iBoardgaming – Waxing Strategic

As another travel-associated holiday weekend nears for those of us in the US, I thought it a good time to bring up some non-boardgame titles on the iPhone and iPad.  I’ve been toying with most of these for several months now and the majority stand out as fun titles to try for those of a strategy bent (and isn’t that most of us gamers?)  There are a few broad selections as well as a rundown on some of the more popular space conquest and wargame categories.   Most are solo oriented affairs, better for travel-time enjoyment than taking you away from anyone you’re visiting.  Hope you find something here to pique your interest.  (Note: Prices are subject to change, and were current at some point in the past, and in the interest of full disclosure, many of the titles mentioned here were provided as review copies.)

Phantom Leader ($15, iPad only, solo play)
Technically a boardgame port, but since it just came out, is a solo boardgame, and has heavy strategic overtones I thought I’d include it here.  This is a direct port of the solo game involving cards and lots of little cardboard chits for tracking information.  Don’t expect much more than images of the various cards and tables in the game.  Take control of a group of vietnam era pilots and guide them through all the pressure, difficulties and problems of the VietNam campaign.  This is quite an involved game, and even with the tutorial/hints turned on it takes awhile to get up to speed on how the game works.  Play can be done over 2 days (missions) or longer  series of 7 or more days giving time for your pilots to improve.  Many resources need to be managed and the dice-driven resolution mechanics never play nice with your plans. I found the game interesting, but the shorter scenarios quickly fell prey to just one or two poor (or lucky)  dice rolls or card flips.  I expect this to even out more in the longer campaigns.  There are many things going on, so despite the dice it is primarily a very cerebral game.  While $15 sounds steep for an iOS game, compare that to $40 or more for the physical version.  This is a brain burner, so I don’t expect to see it take off with casual gamers, but for fans of the series (or possible fans) it is a pretty good deal for a version of the game that tracks all the variables for you automatically.

Rune Raiders (Free for the moment, Universal)
This was a surprise hit for me.  I came across it when it went on sale and was quickly hooked into what I thought was a traditional puzzle game but turned into a true strategy/puzzle style of game.  Advance through a “dungeon” step by step scrolling upwards with your band of four heroes making attacks to any creature in range with every step.  However, there are many types of heroes (13 heroes in all, that can be upgraded up to 6 times) each with their own range, special ability, and powers.  Monsters come in several types as well.  Some will charge at you while others kill in a single blow.  Thus each journey into succeeding dungeon levels presents new challenges.  It is a nice mix of tactical gameplay with strategic positioning.  Yes, when new levels are encountered new surprises may catch a player off guard, but the penalties for failing a level are small so hopping right back in with new knowledge is a good deal.  Included in the game is a story mode through several different dungeon setups as well as a challenge mode for experienced players to try to optimize strategy.  It is a great, thought-provoking RPG/puzzle/tactical game and it even is playable by the younger set (at least in the easier levels.)  Did I mention free?  You owe it to yourself to pick it up.

Fieldrunners 2 / HD ($3 iPhone, $8 iPad)
One of the very first games I purchased for my iPod touch was Fieldrunners, an early entry into the extremely popular tower defense genre.  The game has aged extremely well, my kindergarten son and myself still play it from time to time.  I suspect this is at least in part due to sticking to the fundamentals of the genre and not trying to compensate by overdoing the special features.  A sequel has finally come to the iPhone and now also the iPad.  It manages to make some nice improvements to the original game, but there are a few changes that I find suboptimal.  In the original, nearly every level had a completely open setup so it was up to the player to construct their own mazes.  In the sequel, only a subset of the levels are open ended with many of them the traditional path-based defense.  However, on the open levels, the game provides a real-time update for the expected path of any of the runners, which is a nice touch.  There are new towers, which are “purchased” with in-game earnings.  I like this as it provides rewards for playing and completing levels.  However, there are also special “one-use” boosts that can be used on each level.  These must be purchased and reek of the sort of in-app purchase fodder that is all too common nowadays.  While these bonus items aren’t all that expensive (and can be bought with a modest chunk of a player’s earnings) what tends to bother me the most is that they are virtually required in order to complete a level on the hardest setting (there are 3 difficulty settings per level.)   This is a big drawback for completionists who simply must entirely beat a game.  Everyone else should probably settle for simply beating all the levels on easy or medium levels and not worry about the bonus items.  While not nearly as cheap as other tower defense games with less impressive lineages, Fieldrunners 2 still contains enough of the original’s fundamental strengths to be a strong purchase.  I won’t call it a home run, but it is good enough to be the spiritual successor to its highly successful predecessor.

