While the world has come to accept Apple’s Click Wheel as perhaps the world’s best input device for portable music library navigation, there’s also widespread agreement that the circular touch- and button-based controller is seriously deficient for most action-intense genres of games. Occasionally, developers try and fail to get twitch-based titles to work on the iPod, but others have focused on making iPod-friendly updates of classic table or board games — ones where speed isn’t as important as strategy.
Electronic Arts’ Yahtzee ($5) is the latest example of the board game as iPod game—a half-century-old dice game converted, with minimal frills, into a Click Wheel-ready format. You do nothing more in Yahtzee than repeatedly shake a cup with six-sided dice in an attempt to match or sequence as many of the dice as possible. The cup starts with five dice, which are tossed onto the table in your first throw, giving you the option to keep or re-roll as many as you want. After three throws in classic mode, you have to pick one of 12 scoring categories for your dice—16 in “rainbow rules” mode—which basically tells the computer to give you as many points as possible for the matches you’ve made.
You try to end the game with the highest possible score.
The strategic part of Yahtzee is straightforward: the five dice on the table can often be scored in a number of different ways, so it’s up to you to make the most of what’s there. If you have five of the same number—say, all 4s—you might get 20 points for choosing the “fours” category, 21 for choosing the “3 of a kind” category, 21 for choosing “4 of a kind,” or 50 for choosing 5 of a kind, known here as Yahtzee. The big challenge is that you can only use each scoring category once, so you need to pick carefully to maximize your score: “is this the best 4 of a kind I can put together?” If you can’t use any of the remaining categories for the dice you’ve assembled on a given turn, you score 0, and when you’re out of categories, the game ends.
While Electronic Arts did a decent job of bringing Yahtzee to the iPod, it’s obvious that the company didn’t go as far as it might have in maximizing the game’s long-term appeal. On a positive note, there are three sets of Yahtzee rules to choose from: the aforementioned “classic rules,” plus “rainbow rules,” a version in which three colors of dice are tossed, enabling you to score in four additional high-point categories, and “duplicate rules,” where 15 dice are rolled in advance, giving each of two players the same outcomes, and letting each one attempt to strategically earn the most points from the rolls. Since it’s hard to make both numerical and color matches, rainbow rules games often end with lots of 0 point turns, but at least the option’s there to spice up the standard gameplay.
These modes can’t hide the fact that the game is inherently shallow. A “Quick Game” mode drops you right into the classic version of the game without a computer or human opponent, giving you the chance to run through a game and get the highest possible score.
Solo standard play is pretty much the same thing, and not especially engrossing or compelling, so the standard game mode also lets you play against a human or computer opponent. Rather than introducing gambling or role playing elements, as it did in The Sims Pool and The Sims Bowling, EA’s biggest attempt to extend Yahtzee’s longevity is the computer’s “normal,” “advanced,” and “genius” difficulty levels, the latter two unlocked only through beating the computer once per level. We blew through normal, advanced, and genius on our first tries, despite never having played the game before—evidently, it doesn’t take much to be a Yahtzee genius.
Gameplay extensions aside, the only other way that EA might have enhanced Yahtzee is through audiovisual tweaks—user-selectable artwork or music. Of the two, EA picked the easier option, offering three in-game songs described as “lounge,” “jazz,” and “electric,” which can be alternated or just played repeatedly. None of the tracks is great; jazz is the best of the bunch. Similarly, there’s nothing special about the graphics, which are plain in all respects from animation to design.