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Thrower’s Tally: Board & iOS Games of 2012

It’s the time of year for lists. Lists of things from the year that’s about to end. Most especially of things that you’ve found to be of surpassing excellence. I am no dissenter, no maverick, not strong enough to resist the pull of seasonal traditions. So here is mine.

Thanks to my slot at Gamezebo I feel, for the first time ever, qualified to make not one list but two. Both in the same article, o lucky reader! First there will be my favourite iOS games of the year, and then my favoured board games. With so much to write there is no longer time for seasonal waffle and chit-chat. On with the picks.

5. Blood of the Zombies

The Fighting Fantasy franchise was something I remember fondly from my childhood 25 years ago, so it’s astonishing that author Ian Livingstone and studio Tin Man Games have managed to ensure it remains relevant and thrilling today. It turns out that Blood of the Zombies makes a superb candidate for the app treatment, having a stripped down combat system and more inherent challenge and replay value than the bulk of the series. And Tin Man didn’t disappoint with their implementation. It’s all spelled out in detail in my Gamezbo review plus more. I’ve enjoyed previous iOS gamebooks but this is the first that was truly special, and made me excited about more Fighting Fantasy and Sorcery adaptations coming next year.

4. Punch Quest

Endless runner games are, in my opinion, a showcase for everything that’s wrong with mobile gaming. Shallow and repetitive, they offer little but the pavlovian rewards obtained from completing arbitrary goals and leaderboard positions. It is therefore a bit of a shock that Punch Quest turned out to be so brilliant. What makes it so is simply depth: there is tremendous variability and enormous skill in this. With a cavalcade of different enemies, items, terrain, bosses and branching paths and the ability to buy and recombine power ups to suit your play style, I’ll quite possibly be running this one endlessly.

3. Summoner Wars

Playdek rarely disappoint in terms of their apps, but I still think this game redefined the bar for board adaptations to mobile. The underlying game is a superb candidate for the treatment in any case being short and having perfectly encapsulated player turns to reduce to-ing and fro-ing. But the app built over it is flawless, looking good, playing smoothly, offering all the functionality you could possibly want. We might have had to wait post-release to actually get a copy but boy, was it ever worth it.

2. Battle of the Bulge

I’ve really said everything I can about this in my Gamezebo review, so go read that. I will add that what makes it better than Summoner Wars is just that Shenandoah Studios didn’t adapt a board game to iOS: they took board game mechanics and created something amazing that actually worked better on a tablet than it would in real life. Can you imagine fiddling with all those ever-changing VP combinations and goals in a real-life game? No, and that’s just the thin end of the wedge in terms of how this app does all the heavy lifting, leaving the gamers totally absorbed in the experience.

The awesome battle academy from Slithering software - a massive, meaty game on a mobile device

1. Battle Academy.

I reviewed this one too, on F:AT. There was never going to be another choice for number one slot: I’ve played this game regularly, as in several times a week, since it was released in late spring. No other game on any platform has managed that feat. It might be expensive, but it’s so, so worth it.

What’s the overarching theme here? Strategy. The strategy genre might be (XCOM excepted) pretty much a dead duck on other platforms but its undergoing a massive renaissance on mobile. That’s not surprising: touch screen interfaces are actually pretty clumsy for most twitch games but they’re perfectly suited to strategy. I suspect there’s going to be some more stellar work in this area in 2013 from the studios behind my top three picks, plus Games Workshop finally entering the mobile market with Space Hulk and Warhammer Quest. Going to be an exciting year.

So, on to the board game picks.

5. Lords of Waterdeep

I’ll probably get some stick for this, but I don’t care. It’s not the cleverest, most innovative game on the block but it made a sterling demonstration of how building on previous designs in a genre, looking at what words and what doesn’t then skimming the cream off the top and recombining it into a single game can create a brilliant thing. Balancing accessibility and fun with some solid strategy, and bringing dreadfully needed interaction into the staid, dull worker placement mechanic, it’s easily the best European-style game I played this year. More details in my review.

4. Android: Netrunner

This earned its slot on the strength of its emergent theme. When you’ve got games like City of Horror that can stick some zombie pictures on top of a generic negotiation mechanic and calling it a theme, Netrunner offers a primal lesson in communicating a sense of place and being through mechanics alone. Playing this you’re no longer a gamer, but for 60 minutes are transfigured into a global corporation or sly hacker. The other stuff, the clever intermarriage of strategy and bluff, the customisation and deckbuilding, is just gravy as discussed in my full review.

