with the game [Snakes and Ladders]was that it was the same experience every time. Nothing but the dice rolls changed. We realised we had the power to improve on the game in that department.
To cut a very long story short, I broke the snakes up into small pieces, all with their own colour values attached to the different bits. It got very complicated and took a lot of design and reworking, but eventually I managed to make it all very memory economical and it worked really well.
What this means is that the gameboard is different every time, which is extremely original and really helped keep the game fresh and exciting through multiple plays.
As I mentioned, however, I did run across one game which I had never seen before. For this occurrence, Astraware has included an extremely nice instruction dialogue for each game. This dialogue will appear the first time you play a game, and may be summoned later by simply selecting instructions from the menu.
Finally, at some point as you explore these eight games, you will think to yourself, this is not how I learned to play this game. I used the such and such rule or this other variation. Not to worry. From any game, simply select options from the menu. The first selection in the options menu will allow you to change the settings for that specific game (as opposed to the game settings which are global settings for all games). Select the settings option to choose he variations you prefer. This is perfect as it allows everyone to play the version of the game they grew up with and loved. Then again, there is still no variation of Chess which allows you to turn it into Rooks Revenge, another Astraware favorite of mine.
All of the games can be played against computer opponents or you can play with your friends. Unfortunately, however, to play with your friends, you must all huddle around and share a single device. It would be nice if Astraware would include an option to connect multiple devices via Bluetooth or Infra Red beaming for multi-person play.
Difficulty Levels: One of the great features of Astraware Board Games is that the games are designed for regular people. This was no accident. Astraware, to their credit, spent a considerable amount of time researching the difficulty levels and adjusting them appropriately. Howard Tomlinson, the CEO of Astraware, explained this process on the Astraware blog:
When we create games ourselves, even if they are our version of a well known style such as Solitaire or Board Games, we put a lot of thought into them. One of the main things we think about is getting the right balance between fun and challenging. Too hard, and you don’t get a chance to enjoy winning. Too easy, and the sense of achievement isn’t so great.
Unsurprisingly, in an office full of game enthusiasts and computer programmers, there are a few people who are very good at each of the games, and keeping in mind that the experts aren’t the target audience is sometimes a challenge!
There are some fantastic stand-alone chess games out there – and they’re brilliant for people who play at club level. I’ll admit I’m not that great at chess – I tend to find computer chess games often beat me on their easiest setting. Personally, I don’t play chess to improve my chess skill. When I do, I play chess to enjoy playing, and I think the majority of handheld gamers are just wanting to pass time with their device. I wanted to set the levels so that someone who knows the rules stands a chance of winning at beginner levels, and medium and hard are enough to give players who are reasonably competent enough of a challenge to be fun, without necessarily beating them every time. I also wanted a set of games that at their easiest level would be playable by children!
I think Astraware struck a great balance at the extremes. The easy level was extremely easy. A great way to learn the intricacies of each game or, as Howard points out, for children to play. I did find, however, that once you are more familiar with the game, this level of play becomes almost insultingly easy with the computer passing up obvious moves and seeming to let you win.
Hard, on the other hand, will pose a challenge for many seasoned players. Here, the computer will use every trick in the book (usually short of cheating) to definitively slam you into the board face first. Somewhere between these two degrees of difficulty is a vast continuum of possible difficulty levels. One disappointment for me was that Astraware did not seem to use this middle ground well, offering only one level of difficulty (the aptly named, "medium"). I would have loved to have seen them explore this area more by offering additional intermediate levels of difficulty between. This would ensure that the level of difficulty is always tailored to your abilities.
Hints: If you get really stuck in the middle of a game, just tap the hint button. This helpful feature will highlight the next best move for you to take, and it even comes without any in-game penalty (except maybe a little pride). It is also a fantastic tool to help you learn more about each of the games and their respective strategies.
Graphics and Animation: One of the most important facets of a game pack like this one is the graphics. In order to be successful, the graphics must adequately recreate the experience of playing the game.
The graphics in Astraware Board Games absolutely met and surpassed this standard. In a game pack like this, you would expect that all of the games would have a similar look and feel. That they would share pieces, and boards. But this is not the way it works in real life, and not exactly the way it works in the game. Although there is a clearly unified theme running through all of the games, they also each have their own unique elements. As such, the checkers used in Checkers, Backgammon, and other games may appear similar, but are not necessarily the same from one game to the next.
Despite these differences, the boards each have enough similar or related elements to give the impression that they all came from the same set, which is exactly what is necessary.
