iOS Reviews

Review: The Manhattan Project

I think I can hack together a workable prototype using the coffee roaster building from Puerto Rico.

I understand why plutonium and uranium are crucial fuels for a nuclear weapons program, but shouldn’t there be a third column for coffee?

The Manhattan Project bought tickets to the prom before asking anyone, got rejected, then went stag. That is, development on the digital adaptation of the highly-regarded tabletop game was already quite advanced by the time the Kickstarter campaign to fund it launched. Said campaign came up quite short, which left developer Domowicz Creative Group with strong feedback that polishing the app to their satisfaction was unlikely to pay off. In the face of that disappointing reality, they’ve taken pity on those fans of the game who saw the functional prototype in the pitch videos and have tidied up their existing work enough to make it available to the public, albeit in a less ambitious state than they had hoped.

If you’re familiar with Agricola or Lords of Waterdeep, you’ve seen the worker placement mechanic at the core of this game. It’s been a hot mechanic in modern boardgame design for a few years, in part because forcing players to compete for jobs produces subtle but constant player interaction while allowing conflict-averse players to focus on building their own engines of points.

The Manhattan Project innovates on this model substantially. This isn’t the bucolic live-and-let-live world of Agricola; as befits the theme of a high-stakes race to build nuclear weapons, you can deliver your opponents’ nuclear programs a fiery setback with bomber airstrikes, or steal their secrets with spies. You also have a level of control over the allocation of your workers which would make Oppenheimer (or Sammereza Sulphontis) envious. What you don’t have, sadly, is a polished app.

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Review: Assault Vector

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"Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is... oh, fairly likely in this case."

“Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is… oh, fairly likely in this case.”

Let’s not mince words here in the cold vacuum of hex-based space. Assault Vector is a straightforward stab at a specific kind of turn-based strategy game, that stripped down sort so tightly focused on a handful of mechanics that it straddles the line between strategy and puzzle.

Hoplite (as if we haven’t devoted enough time to that brilliant monster already) is an obvious comparison, and an illustrative one. Assault Vector has a nearly identical combat system prioritizing position first (and only), comparable levels which offer escape as an alternative to killing everything, and a similar allotment of simple, scarce, yet devastating abilities. As it happens, Assault Vector leverages these elements in a fashion just different enough to divorce the spacey game from its notable cousin on (or rather “under,” like, in Hades) Earth.

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Review: Catchup

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Weirdly reminiscent of my old Assault on Hoth board.

Catchup often ends up looking like octopi making out. Hey, now–nobody think sinful thoughts.

Nick Bentley designed a well-regarded print-and-play abstract boardgame in 2010. The game so impressed Martin Grider (developer of the very well-executed For the Win, which I reviewed here way back in 2012) that he took on an iOS adaptation largely as a passion project, with help from contractors. Two years on, Mr. Bentley seems almost guilty at having occasioned so much work, with such a polished product released into the viciously unforgiving App Store, that he’s written a moving plea and a wonderfully detailed designer diary. As someone who has written about games for years, I am not amused that some yahoo can waltz in and make what I do look easy and sound like a caring, brilliant guy at the same time.

Catchup is a very simple matter of creating a larger connected structure than your opponent. Each turn, you take two hexes. There are only two exceptions: the very first turn only gets one hex, and when the catchup mechanism is invoked. Whenever you pull ahead or extend your lead, your opponent gets a half-turn bonus. In this game, that means they claim three hexes on their next turn, rather than two, but the idea could be applied to any game which maintains a score and which allows an even number of actions on a player’s turn. Catchup is probably the most accessible possible use of this mechanic, but it has some quite interesting properties, so I hope to see it again. The other wrinkle is that, if there’s a tie for the size of the largest connected structure, the tie is broken by the size of the next largest structure for each player, and this is applied recursively until a winner is found (which must happen, due to the odd number of hexes on the board).

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Review: Heroes of the Revolution

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Over the river and through the woods, to Granma's house we go.

Over the river and through the woods, to Granma’s house we go.

Heroes of the Revolution is a game about reversals. You can see this from the first moment. You’re playing as the tiny band of rebels coming ashore in 1956 on a spur of land in Cuba’s mountainous and remote Oriente province. With this meagre force of non-professionals that would have trouble robbing a Seven-Eleven, you need to defeat the Cuban government’s vast army. They’ve got tanks and armoured cars and snipers and artillery. You’ve got… beards.

But if you pull it off, you’ll invert that game map that you saw on turn one: all of Cuba will be under your control, and the government’s forces will be pinned in the corner. You will have traded places with your enemy, becoming the force you set out to replace.

Intentionally or not, this is a tidy little analogy for what happened after the Revolution, when its leader Fidel Castro forgot all about that parliamentary democracy he was going to establish and morphed into a replica of the dictator he had fought so hard to oust. But that’s a subject for another game.

Heroes of the Revolution is concerned with the David versus Goliath showdown between your ragtag rebels and the American-funded Cuban Army, and while it’s not without some significant flaws, it’s a game that I’ve enjoyed tremendously.

