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Cracked LCD- IOS Review Rodeo- Agricola, Immortal Heroes, Magic ’14, Rivals for Catan

Agricola board game on iPad tablet and iPhone mobileThere’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.

ascension immortal heroes

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.

Ascension: Immortal Heroes iOS Released

ascension immortal heroes

I still play Ascension every night. I am constantly in a game (getting my butt kicked) with momongi, inthenetsc, buckeyefitzy and rainynight65. When I say always, I mean always. I look at the results screen, shed a tear of disappointment over losing and hit the rematch button. When you consider that I have played this game every day since I purchased it for my iPad back when it came out, that’s one hell of a nod to the folks at Playdek and Gary Games.

I just found out that the latest expansion, Immortal Heroes, has been released for iOS and now I wish I were home to download it. It looks like you’ll now need a Playdek account to play online once you download the expansion, and you are downloading the expansion, right? Playdek is suggesting that you download the the free update to Ascension, start Ascension and log in with the same GameCenter id as usual, create your Playdek account if you haven’t already for Agricola, check to see that all your player stats carry over and then do the in-app purchase for Immortal Heroes. The expansion will run you $2.99 which is a small price to pay to beat me at Ascension well into next year.

Cracked LCD- Warhammer Quest IOS in Review

Warhammer Quest shot 1I’m not the one to ask if Rodeo Games’ Warhammer Quest adequately simulates or replicates the out-of-print and outrageously expensive board game upon which the app is based. Confessional, I never got a chance to play it. By the time I had caught up with wanting to play the widely beloved and venerated dungeoncrawl- regarded by many to be the best of the genre- it was already priced out of my willing-to-spend range and most of my owning friends had moved on to other games. But I also wouldn’t be able to tell you because Rodeo Games willfully back-ended all of the board gamey stuff and turned out a video game based on a board game, most definitely not a “port”. Thankfully, that means there are no silly animations of clattering dice or digital card decks flippity-flapping around. But that also means that the game is often maddeningly opaque and mechanically obscure.

The good news, however, is that Warhammer Quest is an awesome board game-influenced video game. It’s also a perfect fit for the iPad or iPhone because it isn’t nearly as hardcore as you may be inclined to think it is. A dungeon-delve is a ten minute affair, tops. It’s easy to jump in, slaughter some Snotlings, and then go back to your day job. It’s also tremendously addictive. Looking at my save game file, I’ve put in 12 hours toward the game in a week, and that’s about 12 times what you might spend with lesser apps. Heck, it’s twice as long as I spent with Bioshock: Infinite.

It’s compellingly uncluttered, straightforward, and it never bogs down like even the best turn-based strategy games often do. Although some of the finer mechanical details are shuffled away behind a curtain of accessibility and immediacy, it remains a simple game about moving warriors in a dungeon and attacking bad guys. As a reward, you might get a new piece of equipment or money to spend in one of the towns dotting an overworld map. The dungeons themselves are simplistic and even repetitive, although there are also narrative events that occasionally happen in both the dungeons and towns that add some much-needed world-building and story.

It starts off fairly easy, even on the harder difficulty settings, and you may think your warriors are overpowered. But give it time, and suddenly you’ll realize that the game was just saving up for you to hit level three or four. This is primo hack-and-slash, with your team often facing random appearances of ten or eleven enemies at once. It’s totally badass, in classic Warhammer style, to watch your Archmage just melt a room full of guys with Arcane Unforgiving or to see your Trollslayer Deathblow every enemy he’s adjacent to. But get cocky and rush into a room when your Mage has a low Winds of Magic draw or when your Warrior Priest’s prayers are weak, and you might find your guys downed or dead. There is a permadeath option if you want to ramp up the sense of risk.

What strikes me the most about Warhammer Quest, which is itself a very influential game in the lineage that extends from Magic Realm to Heroquest to Descent, is how well it acquits itself as both a video game and as an example of the best qualities of a tabletop dungeoncrawl. It never denigrates into the kind of tactical number-crunching that a game of Descent always seems to, and it’s much less niche (or abusive) as a typical Roguelike. It’s like this kind of twilight zone game, existing between tabletop and video game, but definitely skewing toward the latter.

That said, it’s a shame that Rodeo seems so hell-bent on hiding the more board gamey parts. There should have been an option to see the die rolls, target numbers, and effects. I still have no idea what actually triggers a random event or what determines when a Deathblow occurs. I have no idea if the enemies operate on an AI or if they are on a triage system that would likely be in the GM-less board game version. There should be an option to bring all of these elements to the forward for those who want to know why things are happening.

