Converting a board game into a video game is always a tricky endeavor. One can take liberties with the source material by either changing out some mechanics for more visually appealing ones (the streets in Monopoly Streets come to mind) or rip out ones that don't work too well (the omission of the board in the Scene It? games, for example) and still produce something fans and newcomers would enjoy. Another approach would be to make the game a carbon copy of the original that captures the same magic as the physical version. Catan and Carcassonne have done this well while something like Wits & Wagers shows off what happens when things go wrong. It's this hit-and-miss mentality that makes any video game release of a board game intriguing to watch. Such is the case for Apples to Apples, a game that is fundamentally sound but only in certain situations.
For those unfamiliar with the board game, it can be best described as an unusual guessing game. At the start of a round, one player is picked to be the judge, and he or she pulls a green apple card displaying an idea, topic or word. Everyone else has seven randomly drawn red apple cards, which display names, places and words along with funny descriptions. These players submit the cards facedown to the judge, who shuffles the cards, looks at them and decides which card he or she thinks best fits the green apple card. The person whose card gets chosen wins a point, and the next round starts in a similar fashion. Since the judge ultimately decides what he does or doesn't like, there is no right or wrong answer. Some judges will pick something that fits perfectly while others will want to pick something that may not fit but sounds funny. It's all subjective, and that's the source of the board game's humor and appeal.
The game's single-player mode takes this concept and runs off in a completely different direction. You're still presented with green and red apple cards, but you don't get any say in what is chosen. Instead, a CPU-controlled apple chooses all of the cards, and it's up to you to determine what answer it may choose based on its personality. The celebrity apple, for example, may choose an answer that somehow relates to another celebrity name while the football apple may select something that has to do with sports. Instead of choosing the card, you have to choose the word from a jumbled letter grid in a set amount of time. Finding the correct words gets you bonus time while finding the wrong one docks 10 seconds from your clock. Once a set number of answers is correctly found, the game moves on until all of the challenges from all 12 apple types have been completed.
It's nice that there was some consideration given for how a single-player game would work out, but the main complaint about this mode is its difficulty and length. With the exception of the later levels, which hide words, finding the answers isn't too difficult, especially when you realize that every word you have to find is no more and no less than five letters long. While going up against 12 different CPU apples seems like it would make for a game of a decent length, the reality is that you can get through the mode from start to finish in less than 30 minutes. With no real reward other than opening up the apple avatars for use elsewhere, most people will simply go through this once and never look back at it again.
Multiplayer is what most people will be sticking with, and while most of the modes are the same whether you're playing off- or online, there are some differences with the details. Restricted to four players, offline multiplayer lets you play with three different modes that have minor differences. Classic mode plays out exactly like the traditional game, while Baked Apples mode has the winner of the round become the judge for the next round instead of the judge being selected in terms of player order. Crab Apple flips the game's basic choice rule by having the player choose the least likely answer instead of the most likely. While Baked Apples presents a viable change to the formula, Crab Apple doesn't really do anything since players are most likely to do this anyway in the classic game, so the mode seems futile. Also, the whole thing is sabotaged anyway since everyone can see which cards are selected and what cards everyone has because everyone is looking at the same screen; it ruins the mystery of the selections and potentially causes players to purposefully select or ignore cards from one player to intentionally make one win or lose.
Online does a few things that give it an advantage over offline play: players can't see the hands of other players. Gold cards are introduced in all three modes if one wishes, and these cards temporarily alter the game rules for the round, for good or ill. Things, such as gaining points in a round no matter which card is selected, add some strategy but these can only be earned by winning games in the first place. Even then, it doesn't look as if the community is appreciative of the changes, as I didn't encounter many games where these cards were active.
If there's one complaint to be had with online play, it would be that there isn't much of an online community at the moment. During the review period, it was difficult to find anything other than a custom game being played. Even then, most of the matches were with the same people several times in a row, with only a few different hosts at a given time. All of them also had the tendency to stay silent during those matches, which may be good or bad depending on how you feel about hearing online strangers. While it looks like some of those people were legitimately trying to play, others were simply hosting boosting sessions for Achievements, and while it will take some time to get the 500 games needed for said Achievement, one can't guarantee much of a community left once that has been obtained.
There's not much to discuss from a technical standpoint. The controls are simple enough that you only need the left analog stick to select a card and the A button to confirm any choices. The only use for the other buttons is to display emotions on your avatar when you're online. The graphics carry the same bright colors from the limited amount seen on the board game's art, and the sound is limited to background music that's good but never annoying. Things like this only get called out if they're bad, but with nothing out of the ordinary here, there really isn't much to say from a technical standpoint.
Overall, Apples to Apples makes for a decent, but not great, conversion from board game to video game. Even though it has a rather small online community at the moment, playing this online with friends is great. Offline play, despite the convenience, is marred by the fact that everyone can see everyone else's hands. The single-player game is bad enough that the only reason to get through it would be to snag Achievements and avatars, should you not like using your own Xbox Live Avatar during play. Unless you have plenty of online friends, it's best to stick with the physical board game this time around.
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