Looking for a digital distraction? We've collected the 21 finest iPad board games, suitable for all the family to enjoy. There's something here for everyone.
If you decide to make the plunge into cardboard and plastic, check out our guide to the best board games.
The joy of iPad board games: Why digital is best (sometimes)
You're probably thinking about ways to entertain the kids, the family and anyone else in your house. Good clean family fun, in the shape of a fusty old board game, is an essential part of family life, enjoying some mildly competitive quality time with your siblings, nephews, grandparents and family hangers-on.
It's possible to blend tradition with modernity, however, and while we'd still recommend big exciting boxes of cardboard and plastic wherever practical, there are a number of key advantages to iPad board games.
Variety: There are literally thousands of board game options on the App Store, compared with the copies of Risk, Monopoly and Ghostly Galleon in your cupboard, each of which has been played to a state of ragged decrepitude.
Low cost: iPad board games are a lot cheaper than their cardboard/plastic equivalent. They tend to cost a shade more than the average iOS game, with price tags of five or six quid about standard, but you can take a punt on something interesting at that price: you'd be more cautious about spending the £30/$30 or so that is about average in the physical board game world. And there are plenty of cheaper or free alternatives.
Convenience: You don't have to go down the shops or wait for an Amazon delivery to buy an iPad game. Just open the App Store, download the game of your choice and you're ready to go.
AI players (who don't mind getting battered): If you're on your own (or sick of your family), most board games become unplayable; and even if you've managed to convince an opponent or two to join you, you'll sometimes find that the game you've got in mind requires (or is better with) more. This is where computer players come in very, very handy. And they don't get upset if you pick on them.
So without further ado, here are some of our favourite iPad board games. What better way could there be to spend the afternoon than getting the whole family involved in a game of something charming and harmless?
Best board game for deep strategy and minimal conflict: Agricola
Agricola (buy the physical game from Zatu Games) is great. It's about setting up a farm: ploughing fields, planting crops, building fences and breeding livestock. (And breeding people, too, if you spend a turn on the euphemistically named 'Family growth' square.) Each turn you get one action per family member, and these actions can be used to collect various resources, build or renovate stables and the like, put up fences or sow the fields. But each action square is only available to a single worker: if a rival jumps on to the square you need then you'll have to wait a turn, or come up with an alternative strategy.
The aim is to have the most developed and well-balanced farm, house and family at the end of 14 turns, while navigating the potential dangers of the periodic harvests: at these points your crops come in, your animals breed, and you have to produce enough food for your family. (But don't be too worried: you get a 'begging card' if you miss the target, rather than losing any people.)
Conflict is minimal, as we say, although it's not without its potential for arguments: only yesterday my wife took the fishing space at a key moment and left me struggling to feed my family. Luckily my vegetable strategy was strong enough to cope.
It all sounds a bit dull when you put it like that, but the game is well designed and incredibly rewarding. We strongly recommend Agricola.
Best iPad card game: Ascension, Star Realms and Hearthstone
There are lots of card games on the App Store, but three stand out: Ascension, Star Realms and Hearthstone.
We've been playing Ascension off and on ever since downloading it; it's a cracker. It's also free, although we do recommend expanding your game (after you've tried it out) with some of the additional promo cards that are available as in-app purchases.
It's a deck-building game that's a little like Magic: The Gathering. The main difference is that instead of assembling your deck in your own time, you build it during the game itself; you both start with a standardised deck of 10 (eight apprentices and two militias) and buy cards from the central set, and use these in turn to buy more cards, or kill baddies, or otherwise gain points.
It's beautifully accessible, nice to look at and quite deep. Perfect if your family gathering is quite geek-heavy.
FREE (but with in-app purchases) | Download Ascension
Star Realms is very similar to Ascension (again, you start with a deck of basic cards, and use these to buy better cards from a common supply), and we'd principally advise gamers to choose between the two based on whether they like fantasy (Ascension) or sci-fi (Star Realms).
On the other hand, both games are free - with unlocks and extras available as in-app purchases - which means you can dive in and explore the subtle differences for yourself.
FREE (with in-app purchases) | Download Star Realms
Finally, Hearthstone is a deck-building card game that's based around the characters and concepts of World of Warcraft.
As with all trading card games, Hearthstone hinges to some degree on microtransactions for new card packs, but the quest rewards for fulfilling various criteria (such as number of monsters summoned or points healed) minimise the necessity of paying for anything.
FREE (but with in-app purchases) | Download Hearthstone
Best board game for gently ruthless warmongering: Catan
The more discerning gamesters among you may already have a copy of Settlers of Catan. It is an absolute stone-cold killer classic, and the gateway drug that leads to many obsessions with the world of board games. With forensic skill, designer Klaus Teuber created a simple but fiercely tactical tile-based conquest game where no one gets knocked out and everyone has stuff they can work towards even if they're miles behind the leaders.
