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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.

magic

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.

Mage Wars Review

mage wars box

I’ll wager that anyone who ever played Magic: the Gathering more than once has, at some point, wondered how great it would be if creatures weren’t just static lines of attack and defense, but actively engaged in tactical manoeuvre. You don’t need to wonder any more because that, effectively, is what you get in Mage Wars.

Furthermore, I suspect that anyone who ever played Magic: the Gathering more than once has, at some point, been so annoyed by rubbish card draws that they pondered on a variant where you could have a bigger hand, or more control over the draw. Mage Wars addresses that problem too, with swaggering overkill. Because in Mage Wars you don’t get a bigger hand, or control over the draw, you can pick whatever you like from your entire deck each and every turn.

Of the people who’ve entertained either question, I believe that the majority rapidly dismissed them as being unworkable. They’d add too much time and complexity for the interest they added to the game. That didn’t put off the designers of Mage Wars though, who seem to be intent on proving the naysayers wrong by making a working sandbox into which you could chuck the kitchen sink of theoretical Magic variants and see what happened. And it turns out the stock answer is half correct.

Playing Mage wars does add astonishing amounts of time and complexity to the proceedings. The rules entreat you to start with apprentice mode and that’s what I felt like looking the game over. The archetypical Sorcerer’s Apprentice, staring up with mixed wonder and terror at their master’s tower piercing the dark clouds above. Wondering how frail humanity could possibly spend years internalizing all the mystical secrets of the cosmos without exploding.

Sadly this lovely metaphor was ruined by the intrusion of the game components, which are an unfortunate mix of competently executed but generic card art and horribly gaudy graphic design. But it’s an accurate picture. With you brain already overloaded by thirty pages of text-dense rules and over a hundred kinds of effects, opening your spell book – really just a stylised binder for your chosen deck cards – and trying to choose two from the entire selection is likely to precipitate meltdown. Not to mention the point when you realise you’ve got to do the same every single turn.

And so, weary apprentice, your journey begins. Trudging slowly up the spiral stairs of the ancient tower, your back bowed under the weight of card options and your footsteps dogged by rules exceptions. Some may stumble on the ascent. Those who reach the top must survive a vicious assault from a new set of advanced rules, and single combat against eye-watering downtime and a chaotically variable play time. Few will persevere. But those who do are blessed with power beyond imagining.

The end of the ascent is a collectible card game nirvana, the realisation of the hopes and dreams of millions of card game fans all over the world. The other half of the old saw was wrong – all the extra complexity adds a whole lot of extra interest to the game. Indeed so much stuff has been shoehorned into Mage Wars that it’s a marvel the game is not more bloated than it already is. It might be difficult and the learning curve might be close to vertical but it’s still the minimum required to deliver its extraordinary promise.

mage wars in play

Let’s check off that wants list, one at a time. For starters, there is enough variety in the box to stand alone. There are expansions, of course, and you may want them but you won’t need them in the way that, say, the Living Card Game model requires regular players to pitch in for updates. This is self contained. You can bake all your favourite play styles from the ingredients provided, from swarms of petty minions to specialising in ultra-powerful monstrosities from the nether dimensions. Or if you prefer the direct route, your choices range from neutralizing your opponent with counter-charms to buffing your own mage into a berserk killing machine. It’s all here.

Second, there’s a fully realised tactical combat model with just the right balance of strategy and randomness. Ranged and melee attacks, different kinds of armour to overcome, a slew of special effects like Rot and Cripple. It takes place on a board just big enough to be worth manoeuvring over, and on which you can manipulate the terrain and summon powerful features like spawnpoints, creating an ever-shifting map of strategic options and taking the focus away from your mage.

Speaking of which, a third realisation in Mage Wars is a distinct avatar. No longer are you limited to expressing yourself only through your card choices. Each of the four mages on offer here tends toward a certain spell selection – although no choices are ever entirely forbidden – but also has particular special powers that tie in with their forte. Beastmasters, for instance, can cast extra summons and bond one as a Pet for a special buff.

All of these things contribute to a final checkbox which is a brilliant evocation of a theme. All of the CCG’s I’ve played, with the notable exception of Netrunner, have generally failed to really communicate a sense of what they’re about through the play. Rich card art and clever quotes are not enough. As you sit, fuming over your awful hand in Magic, how often do you really feel like an omnipotent archmage? Well you will in Mage Wars. An archmage that you, yourself, have created and bought to the board to duel with your opponent.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with such an obviously derivative game as I have with this one. Mage Wars wears its influences proudly, almost daring critics to lambast it for lacking a little imagination in the face of the mechanical brilliance it conjures forth. It’s living proof that recombining the best bits of older games is still a valid path to greatness. It’s not a game for everyone: learning is a struggle and frequent repeat plays and deck rebuilds are required to get the most out of it. But for those poor in cash but rich in time, it’ll repay the effort put in a hundredfold.

Wiz-War Review

If there is genuinely a board game version of development hell, as distinct from the normal travails designers have to go through trying to get a publisher to notice their games, then Wiz-War deserves the award for the longest time spent therein. Originally published in 1985 and much beloved of the early Dungeons & Dragons crowd it went through seven editions before ending up, rather oddly, with dice manufacturer Chessex who promptly sat on the license for 15 years before handing it over to Fantasy Flight Games to release an 8th edition of the game. Shockingly, as someone who was playing board games back in the late 80’s, I never played the original but thankfully Fantasy Flight sent me a review copy so I could finally get the chance to experience this seminal title.

