Review: Pentaction Medieval05 Jan 2015 0
"Pentaction" is an awkward mouthful of a title. Descriptive, though: the relations between the five mobile units are the heart of this game that plays like a twist on Stratego. Your opponent's pawns on the other side of the board are unknown to you -- until you attack one or it attacks you, revealing its strength. Reveal your opponent's helpless king piece and you win.
It plays fast and bloody--three minutes is usually enough to reduce both sides to a few units and one to a captured king. These boardgame-style units are lovingly rendered as wooden pieces with identities stamped on with primitive printing technology, which helps to sell the medieval theme if you can get past the fact that you're interacting with their high-resolution images on the most technologically advanced device you've ever owned. Pentaction represents a departure for Hunted Cow, a simple boardgame reminiscent of Stratego rather than any sort of conflict simulation.
I always loved the idea of Stratego more than the experience of playing it. Modern games like Hammer of the Scots and Sekigahara have done great things with hidden unit strengths, and secret army deployment ought to result in some very cool prediction dynamics, especially in successive games. But Stratego had too many units which weren't different enough from each other, which made the whole game unnecessarily large and long, and never did a great job of rewarding clever set-ups. So the idea of a game from a noted wargame shop which polishes the design of Stratego enough to let its virtues really shine sounds like maple-bacon flavored justice.
The five mobile unit types are symmetrical, each defeating two of the others and being defeated by the other two. Unlike the similarly Stratego-esque The Confrontation, the symmetry of these units leaves them rather flavorless. However, each side also starts with two immobile units; the castle defeats everything and the king loses to everything. I now pause to reflect on a war between armies commanded by kings rendered completely unable to move, even to flee, perhaps by ill health or a sense of honor. They're politicians, though, so perhaps they're simply so persuaded of the perfection of their plans and impervious to contrary evidence that they refuse to acknowledge the testimony of their eyes with respect to their imminent doom.
The gameplay that results finally lets the ideas behind Stratego have a fair hearing, and it turns out they just aren't that well-suited to simplicity. The problem of failing to reward clever set-ups is still so serious that the game just skips any attempt at it, and automatically places all of your units except the castle and king. There are some fairly simple strategies which make a difference, but the AI is too weak for bluff to be relevant, and multiplayer is same-device only, which is less than ideal because of the hidden information. To Hunted Cow's credit, they seem to have recognized that the basic game wasn't terribly satisfying, and built in a more advanced version which gives the units health and makes combat no longer all-or-nothing. This helps a bit, but seems to make early encounters, when there is less information available, matter more to the outcome.
Ultimately, the problem that both Stratego and Pentaction appear to have a pretty low ceiling for smart play. Games like Yomi are deep enough that attentive players entertain various possibilities and regard them as more and less likely. The first encounter in Pentaction isn't like that--so long as your opponent's piece has moved, it is equally likely to be any of the five mobile types. There's no way for even a perfectly attentive player to improve upon those base probabilities. Later on, if your opponent starts moving toward a revealed piece of yours, it's very likely to be one of the pieces which beats it, but equally likely to be either of the two. This makes a few of the moves in the midgame somewhat more interesting, but there just isn't that much midgame. Admittedly, I feel kind of self-important making this complaint, as though I can't handle the possibility that my genius might go unappreciated. But I want the futility of bashing my cavalry into opposing pikemen to contribute in some small way to my sense that I am a miserable failure as much as I want luring my opponent into bashing his cavalry into my pikemen to contribute to the sort of inflated self-worth which leads to me posting a thousand words about a video game and expecting you poor saps to read it.
The most interesting lesson Pentaction: Medieval has taught me is that there are some game mechanics I genuinely like which respond poorly to refinement. So many excellent games of late have seemed like they took one interesting element of a more complicated game and sanded away everything that didn't show off that element. You can sand right through a really attractive veneer and expose the medium-grade plywood underneath, though. Pentaction feels rather shallow and random, which makes it difficult to fully appreciate the quality presentation once you start really paying attention. [Hey, I like Bjork! --Ed.]
Pentaction was played on an iPad Air for this review.