Review: Da Vinci's Art of War

By Kelsey Rinella 31 Mar 2014 0
Rolling a cross means losing a unit during its own attack and, frequently, taking in vain the name of He whose symbol it is. Rolling a cross means losing a unit during its own attack and, frequently, taking in vain the name of He whose symbol it is.

As foretold by the sage, Slitherine have released the Mixel-developed, rebalanced conversion of the board game Magnifico under the new title Da Vinci's Art of War (henceforth DVAoW). It's a simple wargame, not terribly dissimilar to Risk, but with some Eurogame elements blended in--auctions, victory points, peaceful paths to victory--which dramatically affect the flow. Also, in a whimsical touch first introduced to me by the sadly underrated Hudson Hawk, Leonardo Da Vinci's speculative sketches are converted into working prototypes, so you can pursue your renaissance war the way a true renaissance man should: with tanks, planes, and robots backing up the dudes with pole arms.

Each round starts with an auction for some of Leonardo's projects. These generally improve your foot, tanks, or planes in some way, or are simply works of art which bring you recognition. Play then proceeds in the order of the bids in the auction, with each player launching no more than three incursions into neighboring territories per turn. Controlling regions on the map gives varying amounts of coin and foot soldiers per turn, so players have strong motivation to expand, but attacking another player is much more costly than invading an empty space, so there's a good deal of positional play which is complicated by the relatively permissive sea movement. Foot soldiers are necessary to operate the machines, but tanks can hit much harder than foot (if they don't explode), and planes ignore fortifications, so there is excellent reason to want to bring them along.

The only trouble with that is that if you run out of foot, the enemy captures your machines and can use them against you. The game ends at the end of a round in which a player exceeds the victory point limit set at the beginning of the game; controlling the most territory or castles gains you victory points, but so does winning auctions, building heavily-fortified cities, and activating Da Vinci's projects.

I do wonder why Da Vinci thought it would help to be in a cage before the battle even starts. I think of the menu as unusually ephemeral fog of war.

I initially hated the interface, the principle element of which is essentially a pop-up window overlaid over the map, which cannot be zoomed. You can move the pop-up menu, so it's always possible to see whatever you need, but you can't see it all at once without minimizing the most important menu. Eventually, I made my peace with this, as they'd have to shrink the map enough to get that menu a permanent spot on the edge that it would probably no longer have been quite so easy to tap exactly where you intend.

I'm glad to see innovation in interface design; once I got over the unfamiliarity, I found it about as good as more common interface choices. I am less easily consoled about the lack of multiplayer, but there's enough interaction in the game that such games may well have been slow, and there are four difficulty levels of AI, and the higher levels are quite good. To be honest, it took several games to beat even the easiest, so there's quite a lot of solo play value.

I haven't seen many games which take their aesthetics as seriously as DVAoW while allowing such a lighthearted premise. In the English-speaking world, we seem to add zombies or Cthulhu when we want to throw in a touch of the fantastic so absurd as not to trigger any genuine fears. The Italians can aim a little higher than Lovecraft with their historical creative types, though, so they've basically out-steampunked steampunk by going even earlier while including equally advanced technologies for which there are actual historical sketches. These set the visual tone for the app, but I must also make note of the audio. The sound of units crossing the ocean perfectly reflects the rest of the app--it's just the splashing of footsteps at a tempo which nicely matches the appearance of the dashes in the dashed line which charts their course, but it manages to be both perfectly identifiable and slightly goofy.

Historically, fielding tanks with cannons which fire in all directions simultaneously has been unpopular with infantry. Historically, fielding tanks with cannons which fire in all directions simultaneously has been unpopular with infantry.

DVAoW is quirky in many regards. The attitude is just a bit silly. Your units can kill themselves when attacking, so you'll have the opportunity to recall any famous critical fumbles of your Dungeons and Dragons-playing past, if you are fortunate enough to have one. (I seem to recall tripping and slicing off an ear with a dagger at one point, but I can understand how getting tangled in a halberd might be rather more terminal.) The interface is strange. But it all works surprisingly well, and shows yet again what fertile soil is the border between the highly thematic boardgames of my youth, with massive conflicts of molded plastic, and the tightly-designed wooden cube affairs known as Eurogames.

Review: Da Vinci's Art of War

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