Pocket Tactics Presents: The Year in Strategy Games 201828 Dec 2018 3
2018 wasn't a great year for mobile strategy until the fall, when a whole cornucopia of real-time and turn-based games hit mobile shelves. What kept you alive through the lean months of spring and summer? Let's take a look at how things shook out for real-time and turn-based strategy in 2018.
We saw several big names make it to mobile, with a few disappointments, but we also saw the return of some classics, and a lot of newcomers with some exciting new ideas.
Only One Big Name Avoided the Freemium Trap
2018 saw a few high-profile releases. Civilization VI made it to iPad late in 2017 and ended up with a Universal update by October. This was a real treat for serious strategy gamers: the latest iteration of the seminal 4X series adapted for a portable device. The iPad version lost some of the game's graphical flourishes and voices for the opposing leaders, but otherwise Aspyr managed to squeeze the entire massive PC release into a tablet form. The October expansion to Universal brought the same genre-defining gameplay to smaller screens, with little sacrificed in the bargain.
Several other big names hit stores late in the year but were marred by dependence on IAP for profit. The freemium Command & Conquer: Rivals was the biggest offender. The core strategy gameplay impressed Brandon in his review, being something of a combination between Clash Royale-style card-based gameplay and the classic C&C gathering resources/commanding troops cycle. Long-time fans of the series will be deeply disappointed by the game's expensive unit cards, despite the promise of equally-matched players.
Likewise, the latest entry in the popular tower defence series Kingdom Rush, Vengeance drew its fair share of criticism for including many towers and over half of its hero roster as premium purchases, on top of the games' initial cost. While I personally didn't find these promoted in the game obnoxiously enough to be a deal breaker, for many others, IAP were a red line that put an end to this popular series.
2018 also saw the return of more classic games of yesteryear, successfully updated for today's gamers. The biggest win was Chaos Reborn: Adventures, an updated version of X-COM creator Julian Gossop's 1985 Sinclair Spectrum strategy game. True to its name, Chaos Reborn brought bad luck back to strategy, with a maddeningly fun system of spellcasting that has the player manipulating the chances of their spells going off without a hitch, or just going wild. Playing with others just adds to the unpredictability, since illusionary spells let you bluff your way to victory. It's a throwback, but a welcome one.
We also got the sequel to unexpected mobile hit King of Dragon Pass, the narrative strategy/simulation game Six Ages: Ride Like the Wind. This game came from a time before genres were so rigidly defined, and merges choose-your-own-adventure storytelling with difficult simulation and strategy layer. The real star of the show is the setting: Glorantha, a bronze-age fantasy where survival means understanding the culture of your barbarian tribe, learning its myths, and avoiding antagonizing the ducks. Seriously, don't mess with the ducks. Six Ages, like its predecessor, can be opaque. Failure can manifest like a thunderbolt, and the arcane rules of your religion may twist your head into knots. For players willing to stick with it, there's nothing else that quite captures the idea of really being the leader of a people.
Finally, Squids Odyssey isn't the oldest game on this list, being a sequel to a 2011 iOS game that was ported to Nintendo platforms and back. As a result, it’s really just a rerelease of two older games that no longer work on newer hardware. However, if you missed these the first time around, Odyssey is a good chance to experience a strategy game that's a little different and tailor-made for touchscreens. You have to fling your squids around the map Angry Birds-style, but also handle different unit types and power-ups.
Strategy with a Twist
The return of the traditional, the well-worn, and the underrated gems was much appreciated, but the biggest trend in mobile strategy for 2018 was a casting off of genre tropes and a greater willingness among designers to try something weirder.
Euclidean Skies merged turn-based tactics with reality-bending Rubik's Cube levels where the movement of the terrain became as important as the movement of your units. As much puzzle as tactics, this sequel to Euclidean Lands was akin to a spiritual experience for our reviewer Jarrett.
Element placed its real-time strategy on spheres where humans and robots vied for domination. Its strategy was highly abstract and regimented, almost like real-time chess bent around a tiny planetoid. Three levels of three unit types on three different terrains make for an elaborate system of rock-paper-scissors, with unit control limited to placing new stationary towers or setting satellites in orbit. The core goal of mining more element than your opponent forces the player to think on their feet and use different tactics than your average RTS.
On the surface, Farabel looked like one of those more traditional strategy games, even down to its archetypal orcs vs. humans plot. But Farabel did something no other game on this list could do: it started at the end, with a tale told in reverse that saw your general losing abilities with every level, thus increasing the challenge by forcing you to play more carefully. In addition to its time-traveling story, the game also let you reverse and play one unit's turn again, doubling up its influence.
While increasing reliance on big franchise names and IAP might feel like a threat to core gaming on mobile, the platform's ability to revive old genres and promote new ideas can give us hope for the future.
What were your mobile strategy highlights for 2018? Let us know in the comments!