If you've not got the full set, though (and it'll set you back £35 for the basic game and almost as much for the near-essential Seafarers expansion), the iPad edition is pretty sweet. In fact there are now two versions on iPad: the 2D Catan Classic (£4.99/$4.99, pictured below), and a newer 3D version called Catan Universe (FREE, with in-app purchases).
It's a decent adaptation of a superb board game and much faster-moving because the iPad works out all the victory points for you. The computer players are much more vicious than real-life players, but that shouldn't affect a family game with human players only.
Best iPad board game for a silly mood: Fingle
This is for two players only, but you can always take it in turns. It's a lot of fun, although somewhat unsettling and deeply odd.
Fingle is essentially miniature Twister, using only your fingers. Small shapes appear on the screen, and the two of you have to place your fingers in the right place, and keep them on the shapes as they move around. You'll find your fingers more entwined than a couple of freemasons playing thumb wars.
Best iPad board game for a weird, frantic experience: Galaxy Trucker
Interesting contrast, here, between the frantic, against-the-clock-and-each-other tile grab that is Galaxy Trucker in real life (and in the main version of the single-player game on iPad) and the sedate, turn-based version you get when doing multiplayer pass-and-play. But each has its own distinct appeal.
You're each building spaceships, using various component tiles: crew pods, laser guns, engines and so on. But the components have a complicated array of connectors that you need to match up carefully, and your rivals are guaranteed to grab the tiles you need to make your spaceship work. In the speed game you always end up with a colossal bodge job, all bare wires and regret; standards are generally higher in the turn-based version, but you still need to make compromises depending on what tiles your opponents leave you.
And then, once you've all built your ships, you sail off into space to see how they fare. A series of randomly occurring adventures are resolved - you're attacked by smugglers! Did you include enough lasers? You're racing to reach the finish! Did you, er, remember to include any means of propulsion whatsoever? Oh dear - and then a winner is determined.
It's a funny and challenging game that works better in this transformed, largely de-stressed version than we expected, and offers something completely different to the usual fare.
£4.99/$4.99 | Download Galaxy Trucker
Best board game for frantic trading: Instanbul
Why visit Istanbul when you can play the board game? In Istanbul, you can sample everything the Turkish city has to offer - from market stalls to gem dealers, and even a trip to the Sultan's Palace, all of which are represented by beautiful digital tiles. Istanbul is a classic example of the German-style 'Eurogame' genre and this iPad version doesn't disappoint.
It's a mad dash in Istanbul to be the first to gain five rubies by any means possible, including trading, gambling, and using an array of cards and abilities with your team of 'assistants' and your trusty expandable cart. Istanbul on the iPad is a great port - you can take on challenging AI or battle with friends in the app's online mode; there's a friendly community of online players who are always up for a game. The only disappointment is that Istanbul's expansions are missing.
$6.99/£6.99 | Download Istanbul
Best board game for complex resource management: Le Havre
Not unlike Puerto Rico, Le Havre (whose full name, for the benefit of non-Francophiles, adds the translation "The Harbour") is all about managing resources, and doesn't allow you to bust anyone up if you don't like their strategy (not on the board, at any rate).
You build various facilities, factories and construction sites, and in turn use these to build more stuff, create resources or convert one type of resource into another. Yet you can also use somebody else's buildings provided you're willing to pay them a fee. The winner is the richest at the end of the game.
This is to our mind far more demanding mentally than Puerto Rico, with masses going on and great complexity to account for in your decision-making. Board game aficionados swear by Le Havre, however, and there's a good tutorial to help you start off.
£4.99/$4.99 | Download Le Havre
Best board game for fantasy fans: Lords of Waterdeep
A warning: Lords of Waterdeep is drier - closer to an abstract game - than its fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons theme might lead you to expect. If you want to march around a map waving a battleaxe at a load of goblins, you should probably be playing more of a videogame-type videogame (or the wonderful pen-and-paper roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons itself). This is a board game, and proud of it.
Lords of Waterdeep is a very highly regarded worker placement game. As in Agricola and similar games, you have a certain number of workers (in this case, 'agents'), and you and your competitors will be placing them in what you believe to be the key action spaces on the board. The difference in this case is that instead of collecting wood and bricks and boring things like that, you're collecting wizards and warriors.
You're doing fantasy quests, you see - but not in person. You're the manager, sort of. It's up to you to collect the participants and resources required to complete each quest (the quest below, for example, requires two clerics, represented by white cubes, one wizard, which is purple, and four gold coins), then cash it in for the points (six, in the example below, plus a bonus of six orange warrior cubes).
It requires a little effort of imagination, then, to immerse yourself in the theme properly; many will find themselves talking about coloured cubes and treating it like a non-themed abstract. But whether you go deep or not, it's still a very fine game.
£3.99/$3.99 | Download D&D Lords of Waterdeep
Best classic board game: Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk or Game of Life
So Regent Street is torn, most of the Chance cards are gone and someone pinched the iron. Or you've lost all the vowels, half the letter stands and the board. This is the natural and inevitable end of a much-loved family board game, particularly if it regularly goes on journeys to Grandma's or the local.
