Hold the phone! No, I mean literally, it’s your turn to make a move! Let’s not be dragon your feet, here. Swipe and go, follow the path, and win! The Tsuro digital app is here.
The Zen Path
The first thing you notice upon opening the Tsuro app is the slick 3D animation. Great care has been made to replicate the tactile experience of the physical version and give the visuals some gravitas. There is no immediate menu, no list of options. You literally open the game box to get things going. The board smoothly flies out and unfolds, the tiles float into a neat stack, and the dragon tokens slide into view. You can even see the creases in the board from the fold. There’s a solid attention to detail here.
Except for a few pop-up tips to make sure you know how to get started, you’re in the game. It’s a brilliant execution that works very well for Tsuro (I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for other games, where abstraction of the more clunky elements of a game can provide a smoother experience), and keeps the ‘tactile’ experience front and center. To start a game, you grab the dragon pieces and place them on the board – human players assign their tokens directly to the board for pass-and-play, or you can drag the stones to spots on the ground marked with three different AI levels of difficulty. Once you’re ready to go, you tap the deck and tiles are dealt out.
Play control is simple; you tap the tiles to rotate them to their desired orientation, then drag them to the board to place them. You can press and hold to see a ghosted tile on the board, to help you see how the paths will line up. That’s a great feature, and very helpful.
The glowing, dreamy visuals keep you immersed in the game as much as any game on a tiny phone screen can. Animation is silky smooth in every corner of the app. The Dragon tokens glide effortlessly to the end of their path, leaving a glowing trail behind them so you can see where you’ve travelled complete with subtle effects like the vibration when you loop across your own path. Perfect sound effects complete the mood; there’s no doubt, this is app is pleasing to the eye and ear. Of course it will drain your battery, but a quick menu tap can turn snazzy visuals off. I can barely notice the difference in visual quality on my phone screen; perhaps it’s more noticeable on a larger phone or tablet.
If you’ve never played Tsuro, the game is simple; you place tiles with paths on them to direct the flight of your dragon. You always move as far as you can along the current path, and you can only play a tile directly in front of your dragon. If you fly off the board or run into another dragon, you’re out, and the last person standing wins the game. That’s pretty much it; it’s simple, easy to learn and teach, and it has just enough strategy to be interesting. It only takes about five or ten minutes.
So, the app definitely does a great job of translating the game experience to a handheld screen, but the more important question is, what does it add to the experience? I know a lot of us play board games at least in part to get away from digital screens for a while. Board game apps are ‘cool’ in a technical sense, and we always love more exposure to our hobby, but the purely digital experience is never as satisfying as the living, breathing cardboard one.
Opportunity is often the prime benefit; I can’t play every game I want to play at the game nights I do have, so a digital version allows me to concede some benefits of the physical version in order to get a chance to actually play. However, Tsuro falls in a different camp for me; the game is a fun, light filler (see my review of the physical game) but it’s not particularly deep. It doesn’t cry out from my shelf to get played again and again, and it’s very easy to get to the table, what with support for 8 players. In fact, the online multiplayer component of the app leaves something to be desired; your friend list runs through facebook. I know that most people have a facebook nowadays, but not everyone does, so the option of playing with those people is right out. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that Tsuro is best played quickly. Asynchronous play grinds the game to a halt, and even if you both happen to be online at the same time, waiting for your opponent to take their turn for more than a minute or two will kill the game’s momentum.
Fortunately, the Tsuro app has a lot more to offer. As far as the core game goes, the AI is completely satisfactory. Tsuro is the sort of game you can program a smart computer opponent for without resorting to cheap tricks like stacked shuffling (I’m looking at you, deckbuilding games) that have more than once caused me to quick games and shut off the app in frustation. So if you want to just play a quick game, it’s entertaining enough to throw a few AI opponents on the board and have at it for five minutes.
Even better, the app adds new game modes that are just not possible with the physical game. Instead of the basic win condition – last dragon standing – you can play to see who can build the longest path, or who can do the most loops. These are smart additions; I know from my experience in the physical game, I love trying to create long paths or loop around wildly. This just incentivizes those strategies, and adds a whole lot of replay value. You’ve also got the ever-addiction solo mode, where you just go for the best statistics you can get. It’s an addiction challenge, by the way, to maximize your loops in a solo game. My best is 64 (there are a total of 71 crossing paths on the tiles) and I’ve had fun comparing my best with other players on twitter. You can also try to travel the max distance (604cm for me, not sure what the max is). The game makes it easy to share your results via facebook or twitter. Hopefully I haven’t annoyed too many of my friends by posting the screen captures.
Oh, and if you tire of those challenges, there are a whole list of achievements to pursue, like surviving 8-player games. It’s tougher than you’d think, even with the silliest AI setting.
The thing about these features is they make the app just that – an app. I keep coming back to try and improve my loop score or get a new achievement. Most of my time is spent in solo mode, and it’s the kind of thing that keeps you coming back again and again. There are no frustrating microtransactions or pay-to-win challenges to distract and annoy you. It’s just a good game, made even more interesting by the statistics the CPU can keep track of that the physical game cannot. We’re board gamers; we love stats, am I right?
Long story short, this app is definitely worth the price of admission. I love seeing great board game apps, and Tsuro is top of the line. It brings the zen atmosphere and tactile nature of the board game into the digital world, layering a wealth of options, goals, and challenges to keep it fun. Your mileage with online multiplayer may vary, but the single player achievements and challenges and a decent AI will keep you coming back for more.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Thunderbox Entertainment for providing a review copy of Tsuro.