But in a video game, you usually don’t care about things like that and so I don’t find myself complaining too much about it, in the long run. 12 hours invested into the game indicates that it doesn’t bother me that much. So here again, it totally works as a video game- not just as a port of a popular game. That’s pretty important, I think, to the success of the app.

By now, 781 words into the review, I’m sure you’re asking yourself “when is Barnes going to mention the IAPs”. Here it is. The base game is $4.99. You can buy two additional characters at $2.99 a piece and an additional campaign area that also adds Skaven for $4.99. This parceling out of content is a huge mistake because each constituent piece is, by App Store standards and not in comparison to AAA video games, overpriced. None of the IAP is really essential, but anyone that plays and enjoys this game- which I think is going to be just about anyone with the wherewithal to download it- is going to want the additional content. And the game definitely has hooks to get you interested- that awesome armor you just found? Oh yeah, only the Archmage can use it.

Rodeo should have had the confidence to either reduce the base game to 99 cents, reduce the IAPs to 99 cents, or to sell the IAPs as a bundle for a discount. As it stands, I recommend you view your purchase of Warhammer Quest as a $20 one, not a $5. I’m not saying that you won’t have hours of fun at the $5 price, but you will be missing some neat things that are worthwhile, including the ability to field a more dynamic and varied team and additional enemies.

Finally, to address a common complaint, rotating the screen to see the inventory menu is great. It’s unobtrusive and it leverages a feature of the iDevice not commonly used for this kind of purpose. But there again, Rodeo should have given players an option to do so with an on-screen button. There are a lot of minor oversights like that throughout the app. For example, I can’t stand that there is no comparison of new versus old equipment and there are a couple of areas where the UI could be improved- but there’s nothing that’s an unfixable deal-breaker, and nothing that ultimately sullies an otherwise terrific game.

Star Command in Review

star command shot 1

Star Command, the twice Kickstarted combination of Star Trek and Game Dev Story is finally here. Is this the game what was originally promised those that backed it? Not really, although there’s nothing keeping it from getting there. Is it still worth playing? That’s another matter entirely, and unfortunately, the things that hold the game back feel entrenched. In other words, the stuff that bugs me probably isn’t going anywhere.

star command shot 2

I’m not going to knock the game for the final version of this game differing from the version that people backed simply because I’m not sure how much it’s different from a previewed game differing from a final release. If you read a preview, pay for the game in full as a preorder and then the finished copy doesn’t have in it everything the previews mentioned, that’s the risk you take. You made the choice to give them your money prior to reading reviews. I put Kickstarter in that same category, and this is as someone who has Kickstarted several projects, including the upcoming Torment game. When you choose to support a Kickstarter project, there is an inherent risk that the finished product won’t match what was described, if it ever gets finished at all. Do I think that developers should strive to put in everything they’re promising, or better yet, adjust their promises towards what is reasonable? Sure, but things don’t always work out that way, which is why you need to be prudent when deciding what to back. Should the developers of Star Command been more reasonable with their projections given that they had to run two campaigns in order to get the game made? Absolutely, but that’s between them and their backers at this point. All I paid for the game was three bucks.

I will say though that if you’re looking at what is in this game, do not read the Kickstarter pages. There is no ability to customize your ship based on being tactical or diplomatic. You can pick ship layouts but there is no difference from ship to ship as to what rooms you can build. There are no away missions. There are no diplomacy missions. There is no exploring of derelict ships other than looking at said derelict ship from the comfort of your ship. There are no pets, no artifacts, no alien plants and no equipping of these items to make your crew more effective.

If you’re looking for a deep tactical space battle game, this is not it. If you’re looking for an X-Com type experience in which you juggle the skills of your various crew members in order to have the best chances of success against slavering alien hordes, this is not it. If you want to wait for buttons to recharge and then fight abysmal touch controls and brain-dead AI in order to keep your captain from being sucked out of a hull breach, well, welcome aboard!

star command shot 3

Ship battles involve your ship pointing towards an enemy ship and then waiting for weapons to recharge so that you can play a minigame to make the weapons fire. Depending on what other rooms you have built, you can also wait for your dodge generator to charge up, allowing you to dodge incoming attacks, provided you have dodge tokens. You can also instantly recharge your shields, provided you have a shield token. Oh, one of those weapons also needs tokens, but it’s pretty powerful, provided you don’t screw up the minigame.

