Backgammon NJ and FaceMe Backgammon for iPhone and iPad
Backgammon is a board game that is perfectly suited to iOS devices. The shape of the board fits the iPhone and iPad, and the gameplay—rolling dice and moving pieces—is greatly simplified when you tap to perform these tasks. Over the past few months, I’ve tried out a number of backgammon apps, and two stand out: Backgammon NJ (available for the iPad in a separate version called Backgammon NJ HD), and FaceMe Backgammon.
There are three things I looked for in a backgammon app, starting with an attractive interface. This isn’t as common as you might think, as some backgammon offerings in the App Store have garish colors or horrid cartoonish boards and pieces. If you’re better than a casual player, you’ll want an app with strong artificial intelligence: If you can beat the app all the time, it’s not much fun. And, if you like to play different people, you’ll want multi-player options, preferably using iOS’s built-in Game Center feature.
FaceMe Backgammon is a $4 universal app that runs on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad). Developed by Quatrian, the game features an attractive interface, with a selection of a half-dozen different boards. Its AI is decent, and is strong enough for most backgammon players. FaceMe Backgammon allows you to play against the app, with “Pass the device” mode (in which two human players can play each other), and online with Game Center.
Backgammon NJ from Jimmy Hu comes in a $5 iPhone version or a $7 iPad offering. Its interface offers fewer choices—only three boards—but I find it a bit more attractive, and its animations are smoother. It offers Game Center play and Two Player mode as well. But the real advantage to this app is the quality of its AI.
While I’m not a great backgammon player, I’ve been playing for a while. When I play FaceMe Backgammon, at the strongest level (“Expert”), I can generally win in a multi-point match. In addition, FaceMe Backgammon is very poor at using the doubling cube. It rarely offers to double, and almost always accepts when I double.
With Backgammon NJ, however, at the “Medium” skill level (the second of four levels), I win many matches, but not all. If I go to Hard, however, I don’t stand a chance. One weakness with this app is that there is a difference of 300 ELO points—from 1500 to 1800—between these two levels. More levels with smaller differences would make it better for those stuck in between two levels.
Backgammon NJ also offers a number of features to help you improve your game. You can ask for hints, and use a doubling tutor that will highlight the doubling cube when it recommends that you double, and recommend whether you should accept or decline when the app doubles. Diligent use of these features can greatly improve your game.
As for online play, both apps use Game Center. With two different versions, Backgammon NJ suffers because if you have the iPhone version, you can’t play owners of the iPad app; each one is considered to be a different game. So if you have two iOS devices, you may want to buy both versions, depending on when and where you play. The iPhone version currently lists 5,700 players in Game Center, and the HD version 4,900. FaceMe Backgammon lists a little more than 6,000 players. At times, I find it easier to get a game with one app or the other, and sometimes there are no players available for either. Unfortunately, neither of these offer they type of interface you get on backgammon servers, where you can invite someone to a match after seeing their level and experience. With Game Center, all this is automatic. (As an aside, it’s a shame that Game Center doesn’t allow all users apps for games like backgammon, chess, go, and others to play each other.)
All in all, Backgammon NJ—whether in iPad or iPhone form—is by far the better player, but it is more expensive. If you’re just a casual player, especially if you have two iOS devices, FaceMe Backgammon is a better choice, given the price. But if you’re a serious backgammon player, Backgammon NJ is the way to go.