Star Wars X-wing miniatures game in action

3. X-Wing

And from one game with wonderful emergent theme to another. It’s much more of an ephemeral thing here, but it’s odd how this game simply *feels* just as it should. Pitch perfect in terms of weight, production, theme and ship handling. Opponents have remarked how they suddenly find themselves humming the Star Wars theme or imagining green and red laser bursts as they play. Personally, every time those little plastic ships come out I’m a child again, even if only for a moment. The game might be a money pit, but how do you put a value on that? If you like, you can put a value on my review instead.

2. Merchant of Venus

I’m still kind of reeling from the fact that thirty years ago someone managed to design an interesting pick up and deliver game and yet virtually everything that followed in its wake was dull as arse. Thus, old as it was, this game came as something of a revelation and a breath of fresh air. That’s why I’ve enjoyed it so much. That and the wonderful manner in which it offers a variable setup that ensures both rich narrative and keeps repeat strategies at bay. Every game re-engages both your logical centers and your imagination anew. Amazingly, here is my review.

Wiz-War Eighth Edition by Fantasy Flight Games game in progress with wizard figures

1. Wiz-War

Remember this, from back close to the turn of last year? I do. It’s so easy to forget early release games when compiling these yearly lists but this has stayed with me, popping out again and again with different groups and in different places, the only game I’ve probably collected a physical dime of plays this year. And every time it’s been ridiculous fun. Hilarious, enthralling, varied, entertaining. Every single time. It’s ticks all the boxes I could want for a short, light game, even offering just enough strategy in the card and position combinations s to keep your brain engaged. An absolute joy: itching to see an expansion. You will be unsurprised by now if I link to my full review of the base game.

The overview on the board game front is a little more troubling. Three out of the top five are reprints. They’re nicely modernised with streamlined rules and high production values, but they’re still reprints. So while it’s great that Fantasy Flight are getting their act together as regards their updating of classic games, and its great to see old material back in the limelight, it’s a bit alarming that so many of the best games I’ve played this year have been reprints rather than fresh designs.

I’ve never been one much for the hype machine. But what I’d like to see in 2013 is some more quality new designs. A deep, interactive deck-builder would be a nice start, something that really makes good on the achingly unfulfilled promise of that genre. In terms of actual titles, the only ones I’ve got earmarked at the moment are story-telling game Story Realms which looks fresh and interesting, Bowen Simmons’ long awaited Guns of Gettysburg, the world war 2 tactical block game Courage from Columbia and the multi-player card driven game Cuba Libre from the designer of Labyrinth. Seeing as it’s felt like a relatively lean year for wargames this year, that’s a nice slice of history for the near future.

Gamification: Good for Business, Bad for Games

Gamification - a workable template for marketing and learning but less great as a concept for actual games

Gamification is everywhere. Loosely defined as the addition of a game-like rewards system to things that are not games, it’s the marketing buzz-phrase of the moment. Even if you’ve never heard the phrase you’ll have seen the effect, probably on your second favourite community website (NHS being the first, of course) where you’ll be handed ranks, badges, points and other worthless goodies for participating with more frequent and more impressive contributions landing you more stuff.

It’s classic Pavlovian response conditioning, of course. And as we all know this is very powerful and it works, horribly effectively in some cases. Outside of the marketing arena it has some important implications for “serious games”, things like educational simulations and training software for example because it can massively increase user motivation and, with it, improve their learning outcomes. In marketing, as Mark Sorrel wryly observed, it works in the short term but is too often a dead-end, unimaginative technique that cheapens the definition of the word “game”. And that, rightly, makes gamers angry and a lot of them, understandably, have taken against the concept. How can a corporate initiative designed to increase customer engagement deliver anything like the thrilling, uniquely personal narrative elements that a real game can offer?

But that’s an old hat argument, and it’s not what this column is about. The genesis of this column began with my experience of Halfbrick’s Jetpack Joyride, an iOS romp that sees you, the player, steering the wonderfully named Barry Streakfries as he pilots a jetpack through an endless corridor filled with ever more frequent and difficult to avoid obstacles, any of of which will turn him into instant steak and fries. It’s a very simple game indeed, so simple to pick up that it doesn’t even need instructions or a tutorial, but fiendishly addictive nevertheless. It has a leaderboard that taunts you with all the scores your gamecenter friends have achieved and your lowly place amongst them, spurring you on to just one more game to try and beat your previous score and move yourself up the rankings. Games are short, and at any given time you have three basic, randomly generated missions to complete for a few extra coins you can use to buy power-ups.