Angry Birds Space / HD ($1 iPhone, $1 iPad)
The Angry Birds casual game juggernaut just keeps plugging away.  The (second) newest edition is set in space and includes aspects of gravity.  (The most recent is a Star Wars version, which I have yet to examine…) In Space, birds launched no longer simply fall down, they may fall towards a specific point on the screen.  Multiple sources of gravity may be present (typically surrounded by a “bubble” to indicate the “range” of the gravity so skill shots may require using multiple sources intelligently.  A no-brainer for most any fan of the Angry Birds line, but I find the gameplay not as fun as some of the previous titles.  Note that while the earlier releases were great for the younger set, I find taking “orbiting” into account when launching birds requires a slightly older mindset.

HeroClix TabApp (*Free –> requires purchased figures to unlock, iPad only)
As the market matures, more and more companies are putting together toys and accessories that add to the iPad experience.  One of the newest entries is the TabApp line of figurines from HeroClix.  Three hero figures come in a blister pack and can be used in combination with a free downloadable iPad application.  Place a superhero figure on the screen and it unlocks (by identifying three connections on the underside of the figure) a game to play based on the figure.  The game can be played leaving the figure on the screen, or removing the figure and just playing once that portion of the game is unlocked.  In fact, the app remembers when a figure has been used so one only needs to use the figure the first time to unlock each adventure, and they do not need to be brought out for subsequent plays.  Each figure (there are now 2 packs of Marvel superheroes and two packs of DC comics superheroes) unlocks a three-act combat game where one taps the screen to unleash the current superhero’s attacks and special abilities.  There isn’t much strategy game here, as nearly every level I’ve encountered is pretty much a tap-fest to try to keep the enemies at bay.  The third act for each figure is a boss fight which is a bit harder to pull off, but still doesn’t require too much in the way of strategy.  Perhaps the best attribute of the arrangement are the figurines themselves.  The superheroes are solid little figures painted in bright colors and placed on bases that even work within the WizKids line of “HeroClix” games.  While the figures and bases are solid, I did have one figure pop right off its base when taking it out of the plastic packaging (it was simple to glue it back on, though.)  I can’t recommend the game(s) to general gamers, but it is a pretty fun little game for younger kids and a nice little diversion for HeroClix gamers.  If I played the game I’d be all over these figures as they are MUCH more stockier and better built than standard HeroClix figures… while they have the same rotating base they significantly tower over some of the older figures in my collection.

Space Conquest (4X) Games
One of my favorite strategy genres is the 4X type of game: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate.  This is a hard game to model in a boardgame setting but a computer is exceptionally good at managing the minutia of this style of game.  It is unsurprising that it has made its way onto the iOS platform, but which one of the many available is the best?  Here’s my take on several of the most popular space-based 4X games.  All provide opportunity for solo play against AI but a few also allow multiplayer play.  All but Starbase Orion are ports of games originally found on a PC, but Starbase Orion is so close to Master of Orion that it might as well count as a port.

Spaceward Ho  ($5, iPad, solo vs AI only)
I’ll begin with the simplest of the four programs.  Spaceward Ho! stands out as a minimalist approach to the 4X genre with a healthy dose of humor.  While some may miss fiddling with the nuts and bolts of a detailed technology tree, Spaceward Ho does an excellent job of abstracting the 4X genre down to its basic points. This is a huge relief in the late game stages as it means controlling one’s empire isn’t such a burden.  Rather than fiddle about with arbitrary range limits, ships are only limited by fuel, making tanker ships quite strategic.  Near the end game, the final battles often devolve into tests of strength between empires struggling to conserve sparse metal resources.  Game difficulty is set as a result of the many starting variables (universe size and density, home planet quality, number and quality of ai players, etc…)   I am also a big fan of the quirky style of the game, everything from the random events to the silly cowboy hats on one’s home planets.  This is my space game of choice for when I want a quick game of exploration and kicking butt without all the fiddly details found in a more complex, technology based game.

Starbase Orion ($8, Universal, Solo vs AI, Pass & Play 2-7 players, 2-6 players online)
Fans of the genre should recognise this game if I simply say it is “Masters of Orion” (MOO for short) on an iOS platform.  I don’t believe there is a true link, but Starbase Orion captures much of what I love (and some of what I dislike) in MOO.  Start off as one of five races with specific advantages or create your own in a point-buy system with a ton of options.  Each star system may have multiple habitable planets on which to build bases, etc…  Combat is primarily space based with orbital bombing or abstract troop invasions the only planetary options. Space is displayed in standard 2-D manner with ships having range limits (expandable by research) rather than fuel issues.  The game is heaven for those research hounds who want to research and custom design all their ships (and starbases).  This is perhaps its one downfall, since a player can get bogged down in the minutia near the end of a game (building up colonies, designing new ships, etc…) rather than push on to its end.  However, if one is having fun, who am I to object?  To help in this area, there are a few auto-managers that can be used to develop colonies in a semi intelligent way with a minimum of oversight.  The best reason to recommend Starbase Orion is its pedigree.  Not any pre-iOS development as it was developed (to mimic other popular games) for iOs.  Its strong pedigree are the number of new features and enhancements that continue to be added to the game many months after its official release.  If you want just one 4X exploration game, I have to recommend this one.

