If you're the sort of person who prefers games that let you blast your enemies to smithereens with a rocket launcher, you probably wouldn't be too interested in a rousing game of Chinese checkers. And that's too bad, because the latest edition of Hoyle Board Games proves just how enduring and intriguing some classic strategy and board games can be. One of four new Hoyle titles--and quite probably the most addictive--Hoyle Board Games offers a wide range of familiar and not-so-familiar pastimes, and each of these comes with a number of engaging visual and audio perks that could only exist in a computer game. The unfortunate but very evident downside to this otherwise pleasant package is that Hoyle Board Games is so similar to Hoyle Board Games 2002--which itself was almost a dead ringer for Hoyle Board Games 2001--that it may only appeal to players who are unfamiliar with any of the previous editions.
Like all Sierra games bearing the Hoyle name, Hoyle Board Games runs nearly as well on an old beater desktop or laptop as it does on a graphically accelerated top-of-the-line computer. In fact, when you consider its undemanding system requirements and its subject matter, the game is ideally suited to those quick breaks during the day when you don't have the time or the computing horsepower to embark upon a long episode with a more complex game.
And Hoyle Board Games has plenty of games to play. Sierra has added two more games to last year's list for a grand total of 18, including age-old favorites such as chess, checkers, backgammon, and dominoes; more recent games such as battling ships (Sierra's virtual adaptation of Battleship) and mahjong tiles; and electronic-only affairs such as gravity tiles. Although everyone will inevitably find certain favorites, the game works so well because very few of its games are anything but solid. Chinese checkers, for example, translates very well to the computer screen, as do chess and checkers. Battling ships, wherein animated cannons fire volleys over a wall and tiny ships explode and burn, is far more fun on the PC than it ever was with a pen and paper. Gravity tiles, a hybrid of mahjong tiles and Tetris, is always good for a quick cranial workout.
Four Sierra-devised games also make their Hoyle Board Games debut in the version. Two of them, wordox and double cross, are variations on the old standby Scrabble. Word yacht is a compelling word-based derivative of Yahtzee that asks you to assemble words from individual letters, place them into categories, and deal with a constantly ticking timer. The racing car board game bump 'em seems more geared to children than adults and is generally dull and uninspired.
Each unique game is accessed through a single, no-frills main menu, where you'll also select from a very limited collection of user options. Indeed, apart from deciding upon beginner, intermediate, and expert difficulty levels, the only real decisions you'll have to make are cosmetic. If you don't like the default orchestral soundtrack, you can choose from an impressive variety of alternative styles. If you want to alter the appearance of your virtual persona, you'll head to the "facemaker" utility and build a new look. A Sierra staple, facemaker lets you construct a customized mug completely from scratch, selecting features such as eyes, lips, and even eyebrows from its massive collection of bits and pieces, then sticking them all together into a recognizable shape.
Although games such as battling ships, chess, and checkers offer an illusion of 3D, the Hoyle Board Games world is strictly two-dimensional. Each game sits in the center of the screen, surrounded by animated headshots of the artificially intelligent or human players. Sierra provides 10 AI opponents for your playing pleasure, all of which are capable of restricted animated movements and scores of spoken phrases. Unfortunately, the AI crew often seems uninteresting and bland. Furthermore, because the game does not install animations and speech to the hard drive, it slows noticeably to access its CD whenever such situations arise. Thankfully, you can deactivate both speech and animations to increase the pace to more desirable levels. You may also want to go online to play against real human foes or upload the bonus PDA versions of mahjong tiles or backgammon to your Palm or Windows handheld.
With four new games, an equal number of new AI characters, and two PDA games, Sierra has made some effort to differentiate Hoyle Board Games from prior iterations. It has not, however, altered the general presentation or changed the appearance or operation of its returning games. So Hoyle veterans will find the vast majority of the new game to be strikingly similar to what they have seen before. Although the package is a great choice for newcomers, it probably won't be as satisfying to old hands.