Match-Up brings real-time multiplayer tournaments to mobile gaming

For fans of asynchronous games, the waiting may be the hardest part.

You make an especially brilliant play in Words With Friends—or Draw Something or Letterpress or any one of the other turn-based games populating your smartphone—and then you have to sit around and see if your opponent can respond in kind. Maybe that takes a couple of minutes, maybe it takes a couple of days. Maybe it takes so long, you’ve lost interest and moved on to other things.

That’s certainly been my complaint with the asynchronous turn-based games I’ve taken out for a spin. Typically, I would give these games a try, only to eventually discard when match-ups began to drag on for a while.

Apparently, my problem with asynchronous turn-based games is not an uncommon one, at least according to Big Fish Games. These kind of turn-based games have a short shelf-life, according to Chris Williams, the vice president and general manager of the game maker’s free-to-play division. Just a glance at the iOS App Store will also tell you that there’s also a lot of asynchronous turn-based offerings out there. “They’ve been done to death,” Williams says.

Big Fish has an answer to asynchronous turn-based play in the form of Match-Up, a free iOS download that the app maker bills as the first real-time, multiplayer tournament offering for casual mobile games.

Match-Up features three games in which you compete against other players in an elimination format. There’s no waiting weeks on end to find out if you’ve won—the games in Match-Up are geared toward casual gamers, and tournaments take just a few minutes to complete.

Word Rack is one of three games featured in Match-Up, a tournament-style offering from Big Fish Games.

The ability to pit casual gamers in live competition should give Big Fish an edge over rival game makers. “It’s really, really hard to create real-time multiplayer tournaments,” Williams says. To that end, the company has a partner—Jawfish Games, which specializes in these kind of multiplayer offerings. (The CEO of Jawfish is Phil Gordon, whom you might recognize from all those poker tournaments airing in perpetuity on cable sports channels and as someone who knows a thing or two about the mechanics of tournament play.)

Big Fish and Jawfish say they’ve built a platform capable of handling hundreds of thousands of players, so there should be no lag when you take on all comers in Match-Up.

The behind-the-scenes support for Match-Up may be sophisticated, but the games it features are not. They feature what Williams calls “well-understood gaming mechanics, but they’re games of skill. They’re easy to learn, but they’re challenging when competing against other players.”

Match-Up includes Mahjong, the tile-matching game in which you tap on identical tiles to make them disappear, and Word Rack, a combination of Boggle and Scrabble in which you’ve got 30 seconds to form the highest-value word from the letter tiles provided.

There’s also QBeez, a match-three game—well, match-two in this case—where you rack up points by tapping on similarly colored groups of blocks to make them disappear. In a particularly clever nod to the built-in accelerometer on iOS devices, you can reshuffle blocks by tilting your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad.

Mahjong is a tile-matching game with a tournament-style twist.

Those three main games all feature individual versions, from a 16-player tournament to a heads-up best-of-five challenge. There’s a free-to-play version within each game, featuring a modest payoff of chips for the winner; other games feature a larger buy-in of in-game currency for an equally larger payoff.

This approach allows you to play Match-Up without ever parting with a dime of actual cash, if that’s what you prefer. You can also pony up real money for more chips or for boosts that you can put to use during Match-Up’s assorted games.

I had a chance to play with an early build of Match-Up prior to Thursday’s release, and it’s certainly a more engaging experience than the hurry-up-and-wait approach that asynchronous turn-based games have to offer. That said, while early versions of the games have their easy-to-correct flaws at this point—on the iPhone, the tiles in Mahjong are a little too tiny for my fat fingers, and I’ve been served up the exact same tiles in Word Rack, which removes the challenge from the game—the biggest drawback I’ve run into at this point is that you can’t issue challenges to specific friends.

You have to take the opponents that Match-Up assigns you (though Big Fish representatives tell me that if you and your friends join the same game simultaneously, odds are, you’ll be paired together). Look for such a feature to be added to future versions of Match-Up.

You tap on similarly-colored blocks to make them disappear in QBeez.

The games in Match-Up are purposely designed to appeal to casual gamers at this point, but the tournament-style play in the game—and the pedigree of Jawfish Games—would seem to suggest more casino-style offerings are in the works. Big Fish is coy on specifics at this point: “”this is a platform, and we have a great partnership with Jawfish,” Williams says. “And we could see… adding other social casual games that people like to play with each other.”

Match-Up for iOS runs on the iPhone 4 and later, the fifth-generation iPod touch, and the iPad 2 and later.

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