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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.

Cracked LCD- Battle of the Bulge (IOS) in Review

I’ve only had the game for a couple of days, but after playing it almost constantly through the week I’m already prepared to tell you that Shenandoah Studio’s Battle of the Bulge is the new standard as far as IOS boardgaming goes. Unlike the many ports we’ve seen of popular tabletop games or downscaled PC-style wargames like Battle Academy, Battle of the Bulge is a ground-up tabletop design by veteran designer John Butterfield that just happens to be on your iPad instead of rendered in cardboard chits. It’s a digital-only, low complexity area impulse wargame in the classical sense, and it is just about the most accessible and immediately appealing one in any format I’ve played in many years. This is it folks, this is the flashpoint game that makes wargaming a very modern, very real proposition for the tablet generation.

A large part of what makes this game so successful and so innovative is its presentation. I don’t know that I’ve ever played any wargame that was so accommodating, welcoming, and beautifully presented. Everything from the the user interface to the multimedia elements and right on down to the font choices are tasteful and impeccably modern. The usual graphic design traps that usually result in wargames looking like something for your grandpa are avoided, but more importantly this game barrels right through pretty much every barrier to entry the wargaming hobby has ever had.

The first time you start it up, you’re immediately shown a set of “basics” slides that show you all you need to know to get started. Newcomers will feel immediately comfortable with classical, time-honored conflict simulation mechanics. Veteran wargamers will feel like they’re coming home for Christmas- a Christmas spent fighting one of World War II’s most gamed battles. There’s also a comprehensive tutorial that actually isn’t irritating or overly didactic, and if that doesn’t satisfy you there’s a full rulebook complete with- get this- all of the tables and CRTs for total rules transparency.

Two Bulge scenarios are included, one of which is a three-day, abbreviated version of the full game wherein the Axis just needs to get to the Meuse river to win. You can play this in fifteen minutes. The longer game offers more objectives and victory point opportunities as well as more time to maneuver and really experience what the game’s quite challenging AI has to offer. Both scenarios allow you to command either Axis or Allies in opposition to one of the other side’s two commanders, each of which plays with a different personality.

I’m not going to recount the whys and wherefores of the Battle of the Bulge and I sure as hell am not going to give you the order of battle in the space of a review. If you want historical background, the game has a generous section filled with a succinct history lesson complete with a glossary and description of the arms and armor used. All you need to know right now is that this is a game of the Axis pushing hard with their Panzers and Fallschrimjagers against a reactive defense, racing against time to gain ground while trying to maintain a supply line. You want artillery? It’s there. You want narrative events and historical detail? They’re there. Terrain effects? Yep, they’re there too. Pretty much everything you could want in a high-level wargame is present, and it’s all executed masterfully in a no-bullshit fashion.

The interface is as smooth, sensible, and well-thought out as any I’ve seen in an IOS board game, and there are some brilliant ways of presenting information that make everything easy to understand. Attack a unit getting a terrain bonus and you’ll see in the combat resolution how one of your hits- a bullet hole- is absorbed by the terrain icon. Battles can be previewed and a graphic is shown that represents the likelihood of hits or retreats. Odds don’t look so good? Hit undo and try it again.

The gameplay is addictive and challenging. The time pressure is brutal for the Axis player, particularly in the short scenario where you’ve got to make the best use of roads and armor breakthroughs if you’re going to make it to Bastogne for the draw or the Meuse for the win. I love that the passage of time is variable, which means that a turn could take anywhere from zero to 120 minutes. Coordinating forces and getting decent stacks of three units (the stack limit) to the front and in position to smash the lines- or hold them- is just as compelling as it is any tabletop hex-and-counter wargame.

If the AI can’t beat you- but I think it will- there are hotseat and async Gamecenter multiplayer options, and they are both fantastic. I expect to see this game getting a lot of action into the new year with folks on my friend list. I’m really interested to see how different folks play the attack or defense differently.

I’m completely blown away by this game. It does some things that even the best IOS board games and titles like Battle Academy haven’t been able to do. It’s completely nailed the right ways to present a tabletop game in a digital format with absolutely no compromise, and in a way that anyone can enjoy. It does all of the things that digital board games should do, removing the administrative and logistical burden inherent in physical games and allowing the players to have fun with and really engage the mechanics. It’s such a no-nonsense design, almost effortless in its mastery of the traditional wargame form but with an eye toward the future of the hobby.

The easiest criticism about it is that it’s yet another Bulge game, another World War II game. But I think it needed to be something this familiar and well-tread to succeed. If this were a tabletop game, I don’t know that I’d be that interested in it because of the subject matter and the mountains of games available on it. But on the iPad, it’s fresh and innovative enough to be considered groundbreaking.

So the word is out to other publishers working on IOS wargames. Battle of the Bulge is the one to beat. At least until Shenandoah graces us with another $10 miracle- notice that it’s billed as volume one of “Crisis in Command”. Highest recommendation, and a Game of the Year candidate on every level.