Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column about card games, board games, and everything else non-digital.
"Non-digital games are awesome" is the line I usually insist upon in this column. But even awesome analog games have their faults: namely, if you don't have anyone to play with, you can't really play.
So, as an end-of-year treat, let's look back at the last year+ of games reviewed, and find some ways to play those suckers against some internet folk:
Settlers of Catan
I still haven't gotten around to reviewing Settlers, but I did chat with Brian Reynolds about the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game, which is probably the best bet for consistent, high-volume net play.
For those who don't have an Xbox 360 (like, well, me), Aso Brain Games hosts an unofficial, Java-based version of the game called Xplorers. After a free registration, the site allows users to player ranked and un-ranked versions against other users and bots, and features a number of expansion and additions to the base rules, which can be toggled on or off. Don't let the low-fi look of the site dissuade you; Xplorers is a well-put-together Settlers clone, with a solid interface and a consistent number of users online at any time.
As with Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne was blessed this year with its own multiplayer-friendly Xbox Live Arcade adaptation, handled by Sierra Online. Again, great news for 360 owners; irrelevant news for everyone else.
Luckily, Aso Brain Games comes to the rescue once more with a Carcassonne clone, cleverly titled Toulouse. Ranked and un-ranked matches apply here as well, and players are able to toggle on and off Carcassonne's two expansions. Though simplified, the game retains the charm of its predecessor, and the interface creates practically no hurdles for fans of the non-digital edition to leap into the realm of the online; the only rule not made readily apparent is right-clicking on your tile to rotate it, but I suppose you know now, don't you?
Alas, if only it were so easy with Richard Garfield's RoboRally. A short demo on the Wizards of the Coast site teases at the potential for a digital, multiplayer version, but the best attempts out there still leave much to be desired.
EyePlay Games offers Robo Runner, which appears to be largely based on RoboRally, although the game runs poorly on the site, and players must complete several "objective" missions before being allowed to play against other users.
The other option, Bots 'N' Scouts, plays in a downloadable Java applet (compatible with Mac, Windows, and Linux), but is plagued with glitches and suffers from poor interface design. Since neither of these really satisfy our desire for true online RoboRally mayhem, we'll keep on wishing for an XBLA adaptation (pretty please, Microsoft?).
Kill Doctor Lucky
No, I never reviewed this classic Cheapass board game, although it's definitely one of my all-time favorite non-digital titles. Cheapass Games has a deal with GameTableOnline, who host the only official online version of the murderous board game about the luckiest man alive. Registration on the site comes with two weeks of free gaming, although further playing requires paid-up membership, which comes in monthly, quarterly, or yearly plans.
The Java applet in which all of GTO's offerings run is a bit sloppy, with a lot of security certificates to click off on before starting an actual game. The interface is a tad confusing, but it is relieving to have all the Doctor Lucky movement managing fall on the very capable hands of the computer. For those who are friend-less, GTO also offers bots for solo play, although Kill Doctor Lucky is never as much fun as when you're playing with buddies.
Ticket to Ride
One of our most recent reviews also happens to have one of the best online versions to offer, with Days of Wonder hosting the official Ticket to Ride web game. Using a special code printed on the instruction manual of the board game, purchasers can access the web version, which features a bustling community of human opponents, as well as bots for the shyer folk. Unlike other web versions, the interface is extremely clean, retaining the look and feel of the non-digital version, while keeping it playable and, most importantly, fun.
A disc-based version of the game is also available for PCs and Macs (also including online play), and both the web and disc-based versions feature several of the game's popular expansions and maps.
Love it or hate it, Fluxx (and its newborn Zombie brother) is here to stay. Looney Labs has arranged to bring to the internet masses through Volity, which offers an online, multiplayer version of the ever-changing card game. Players download the Mac-and-PC-compatible Gamut application, and are ready for solo or multiplayer Fluxx action. The online version keeps the loose and colorful style of the original, but sacrifices usability in its compact, oft-confusing interface. It's hard to keep track of other player's actions, and the game doesn't make it clear enough what actions the player is supposed to be performing at any time. We'll take the non-digital version over this any day. Sorry, Volity.
When we looked at Looney Labs' unique suite of Icehouse games, we were a bit confused as to how to play some of them. If Volity's version of Treehouse clears up one thing, it's that these games were meant to be played with the Icehouse pieces, and not with digital versions of them. Sorry, Volity. Again.
Give Me the Brain!
Sadly, there is no online version of this ever-so-excellent card game, although there is one for its more popular sequel, Lord of the Fries. GameTableOnline also hosts this fast-food-themed card game, which builds upon the brain-dead fun of James Ernest's original.
With a less hectic interface than Kill Doctor Lucky, Lord of the Fries makes the transition to digital a bit more gracefully.
Bonnie Ruberg of Heroine Sheik filled in a guest-spot for Off the Grid, and extolled the virtues of this classic word game. So, where on the internet can one find the best version of Scrabble? Why, on Facebook of course! If you haven't already caught the fever, Scrabulous is one of the hottest apps on the social networking site, and pulls the feat off quite gracefully with its casual, take-your-time approach to the title. Though I disagree with her opinion somewhat, Bonnie does a much better job describing how Scrabble becomes fabulous on Facebook.
That about wraps up our list of options for long-distance gaming. Hope your holidays are filled with friends, board games, and many presents that are also board games. Happy New Year, too.
Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, a professional blogger, and a mediocre cook. His words and games can be found at numberless, and he'll see you all in 2008.