Thanksgiving weekend is a time to travel to be with family (for those that celebrate it). It’s hard to bring out a nice boardgame in the car (or on the plane) and while you could play something on your iPad sometimes it’s just nice to treat yourself to a solo gaming experience. It’s great when boardgames make the transition to an electronic form, but there are also some nice titles designed specifically for electronic play that shouldn’t be overlooked. Here are a few of my favorites from the past few months. As one might guess, as a fan of boardgames, most of these titles have a significant amount of strategy or planning involved, as opposed to “twitch” games which focus more on response time than cerebral challenge. *Note: Many of these titles have rather hefty (for iOS) price tags, be aware that most of them are ports from PC/Mac games with even higher price tags.
Limbo Game – ($2, Universal, Solo) Limbo is a exploration-puzzle-platformer game that has an extremely dark and moody theme. The entire game is set in 2D and displayed in a black and white palette. You play as a young boy (basically a black portrait of a boy) who is exploring a black landscape in order to “escape” wherever he is (presumably Limbo). The game is extremely quiet, almost creepy and you have to pay careful attention to avoid the shadow of traps set up to foil you as you travel. This is the genius part of the game , you are focusing so much on the game to solve puzzles and note where things are, and then you come across a new, unseen trap and – BANG! – you suffer a somewhat grizzly death. The game simply backs up a few screens and you get to try again to figure out how to pass the new obstacle. For me, it is very reminiscent of the Playstation 2 game, ICO – a game full puzzles needing to be solved to progress to the next area, overlaid with a huge helping of very moody, lonely atmosphere.
XCom: Enemy Unknown (Currently $10 – sometimes $20, Universal) Originally a huge PC hit “way back in the day”, XCom has finally found a modern adaptation worthy of the original. Releasing on consoles and PCs late last year and the iOS platform this past summer, the new XCom: Enemy Unknown stays true to the core gameplay. Take control of an anti-alien force and head out on missions to fight off incursions with your squad of troops in turn based urban conflict. The combat is only half the game, as managing your base of operations is at least as important. Your troops gain experience (and new abilities) with time, so losing one is a significant blow, even though there is a wide selection from which to choose. A limited budget can be assigned to different areas of research, including expanding one’s base to give it new abilities and employ more researchers. Missions can help out by allowing one to capture alien troops for further study. Different countries will request your assistance and eventually you will not be able to help out everyone all the time so it’s also necessary to manage your relations with each countries. The end result is a game of tactical combat combined with some “role playing” improvement of both your individual soldiers as well as technology and abilities via improving your base of operations. It is a fine homage to the original game, and one that is quite addicting. *One last note, the game is very processor/graphics intensive so the best experience is obtained by using newer devices.
Assault wave ($3, Universal, 1-2p) Assault Wave is one of those games set up just for the iOS environment. Two sides set up across from each other on a mission map with access to a specific assortment of troop types (more are available as one progresses through the campaign mode.) Once the game starts, players tap and place their units on the board who then start slowly making their way across the terrain under their own power. Each unit type tends to do best against a different adversary, so it is somewhat of a rock-paper-scissors affair as each player sees what is coming across the field. The units (22 in all, including some which are instant “enhancements” of your other units are on cooldown timers so you just can infinite tanks down at once, etc…) Typically a main mission point is near the center of the board, and holding on to it is worth extra victory points. Points are also scored for eliminating enemy units. The first player to gain the requisite points is declared the winner. As someone who prefers strategy, this “twitch” game of tapping here and there just isn’t my cup of tea.
Plants vs Zombies 2 (Free, Universal, Solo) I loved the original, as did my young sons and Plants vs Zombies 2 is available as a free download. The sequel is very similar to the original, now with three distinct settings – Egyptian, Pirate, and Western complete with themed zombies with new abilities. Each setting is actually a map to be worked through to gain access to the next theme. Some areas of the maps are “locked” requiring a specific number of keys to first be collected to gain access. However, locked areas typically contain some sort of beneficial power-up like better starting cash or (more often) new plants becoming available. As one might expect, with a free game comes a number of opportunities for in-app purchases. One can unlock new types of plants (many of which are eventually unlocked by playing the game) and buy special one-use power-ups (which can also be bought with coins that are slowly earned in the game. My main gripe with the game is its buggy nature in the details. I played through about 7 levels then became completely stuck, as the next level didn’t “open up” for me to continue on. In addition, while the game LOOKS like it doesn’t require in-app purchases, it quickly stalls out on one’s progress. The primary way to gain “keys” needed to unlock the bonus areas is through defeating a Yeti that appears on a random level about every day or so. The Yeti either grants a pile of bonus coins or a few keys for that particular level. Unfortunately, the Yeti rarely visits any but the first level. I’ve completed the first level and now have 23+ useless first level keys while almost never finding the Yeti on any other level – just another example of the buggy nature of the game. The game is a great, fun pastime for casual play, but I cannot recommend it to anyone who thinks they will become “hooked” and want to play it for an extended period of time. There are too many little “bugs” that are more than likely to frustrate your long-term enjoyment of the game. While the move to “free” may initially be nice, I would much prefer the game to have a set price rather than be forced to pay out in order to complete the game.
