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App Review: Medici ships good gameplay onto your iPad

Medici [$5.99] is the latest in a growing, impressive line of heavy-ish board games to make the jump from the table to the iPad, and it's amazing to see this game – so carefully crafted and respected by the designer board game community – on a touch screen with an animated background. With Medici being a game of perfect information in real life, it works amazingly well as an iPad app, and if you've ever wanted to practice your Medici bidding skills for your next board game night, this digital version provides a lot of AI opponents of varying ability to challenge. The app isn't perfect (more on this later), but it does a fine job of bringing a 15-year-old board game to life for a new generation of gamers. Read on to see if you might be someone who enjoys this sort of thing.





The Game

Published in 1995, Medici is an auction game about shipping merchants hanging around a harbor and buying up the best goods at the lowest prices. Designed by Reiner Knizia for three to six players, the game was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, and it's easy to see why.

Medici is part of Knizia's so-called "auction trilogy," along with Modern Art and Ra, both of which are also coming to the App Store in the coming months (and they should be good, too, since the developers of Medici, Sage Board Games, plan to bring us Ra, and the developers of Money and High Society are working on Modern Art – it's a good time to be a digital board gamer). The goal of the game is kind of greedy – the player with the most money wins – but instead of just, say, overcharging your opponents rent the way one might in a lesser board game, you need to figure out whether or not to bid on different lots of goods as they come up.

The number of goods up for bid in each auction is left up to the player whose turn it is. On your turn, you can add one, two, or three goods to the auction. When you're happy with the lot, you start the round, and every other player gets one chance to place a bid. The person adding the goods goes last, so they can buy it as long as they have enough money and room on their boat (each holds a maximum of five goods), or they can let the current high bidder take it. If no one wants the lot, the goods go into the water.

Aside from collecting numbers of goods, it's also important to keep an eye on their value, as there are two ways to get money (score points) in the game. First, whoever has the most total value on their boat gets points. Second, whoever has the most of a particular type of good scores points. Second and third and etc. get fewer points, depending. We recommend reading the game's built-in rules for the full details.

The game is played as a series of three rounds (days), with the end of a round coming either when all the ships are full or all the goods are sold. At this point, a scoring round happens and, after three rounds, the game is over and the trader with the most money wins. Want more detail? You can download the "How To Play" podcast about the game here or check out BGG.


The App

In short, the app is a wonderful port of the game, but we wish it was a bit more polished. The problems we experienced are probably easily fixed, we just wish they had been caught in beta testing. But first, what's good about this app?

Like with the Settlers of Catan, the iDevice version of Medici allows two human players to play the game when they don't have the minimum number of players. Given that the game scales so well no matter how many players you have, giving players the option to have as many AI or human players as they want (within the three to six player limits) is incredibly cool. And, once everyone knows what they're doing, you can play an entire game in five or ten minutes. It takes at least 30 minutes to play in real life (sometimes close to 45 or 60 minutes), but since the app takes care of scoring and "shuffling the cards" (resetting the goods on the dock), things move briskly. Is it fun? I think so, but I'm a fan of the board game version, so this didn't surprise me. Like the other board game apps that I've reviewed where there's a real mental, play-the-opponent aspect to the game (like Poison), Medici is more fun against people than bots, but damn if this isn't a fine substitute.

The app saves the game for you to return to, which is pretty much a requirement, but there are a few places where the user interface just isn't up to par. Setting up a new game takes a bit too long, for example, and the worst part is that you need to enter the options every. single. time. You need to pick your opponents from the list of nine different AIs and assign them all a color. This kind of makes sense the first time, but we'd really appreciate a way to tell the app to set up a four-player beginner game with one human player, and off we go. Also, if the app just remembered our settings from the previous game so we could replay with the same options, that'd be hawt.

The developers are aware of the problem with the "portrait selection" screen and told TUAW:
We have submitted an update to Apple with fixes for these problems and some additional tweaks and features. The issues have to do with canceling the keyboard during name entry and also with clicking outside of the portrait images and the cancel/confirm buttons.
The app is prone to crashing intermittently, and we also had a very bizarre bug where, when we tried to click on a link within the rules (to go read about scoring, for example), the entire app somehow got copied to GoodReader, which then tried and failed to open it. Like we said, it was very strange. Here's hoping this gets fixed, along with the other issues, soon. We'd also like to see some sort of icons to help the color blind, but maybe it's not a big problem.

Even with these minor problems, once you get going, Medici is a wonderful game and a true antidote to button-mashing video games. The game is an evolving lesson in the value of buying something, and how what's valuable can differ from player to player and from turn to turn. If you bought a lot of cloth early, it helps to keep the lead in that goods category so you can keep scoring the 10-point bonus. If you're way behind in the race for spice, then only when you get a really, really good deal on a bunch of spice (like, three tiles for six florins) is it worth it to buy them. Good opponents won't ever let you get that deal, and that's the challenge of the game. This is a thinking person's board game, and it happens to be completely enjoyable on the iPad or on the table.




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App Review iPad

Medici [$5.99] is the latest in a growing, impressive line of heavy-ish board games to make the jump from the table to the iPad, and it's...