If you raid the games cupboard and discover that an old favourite has finally reached the point of no return - or realise that your kindly hosts don't have a copy of something you were depending on - then one option is to download the digital version to your iPad. The official Monopoly and Scrabble apps will serve you well, but bear in mind that there is likely to be a cheaper, similar game on the App Store if you can do without the correct branding.
Best co-operative board game: Pandemic
Pandemic is a wonderful and deservedly popular co-operative board game in which the players work together to cure four diseases that are spreading across the face of the Earth. The iOS edition captures its nerve-wracking tension perfectly.
At the start of the game you're allocated one of seven roles (medic, scientist and so on), each of which offers special powers you can use to help defeat the spreading pestilence before things get critical. It's incredibly tense but also nicely quick. And if one of you loses, you all lose - so you don't need to worry about listening to somebody gloat.
£4.99/$4.99 | Download Pandemic
Most Tetris-infused board game: Patchwork
A charming iPad board game, the two-player Patchwork challenges players to sew the best quilt by placing Tetris-style cards onto a grid. The aim is to complete as much of your quilt as possible by the end, and you get extra points for the number of buttons which your quilt boasts. It's a refreshing break from some of the more complex, rule-heavy board games featured elsewhere on this list, as Patchwork is simply about placing the right shape in the right place at the right time. Easy enough, right?
What's also nice about Patchwork is that you can have multiple games playing simultaneously - these can be against AI or real-life human opponents. And if you're after an extra level of challenge, you can be really cruel and add a time limit to your match, too.
$3.99/£3.99 | Download Patchwork
Best educational iPad board game: Puerto Rico
A beautifully designed and strangely evocative board game, this.
Up to five human or AI players take the role of various important figures in the history of Puerto Rico (stop yawning) and compete to set up thriving colonies on the island. You grow plants, from sugar cane to coffee, and build warehouses, docks and factories to help you process goods for sale or shipping back to Spain. There's no fighting; you just sit next to each other on strips of land and do your thing. But it's no less compelling for all that.
With its non-violence, slyly educational tone and politically correct roster of characters, Puerto Rico is tremendously middle-class; you could imagine it making an appearance in the Private Eye comic strip 'It's Grim Up North London'. But don't let that put you off. This is a calmly brilliant board game.
$3.99/£3.99 | Download Puerto Rico
Like Risk, only better: Small World 2
Our games editor tried to get this classic included the first time we assembled our '50 best iOS games' feature, but got outvoted by the rest of the team. We've all been playing it heavily since, however, and it's long since been added to the expanded list.
Small World is set in a Tolkien-esque fantasy universe with a facetious flavour. Your aim is to amass victory points by conquering and holding tiles on the map, but there are numerous special rules that affect this, depending on the race of characters you select at various points in the game, and the special ability which has been randomly assigned to them for that game only.
The combinations of races and abilities are huge so no two games turn out alike. And the brevity of each game (not to mention the back-and-forth flow of almost every skirmish) means there's none of that gradual sinking feeling you get for the last two hours of a game of Risk where you know the end is coming.
£4.99/$4.99 | Download Small World 2
Cutest board game: Sushi Go!
Even if you don't like sushi, Sushi Go! is a must-have and a great digital version of the fun card-based game. The aim here is to gain maximum points for your sushi-style meal, which you create following several rounds where ingredients are presented on a conveyor belt. Different dishes score different amounts of points based on particular criteria - you'll need to plan ahead and keep your fingers crossed that the right ingredients spin by at the right time!
We love Sushi Go!'s cute animations and fast-paced gameplay. You can go head-to-head against strong AI opponents or try your luck online. The only problem here is that the fast-paced mode of gameplay is slowed down somewhat when you play against an online opponent - although that does give you extra time to figure out your next culinary move!
$4.99/£4.99 | Download Sushi Go!
Best 'roll and move' board game: Talisman
A roll-and-move game is precisely what it sounds like: you roll a die, then you move your token that many spaces. They're very much out of favour these days, and tend to be quite limited.
Talisman, though: Talisman is about the best take on the roll-and-move that we've played. You and your rivals bimble around the three concentric squares of the board, gradually making your character - a warrior, wizard, troll or whatever - stronger, craftier and better equipped. Typically of a roll-and-move it's all a bit random - the potential is always there that you'll get done in by a bad dice roll or miss a turn through no fault of your own - but it's surprisingly compelling and (thanks to the ability to pounce on other characters, attack them with spells and steal their best stuff) utterly cutthroat.
$3.99/£3.99 | Download Talisman
Best gentle board game for a kid-heavy gathering: Ticket to Ride
Ticket To Ride is fun and gentle enough for both the relatively young and the extremely hungover to join in.
In essence, you pick up cards that let you build various kinds of railway rolling stock, and use these to construct a rail network that connects enough points on the map to fulfil the various 'missions' you're given. You might be required to connect Edinburgh and Athens, for example, and spend the game trying desperately to grab the component sections of that route before your opponents - or be forced to go the long way round.
$6.99/£6.99 | Download Ticket To Ride