One of the biggest problems for board game enthusiasts is finding people with whom to play. In the years since the rise of the personal computer, there's been concern in the hobby about the loss of players from the table to the joystick. But everything old is new again, and in the past year we've seen quite a few board games make the migration to the computer. Now, board gamers can have their cake and play it too— against the computer, or against other people over the internet.
This effort has been spearheaded by Hasbro, whose interactive division has released a pile of CD-ROM versions of classic games. It's a shame they vary so widely in quality. Unexpectedly, one of the best of the bunch is Ultimate Yahtzee. The computer version offers five different games. The first two, Classic Yahtzee and Triple Yahtzee, are available as standalone board games. The others are unique to the CD-ROM.
Painted Yahtzee adds colors to each face of the dice, allowing for new scoring opportunities including a "rainbow" (each die showing a different color), a color house (3 dice of one color, two dice of another), and areas which score only those dice of a particular color. The additional choices make for some tougher decisions.
Battle Yahtzee is the weakest of the games. Here you don't score your roll until after the next player's turn, because he has a chance to throw his dice at yours— possibly sending them tumbling to different values.
If you're looking for a quick break from work, Pyramid Yahtzee may be just the ticket. In this version the dice are pyramidal four-sided dice, reducing the number of scoring options but increasing the odds of achieving the remainder.
Speaking of odds, a right-click on any scoring option yields an instant list of the odds of achieving it given your current dice and the number you re-roll. Handy for the anal.
The entire product is a class act. 3D dice and a virtual dice cup you can shake with the mouse help make you feel like you're really rolling dice. The background artwork is visually striking, and of course there are high scores to shoot for.
Almost as nicely done is the Boggle product, which also has five variations, each of which can be played in original (4x4) or master (5x5) versions. Computer opponents are offered, or multiple humans can play sequentially. You can also play against humans in real-time on Microsoft's Internet Gaming Zone, but since the Zone requires Internet Explorer I have not tested it (I resent Microsoft's insistence that I use their browser by forcing its installation as part of virtually all their products these days, and refuse to use it— but that's another story). Modem, serial, and direct TCP/IP games are also offered.
In all variations, players can form words by clicking on cubes with their mouse (ending words with a double-click) or typing via the keyboard. If the computer finds an unfamiliar word, a click brings up a generous definition. High score lists spur you to new personal bests.
Besides the basic game, we're treated to four computer-only innovations. Breakaway presents a 4x4x4 or 5x5x5 cube of Boggle letters. As you use letters in words, they disappear to expose the inner letters of the larger cube. A neat idea, but rotating the cube to see all six faces is cumbersome.
Space puts you in an asteroid field of letter cubes hurtling toward the screen. Clicking on a cube adds it to your word. Cubes disappear when used, or when they fly off the screen. Adjacency isn't an issue here, so this game bears little resemblance to traditional Boggle and won't hold your interest long.
Battle Boggle is a brilliant variation. Here the cubes are divided between two players who alternate placing them onto the grid. After placing a cube, a player may form as many words as possible with the current grid. Only the first player to find a word can score it, so if you miss one your opponent might grab it. A chess clock limits each player to five minutes for the whole game. It's not as much fun competing against a perfect computer opponent as it is against a human. Sadly, you can't handicap the game by giving yourself more time than the computer player. On the bright side, there's nothing to stop you from playing this variation with a real Boggle set.
Perhaps the best variation is In Your Face, a Tetris-like challenge in which, every 30 seconds or so, a new grid of blocks is inserted onto the board, pushing any existing cubes upward. Cubes disappear when used in a word, and the game ends if any cube rises too high. This is an addictive game where the desire for long words conflicts with the need to get rid of cubes. The corner cubes, being the hardest to use, are usually the ones which kill you. Performance should have been better optimized here— the game slows down noticeably in the latter stages, when there are lots of cubes on screen.
What keeps Boggle from being an A+ title is the perplexing omission of some obvious customizations. The most glaring is the inability to impose a minimum word length— it's stuck at 3 letters for the small grid and 4 for the large one. The restricted nature of the timer (1-5 minutes or none at all) is another. But even with these shortcomings, Boggle fans will enjoy this title.
Hasbro's version of Scrabble scores high marks for quality of play and graphics, but loses big points for requiring that Windows be in 256-color mode (and not automatically switching for you). If you've installed the QuickRes add-on from Microsoft's free PowerToys set, this isn't a problem but it's a major annoyance.
The game itself offers all the options you'd expect— multiplayer (hotseat or networked) or computer opponents of varying difficulty levels, optional timers, optional challenge penalties, hints, etc. The dictionary function is cumbersome and the terse definitions, although familiar to users of the The Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary, will disappoint players familiar with the Boggle CD's more verbose approach.
A nice touch is the optional method of tile selection. Instead of dishing out tiles at random, the computer can show you a spread of all remaining tiles (face-down, of course), letting you pick the ones you want. Functionally this is still random, but the psychological effect is a feeling of more control.
You can also set up any game state you wish, allowing you to recreate a game and have the computer show you the best possible moves at various junctures.
The AI is good enough to give all but the most expert player a rough game. Beginning players may get frustrated by the computer's use of obscure "Scrabble words"— words never used anywhere but in a game of Scrabble. It would be nice if these could be filtered out of the AI's repetoire.
Risk enthusiasts will find plenty to like about the CD version of this childhood classic. As with the other Hasbro games, multiplayer play is supported either locally or via network. The classic Risk game is supported by a number of options, including a variety of maps to choose from, fixed card set or variable card set trade-ins, two different combat schemes, random or custom placement of initial forces, etc. Players can choose from an assortment of victory conditions, including the domination of a certain percentage of the map, defense of a capital region, or the accomplishment of a randomly assigned mission.