D&D Arena of War (Free, Universal, Solo) Due to its well heeled licence through Wizards of the Coast, this game generated plenty of buzz sent out to reviewers. Despite the lofty praises of the game from promotional material, the game falls flat due to poor execution, making the game seem nothing more than an IAP (in-app purchase) machine. In the game, you play as one of several character classes (although they are almost all functionally equivalent), and can join up in a group of up to 3 characters (2 of which are “borrowed” randomly or from friends) and then enter in a short “adventure” of 3 to 8 waves of enemies. Attack the enemies by dragging back the cursor and “shooting” your hero across the screen to do damage to the enemies. Defeat all the enemies on screen and the next wave appears. Finish all the waves (with a “boss” battle in the last wave) and you are awarded experience for your hero and booster “cards”. Basic hero classes can “lock in” two booster cards to add to their attack and health. More advanced heroes (unlocked by leveling up 2 basic heroes to level 8) can “lock in” up to 3 booster cards. These cards have a rarity (of course) and some of the most rare can be bought in the game store via IAP (no surprise there.) Cards can also be leveled up by “combining” weaker cards to upgrade your stronger ones. Unfortunately, he game seems extremely unbalanced towards players who choose to spend a bit of money to trick out their hero. In fact, a hero’s level has far less to do with its fighting ability than the cards that are “locked in”. Combat has its own problems. Strategically, it is best to try to knock the enemies into each other, walls, and your own heroes (neither enemies nor friendly heroes suffer damage from each others shots.) However, there are exploding “balls” present on the field that greatly affect the outcome. Knock one into an enemy and it explodes, damaging everyone around it (including friendly targets.) Because these exploding balls do damage based on the power of the “shooter” they tend to do huge amounts of damage (sometimes 10X more) when exploding due to a hero’s shot than when bumped due to an enemy shot. This reduces most waves of a series to be a careful avoidance of the exploding bombs rather than using them to attack an enemy. For example, kicking a bomb into an enemy might do splash damage to you or another hero of 600 to 800 points, whereas the same bomb directly hitting you when the enemy is shooting will only do 70-90 points of damage. My final complaint about the game is the “guild” feature. Adventuring solo will only get you so far, so one must hit the “recruit heroes” button to be randomly assigned companion heroes. These vary extremely widely in ability, anywhere from 3 to 4 times better heroes down to heroes who are 8 or 9 times worse. By stepping through options, new heros can be recruited before heading out on a mission, but repeating the process over and over to get decent “companions” is a pain. One is supposed to lessen this problem by joining a guild. I have yet to find anyone who will accept my request to “join” their guild and I have yet to ever see anyone request to join my own. I find it extremely suspicious that I only ever see a couple dozen heros ever come up to recruit for an adventure run (always the same 20 or so people). For a game that supposedly has a fair number of players, I find it strange that I only ever see two dozen of them. I will admit I have played far too much of this game, due to my addition to “leveling up” anything I start playing, however I would consider it to have been a far wiser decision to just not start playing at all. I do enjoy the “flicking-launch” style of combat, but if that interests you, I would suggest checking out the “Squids” flicking-RPG series.
Squids Wild West ($1, Universal, solo game) This is a tongue in cheek little RPG based around the idea of “flicking” several squids around the screen by drawing back, aiming, and then launching them in the direction you want them to go. The game is a story-based series of combats using your “army” of squids. There are even four classes of squids – each with a specialty – and individual cephalopods will gain experience and abilities as you play through missions. The app even uses iCloud syncing which will let you bounce between your iPad and iPhone without skipping a beat in your progress. If the western theme doesn’t float your boat, the original Squids RPG game is also available. Either one is a great little RPG with an extremely unique and engaging combat mechanism. Highly recommended!
Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition – ($10, iPad, Solo & Multiplayer) The classic computer RPG has had a bit of an update, was released for PCs/Macs and now it is available for the iOS platform. (Actually, it has been out for awhile on iOS, but the sequel – BG II – for iOS is now imminent. At $10, it is a bit pricey for an app, but that’s still considerably less than the computer version. There are a few IAP options, typically minor stuff like extra voice options and special companions to find and bring on your quests. If all the IAP are selected, the price becomes comparable to the computer versions (which include all the content up front.) Make no mistake, this is still an old-school computer RPG – complete with somewhat slow story and character progression, frequent saves necessary, and so on. However, the sweeping story arc is maintained, as are the many little hidden areas and features to find. The iOS version has a special tutorial to ease people into things, which helps to make up for some of the complex character design due to the use of old-school Dungeons and Dragon rules. While I found a few minor quest bugs, and occasionally (particularly at night) I found the screen palette to be too dark for easy play, the game is still a fun classic. There is even a special area (not in the original game) for experienced (ie. high level characters) players which pits them against increasingly more powerful creatures until their party is defeated. Finally, the intent of the developers is to implement the multiplayer play of the old game so that it works across all platforms. Fans of classic RPG computer games will welcome the new incarnation of Baldur’s Gate, and if you are new to the game, there is a very good story to discover.