Ascendancy  ($7, Universal, Solo vs AI only)
I am new to Acendancy despite it being a conversion from an old DOS game.  What struck me most about this title was its full commitment to a 3D environment.  Yes, the galaxy map is rendered in 3D (well a 2D picture of it that can be rotated) and is fairly simple to control and use.  Universe “purists” looking to fight territory battles one hemisphere at a time will be overjoyed.  Where I ran into issues with the game was in its complexity level.  Even the technology tree is a 3D sort of triple-helix type of structure.  This is cool looking, but I found it difficult to grasp in order to effectively plan a route through the tech “tree”.  However, there are enough interesting things here for me to recommend the game to those who must have their 3D space realism or simply want another option that is slightly different than Starbase Orion.

Imperium Galactica 2 ($2, iPad, solo vs AI)
I include this game out of a desire for completeness.  I bought it when it went on sale for $2, but have not managed to get my money’s worth.  The game is played in semi-real time (things take time but time can be sped up, slowed down, or even stopped.)  This game stands out due to its large number of video cut scenes, but they add little to the overall game.  The primary problem is the learning curve with the user interface.  Despite a tutorial (of sorts), and a few hours of messing around with the program, I have an idea of what I want to be doing but cannot figure out the controls.  The game’s other unique focus is on the planetary attacks – there is a separate tech tree just for tanks – which are used in an RTS fashion in any planetary invasion.  It is cheap for such a complex game, but I can only recommend it to gamers highly immune to poor interfaces or already familiar with the computer version of the game.

I’ve reviewed various wargames in the past, but I’ve developed enough of a backlog of them that I figured I’d put them all in the same subsection.  The big titans of the group are Combat Mission and Battle Academy with the latter presenting a strong experience familiar to a hardcore cardboard commander and the former supplying a wargame experience unique to a computer gaming platform.  The rest of the titles fall more into Civ or Risk style of conquest games and are of varying quality.

Combat Mission: Touch ($5, Universal, solo vs AI or 2p online)
This is a port of the excellent line of Combat Mission games on the PC.  These games focus on a blend of turn based planning and simultaneous movement and action.  Units can be given a complex series of commands and then when both parties are ready the actions are resolved (or partially resolved in the case of more time consuming commands.)  What sets this series apart (other than simultaneous movement) is the excellent 3D rendering of the battlefield.  In addition, the terrain rendering allows some great unequal situational awareness situations.  Troops just behind a hill may be aware of movement in the valley below but won’t reveal their position unless the fire.  Combat Mission’s biggest weakness is in its uniqueness. It plays differently than most paper wargames, so there are control issues an user interface issues to learn.  There is a modest tutorial which will get a gamer up and running with the basics of successfully running the game.  However, there is much more to learn in order to successfully win at the game.   As such it will probably take more dedicated wargamers to stick with the game long enough to be proficient.  At only $5, the price is certainly right and additional scenario add-on packs are only $1 each.

Battle Academy ($20*, iPad, solo vs AI or 2p online)
While also displayed in 3D, Battle Academy has a distinct 2D grid-based feel.  Cardboard wargamers will feel at home with its IgoUgo style of play and straightforward mechanics.  It isn’t simple – terrain, morale, elevation, opportunity fire, etc… all play a part, but the game is presented in a series of tutorials which will get newbies up to speed.  The game is quite pricey, running at $20, and there are 3 add on campaigns for a whopping $10 each.  These are par for the course for a typical PC wargame, but are a bit pricier than most iOS offerings.  There is now a way to challenge a friend with a free to play trial version of the game so one can still try before buying. While I fear the price will inhibit drawing in new casual gamers into the world of more hard core wargames, this game should be under serious consideration by any PC wargame enthusiast.

Divine Right ($2, Universal, 1-4p via pass & play)
This cool little hex based economic/wargame moves quickly, and has simple but clear graphics.  It’s your basic fantasy themed move units around, explore map with terrain, create new cities and produce new units for more exploration or combat.  In addition to mounted vs footsoldiers, each unit can be customized with armor and weapons in order to be more effective in a specific role.  I found the AI to be decent, but nothing to write your mother about.  However, managing just how I wanted my units to work brought in far more role playing than I expected and increased my enjoyment of the game.

