How does the experience of playing the real board game compare to playing the app?

The holidays are screeching around the corner, and the frenzy to fill stockings and pile up presents is hitting its peak this weekend. For those with kids on their list, board games have always been the standby winners, but now there’s a new rival on the scene: the board game app.

True, apps are not as fun to gift. The tiny, flat iTunes or Amazon gift card pales next to the big wrapped box. But beyond opening the gift, does the experience of playing with the app hold up to playing with the real thing?

Last summer, my eight-year-old daughter was introduced to LIFE, the board game. She was hooked instantly. She and her friends spent long summer afternoons spinning the number wheel, counting their savings and retirement, and moving their characters along in the path toward college or work, having kids, and buying homes. They talked about why they made each of those decisions and plotted their strategies with each other for their future.

Preparing to go on vacation, we decided to buy the LIFE app for the iPad rather than lug along the big box and all of its many components. The game itself is executed well enough on the touchscreen tablet. You can choose to play with up to six other virtual players within the app — jolly characters like Zoe or Ernie or Malcom, or pass it around to play with real players. Spin the wheel by making a circle on the touchscreen (the sound resembles the real wheel, the tap-tap-tap going quickly at first, then slowing down). Tap images of finance-related cards (the app does all the counting for you), and follow the prompts and arrows to keep the game moving. For the most part, all the logistics of playing the game are the same on the app as on the board.

LIFE was originally created in 1860 by Milton Bradley. More than 150 years and many iterations later, kids are playing the digital version of the game, and discovering for themselves the differences between the two.

The LIFE app.

Tara Runyan from Oakland plays LIFE with her daughter Julia on the iPad. Though they enjoyed it at first, it “gets boring after the novelty wears off,” she said.

“The physical board game is a lot more fun,” Runyan said. “There are things that are automated, like playing the cards you draw, that take away the strategy element, which is minimal anyway.”

My daughter, Lucy, agrees. “With the game, you have to do your own math, which is more fun, except when I’m feeling lazy,” she said.”Plus, your parents don’t tell you to get off the iPad screen, because they think it’s okay for you to play the real game.”

And although you can technically play with others on the iPad version, Lucy points out it’s more fun to play with real people “because they can actually talk to me.”

Any redeeming qualities of the app? It’s easier to clean up and much more portable.


Somehow the image of passing around a tablet or mobile phone around the dining room table doesn’t evoke the same warmth as the messy board game, piled up with cards and cash and rainbow-colored tokens. With the real game, you have a better sense of strategy, of players’ predilections. You can see the real estate mogul’s empire grow on the Monopoly board, miniature houses and hotels crowding out the other players’ tokens. You can tell who likes to be in charge of counting the money, collecting fines, doling out people’s pensions and rewards, ever the scrupulous banker (we hope).

Word games have their own dynamics, too. Playing the tactile versions of Boggle and Scrabble versus the apps are two completely different experiences. The Boggle app allows you to spin the board around clockwise, so it’s easier to see new ways of putting letters together to make words. You create words by tapping each letter, and the app buzzes when you’re wrong.

The Scrabble app also makes playing easier by giving you the option of looking up those ridiculous two-letter words that qualify, like “xa” and “fa.” On the other hand, you can play the app version at any time of day, with real friends and virtual friends who use the app.

Flickr: ANGEL

Amy Nathan of Berkeley, the mother of two grade-school boys, says her kids are not interested in the app version of Boggle. “I think the manipulatives in each of those games is a big part of the learning,” she said.

Telma Cox from Pacific Grove points out that playing a real board game with a big group is more engaging for players. “As much as our kids love games and apps on their iPads and iPod touches, the tactile board games are more interactive and fun for a larger number of people, like when you have the whole family together,” she said.

It’s important to note, though, that there are wonderful, original, interactive, educational apps (see our list of app reviews.) And a lot of those don’t exist in the tactile world.

For some families, it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other. “There’s definitely room for both in our real and virtual game closet,” Runyan said.

If Lucy had too choose between the real game and the app, she says she’d choose the real game. “But you know what,” she said. “I’d actually want to have both.”

  • I am starting to see games that have both elements of in interactive touch screen and tactile card or models starting to appear – games that just ‘copy’ a traditional game are generally weak versions of the original and do lose so much in the ‘conversion’

  • Jim

    The article could have gone into newer European board games, like Settlers of Catan, that are really fun and accessible for many ages (another good one is Carcassone).  I don’t know about the other adults out there, but the worst part of giving a game like Life is that you might have to play it with the recipient.  If that’s the case, you can only hope someone’s thoughtful enough to have stocked up on the rum. 

    • Anonymous

      I’ve played Settlers of Catan on the board and Carcassone on the iPad. For a big group, it seems to be more engaging to play on the board. The app is great when traveling, but if my family had to choose, we’d go with the board because you can see players’ domination plan take shape better. But agree both are super fun!

    • Adam Busbin

      I love my board games, so many good memories with my friends playing Carcassone and Settlers. I just bought Arkham Horror, but it is not really for those who yet to venture from the Parker Brothers relm.

      • Anonymous

        Have you tried the app version of Carcassone, Adam? I’ve heard that the board game itself can expand to take up a lot of space and wonder how that compares to playing the digital version.

  • We love playing Carcassone and Ticket to Ride on the iPad with friends.   We’ve done a lot of remote games and some during get togethers on multiple iPads.   My 6 year old saved my Carcassone game against my husband this morning.  I think the iPad for strategy games lends itself to impromptu and ongoing games with friends.   With younger kids that are learning game playing and counting out spaces and such I like the board game as the tactile elements lend itself to reinforcing those new abstract concepts and the app versions tend to run the counting automatically for them.  

  • Anonymous

    There is another element to tangible board games that makes them different and in many ways more stimulating than virtual games. The board games have tangibility and uniqueness and provoke the senses that apps do not. When I open a tangible board game, the experience begins with the holding of a jiggling and noisy box of game pieces and the tactile stimulation it provokes. The sensory experiences pervade the entire game – from touching the pieces to feeling the weight of the board to smelling the cardboard, to hearing and feeling the dice fall and roll, to the feel of moving about the board to move one’s pieces and get different objects.  The physical sensations add a dimension not available in apps. Also, the board games weather and wear and in that way reminds us of mortality and realness in a way apps cannot.

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