There’s been a couple of high profile IOS board games not called Warhammer Quest released recently and I thought it would be a good time to resurrect the ol’ Review Rodeo for another roundup.
First up is the biggest and best of the lot- Playdek’s long-awaited Agricola app brings Uwe Rosenberg’s widely beloved- and really quite complex- tabletop farming game to IOS devices. Playdek’s tradition of high quality ports with top notch UI (witness Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, for example) is evidenced once again and although there’s a lot of hidden information and multiple screens involved in storing all of the information that would be available at an eyeball glance of the table, it’s really kind of amazing how smoothly the game plays once you get accustomed to how it’s presented. It plays just fine on the iPhone, surprisingly, but the iPad is definitely the way to go.
The really neat thing about Agricola in terms of bringing over its high-end Euro gameplay to a tablet is that the game’s heart and soul shine through, and not just in the charming animations of the game board. Contrary to popular belief, Agricola is one of the most thematic and narrative of the post-Princes of Florence style games in that genre. There’s a very concrete sense of what you’re doing in the game. It makes sense that you send family members out to perform certain tasks (in other words, worker placement) and processes like the procuring of seed to plow in sowed fields to bake bread in an oven with remaining crops seeding the fields next season creates a very clear storyline with quite a lot of detail. You’ll build rooms onto your house to accommodate a growing family, build pens and stables for livestock, get jobs, and worry about having enough food to go around in the winter.
It’s not quite as complex as something like Le Havre but new players will definitely need a break-in period in games versus reasonably competent AI and a solitaire challenge game before taking the game online. I’ve found the game immensely playable and enjoyable at a level the board game never was, and I think even folks that dig games like Farmville might appreciate what Agricola has to offer. This game- like Eclipse- is a perfect example of the potential of IOS board gaming to really leverage the platform’s strengths for a very high quality, top-of-the-line experience that doesn’t necessarily replace the tabletop experience but makes for a great video game.
Second up is another Playdek release, the new Ascension expansion Immortal Heroes. Followers of this outstanding deckbuilding app will be pleased to hear that the new $2.99 add-on offers some interesting new mechanics that shake up the base game and previous expansions while also offering a new two-player experience with just the new cards. The main addition to the game is a new Soul Gem mechanic, wherein certain cards, abilities, trophy effects, and so forth allow the player to draw a card from the Soul Gem deck. These cards are “ghost” versions of core cards but the catch is that they’re one-shot deals. They give you their effect or resources for that turn, and they vanish.
Since the card pool with all three expansions (and promo bundles) is so big, it’s hard to see how they effect overall strategy in the “complete” game. But played as an individual set, you can really see how deciding when to spend a trophy monster to get a soul gem- and possible that one extra resource you need- adds a new strategic layer. There are also new trophy monsters that have ongoing effects, like one that gives you a soul gem every turn. You really, really want to kill this guy and take him if he shows up in your game.
It’s a great add-on to an already great game. I thought I had burned out on Ascension after Storm of Souls, considering that I played more Ascension in 2012 than I did any other game I own. But the new set is definitely worth reloading the App and diving back into it. I had some issues with Playdek’s new multiplayer sign-up, it took me a couple of days to get an email confirmation and none of my friends are showing up. But I’m in the hunt for online games again, regardless of the setback.
Unfortunately, however, Immortal Heroes is releasing the same time as Magic: Duels of the Planewalkers 2014. Magic 2014 is kind of the nuclear bomb of IOS card game apps. Why? Because it’s Magic, you doofus. Like, the best card game ever made, duh.
The app, which is also available on pretty much every other platform apart from Wii U and Ouya, follows on from previous DOTP releases for better or worse. I’m still not satisfied with the speed, which I find to be slow, and I get awfully tired of watching these card float around. There are also some lingering UI issues, like the incredibly stupid decision to put the “skip combat” button the same place that the “attack with selected creatures” button appears. And it’s still not the full, freewheeling deckbuilding experience that everybody in the world wants.
But the kicker is that M14 has sealed play, and it rules. You start with a pile of virtual boosters and you actually get to open them. This may sound really stupid for folks that have never gotten into a CCG, but even just watching the cards spread out on the iPad so I can see what I got recaptures some of that fun from cracking boosters. From your initial set, you build a deck and add lands. The game kindly tells you if your deck is weak, average, strong, or awesome based on creature and land counts among other criteria. I don’t know about everybody else, but I can’t stand to go forth with anything ranked less than awesome. If you can’t build a decent deck, you can have the game make one for you.
From there, you progress through a short ladder battling AI sealed deck players and unlocking extra boosters. You can take your deck online and play against friends over Game Center with chat, which pretty much rules. If that doesn’t satisfy your “I want to play Magic but never buy another booster pack again” desires, there are also theme deck campaigns, Two-Headed Giant modes, puzzle challenges, and more.
The only catch to the whole deal is that you only get two sealed deck slots and once you play through the campaign you’re locked into the cards for that slot that you pulled from boosters. If you want more slots, they’re $1.99 each. I never buy these kinds of add-ons, but I bought two more slots for sealed play just because I liked going through the ladder and working out decks so much. The app is actually a free download with a $9.99 unlock. It is well, well worth it. There is simply no better card game to be had on IOS, and this is the best edition of it so far regardless of legacy issues and the fact that it does not include every single card of all time and completely freeform deckbuilding.
Now, let’s shift from the greatest card game of all time to the card game version of one of the greatest board games of all time. Rivals for Catan is the new IOS edition of what used to be called the Settlers of Catan Card Game. The Settlers card game was initially designed by Klaus Teuber to be a way for two people to play Settlers, but rather than just repeat the core design as a two player variant it’s actually a more complex and completely different card game that only shares the resource mechanics- and features a hell of a lot more cardplay and more potential for aggressive play well beyond moving the robber.
Both players lay out a tableau with two initial settlements, a road between them, and six resource cards. Just like in the board game, you roll two dice but one is to determine which resource cards tap and add supply and the other is an event die that corresponds to a couple of game functions including some basic majorities/superiorities along a couple of rankings such as Strength and Commerce. Using card drawn from multiple stacks (a kind of weird but compelling concept), the idea is to build your way to a set number of victory points while trading, improving efficiencies, and doing awful things like burning down abbeys.
The game is actually pretty great, and I love that they included some of the most important material from the game’s many small expansions. The AI is decent and will put up a good fight, and I’m very pleased to be able to play this game again since it’s one of those that has sat on my shelf for years with no one expressing interest in a F2F game.
The app, on the other hand, is not so great. It’s a good example of sloppy implementation, and not just in terms of silly things like the game stating that someone is “paying” a card. It’s a kludgy interface that relies far too much on tapping checkmarks to advance the game and I can not for the life of me explain why it tells me that it’s the other player’s turn when they’re getting resources for rolls on my turn. It feels slow, particularly after playing full games of Agricola in half the time it takes to play one game of Rivals of Catan. Speed is of the essence with IOS games, as far as I’m concerned.
The biggest blunder, however, is the lack of async multiplayer. This is such a tragic mistake because it would play better async than in real time over Game Center. I’m not as inclined to play games with a lot of back-and-forth action like Magic asynchronously, but the longer turns of something like Rivals of Catan make it much better suited for it. The pass and play option is there for those so inclined. I’m not very inclined, if I’m going to play the game with someone in the same room then we’re going to break out the cards. Simple as that.