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Review: Secret Files: Tunguska

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"Red light! Green light!" [USE explosive chewing gum ON ...]

“Red light! Green light!” [USE explosive chewing gum ON ...]

Have you ever felt like the whole world was out to get you? Like maybe there really is a realm of plots beyond your comprehension, and of plotters tugging at and weaving the invisible threads which guide your seemingly mundane life. And have you ever imagined that these sinister forces wear, like, black trench coats, or even those armless Morpheus shades from The Matrix? Chilling stuff.

Secret Files: Tunguska totally sympathizes with that last, most superficial flight of fancy. Despite the quick introduction of kidnappings, murders, and government cover-ups, the characters of this serviceable iOS port of the 2006 point-and-click are a perpetually monotone and charmless lot—so much so that it’s hard to imagine any of these dull knives either setting up or solving the often clever traps and puzzles which populate the game.

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Review: Rules

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Oh, right--"Watch out for a red bull".

It’s a good thing there’s a phone on the unicorn–if a unicorn were on the phone, I wouldn’t know what to say.

I have an extremely strong bias toward following rules. When Eric Westervelt punched me in the stomach at my locker after school one seventh-grade afternoon, I took it and just turned around because fighting was against the rules (also, I’d have lost). I’m not claiming that drive is universal in anything like the extreme form I had it at the time, but Coding Monkeys seem to think a less severe case is widespread, because Rules taps that compulsion like a speed-crazed Vermont sugarmaker when the sap starts flowing.

In hindsight, an analogy involving beer and some famously hard-drinking group might have been more relatable. Anyway, if the idea of a game about following rules doesn’t immediately grab you, try this: Coding Monkeys. Carcassonne. Lost Cities. Yeah, those Coding Monkeys. Purveyors of absolutely brilliant tabletop adaptations since before there was a Pocket Tactics to sing their praises.

Now they’re offering a finely-crafted game in the ever-popular “toilet” genre of brief, highly replayable, easily-grasped games which have appeal even to those who wouldn’t list games as a hobby if you paid them. Like the best examples of the genre, there is some emergent complexity and strategies which aren’t immediately obvious, but, at its heart, it’s Simon. A very well-executed Simon, with quite satisfying feedback, and the usual attention to detail that accompanies the Coding Monkeys’ more complex outings.

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Review: Blood Bowl

Of course, given the breadth of sexual euphemism, it would be hard to rule out anything.

“Touchdown” sounds a bit like a sexual euphemism, which explains the sporran. Also, the New York Jets.

It is widely agreed that the 1980s were a very strange decade. Neon legwarmers, obviously, but also Games Workshop and its hobby games casting a shadow greater than any other between TSR and Wizards of the Coast.

Their games were often forbidding investments of time and money, but offered both strategic depth and incomparable (if deeply silly) aesthetics once your hand-painted miniatures graced a well-laid table. Blood Bowl is the silliest of the lot: not only does it incorporate the exaggerated character design and overwrought world of Warhammer, it’s fantasy football the way many readers of Pocket Tactics will have imagined it when they heard the phrase. Sure, daytime sporting events between vampires and halflings don’t make any sense, but if you’re worried about plausibility in your Games Workshop games, I invite you to figure out Chainsaw Warrior.

The sport Blood Bowl simulates is actually quite light on rules–there are no downs or field goals or eligible receivers, and all manner of ultra-violence is perfectly legal so long as you don’t stomp on a prone opponent in a deliberate attempt to put them out of the game. Even then, officials aren’t that attentive and possess a FIFA-like open-mindedness about bribery.

Blood Bowl’s rules are poorly presented and have a few too many complex embellishments with too little return. In addition, there are roughly a hundred different skills with special rules and additional rules governing campaigns and skill development. While it’s wonderful to have the enforcement of these rules taken off your hands so you can focus on the intriguing strategic game underneath, Cyanide Studio’s iOS version is an awful tutor and you end up forced to do a great deal of tedious record-keeping, anyway.

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Review: Storm Casters

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Bone Cruncher never wanted to be a dungeon boss. He dreamt of getting out of Skull Keep, maybe opening up a little bed and breakfast. But his unfortunate name limited his career options, and a skeleton has gotta pay the bills somehow.

Bone Cruncher never wanted to be a dungeon boss. He dreamt of getting out of Skull Keep, maybe opening up a little bed and breakfast. But his unfortunate name limited his career options, and a skeleton has gotta pay the bills somehow.

Storm Casters has no right to be any good. I mean just look at the thing. The dead Zynga-esque eyes of its cartoony main characters should be your first warning, and the ominous plus sign in the upper right corner would send shivers down the spine of any right-minded gamer. Yes, there are consumable in-app purchases here, in a $5 game no less. So this will be an easy review. One star, move along, nothing to see here. And yet… it turns out Storm Casters is one of the most fun action games I’ve played on iOS.

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