Warhammer Quest ($5, Universal) Warhammer Quest is basically a turn based exploration / dungeon crawl set in the Warhammer universe. I found the game to have a strong Descent (the boardgame) vibe as I played through the beginning. Character abilities improve throughout the game but a moderate pace. The basic game has a fair bit of content, but an even larger part of the game can be unlocked via an in-app purchase. Extra gold and three additional hero types are available as IAP. The game has good graphics and a decent user interface, a fine option for someone looking for an action-point, top down, dungeon crawl.
Magicka ($2, Universal, Solo and multiplayer) Magicka is a 2D action dungeon crawl that somewhat resembles the side scrolling fighting games of the 80s and 90s. The game has a fair bit of humor, as one might expect with a mash up of cartoony graphics and almost Diablo theme. To attack monsters, one must tap various element buttons on screen in specific order to “cast” a spell. For example, tapping fire-electric-electric-fire casts a powerful lightning bolt. Some combinations don’t do anything, but the “valid” combinations tend to make sense – one element tends to create shields, another produces protective walls, etc… Multiplayer co-op in the game is a “big deal” and highly emphasized (it even works cross-platform with PCs, etc) – although I’ve found the game quite enjoyable solo as well. Multiplayer is run through a Paradox account or one can link it to Facebook instead. Of course, in mulitplayer co-op things can get “exciting” since teammates are also affected by many spell effects. The solo game has a nice learning curve, slowly adding in new elements and element combinations as you work your way through the first few dungeons. There are some IAP options available but none are necessary to enjoy the game. Highly recommended for someone wanting a colorful tongue-in-cheek action-y adventure game – especially if you will be taking advantage of the multiplayer gameplay.
Gratuitous Space Battles ($10, iPad, Solo Experience) Despite the self-flagellating name, this is not a real-time action game. Insead, the game revolves around designing and fielding fleets of ships onto a battlefield, and then setting them free to (hopefully) wreak mayhem on the enemy fleet. There is a campaign mode, with battles becoming steadily more difficult, but as one progresses through battles (selectable at several levels of difficulty) money is gained which can be used to unlock new equipment for your ships. Each battle still has a set monetary and pilot limit (so you can’t just build the most expensive ship nor field an infinite number of fighters). The graphics of the battles, while 2D, are very enjoyable to watch – particularly since you can “speed up” time whenever battles start getting a bit slow. This is a space ship battle game for those who think creating elegant and powerful ship designs is much more important than personally taking the helm and driving into battle. The iOS platform is a great fit for this game as one can putter away at creating new ship types off and on, and then test them out in a grand fight whenever you have a few more minutes (5 or so) to spare. (If you’re unsure about the game, it is also available in a free demo version for both the PC and Mac.)
Cardinal Quest ($3, Universal, solo game) This is a rogue-like game (solo character dungeon crawl looking for loot to improve your character while you delve ever deeper into a dungeon.) The game is retro in that it uses highly pixelated sprites but the controls and gameplay are solid. As with any good rogue-type game, the dungeons are randomized, and there is plenty of equipment to pick up. In addition, characters can accumulate spells as they progress, filling up several “slots” with spell options that refresh over time after they have been used. One of the better games of this sort I have come across, although I find myself playing around with rogue-like games for awhile and then moving on to something else. Definitely worth a look if you enjoy a good step-wise dungeon crawl.
Justin Smith’s Realistic Summer Sports Simulator ($2, Universal, 1-4p, Pass and Play) I had to add this one in to reward anyone who read through the whole iOS app countdown. This is an extremely silly, weird, but also hilarious sports game. The game takes a list of some of the most popular summer sports activities and then implements them with realistic physics on a stick-figure system. To get any sporting event to work, you simply drag your avatar (sometimes its equipment) along with your finger and try to accomplish the sports goal without somehow killing off your poor stick figure. For example, in the rowing competition you need to tap the rowboat and then drag it along at a steady pace but not so fast as to cause the stick figure sitting on it to fall off the back. (I’ve found that if you grab the back of the boat and drag so that you tilt the boat forward a bit you can get some speed without the little guy falling off.) Another example is the javelin throw where you must somehow get the javelin (unattached to the figure) moving forward and up without letting your poor guy fault by crossing the line or get stabbed by the pointed javelin. I’ve had luck by flicking the javelin into the air and then flailing around with my guy hoping to knock the javelin forward rather than stick the thing into the poor guy’s chest. While you can practice individual events and compete in an “olympics” of all the events against computer AI players, where this game really shines is in multiplayer. You and up to 3 friends can show how inept you are at getting that poor little guy to do what you want. Highly recommended, especially as the game now includes all the events rather than making some of them only available as an IAP.
Thanks for joining in on my round-up of some non-boardgame titles of the past year. Feel free to put in suggestions in the comments if there are games you think other folks shouldn’t miss! Have a happy holiday season!