Review: Reiner Knizia's The Confrontation11 Jan 2016 0
Offworld Games earned an awful lot of Pocket Tactics' goodwill with Legion of the Damned, a well-supported, genuine hex-and-counter wargame playable on an iPhone screen. And this was back in 2012, before phones found the cakes labeled “EAT ME” in Wonderland. Having colonized our stony auricles, Offworld are now attempting to capture the dessicated ventricles of the hearts of the Pocket Tactics crew by adapting Reiner Knizia’s superb The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation for the iPad and PC/Mac. In a blessing to those who must type the name of the game, they’ve done so without the Tolkien license, so it’s just Reiner Knizia’s The Confrontation, which I’ll henceforth abbreviate to RKC. At least it’s not TLOTRTC, or I’d be in danger of unintentionally summoning an elder god of Mexican origin.
RKC adopts the hidden unit mechanism of Stratego or various block wargames like Hammer of the Scots and Sekigahara: you deploy your forces for light or darkness secretly to your side of the fairly small board. The goal of the light side is to get the prince to the far corner of the board, while the shadow aims either to kill the prince or besiege the far corner of the board with three units. Not only does each unit have a strength and special ability, but battles are also decided by the play of a card from a nine-card hand which does not replenish until all cards have been played. The result is a game of hand management, positioning, and bluffing, strategic enough to reward skill but with enough unpredictability to be very difficult to completely comprehend, despite the lack of true randomness. Reiner Knizia’s name on a game may not be a perfect guide to quality, but this is one of his true classics, and captured the flavor of its setting extremely well given the elegance of the design.
The board game comes with a surprising number of variants; only one is available in the app at launch, but Offworld’s Facebook page suggests others are still under development. They had initially been offered as a stretch goal in their Kickstarter pitch for the funds to add features, but they fell short of that tier. Given the competitiveness of the market, the decision to forego handing over some or all of the proceeds to a publisher is understandable, but this particular game suffers from a number of decisions which seem to illustrate just how much good an involved publisher can do.
Absolutely the most consistent problem RKC has is that the tap detection is spotty. Virtually every move requires two attempts. The interface is functional, but includes several unintuitive choices. For example, you start each game with two single-use powers, shown as pictures of special cards next to your regular cards. To play them, you don’t tap the cards. Tapping the cards does nothing. Instead, you tap the little icon on the top left which looks like cards. The screen to select between the three levels of AI (which seem, in my brief time with the game, equally strong--they’re basically adequate to challenge me, but have some distinctive quirks) switches between adjacent AIs one at a time, rather than using the more common swipe with inertia. Little things, but they give the impression that only a few pairs of eyes evaluated the game prior to release. I’m not personally a fan of breaking away to a 3-D battle scene, and it seems like a waste of precious resources, but that’s enough of a matter of taste that I’ll just sniff condescendingly at the many users who appreciate such things and move on.
The biggest absence, of course, is the Lord of the Rings license. Particularly given that Knizia’s designs are often very loosely themed, the loss of the original theme in his game which arguably did that best is a bit sad, but probably wise. The designs they’ve replaced Tolkien’s characters with do the job of being clear enough to justify their mechanics, which basically requires that they not be too innovative, but they’re solid. I confess to wishing they had gotten the free use of one of the many Tolkien knock-offs, though--if Dennis L. McKiernan had been willing to give away the license to his Iron Tower series* (they’re not hobbits, they’re, uh, “Warrows”--totally different!), I’d have been absolutely tickled. Close behind the missing license is the unfortunate failure to secure enough funding to meet the stretch goal of asynchronous multiplayer. While the AIs do a decent job of giving you reason to explore the game, they don’t feel like wrestling with another mind. Synchronous-only virtually guarantees that I’ll only ever play by appointment with an existing friend--I failed to find a stranger looking for a game even once.
Though the interface isn’t quite as natural as I’d wish, you do get used to it pretty quickly, and what’s left is a genuinely wonderful game. I keep getting little bursts of delight as I discover some new insight about how a certain position plays out, or how playing cards in a certain order shapes the options for later battles, or how to time the use of the special cards. It’s not that complicated a game, but it keeps drawing me in. I have the cardboard version, but have so far only played against my son, who’s six and a perfect example of what Mark Rosewater termed a “Timmy”. Bluffing is tough when you always move the biggest dude you have. As a result, I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to play more often, against more challenging competition. I fear the AIs won’t hold up to really competent play, but by the time they’ve trained me up to competence, I’ll have many plays of a game which, at its core, is marvelous.
Reiner Knizia's The Confrontation was played on an iPad Air for this review.
* Incidentally, this is the series I referenced in my review of X-Mercs. I finally just did the research to remind myself of the identity of it.