Want more? How about Ultimate Risk, which adds forts, generals, prisoner exchanges, terrain effects, disasters, rebels... this is not your father's Risk.
The implementation has some faults. Incidental flag animations slow things down. Only a portion of the map is visible at once, forcing you to scroll around to see everything. The interface is non-standard and not very intuitive in places. But if you're hankering to relive those childhood afternoons spent conquering the world, Hasbro's Risk game not only recreates the experience but enhances it with all-new twists.
Trivial Pursuit, on the other hand, is a CD to be avoided. You'd think this would be one of the simplest games to adapt to the computer. And that's precisely the problem. Where the other Hasbro games enhance the board game in unique ways, Trivial Pursuit gives you... the board game. And that's it.
You can play with or without the board. Without simply means a category is chosen randomly, with no die-rolling or token-moving. Questions aren't multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank. They're simply asked, and when you hit OK the answer is given. You tell the game if you answered correctly, and it acts accordingly.
Some questions are accompanied by photographs, but the photos simply serve as replacements for words (ie, "How many vertebrae does this animal have?") and add nothing to gameplay. The questions without pictures are read aloud instead. Neither approach enhances the game. The CD-ROM offers nothing the board game lacks. Some games, such as 1830, are actually easier to play via computer. This one's not. Avoid it.
They did a much better job with a game you'd expect to be lousy on the computer— Pictionary. The product succeeds because it doesn't try to duplicate the board game, but rather uses it as inspiration for a similarly-themed game. Oh, you can opt to just draw pictures for each other as in the board game, but if you do you're missing out on the game's better features.
Apparently they got the game's voice talent from the local cheerleader squad, because your host is an incredibly peppy female voice you just want to strangle. Luckily she's only used to introduce the various rounds of play, a mixture of six different minigames.
You Draw is like the Pictionary we all know, but with one player drawing for all the others. The pictures appear stroke by stroke in Computer Draw, with the first player to buzz in getting a shot at the answer. Rapid Reveal is similar, but instead an opaque layer is wiped away bit by bit to reveal the picture underneath.
In Pick-A-Block the picture is hidden beneath a 4x4 grid. Player take turns uncovering a square of the grid and guessing at the picture. Quick Link is like Computer Draw, except the round is made up of several pictures which are linked to each other ("apple pie", "pie plate", "plate glass", "glass house", etc).
The final round, Picker Tape, has a stream of pictures scrolling across the screen while a line of words scrolls in the opposite direction beneath. When a matching word and picture line up, players buzz in for points.
The result is a game show which, although lacking the edge and wit of You Don't Know Jack, nevertheless entertains. Since using the computer to draw is much harder than playing with pencil and paper, Hasbro needed to do something different to justify the game. They've done a credible job.
Here's an incredible statistic for you: I've seen reports claiming that the CD-ROM version of Monopoly has sold over a million copies. In the computer game industry, that's a mega-hit. Granted the game was developed by Westwood Studios (the folks who brought you Command & Conquer) and has spiffy graphics, sound effects, and seamless Internet play. But there's got to be a lot of nostalgia out there to explain the sale of that many computerized copies of a simple board game.
And this year there's a new version seeking to pump up those figures even more: Monopoly Star Wars. LucasArts doesn't often blow it, and it's hard to say how much of the blame they should shoulder for this version's problems. But though the underlying concept may just be fundamentally flawed, the design and development really dropped the ball.
The game is hosted by C-3PO, ably voiced by Anthony Daniels (who played the droid in the films). Players choose their avatars from all the film's major players and adjust the game's options before beginning. The interface here is not as simple as it should be, and game configuration can be tricky to navigate.
When you finally get to the game board proper, you find a curious mish-mash of the old and new. The game board floats amidst a starfield buzzing with rebel and Imperial craft. The familiar properties have been replaced by locations from the Star Wars universe— Tattooine, Hoth, Endor, etc. But Go is still Go, Jail is still Jail, a police officer still directs you to go there, and an automobile marks Free Parking. Why not a Detention Cell, a stormtrooper, and a docking bay? The presence of these original spaces isn't just perplexing, it's a glaring thematic breach.
When the dice are rolled, the view cuts to a close-up of your avatar running to a new destination. Upon arrival, you're treated to a video clip appropriate to that space. In theory. The selection of clips is sometimes off the mark or downright wrong, as when a Death Star scene is shown for the Coruscant Throne Room. And while they may be cute the first time you see them, their appearance every time you land on a space quickly becomes tedious. Fortunately, all of the chrome can be disabled.
A recent thread on rec.games.board asserted that trading is the heart of Monopoly. If that's so, then this CD version needs a bypass. On the bright side, the computer players do initiate and respond to trade offers. But the trading interface is abysmal. It's difficult and time consuming to assemble all the components of a trade in the first place. To make matters worse, if your offer is rejected all the components are reset, and you've got to start over from scratch. There's no easy way to haggle. And the transition from the main game to the trading screen is slow enough to make you dread the process.
Multiplayer support is offered here, and the use of "credits" as currency means there are no foreign exchange problems when playing your cousins in France. But Star Wars Monopoly is a product only the most patient— or the most avid— will be able to enjoy.
Hasbro also offers computer versions of Othello, Clue, and Battleship, the latter offering both the classic game and a real-time strategy game loosely inspired by the pegboard you remember from your youth. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the computerized Puzz 3D which lets you assemble Notre Dame at your choice of difficulty levels. Amazingly, it's not only effective, but nicely enhanced by virtual walkthoughs and historic information.