Review: Titan

Titan's Masterboard

This is not a joke about onanism.

“Titan! To thee strife was given…
The wretched gift Eternity
Was thine–and thou hast borne it well.” – Lord Byron, Prometheus

Titan faithfully implements an American board game from 1980 which still sees active tournament play; that alone tells you much of what there is to know about it. It must be deep and engaging to support continued interest and high-level competition over thirty years after its introduction.

American games of that era are usually wargames and tend to involve little accommodation for player comfort: unintuitive rules, player elimination, and widely varying playing times are common. Titan exhibits all of these: it’s a fantasy wargame in which the the monsters of myth assemble to maneuver and fight the sorts of battles which would become legend if only mortals had any hope of witnessing them and living to tell the tale.

The adaptation to iOS keeps the rules and aesthetic of the game intact, but accelerates the play substantially and adds some conveniences. When it was released (before Pocket Tactics began) it was lacking several crucial features, but the developers have since addressed these concerns. The most common complaints I encountered when reading about the launch were that it lacked online multiplayer and made no effort to help players learn the game. It now has a nicely formatted in-game manual and a well-scripted video serving as effectively as a tutorial for Titan reasonably could. That, however, turns out to be a very interesting limitation indeed.

Titan's Recruitment Diagram. Nothing recruits a Titan.

“The king stay the king.” -D’Angelo Barksdale, The Wire

The structure of Titan is bifurcated: your legions will traverse various terrain types on the masterboard, recruiting more powerful units when possible. Legions are groups of up to seven hidden units which are only revealed during battle or as needed for recruitment. There’s a moderately complicated recruitment tree which affords different, intersecting paths to the more powerful monsters. Once you encounter an enemy legion, play shifts to a battleland appropriate to the terrain in that location and a tactical minigame ensues. Players are eliminated when their Titans die, and the game ends when no more than one player remains (mutual elimination is possible).

To explain why a tutorial for Titan is necessarily problematic, it will help to make a distinction between different components of what in games is termed “theme”. In one sense, the theme of Titan has already been mentioned, and is conveyed by the names of the units and the images associated with them (sounds, animations, or other superficial elements can perform this function, as well): it’s a conflict between armies of mythical creatures. Let’s call this the game’s nominal theme.

However, games are also formal systems which can model the behavior of other systems, much like a scientific model. Often, a game is designed to be roughly isomorphic to the dynamics of a particular system suitably abstracted. I’ll call this structural theme. Keith Burgun recently told Owen, “I think theme primarily is there to communicate game mechanisms to the player. A theme gives you free information: if you give a player a sword, he immediately expects that he can swing it.” What he’s saying, in my terms, is that nominal theme communicates structural theme. This doesn’t exhaust the value of theme in my view, but he’s clearly right that a well-deployed nominal theme can make a game much more intuitive.

Titan doesn’t do that. The biggest problem is the masterboard, which looks sort of like a map but channels movement into three concentric one-way paths, somewhat like Talisman. As a result, distance is a very poor guide to accessibility. Worse, the middle path isn’t quite straight, so you can’t simply replace the expectation that it will behave like a map with a different, but still familiar, set of expectations. Also very strange, but more easily accommodated, are the statistics used on the battleboards.

Orges and trolls are more mobile in the Marsh battleland.

Unicorns, angels, and warbears–oh, my, indeed.

Units have two stats (in addition to the ability to strike at range or fly): power and skill. Power is both the number of dice rolled when attacking and the number of hit points the unit has, while skill represents accuracy, but also speed and armor class. Again, thematically it’s pretty strange, but it yields a much more comprehensible dynamic than the masterboard, resulting in relatively straightforward and enjoyable battles. Similarly, the particular abilities given to the units don’t make much sense–rangers can fly, Hyrdas can attack at range but centaurs (a myth likely based on mounted archers) can’t, etc.)–but I found it pretty easy to see past this.

My hypothesis is that it’s relatively easy to replace the expectations communicated by a game’s nominal theme with simpler structures, but much more difficult to replace them with more complicated ones. We expect all sorts of inaccuracies to emerge when we simplify something into the abstraction of a game’s mechanics. While the masterboard isn’t especially complicated, a simple hex grid is simpler yet.

Despite these obstacles, the tutorial does give you enough to get started, and if the learning curve is more gradual with Titan than with many other games, the variety of the gameplay it offers is some compensation. Different games often play very differently–a two-player in which the titans find each other quickly and engage in a win-or-lose battle can be over in five minutes and offer only a few meaningful choices, while a six-player slugfest can involve clever masterboard maneuvers, long-term investments in recruiting which pay off with overwhelming advantages in battle (or are intercepted one turn too early and accomplish little), a final stand by a beleaguered titan in a tower, or a near-certain victory become ignominious defeat at the hands of unkind dice. Or it could be reversed–the two-player game might span many powerful legions and slow build to the most powerful units and a grand battle, while the six-player game might give you a runaway victor who successively murders each of the other five titans.

The retreat screen.

Gorgoth is one of two smartest AIs–there are six.

Other than a notification bug of which the developers are aware and working to resolve, Game Center multiplayer works perfectly and includes text chat, timers, public or private games, and player ratings (but no achievements or leaderboard). The game also, especially in multiplayer, conveys a sense of epic importance. Lots of small elements contribute to that: the mythic nominal theme, the game’s history and reputation, the possibility of relatively long games (at least in person; I don’t think I’ve ever played a game against AIs which lasted more than 45 minutes), and the tendency for strength to snowball all combine to make every decision feel weighty.

The terrible mismatch between Titan’s structural and nominal themes no longer bothers me. Now, it’s just a great game implemented well. That mismatch is so pronounced, though, that it’s taught me more about theme in game design than anything else I’ve ever played.

I am indebted to the participants in the thread I started to discuss this project in advance, several of whom have kindly schooled me in multiplayer strategy.

Pocket Tactics Rating

4 Star Rating

4/5 Stars