Review: AXIO octa30 Jan 2018 0
Review: AXIO octa
Released 17 Jan 2018
Reiner Knizia is indisputably one of the most prolific game designer in the world, with hundreds of designs to his name. Despite, or perhaps because of this, he can also be somewhat divisive. Axio was previously known as Ingenious until a trademark clash last year. Since then, Knizia has been expanding the line into a family of related games. This version just released on mobile is in fact Axio Octagonal, a variation using eight-sided spaces and eight different symbols on the tiles rather than six.
The game itself is fairly straightforward. You have a hand of domino-like two-ended tiles with one of eight symbols on each end. You place the tiles on the board to form lines of matching colors radiating from the newly-placed tile, scoring points for each one in the row. The twist is that the player's final score is equal to the score of their lowest color, so the game is not about driving up massive points but balancing the score in all directions.
The details of the game are well-considered, as one would expect from the good doctor. The tiles are not only different colors, but have different shapes to support color-blind people. Starting tiles are arranged around the edges of the board to ensure the game starts across the whole playing field. If you lack tiles of your lowest-scoring color, you can draw a whole new hand, which keeps a player from being unfairly shut out by bad luck. On the other hand, building one color above 13 points lets you place another tile immediately, so you'll also need to consider whether the bonus turn is worth putting effort into a single color.
The game is beautifully balanced in terms of strategy, which is why the original board game has become one of the most popular abstract games outside of classics like chess. While the rules remain simple, there is a great balance of immediate and long-term decisions to be made. Do you risk putting down a lot of one color to go for the bonus move? Do you focus on your own score or on blocking the scoring opportunities of the other players? It is obviously a pinnacle of design from an expert in the field.
The scoring system can be a little confusing at first; intuitively, you might think that matching one color to a large group of that same color would score you a bunch of points, but actually you only score those tiles that are in a direct line from the tile you placed. Furthermore, in terms of the Octo variation, because octagons don't snap together in a grid like hexes do, the horizontal and vertical sides which are separated with little gray squares are also valid for scoring, not just the four sides the tile is actually touching. Luckily, the mobile app will count the points up for you, so you don't need to worry too much about missing one.
But here's the thing with Knizia games. They are always impeccably designed -- maybe too impeccably. The Doctor's games are fundamentally systems to be mastered. They are intricate score-generating machines and the best players will be the ones who understand the systems best. If you were to guess what Knizia did for a living before becoming a superstar game designer, it would be easy, I think, to hazard even something as obscure as mathematician. His games are great ways of testing your mind against another person's mind, but they lack a certain Sturm und Drang that leads people to describe the games as too much like doing math. All this is to say: if you have played a Knizia game before and didn't like it, Axio is probably not the one that will convince you--although at least it sheds the pretense of having a theme thinly veiled over its delicate mathematics.
For a mobile app, the design is clean and the AI is smart enough, but the controls leave something to be desired. You can click and drag your pieces easily enough, but when it comes to placing the tile, you'll be tapping on a rotate button several times until the piece spins the way you want it---then more likely than not dragging the piece back to the spot you wanted since it has spun out of place. A big orange circle will let you know if your placement is valid, and another key press finalizes the placement. It can also be unclear the difference between the tile you are placing and the tiles you are placing it among, since they are at first glance identical. This problem could possibly be rectified by allowing the player to use two fingers to turn the piece 360, which would have the additional benefit of letting the motion of the piece distinguish it from the board.
You can play with two to four players, single-player with AI or online multiplayer. Multiplayer is handled through Brettspielwelt, which had a hard time matching me to a public game, but could be used to play with your friends. There's a tutorial as well to teach the basics. There are a few odd word choices in the documentation that must be due to the game being developed by folks who speak English as a second language, but nothing that really hampers understanding.
The original hex-based version of Ingenious was released on mobile some time ago, but is no longer available, which makes it strange that Knizia chose to bring back the game in it's eight-sided variant. Why not make one app that could offer all the possible variations? Perhaps that is Brettspeilwelt's plan, but until then Axio Octa is a great abstract strategy game in a very good mobile implementation.