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TUAW Faceoff: Skat vs. ProSkat on the iPhone


We've covered quite a few board and card games in this ongoing series of iPhone / iPad app reviews, but I haven't been as excited about any of them as I was when I saw that there was not just one but two Skat apps available for the iDevices. Considering that Skat is my absolute favorite card game of all time (in second place: SWCCG, an entirely different beast), I knew I'd need to download them both (at US$4.99 each, sadly) and see if either one offered an experience that is in any way similar to playing against real humans. The answer: as much as a touch-screen interface can replace your friends, they do.

The first of the two apps is called Skat and its icon looks like this . The other is called ProSkat and has this icon . Skat's icon is much better-looking and does a better job of instantly identifying the app as Skat, but in almost every other aspect, ProSkat is the winner. Read on to see why both of these apps have their place and how they allow you to cleverly bid and take tricks in style on your iPhone.






The Game

Skat, like Poker or Bridge, has been around for ages. Developed in the early 19th century in Germany, it is now often considered Germany's national card game. The game is played most often in Germany or by German expatriates, but there is no good reason why anyone who likes card games shouldn't be exposed to this little gem. It's been included in Hoyle's for years, but there still aren't many Americans who have played the game. Maybe the iPhone sheen will change that a little bit.

To fully describe the game here would be distracting, so we'll just briefly explain what the game is about and point you to in-depth rules explanations like this one.

Skat is a three-handed card game in which, most often, one player competes against the other two to collect more than half of the 120 points in the deck. The deck is a slimmed down, standard 52-card deck with all of the cards valued at 2-6 taken out. During most games, all of the jacks and all of the cards of one suit (chosen by the single player) are trump. Another benefit for the single player is that he or she gets to look at the two cards left over (called the Skat) when all players have been dealt 10 cards.

The person who becomes the single player for each hand is decided in a somewhat complicated bidding round. Again, the intricacies of bidding are outside the scope of this review, but we'll just say that a weak hand shouldn't bid, a medium strong hand should start at 18 (the lowest possible bid), and a strong hand should stay in the contest until claiming victory. Good players will be able to tell a lot about the lay of the cards once they've heard the bids. If someone stops at 23, for example, they're sitting on a pile of nonsense that they were hoping to turn into gold in a special, no-trump game called "Null."

Gameplay is similar to many other trick-taking games, with players needing to follow suit if possible, and with the high card (or trump) taking the trick. The person who takes the trick leads with the next card until all ten cards have been played. Once finished, players count their score piles (the two players who formed the team get their stacks added together), and the person who took the Skat either gains points if he has a score of 61 or more, or he loses points if he didn't reach that threshold. Considering Skat's long evolution, there are many quirks that can bend or break these rules. One of my favorites: if the two sides evenly split the game with a score of 60 each, then the next three games are all score double. Why? There's no real reason, it's just a little something that gives Skat its rich character.

There are plenty of ways to learn the rules (here's a Mac program that looks like a version of the Skat app), but the beauty of the two iPhone apps is that they make the rules come alive. I've played some Mac Skat programs (not the one linked to above), but none of them have the flourish and easy-to-play factor that ProSkat does. The Skat app, though, needs a little bit of work.


The Apps

We'll start with Skat. The biggest headscratcher is why the AI opponents are cartoon mice. Turning a serious board or card game into something a bit brighter and animated on the iPhone can work (see: Zooloretto), but here it's just weird. Plus, their names are Peter, Speedy, and Jerry. You start our as Peter, but you can change this in the settings if you want. If you turn the sound on, you can hear them speak a little bit in German soundbites, which adds an air of authenticity the experience.

Graphical weirdness aside, Skat offers decent gameplay and good computer opponents. If the mice are too distracting, the game lets you swap in your own pictures, so you can feel like you're playing against your friends (or a Pearl Jam poster, you know). One nice feature we discovered in the settings menu that is missing from a lot of game apps is shake to undo.

Skat does have one big feature that ProSkat could learn from: the game review screen. Not only can you see what cards were in the two extra cards, but also which cards the winner discarded after taking the Skat and then a list of every trick made in the game. For learning, this sort of thing is invaluable. However, it only shows up if you want it to, making a round of games flow smoothly if you're not interested in dissecting each move. Once you've done this, you can replay the game (you can replay games in ProSkat, too). We tried this, and so discovered a bug: if you repeat a game but then exit the app before you start and come back in, the cards will be dealt anew. Sorry if you wanted to try that one again after looking up a rule or strategy tip online.


ProSkat

Compared to the cartoony impression of Skat, ProSkat just bleeds elegance. From the look of the app to the way you can sort your cards during the bidding process, everything is easy, intuitive, and cool. A little pop-out menu on the bottom left (see here) allows you to instantly sort your hand by suit (or for Grand or Null hands), which makes calculating your bid so much easier. Skat allows you to set a sorting preference, but being able to do it within the game is 100 times better. In fact, pretty much every UI decision in ProSkat puts the emphasis on an elegant and simple look. It's very Apple. One way that ProSkat is a bit worse than Skat: you need to tap a card twice to play it vs. just once in Skat.

Neither app has a multiplayer option, either using pass-n-play or working through a network. For that, there's iSkat Online, which we'll look at in a future review. The AIs in both Skat and ProSkat are similar and quite decent players. We won and lost about the same number of games as we do in real life, so the programmers got that aspect right. For new players, be aware that there are no tutorials or "easy" opponent settings. These apps expect you to know how to play when you come to the virtual table.

Once you know what you're doing, though, a game can be played in a minute or two. This makes both of these apps perfect for getting a quick Skat fix anywhere, anytime. We prefer the look and feel of ProSkat, but can certainly understand why some people would want Skat's friendlier interface, especially if you can play against pictures of, say, Steve Jobs and the President. Who wouldn't want to sit down at that table?

We've covered quite a few board and card games in this ongoing series of iPhone / iPad app reviews, but I haven't been as excited about...