Turns out that both of the card games I wrote about Monday have officially sanctioned online versions. Dominion’s had an internet-playable implementation on the beloved BrettspielWelt for some time, but I only today got around to trying Race for the Galaxy’s computerized counterpart (pictured here). Both games are perfectly functional and free to play, but have a cost in… well, let us say that a polished user interface is not the top priority of either effort.
The brazenly unstyled HTML of Keldon Jones’ Race for the Galaxy page lets you know from the start that he isn’t out to impress you with a razor-sharp UI. But if it’s Race practice you’re after, I find his solution far more satisfying than the solitaire variant that comes packaged with the card game’s first expansion set. Keldon has been developing this AI in the sunshine for nearly a year, updating it frequently, and it’s very good. It consistently kicks my butt, anyway, whether with the base deck or any of the expansions — every one of which the programmer has implemented, and which you can mix in or out before each game.
In the tradition of one-hacker game-adaptation projects, obsessive focus on the rules and AI leaves the UI a secondary concern. Even with the simplest setup, it’s hard to tell with this Race board when anyone draws cards, for example, or which turn-phase is active. However, it quickly earned my trust that it wasn’t skipping any of the growing pile of interacting rules-exceptions that build up over the course over a single game. The requirement for every player to perform their own bookkeeping represents the weakest part of the physical game’s UI — one that I mess up all the time, to the annoyance of my friends, who grudgingly allow me to draw the bonus card I forgot to draw two phases ago. But this computer game quietly makes a non-issue of it, and I like that.
I was personally interested to discover that, all told, the interface Keldon designed shares several similarities to the UI I came up with for a digital version of Andy Looney’s Fluxx in 2005 . We both chose, for example, the same solution to the puzzle of representing cards both as teensy icons that all fit on the screen, while allowing all the text on the cards to be readable: when you roll over any small card, a full-sized version appears in the window’s upper-left corner. I suspect that this is simply a result of drawing from the same deep well; I have been enjoying fan-digitizations of board games since I owned my first personal computer, and in almost every case found them as full of heart as they were of somewhat dubious interface practices. There are worse models to follow.
I must mention that, according its homepage, this adaptation exists with the full knowledge and blessing of Rio Grande Games, the boxed Race game’s publishers. We scratch our heads over the fact that they still print an
aol.com-based email address on brand-new game boxes in 2010, but this shows that they know a thing or two about the benefits of not holding onto an IP with a death grip, especially when your product has creative superfans willing to do your internet-based marketing for you.
Take, for example, BrettspielWelt, which houses the digital Dominion. The user interface for BSW’s downloadable Java client is a deplorable mess, a nightmarish melange of tiny, overtiled panes with candy-colored buttons whose unclear purpose has nothing to do with the fact that the application is natively in German (appropriate to der Vaterland of many of its supported games, and of course only a problem to monoglots like me).
And yet, it’s become the one place you go to play many popular tabletop games online, because that’s where everyone else goes. If you cross your eyes and look at this screenshot (click to enlarge), you’ll note that churning mass of colored bars in the background all say “Dominion” in them. Each of those is a game of Dominion in progress, and that horizontally(?!)-scrollable pane contains many more, stretching far off-screen. It’s like this all day long, filled with players from around the world and its many time zones. It doesn’t seem possible to play a game against bots, alas, but if you can convince friends to join you — or if you don’t mind practicing with strangers (and the risk of their ragequitting) — then this is the venue for online Dominion that the world has embraced.
The actual game does an acceptable job with its interface, given the constraints. Wisely, its designer chose to render the cards as space-saving squares or minimized rows of text (depending on context), rather than copy the physical cards’ oblong shape. This means that the cards’ various powers are expressed only as mouse-hovering tooltips, but really, you should use them only for reminders anyway; I can’t recommend coming anywhere near the BSW version of Dominion if you don’t already know how to play. Fortunately, the rules are available online, if you need a refresher — or if you’re feeling brave enough to try the game for the first time there.
Keldon Jones’ Race game also features an internet-play mode, which — as of Friday evening — houses a healthy handful of active players. So I do believe I’ll wrap this up, wish you a nice weekend, and go knock over some planets.
 And, yes, you can actually play this Fluxx adaptation, made by myself and Andrew Plotkin, via Volity.net, our misbegotten internet-game thingy that we haven’t developed further in years, but continue to keep propped up because why not. But this link goes into a footnote because it requires you to download a Java-based game client, the very sort of thing I go on to slag two paragraphs later. Look, I started designing it in 2003, and it seemed like the right idea at the time. ↩