The concept is simple. Each player is a wizard, pitted against one another in some sort of labyrinth where they must gain ascendancy by killing other wizards or stealing their magical treasures or some combination thereof. Wizards have a hand of spell cards which consist not just of out and out attack spells but a very wide variety of magical effects covering such things as altering aspects of the labyrinth, summoning things, buffing, protecting and transforming the wizard and more besides. The range of effects is pretty spectacular and it’s from the unpredictable nature of combining and stacking these effects that the game gets much of its charm. If this reminds you a bit of Magic: the Gathering this is because the designer of that game was heavily inspired by Wiz-War.

Wiz-War has a long history, and a tendency to divide gamers into love it and hate it camps. Those who hate it cite an overwhelming level of randomness from the card draw and an almost complete lack of strategy. The player relationships are free form: you can pick on, ally with, backstab, gang up on and generally interact with whoever you want however you want whenever you want. The victory conditions are easy to achieve and the maze is claustrophobic and restricts interaction in unpredictable ways. The result is that many games are won or lost extremely suddenly thanks simply to being in the right place at the right time with the right card.

The hate it camp is completely right. It is also entirely wrong.

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

I recently played a four-player game (the maximum it permits) of Wiz-War that lasted 37 minutes including setup and rules explanation time. I’ve never had a game run over an hour and in spite of the heavy card text and occasional need to pause and check the rules to figure out precisely how two card effects interact the game is quick-playing and downtime is minimal. It’s a fast, exciting, thrilling game, fast enough that it would almost qualify as filler material. The fact that the game can deliver a scintillating, ever-shifting and unpredictable landscape of allegiances, grudges and desperate last minute attempts to foil someone on the home straight in this short a time is positively a bonus, not a problem. Yes, by all means whine and complain about 3 hour plus games that reproduce this effect and I’ll gladly join in. But this is a sixty-minute game and it’s the perfect place to experience and enjoy the wide gamut of interaction allowed by free-form negotiation that often becomes incredibly tedious in a longer game. You might prefer challenging, logical games with perfect mathematical solutions but for the sake of variety, for the sake of your humanity, you owe it to yourself once in a while to let your hair down and actually interact with your opponents. Wiz-War is the perfect place to do it, cramming virtually every possibility into the smallest possible package.

And whilst it’s entirely true to say that ultimately there is very little strategy to the game, trying to claim it has no meaningful decisions is entirely false. Every turn the seven or so cards you have in your hand combined with your three squares of movement stack up to a mind-boggling array of creative possibilities. Simply waltzing round a corner and power-thrusting a startled wizard is a sign of the terminally unimaginative. In games I have found myself boxed into a corner through a truly fiendish combination of create wall and stone block spells. I have crowed with delight as I have forced another wizard to repeatedly walk in and out of yet another wizards’ thorn bush. I have watched in amazement as a wizard projected themselves across a corridor and bounced a lightning bolt back and forth between the two walls, electrocuting the poor unfortunate in the middle. I have bathed in acid, turned into a pile of goo, eaten walls, reversed gravity, punched people to death with my bare hands and many other things that would make even Gandalf and Harry Potter stand agog.

The endless card combinations together with Fantasy Flights’ innovation of combining spells with the energy needed to power them into dual-use cards where you choose one effect or the other mean the game is packed with creative tactical choices making every round a fun, fascinating puzzle to explore. No, in the end all your creativity and skill might not matter one jot in determining who wins, but it will keep you in the running for a bit longer and it will be tremendously entertaining. I once pointed out that I’d delight in Twilight Struggle even if the game were horribly unbalanced and largely random (Twilight Struggle is neither of those things) because trying to work through all the possible card effects was so engaging. It’s the same here, on a smaller scale. Who cares who wins when it’s just so much fun to try? This is the magic behind how it works 2-player in a straight fight to the death. It’s not as much fun as 3 or 4, but it’s plenty fun enough.

Wiz-War 8th edition by Fantasy Flight Games cards
Aside from combining spells and energy on the same cards, Fantasy Flight offer a variety of other innovations to old fans of the game. The most notable is the division of the spell deck into schools of magic, allowing you to pick school (and thus card) combinations you like and ignore ones you don’t. It also has the effect of focusing card types together, ensuring for example that if there are Create Wall spells in the deck, there will also be Destroy Wall spells and a higher chance you’ll get the latter to respond to the former with thanks to the thinner deck. But pretty much all the changes that Fantasy Flight made – and they’re mostly improvements in my opinion – can be reversed by old-school players thanks to an optional rules set that can configure the game back to its original state.

The publishers have also taken the opportunity to tighten and clarify the rules leading to less confusion over the plethora of possible interlocking spell effects. There’s still some, sure, but they’re minor and can usually be decided in a “sensible” way with the agreement of all the players. Of course this reprint also has the legendary Fantasy Flight production quality with cool plastic sculpts and fine art – I particularly like the fact that the wizards in most of the illustrations on the cards actually look like the wizard miniatures, a nice attention to detail. I originally turned my nose up a bit at the space-age boards but they look fantastic in the flesh, mystical chambers crackling with fluorescent magical energies. It’s great quality stuff for the relatively reasonable asking price.

I love Wiz-War. It’s an unbelievable, outrageous distillation of everything that’s great about multi-player conflict games, take-that card games and fantasy adventure titles into an incredibly heady brew. If I have one black mark against the game its simply that they left out some old fan favourite spells such as Buddy and Amplify and my own personal favourite group of spells that allows you to summon minions, lord it over them and send them to attack your enemies. It’s simply less of a game that you don’t get the chance to be a gloating necromancer. But it’s clear from the rules and spell descriptions that many of the missing effects have been planned for, so hopefully an expansion pack is in the works to rectify this. And in the meantime I’m still going to be trash-talking and smacking down my would-be competitor mages over and over again. I mentioned earlier this is short enough for filler and so it is: but the fact of the matter is that so far it’s never been used as filler because one game to start a session has inevitably lead to it dominating the table for the whole time. Too much, it seems, is never enough.