The latest big name board game to make an appearance on the iPad is Though The Desert. Serious board game fans have been anxiously waiting for this app ever since it was announced and I'm happy to say that this latest Reiner Knizia port to the digital realm is totally worth the wait. The app currently costs $5.99 and is available on the App Store.
Even before the game was released, there was reason to believe it would be a solid experience. TribeFlame, the developer, released Keltis Oracle this past spring and it's been one of the board game apps that I turn to again and again, even with my iDevices getting fuller and fuller with outstanding gaming options. Read on to see why you will, in fact, want to take a pastel-colored camel caravan Through The Desert.
Through The Desert is, like most great board games, simple to understand while also offering complex strategy decisions. All you're doing is claiming territory – and scoring points – with little camels on a board made up of hexes while blocking your opponent from reaching more valuable spaces. With each player controlling five caravans (ever-growing lines of camels) but only being able to expand one or two of them a turn, it's impossible to prevent every good move your opponents can make. The upside is that they can't block all of the places where you want to play to score good points.
The game works like this. After initial set-up (where you place a start camel for each of your five caravans, one by one), on each turn you can place any two camels from the group pile of camel tokens. Each placement needs to expand one of your caravans – you can't just thrown them down anywhere like in Go, which Through The Desert is sometimes compared to – and they can't be placed next to someone else's caravan of the same color. This rule is important because at the end of the game you need to be able to determine which camels belong to which player and is also an incredibly powerful way to block an opponent's moves.
You score points based on reaching water holes (between 1 and 3 points, depending on size), by getting to palm trees (5 points) and by enclosing territory (one point per hex, plus any water holes or palm tree points inside). At the end of the game, the largest caravans of each color will each score 10 points (split ties), and you will probably need to invest in a particular color or two in order to win. Be careful, though, since the games ends when all of the camels of one color are used up, and hastily rushing having the most camel tokens of one color can be a bad move if you've ignored steadily racking up points from other methods along the way. It's this kind of tension that make Through The Desert such an enjoyable game. It's simple while also complex. (Full rules are available in the app.)
The biggest difference between the $35 tabletop version and the $5.99 iPad app is an upper limit of five vs. four players. If you're traveling and enjoy having a collection of board games on your iPad, then this app totally fits the bill. If you're looking for an exact replacement for the tabletop experience, then the app falls a little short. I get that Tribeflame wanted to put each player's icons/score in a corner and we don't have a pentagon-shaped iPad, but if Medici and Ra can make five players work on the iPad, then Through The Desert should, too.
I wasn't kidding about those pastel colored camels, either. Ever since Through The Desert was released back in 1998 (when it was nominated for the top German board game prize, the Spiel des Jahres), the camel token colors have been kind of a joke within the gamer community. As the producer of the U.S. physical version, Fantasy Flight Games, puts it:
And then there are the "candy camels." Through the Desert features five camel colors and five player colors (plus grey-colored camels to serve as player markers). The logistical requirements of having ten distinct colors in the game presented a challenge from a component standpoint, but the solution had some unexpected side effects. The colored riders - red, blue, orange, purple, green - are serviceable and unremarkable. But the pastel camel colors are the stuff of legend. There are five camel colors, and when referring to them in conversation it is almost impossible to avoid using terms like "peach" or "lime" or "grape." They look like candy. They look so much like candy that some people are surprised to find that they aren't. And as a consequence, Through the Desert is "that candy camel game" to people all over the world. To say that the plastic camels have a cult following is not an understatement.
So, don't worry, the app keeps the pastel colors alive (but the purple player color is missing, since the app only goes to four players and orange has turned kind of yellow). The app also colors the hexes when you place a camel down, making it much easier to see who controls what on the board. In this aspect, the app is much better than the tabletop version. Some people who play the physical version choose to keep the water hole point values hidden and to also keep scores hidden until the end of the game. The app does not support these options.
Through The Desert also offers online play through Open Feint (we couldn't test it out because when we went to "join game," the app hung on a "Waiting for the game to be set up..." screen for ages). Not a great sign, but at least it's something the developers are implementing. Another disappointment is that the app has no undo button, the way Keltis: Oracle does. That earlier game didn't have one when it was first released, either, so here's hoping that an upgrade to Through The Desert brings us this important feature.
The UI is great. At first, we were always dragging camels from our corner when it was our turn until we discovered you can simply drag a camel on the board to a neighboring space to extend that caravan. Very nice. It wasn't so nice when I managed to crash the app. It happened at a time when not all the pieces were used up but we were out (or almost out) of places to put them because all three players (2 of them AI) had captured a lot of empty spaces. When I came back to the app and hit "resume game," it restarted a previously saved game, not the one that crashed. The AI opponents, even on the hard setting, are OK, but certainly not brilliant. When the game crashed, I was beating both by about 20 points and was poised to win in the end.
What we have here is a great game implemented in a solid way for the iPad. This is just Version 1.0, and we hope that what happened with Keltis Oracle will happen here: a few updates from TribeFlame until we have another simply outstanding board game app.