Boardgame Apps – Asynchronous Play Revisited

I’m a big fan of boardgame apps, either on mobile or on Steam. I love being able to play Ascension with buddies from all over the country and the world.

For the most part, to do that requires asynchronous online multiplayer because it is almost impossible to coordinate schedules with friends when time zones are involved. This is especially true with longer, more complicated games. (For those of you who don’t know, “asynchronous multiplayer” basically means that you log into the game, take your turn, and then leave again. Your opponent(s) can take their turn at their convenience, though most of the time there are timers involved to make sure they don’t disappear).

While my stance hasn’t changed on that requirement in a good boardgame app, it has become a bit more nuanced.

Morels - Night mushroom

I recently reviewed the great new card game app Morels by Mossbark Games and complimented them on including async multiplayer in the game.

After that, Dave over at the illustrious Stately Play site posted his review. (ha! First!)

In it, he said the following:

“I find that the game is far less rewarding when playing asynchronously than in real time. The short turns combined with long waits deadens a bit of the joy, but if you can manage to both log on together (with a friend at, I don’t know, your kid’s holiday concert) and play in real time, I guarantee you won’t only play once.”

A minor discussion ensued on the discussion board, and it made me think.

Should I adjust my thinking on asynchronous play?

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize a couple of points.

First, I am still in favour of any boardgame app including asynchronous play, and the developer should be given heaps of kudos (and lots of presents from Santa) if they work on including it. So Mossbark, check your stockings this Christmas.

Secondly, there is no excuse for longer games that don’t have a lot of interrupting actions to not have asynchronous multiplayer. The longer the game, the more it needs it.

However, with those exceptions, I think I have to rethink my “it must have async multiplayer to buy” personal rule.

As Dave pointed out regarding Morels, a 5-minute card game where you are either taking a card (or a group of cards) or playing a set of cards does make for a rather boring asynchronous game. It takes you more time to log into the game than it does to take your turn.

Ascension - Profile
I’m sure I haven’t even played as many games as some of my friends have.

Some games like Ascension have a lot more going on during your turn to make it so asynchronous play isn’t boring, despite the fact that you are basically playing your hand of cards to acquire other cards.

What would be the cut-off for me on this?

I think essentially it comes down to the difference between Morels and Ascension: In one game you are playing one card. In the other, you’re playing an entire hand. Logging in to play one card can be kind of boring. Logging in to play your hand which could turn into playing a whole ton of cards if you’ve performed your combos well is actually pretty fun (yes, your mileage may vary on that).

I still think asynchronous play should be included in these quick card games, though, because while it may not be as fun, it does allow you to play with your friend in Chicago when you’re in Vancouver.  (Again, kudos to Mossbark).

As Dave stated in the ensuing discussion:

“I’m totally not against including async. Morels is a good example of how/why async should be in every game. Sure, it’s not as fun as playing in real-time, but starting an async game means that it could, at some point, break into a real-time game (if we both just happen to have time and respond to our notifications immediately). Thus, we got our real-time game and the scheduling didn’t have to occur (because it never will). Worst case, that doesn’t happen and we get a slightly less satisfying async game in. Everyone wins.”

It’s the best of both worlds with asynchronous multiplayer because you’re not going to be trying to schedule a 5-minute card game with your friend across the planet. Nobody in their right mind is going to say “Hey, would you want to play a game or two of Morels at 9:00 pm Pacific time?” It’s just not that type of game.

But if it so happens that you’re both online at the same time, then pure bliss can happen. And if you’re not, you’re still getting a game in with a friend, just at a more leisurely pace.

A corollary to that is whether or not some games even work well digitally to play with your friends (I’m not commenting on whether they should be made at all, which is a different kettle of fish).

As noted in the discussion, some games you want to see the face of your friend as you stick the knife in their back (Editor – that really only works if you’re playing Linda Blair). Games like Smash Up and Love Letter (published digitally by Nomad Games and Asmodee Digital). What’s the point in totally screwing somebody over just as they thought they were going to win if you can’t see them while you do it?

The second type of game that comes to mind as not working asynchronously are games where memory is important.

Colt Express - digital

The best existing example of that in my mind is Colt Express. The app, published by Asmodee Digital, does not include asynchronous play at all. They were criticized for it at the time, but I fully support it in this case.

Colt Express is a programming game where each player plays a card into a pile indicating what their bandit is going to do. A certain number of cards are played each round, sometimes face-down, so you won’t know what everybody else is going to do. Once all cards have been played, then all of the action happens.

Part of the game is remembering what others have played so you have an idea when you’re determining your own move. If I shoot, will there be a target? You can’t know for sure because things will happen when the actions are actually performed, but you can have an idea based on what others have played.

What if this stage of the game took a week because players were taking their time doing their asynchronous moves?

It would be almost impossible, and the app only lets you check back through the last three cards played.

Boardgame Arena offers asynchronous play of Colt Express. I tried it once. Never again.

Sadly, because you can’t really play these games with friends without scheduling something, the online lobbies to them are often dead. I know Colt Express is every time I look. I just checked Smash Up and it’s dead too.

It makes me wonder about the wisdom of including multiplayer in them at all.

But that’s beside the point of this article.

Ultimately, some games aren’t really built for asynchronous multiplayer. Some games, it would work just fine but it’s not as fun. However, it does allow you to play with friends where you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

And sometimes, it’s required or I’m not interested (I’m looking at you Through the Ages and Terra Mystica). Thankfully, many of those games (like these two) have really good async implementations.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you require async multiplayer in your board game apps? Or are you a little more nuanced like I’ve become? (Editor – Dave’s the king of nuance)

Let me know in the comments.

 

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3 thoughts on “Boardgame Apps – Asynchronous Play Revisited”

  1. I do not play a lot of board game apps, so my takeaways come from a very limited perspective:
    I love games for the mental challenge and for the social experience. Async multiplayer cannot fully provide the latter, but it does give opportunities that might otherwise not be there – especially for the longer, more involved games. Also, it has a certain charm to it – akin to correspondence chess.
    And real-time play has the big disadvantage of scheduling that you mentioned. One can avoid that by playing against the flood of opponents one does not know, but I much prefer to play against someone who is more than a username to me. So, if I want to do multiplayer, an async option is almost a must for me.

    Also, thumbs up for the Exorcist reference 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I was hoping somebody would comment on the Exorcist reference. So thank you. 🙂

      I understand the feeling regarding games being a social experience and thus digital online play is not preferred, but I do like that option when you have friends all over the world.

      But like you, I really don’t like playing random strangers. I think the only game that I’ve played that way more than once is Ticket to Ride, which always has a bustling lobby. Even then, occasionally you get the person who goes away and you’re stuck waiting for them to time out.

      I much prefer friends, even friends who are in Europe who I’ve never actually met! 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, Clio. I can always rely on you. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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