I was initially lured into this game by that straightforward pick up and play appeal. Then it sucked many hours out of my life in pursuit of higher slots on that leaderboard. Then it consumed more, much more of my precious time as I hunted down those simple missions: run (rather than fly) a kilometer, touch twenty red lights, pick up a thousand coins in one game, the same basic formula repeated ad nauseum by a random generation engine for as long as you want to play the game into infinity.

Jetpack Joyride from Halfbrick - simultaneously addictive and awful
And at that point, I realised something truly horrible. I was no longer playing the game in pursuit of anything meaningful or, worse, of anything remotely like fun. There was no story to uncover, no hidden easter eggs. I wasn’t getting better at it and my position on the leaderboard wasn’t changing. I was pouring hours, irrecoverable hours into this thing for no better reason than to keep robotically checking off those meaningless, empty missions. It was addiction to a Pavlovian response-reward cycle, nothing else, and it was a monstrous waste of time.

This isn’t the first time I’ve fallen into this trap with a game. I can recall going into work one day and confessing to one of my colleagues that I hated what video games were doing to me, the way they made you obsessive, oblivious to the outside world, sucked up all your spare time and gave you little in return, even in terms of entertainment value. The game I was playing at the time and which prompted that pathetically over-generalised rant was Diablo II. When I sit back and think about it, the play in the Diablo games boils down to repeatedly clicking on things. That’s it. It takes good planning to build a powerful character, sure, but in actual real-time play there’s no skill involved, it’s just click, click, clickity-click, click and when the game screws you over you can just reload and clickity-click again and hope that the monsters swarm slightly differently this time.

Yes, the game does ostensibly have a plot but one that seems to have been lifted straight from Fantasy Boilerplates for Dummies. And why does Deckard Cain sound like Sean Connery? As you can probably tell, it’s not a game I think particularly highly of, and yet it ate up quite obscene amounts of my spare time many moons ago. I played through it more than once, with more than one character type. I even played the expansion. Why? Because looting random drops hoping for super-powerful rare items is quite insanely addictive, that’s why. Nothing more, nothing less. And the same principle works behind Gamification, and behind legions of equally empty mobile and XBLA games.

But in the world of what would later become triple-A video games Diablo II was an anomaly. Most games do give you something for your time, not only a lot of entertainment but an engrossing story, the development of skills – admittedly fairly useless ones, but skills nevertheless – through the demands they place on you and in the very best cases they can force you to ask hard questions of yourself or help you to see the world in a different way. What’s new is that this pavlovian response model has become the norm in the world on mobile games: it’s the basis on which almost the entirety of the one-dollar game is built. And for those of us like me who spend the majority of our gaming time on a mobile device, those pavlovian games have become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget that better games exist.

The awesome battle academy from Slithering software - a massive, meaty game on a mobile device
It took exposure to a proper game to remind me of that, and shake me out of my reverie. There are bigger, bolder games in the app store: Dead Space is as good an example as any but the trouble is that in order to stay within sighting distance of all those cheapskate apps, games like this have to be backed by a big studio with a big franchise that can be relied on to help shift copies and even then they tend to be stripped down and short.

I finished Dead Space in about three hours and with mini-games and repeat attempts there’s perhaps double that in terms of overall play value to anyone but the most obsessive. No, fun as it is and lacking the Pavlovian response model as it does, the iOS version of Dead Space and its ilk aren’t the antidote to the legions of empty and repetitive game apps that abound. The game that broke the mold for me was Battle Academy from Slitherine and, as I said in my review, it only managed to do so by appearing absurdly expensive from the standpoint of the app store. But in a proper game you can see where all those production dollars went: they went into building an actual game, with actual mechanics to master and an actual narrative to enthrall you, and not a hollow gamification exercise in collecting stars and achievements.