Warlords Classic ($2 iPhone, $5 iPad, 1-8p via pass & play)
A nearly straight up port of the classic PC game complete with fairly poor graphics to boot.  It is something to consider for those looking for the nostalgic “hero stacks” style of play (with up to 8 players) but probably not polished enough to draw in a younger generation.  The game had some horribly bad code when it was first released but has since been patched back up into an actual playable form.

Mother of All Battles ($4 Universal, Free Lite version available, solo vs 5 AI levels)
I was pleasantly surprised by this title which is a thowback to the old mainframe/PC game “Empire” or even X-Conq which were the precursors of the original Civilization PC game..  Take control of cities, use cities to produce one of 9 unit types (2 land, 5 sea, and 2 air), and then use those units to defend, explore, and conquer new cities.  The game comes with a number of default maps to play and many themed map packs (like tiny, islands, huge, etc…) can be purchased for $1 for 20 new maps.

Hex Empire ($1, Universal, solo vs AI)
Originally a flash game, this Risk-like game has cities on a hex grid that generate units each turn, stacking them up to a maximum number.  However, units also have a morale factor that modifies their strength.  Water is present, and port cities are used to convert between naval and land units.  The game plays similar to a Risk type game but with enough differences to keep it interesting.  The fast pace of the game is a welcome change from some of the more brain-burners listed here.  Earn stars for your performance on specific maps to unlock new maps.  The one big strike against the game is that it still doesn’t work to play it on 3rd generation iPads.

Old-school RPG gaming on iOS platform was slow to arrive but has blossomed over the past year.  Here are a few that caught my eye…

Wasted Land ($5, Universal)
Yes, a WW2 Cthulhu style RPG.  That should say enough for most people.  This is more of an X-Com style troop deployment (with action points) type game than what I’m looking for in my RPG, but if someone is going to marry X-Com gameplay with the Cthulhu mythos I’m not going to deny it’s going to be of interest to a lot of people.  As for the gameplay, the included tutorials got me going well enough but I wish I had a better feel for my units’ lines of sight, etc.  If the style and genre interest you it is going to be worth a look.

Silversword ($5, Universal)
This is a true “old-school” party-based computer RPG like the ancient Bard’s Tale and Wizardry series.  Yes, you even roll up your stats for your starting characters (multiple times if you’re not a purist…) and hope to roll well enough to multiclass later.  The interface is also a classic but with some nice “newer” features like automapping, etc..  The storyline is not incredibly gripping but playing with and leveling up one’s heroes as new areas are explored keeps one’s interest nicely.  Gamers with more money than time can buy gold as an in-app purchase but it is not necessary.  In one of the coolest features I’ve seen in an iOS game, players may also save one game slot to “the cloud” and thus I can play on my iPad or my iPod as long as I remembered to keep the cloud save updated.  The game continues to have good support with updates, additions, and balance issues addressed.  Thus is highly recommended for fans of the old school RPG.

Avernum: Escape from the Pit HD ($10, iPad)
Avernum 6 HD ($7, iPad)
Two new(ish) titles from one of the leaders of rich story & NPC interaction RPGs on the iPad.  These are primarily ports from older Mac OS games, but not as old school as Silversword.  I found the character/party customization less interesting than Silversword but the Avernum series (you don’t need to play earlier ones to start later ones) has a much richer back story and typically a stronger storyline.

Well, that’s more than enough to get you through a weekend or three of travelling.  Feel free to comment on some of your favorites (present or past) in the comments below.

About Matt J Carlson

Dad, Gamer, Science Teacher, Youth Pastor... oh and I have green hair. To see me "in action" check out Dr. Carlson's Science Theater up on Youtube...
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3 Responses to iBoardgaming – Waxing Strategic

  1. Fraser says:

    As a huge fan of Masters of Orion I & II back in the day, I would call Starbase Orion about 90% or more of Masters of Orion II. If you liked MOO II you should like Starbase Orion. New stuff is being added to Starbase Orion as time progresses too. Love it!

    I also played Acendancy back in the day. Lovely design and presentation, but the AI was thick as a brick. Any idea if the iOS Acendancy AI is any good?

    Spaceward Ho! was a fun game too and I am tempted for nostalgic reasons.

    P.S. Stop tempting me with your write ups of Wasted Land and Silversword, I don’t have enough free iOS time with my multiplayer games of Starbase Orion, Ascension and Le Havre as it is :-)

  2. Doug says:

    Fraser, if you need a break from Ascension, that’s okay. You’re starting to regularly beat me ;)

    • Fraser says:

      Not often enough to bring my win:loss ration to 1:1 or better, although Terry from Canberra is also responsible for a lot of that!

      I do think playing against tough opponents has improved my play a bit :-)

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