During ship battles, the second your shield goes down, and I mean the second it goes down, enemies will board your ship and you’ll have to kill them, assuming your crew can keep themselves alive, a dodgy proposition at best. For one, your crew is incapable of saving themselves. If an alien comes at them, blaster a-firing, your crew will stand there and get shot. If the space that your crew member is actively occupying is on fire, your crew member will mutely burn to death. I’m all for remaining at one’s post, but for Christ’s sake, move over a square to one that is not on fire.

Your crew can fight back, but only crew members assigned to the bridge or the weapons stations. That’s what the medics and engineers get for spending all that time on fancy book learning. As crew members die, you can assign non combat crews to combat stations so that they can become combat crews. Granted, this may mean that there’s no one to man the other rooms, which means that crucial ship systems won’t be available, but it’s all part of managing your ship.

Unfortunately, battles just go on for way too long and many the time will you defeat the other ship but the dozen or so enemy crew members on your ship will kill either your captain or the alien princess on your ship and you’ll lose. Or maybe you defeat the other ship and then kill an enemy crew member and it blows a hole in the hull and your captain gets sucked out of the breach. Or maybe you defeat the other ship but then the princess burns to death because they don’t have fire on her home planet and she thought it was just some sort of intensely hot, brightly colored foot massage.

star command shot 4

And that’s not accounting for all of the times the game will just up and crash on you. I played it on an iPad and I must have done one of the final missions for something like two hours before getting through it, half of which I spent on reloading the game due to crashes. I know that development is hard, I get that, but I thought the benefit of iOS is that there are much fewer variations, allowing for better quality control. Star Command did not get this memo.

Speaking of the iPad, I simply can not see how you could play this game on an iPhone and not want to jettison your phone out the airlock. The iPad was wonky enough. I can’t imagine having to constantly zoom in and zoom out, not to mention direct crew members from death by rapid decompression on the iPhone’s small screen. Those that backed the game a second time for the PC and Mac will hopefully have a better go of things with mouse control but by then they may have to pony up for additional Kickstarters to get the thing out the door.

Supposedly the PC/Mac versions will serve as test beds for adding new features to the mobile versions, which sounds pretty fishy to me, but whatever. Seems you should just ship your game with what you promised, but again, it’s their business to not meet their promises just as it’s the consumer’s business to decide whether or not they want to roll the Kickstarter dice.

As it stands, Star Command is not the game that was originally promised, nor is it a particularly good game. It can be, so hopefully it will become on, but as it is right now, I’d steer clear of it and maybe get their space strategy fix with Eclipse. I know that’s what I plan on doing.

The Genius of Eclipse IOS


Big Daddy Creations hit IOS board game paydirt a couple of years back with Neuroshima Hex, a title that remains one of the best examples of crossing the table-to-tablet divide. Their long-awaited implementation of Eclipse (a Cracked LCD Game of the Year shortlister back in 2011) has finally arrived and it’s a grand slam. It may, in fact, be the new benchmark of how to do board game apps. It level of polish is AAA-impeccable. The interface brilliantly conveys every piece of information you need at any given time and after a mild breaking in period it makes the rich complexity of the game feel like second nature. It looks great, the AI can be quite ruthless, and although the multiplayer is hampered by Big Daddy Creations going with a proprietary service rather than Game Center, the async is rock solid.

But above all, what makes Eclipse the new standard for board game conversions is, ironically, that it doesn’t seem much like a board game at all on the iPad. It looks, sounds, and plays like a very streamlined, very focused Master of Orion-descended 4x game. There are points at which its board game parentage peeps through- like a wonderful combat resolution screen that shows you the die rolls but not some silly animation of clattering dice- but you could tell someone that this was a totally new design with no cardboard analog and they’d probably believe you.

Unlike Talisman, Eclipse’s more careful, measured pacing and combination of a strong economic game with conflict and exploration make it a great fit for IOS gaming. Thankfully, unlike Ascension, there’s a chat function so you can get in some trash talk before your dreadnaughts unload plasma missiles on your opponents. I’ve had plenty of fun with the single player game against a variety of AI opponents and I’ve never had an easy win out of it. If you’re new to it all, there’s a decent tutorial and the full rulebook. The latter should be absolutely standard on any tablet board game.

For six bucks- less than 10% of what the boxed game costs- you can buy one of the best 4x space strategy games on the market today. You might ask “why don’t I just play Starbase Orion, Sins of Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations et. al.” and to that my response would be that aside from a game taking an hour or less to play through first exploration to final victory, none of those games are as concise or as editorial. It’s funny that a board game cuts right down to the heart of the genre, and in an implementation that’s better than some computer-bound examples. It’s a masterstroke of design sense that they just went ahead and made this a full-fledged digital strategy game that is able to compete with its forbears head-on.