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Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: Through the Desert (iPad)

The iPad has already proven that it isn’t just good at videogame adaptations of board games, it is the new format of choice for board games. From the classics, such as Monopoly, Risk and Scrabble, through to the new wave of Eurogames, such as Carcassonne, A Small World and Catan, the iPad has all but replaced the need to have a physical board to enjoy these games.

This nice lady will show you how to play the game.

The main reason is the size of the screen. Because the iPad has such a large screen, it’s possible for a group of people to simultaneously sit around the device to play. Indeed, Small World has gone as far as to ask the player to set the iPad down on the table as though it is the board game itself.

And it’s already been proven that Reiner Knizia’s games work on the iPad. Reiner Knizia’s Samurai is still one of the best value games you can pick up from the App Store, and perfect to have sitting on memory for one of those lazy raining Sundays.

This is the board game...

From the same mathematics genius comes the board game Through the Desert. Like Reiner’s Samurai, Through the Desert is extremely simple in concept. The game asks players to place little tokens (‘Camels’) down on a board to create Camel Trains. To win, you need to strategically place those Camels to capture the most territory possible, to create the longest camel trains possible and to occupy prime real estate (Oasis’ in the desert).

So it plays a little like the classic Chinese game of Go. And, just like Go, the sheer depth of strategy involved to master the game is almost intimidating. Play against a skilled or experienced player, and you will lose.

But rather than be discouraging, you’ll come back wanting to hone your skills and improve. As it’s a simple game to learn, it doesn’t take long to start experimenting with some complex strategies, and like with a game such as Go or Chess, pulling off a successful strategy is a sense of reward that few games can match.

Also, unlike popular American board games like Risk or Monopoly, there is no dice involved, so there is no element of luck. As a purely skill-based game, there’s little room for frustration, other than with yourself, meaning Through the Desert feels fair at all times, even if you do lose.

As for the video game adaptation itself, Through the Desert is basic, but it works. The quality of the game board is high, and the accompanying art and menu music is effective in creating that whimsical “Arabian Fantasy” motif. The two levels of AI are well balanced – “easy” is good for introducing people to the game, and “hard” puts up a reasonable challenge. The tutorial works in explaining the rules (but not the basic strategies, unfortunately,) and critically, it’s also very easy to set up a multiplayer game.

This is the iPad game. As you can see, there is much less mess to clean up once the game is over.

That said, it’s not all good. The game has a nasty habit of zooming into the map when you’re looking to place a camel, making it hard to get proper overview of the map and make strategic decisions. There’s also no undo option, which while true to the spirit of how board games should be played, is no fun when you make an accidental mistake.

The camel pieces are a touch too small, too, making it easy to select the wrong one, and the background noise (there is no music, but there is a wind sound effect that plays continuously) has an awkward pause when it loops.

Those are minor irritations on a stellar base game, however. It’s like a university project – the base idea is stellar, but the production values are hit and miss. Given it has such a low asking price, it’s a game that is easy to recommend to people who already have Catan, Reiner Knizia’s Samurai, and Carcassonne, and want some more.

Review: Through the Desert (iPad)
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