As I mentioned in the review I was surprised to find that Battle Academy is not alone. There are other big, bold games gracing the upper reaches of the app store if you look for them, as other NHS staffers have clearly done. Brandon has recently been showcasing the epic role-playing games Avadon and Avernum from Spiderweb which certainly belong there. Michael has endless praise for Cave’s enormous bullet shooters. But these things are out of sight of most people browsing the app store, who won’t look twice at anything that costs more than about five dollars. That’s a shame, especially for people who want meatier gaming experiences on their portable device, and reverse gamification is what’s to blame. This does illustrate the awe-inspiring power of the technique when it’s properly applied to other walks of life, but perhaps unsurprisingly, when actually applied to games the result is that virtually everything worthwhile gets squeezed out in favour of repetitive rewards collection. As gamers, and not marketers or educators, we should be demanding better.

Battle Academy IOS in Review

Battle Academy, a $20 iPad app from Slitherine raises eyebrows not just because of its premium price, but also because it is a fully featured pop wargame in the vein of Panzer General. Unlike many original App Store strategy offerings like UniWar, Great Little Wargame or Ravenmark, Battle Academy is a direct port of a fairly recent PC game with virtually no loss in content. Visual quality takes something of a hit in the translation, but you’d be hard pressed to find a richer, more satisfying turn-based wargame on the platform. It sets a precedent for bot this kind of game on IOS as well as for the availability of more niche, complex titles- trends that other developers will hopefully follow.

The feature list is impressive. You could buy 20 single mechanic physics games with funny animals or you could buy this game with something like 100 different World War II units, 30 campaign missions that offer plenty of replayability as you try to meet specific criteria in each to earn stars, asynchronous multiplayer, skirmish modes, and even a kind of horde/survival mode. You can even download- for free- 10 user-created maps from the PC game. If you exhaust all of that, the game also has three $10 IAPs that will give you another whopping 27 missions.

On top of all that raw content, which could account for literally hundreds of hours of gameplay, you’re buying a detailed- yet accessible- conflict simulation . Battle Academy takes into account everything from wargame basics such as line of sight, terrain, cover, fog of war, and artillery to more detailed concepts such as morale, suppression, ambushes, armor deflection, portage, and infiltration.

It’s actually a little overwhelming on the iPad, if only because it’s so unexpected and out of character on platform mostly known for casual, mainstream games. The tutorial levels are decent and playing through the campaigns in sequence (starting with North Africa) help, but I would have liked to have seen more in-line help available. Slitherine’s Web site has a lot of useful information, but some more tool tips and more transparency regarding what is going mechanically would have been appreciated. I get it that shooting at a fast-moving target reduces my chance to hit. But how much?

Like Panzer General, the game is user friendly and you can take a look at your chances to hit or kill a unit taking into account cover and other factors before issuing a fire order. It’s an action point system, so budgeting enough points to move, shoot, hunt, turn, or disembark is important. You don’t want those Rangers to run out of steam while standing out in a gap in the bocage or that blasted British anti-tank unit with the rear-facing gun to get stuck pointed away from the Panzers. The touch interface you’ll use to marshal the troops mostly works well, but with all the double-tapping and pop-up icons it’s pretty easy to screw up and send the Bren gunners down the hill by mistake.

Every mission gives you plenty to think about from spending points to choose additional units on through deployment and execution. Objectives vary from seizing control points, sieging fortified areas, and holding territory under assault. Some of the larger scenarios can be quite daunting and time-consuming, if not frustrating. This is not Advance Wars.

It may not be a cartoon, but the game’s interstitial mission briefings and typesetting is all smartly comic book-styled, with multi-panel comics pages outlining the objectives for each mission. It’s a very cool look straight out of a Sgt. Rock book, and it gives the game another layer of approachability that stock photographs or grognardy Osprey illustrations wouldn’t afford.

Other visual assets don’t fare so well. The terrain textures are muddy whether it’s the beaches of Normandy, the snows at the Bulge, or the North African desert. Units are likewise dull-looking and low resolution. The game offers a fully scaleable, rotatable 3D view or a top-down one that’s frankly easier to use. I found myself wishing that the game offered a truly old school cardboard counter-style visual option. A recent update adds support for the new iPad’s Retina display, but I’ve not seen it for myself to comment.

I received a review code for Battle Academy from the publisher, but had I bought it for $20 I think it would represent a tremendous value and an absolute must-have for anyone interested in wargaming on the iPad. It’s easy to furrow the brow over the price, but the jump in quality and type of content is apparent throughout the package. It’s likely that diehard PC strategy gamers might be less impressed by the game with more options available on that platform, but speaking as a player that hasn’t had a gaming PC in the past five years I’m thrilled to have this kind of game on the iPad.