Of course, I was a bit disappointed to find that there were no customization features with respect to the look and feel of the games. Many board game programs give you the option of changing the board, changing the pieces, and even changing the views. In the past, Astraware has done this, most notably with their recent Solitaire game, in which there were multiple options with respect to the look and feel of the cards as well as the table. So, I truly expected similar options to be present in this game as well. The fact that they were not available did not harm the game or affect my enjoyment of any of the games, however, it would have been a nice feature which would have increased the variety of experiences offered.
Like I said, however, one of the most important aspects is that the games recreate the experience of playing the real plastic and cardboard "in the flesh" game that we all remember. In many games, rolling the dice is a central part of game play. It determines how you move your pieces, which pieces you move, and where you can move them. It may also determine why you move the pieces in a particular manner. Many players make a big production of rolling the dice, saying things like, "Momma needs a new pair of shoes" or blowing on them, or tossing them a certain way. Of course, these are all just silly superstitions and have no bearing on the outcome of the game. Right?
Because rolling the dice is so central to the core of many of the games in this package, it was critical that the dice roll be accurately represented. In their blog, the designers explain:
When you roll the dice, rather than have it show a number and move the piece, I wanted the player to actually ROLL the dice. I tried various mechanisms to make this work, eventually coming up with the dice shaker.
The dice shaker animation is absolutely phenomenal. As with the real board games themselves, when it is time to roll the dice, the shaker overshadows everything else. It slides onto the screen, covering part of the board (which means it is difficult to study the board while the dice are shaking). The shaker itself is a small colored cup with two dice (or one if appropriate). Hit shake and the whole thing rattles around, with the dice banging and biffing off of one another and the sides of the cup. The animation here is superb, and this one small element does more to recreate the realism of the games than almost anything else offered in the package.
The final element which is necessary in games such as these is animation of the pieces themselves. I have played many games in which the graphics are superb, but moving the pieces is an exercise in futility. They either start, stop, and sputter; or they simply disappear and reappear on the selected spot. Either method is simply not good enough for a game which is trying to recreate the classic board game experience. In Astraware Board Games, like the real games themselves, you grab the piece you want to move and slide it over to the spot. You can decide whether the game will show you the potential legal moves or not. It was critical that Astraware capture this experience of picking up the pieces and moving them across the board. Not only did they do so, but I actually found myself reaching for a second checker and yelling "King me" out loud a few times when I reach the opposite side in Checkers.
As an aside, the graphics also offer one extremely nice touch with the status bar which is at the top of each gameboard. In addition to telling you whose turn it is, this bar also offers a clock and battery meter. This is important information to have, especially in a game like this which is battery intensive and has several games which can make hours seem like minutes.
Sound and Audio:I never realized how many different sounds there were in a board game until I started paying attention to them in Astraware Board Games. There is the sound of the dice clinking against the sides of the cup, the tic-tac as pieces are moved across the board, and, of course, the cheering section which applauds when you win a game.
The sound effects in this game remind me quite a bit of the sound effects in a good movie. When done correctly, they enhance the action on the screen, without overpowering it or even being noticed as separate elements. That is how I felt about the sounds in this game. There is nothing extraneous, simply the sounds that you would expect to hear when playing the game. Although I would have liked the cheering section to have been used a little more when you make a nice move.
I was also happy to see that Astraware did not attempt to utilize a theme or other background music. This would have seemed foreign in the context of board games, and Astraware, in my opinion, was wise to recognize that.
Saving: Saving a game is easy, which frequent readers know I appreciate immensely. All you have to do is exit in the middle of any game. When you return, the game will pick up right where you left off, asking whether you wish to continue or begin a new game. The nice thing is that saving one game will not overwrite a different ongoing game. This means you can have each of the eight games ongoing at the same time.
Conclusion: Astraware took on a huge risk with this game. Not only did the eight games have to stand on their own, but they were recreating cherished childhood memories. Anytime you play with this sense of nostalgia, you run the risk of hundreds of people declaring, "That’s not the way I remember it." Fortunately, this risk seems to have paid of perfectly for Astraware. All of these games are exactly the way I remember them. And if they are not exactly they way you remember them, feel free to tweak the rules in the options menu and invoke the rules and variations which are nearest and dearest to you. Now, if Astraware could only help me relive the lost waistline of my youth, I think I will be OK.
Name: Astraware Board Games
Tested On: Sprint Mogul by HTC with Windows Mobile 6 Professional
Also Available: Windows Mobile 6 Classic, Windows Mobile 6 Standard (non-touchscreen), Windows Mobile 5, Windows Mobile 2003, Windows Mobile 2003 SE, Palm OS
Available From: Astraware
Price: $19.95 (currently on sale for $9.95)