Hands-on with The Battle for Hill 218

Return to Hamburger Hill.

An aggressive opening: special forces rush forward into artillery-softened defenses.

Pocket Tactics was recently offered an opportunity to play the most recent build of The Battle for Hill 218, a translation of the boardgame of the same name, soon to be brought to iOS by Large Visible Machine (née Skull Bang Games). It’s an easy-to-learn WWII-themed card game which plays fast. For a very simple game, Hill 218 has a surprising amount of depth- I expect you’ll want to give it a look when it’s ready.

With only six units and very brief rules, Hill 218 is an easy climb. My initial impression of it was fairly negative–with so little complexity, the theme seemed irrelevant, and I feared for the depth of the game after I won my first four games against the hard AI. Happily, my early success turns out to have been quite the fluke; we now seem roughly evenly matched. There were also some stability and presentation issues in the earliest version I played, but Ben Trewhella, who’s working on the code, has been killing bugs faster than a toddler with an ant farm. The most recent version has been quite stable and swift on my devices (an iPad 2 and iPhone 4).

Each turn, you play two cards. Each unit has a diagram showing where they attack when placed, from which directions they are supplied, and where they can support attacks. Each unit (except Paratroopers) can only be placed on your base or where supplied by other units. Tanks and Artillery are the only units which can destroy units without support, so the game is about trying to control space such that you can make supported attacks where you expect your enemy to be and keep your units supplied. You win by occupying your opponent’s base or having more units in play when cards run out. There are some nice touches which help you mitigate the random factors, including Air Strike cards–these are the only non-unit cards, and allow you to eliminate enemy units directly, but you only get two of them.

Easier than Ascension.

Hill 218 is very straightforward – this is every card in the game.

As I’ve played, the thematic connection also seems to have come back to an astonishing degree. I find myself wanting to use Heavy Weapons units to defend my base or occupy relatively safe areas with wide fields of fire, Special Forces are excellent for moving fast and slipping around enemy lines, Infantry are completely useless for anything but taking up space, etc [surely their commander's fault - ed.]. For a game with even simpler rules than chess, Hill 218 does a far better job of simulating battle. Nor is it merely the roles of the cards; conditions may alter what sort of strategy you’ll want to employ, which may be more or less aggressive, bloody, or narrow. Tactics group themselves into larger units relatively naturally, leaving it easy to develop better concepts to use in thinking about the game over time.

Multiplayer looks quite interesting. I was able to use the bluetooth option to play my phone against my iPad, even though they were on the same Game Center account, and it was completely seamless. While I did not have a chance to test the synchronous-only online multiplayer yet, it appears to support voice chat, which is a very exciting option to see. My games against the AI usually last between 2 and 4 minutes, so synchronous games should hopefully fit better into most players’ lives than would be true of most other strategy games.

The Battle for Hill 218 isn’t perfect–an undo feature would be appreciated, for example, and, despite packing a strategic punch well above its weight in rules and time, it’s a much lighter game than many strategy gamers might want. For myself, though, only Ascension has ever felt better over such short play sessions. When I think about how much of my life that gem has claimed, it’s hard not to be optimistic about Hill 218. For those who’d like to give the game a try, the Java implementation works on Mac and PC and I’ve been told it uses the same hard AI.

Large Visible Machine expect to submit The Battle for Hill 218 to the App Store for approval in the next couple of weeks.