"Wouldn't it be great if there were more wargames on the iPad?"
This is a question I've asked enough times that some of my friends are sick of hearing it. There have been a few nice little releases for the platform, many of them vaguely similar to Advance Wars, but nothing that really satisfies the hardcore wargamer. Until now. Slitherine and Matrix have released their excellent wargame Battle Academy for iPad.
Battle Academy is a clever, quick playing turn-based wargame that takes elements from Panzer General and also from board-based wargames such as Squad Leader. As I noted in my initial overview of the PC version of Battle Academy, the presentation is extremely approachable. Set in World War II, missions are introduced by a comic-book like splash screen – think of something from a late ’50′s era Sgt. Rock comic. The scenario is introduced (typically with a hint or two as to the optimal Allied strategy) and you are dropped in to the thick of battle. In all (single-player) cases, you’ll control Allied forces – British, Polish, and American – and be fighting the Germans or Italians.
Each scenario effectively introduces complex concepts (combined arms, ambushes, concealment, suppressing fire, artillery and airstrikes, and so on) in simple yet effective ways. Moves are “turn based with interrupts” – you can move all of your pieces, but if you move while within sight of an enemy, and they have movement points left, they might take a shot at you.
The game, in other words, punishes you for rushing your men into battle by providing defenders with lots of opportunity fire. Success in an assault in Battle Academy is achieved through concealment, ambush, careful use of leapfrogging, interlocking fields of fire, and - when available - ludicrously overwhelming firepower.
My only hands-down criticism of the game — and it should be noted this is a problem with all of Slitherine's games — is that the background music is a couple of bars of an anthemic marching-song variety that sounds pretty good when you first hear it, but since it only consists of the same 30-second loop played over and over and over and over and over and over again, within about 5 minutes you want to kill yourself to make it stop. Turning the music volume down to zero in this game isn't just a good idea, it's actually a requirement for continued existence.
So how did the game survive the transition to the iOS tablet platform? Extremely well. This isn't a slapdash port where you just pretend your finger is a mouse cursor. The UI was completely redone for touch, and it shows. On the desktop, you left click to select units, and then right-click a target square to bring up a context menu. On the iPad, you double-tap to select a unit, tap to indicate a target square, and then select from a contextual menu. This works great 98% of the time. I will confess that in one online multiplayer game, I actually mortared my own position when the game interpreted a double tap as a "choose menu item and confirm" command. But that only happened once, and I was acquitted at the court-martial.
Graphically, the game looks as good to me as it does on my PC. I'm told that some textures were reduced in quality, but that a retina update is coming for those of you lucky enough to own a new iPad that will restore some of the lost detail.
Most interesting, from my perspective, is that the game's online multiplayer system is fully compatible with that of its PC cousin; you can play against Battle Academy players who have iPads, or Macs, or Windows boxes interchangeably. You can even start a multiplayer game on your PC and then pick it up later on the iPad. I personally think Slitherine is going to be astonished at the reaction - iPad users are much more comfortable with "async turn-based multiplayer" than your average PC gamer, in my experience.
There is one fly in the ointment. Slitherine has chosen to price their game at $20, which has upset those among us who have grown accustomed to games costing less than the price of a cup of coffee. There's lots of online controversy on both TouchArcade and on BoardGameGeek about how unreasonable some people feel the price is.
I am somewhat conflicted on this topic. Slitherine's point of view, which they have politely and straightforwardly offered in various social media outlets, is that the game is already $10 cheaper than it's PC cousin, that $20 is an amazingly low price for an excellent wargame, that they worked hard on it, that they believe the market for wargames like this is pretty small, and if that means they sell fewer copies, they're OK with that.
On the one hand, I can't really argue with any of those points. $20 is a reasonable price for the game. It's the same game that I have on my Mac, and I wouldn't have blinked twice at paying $20 for it on that platform.
On the other hand, I really like the Slitherine guys, and I want them to be successful. Not a little successful. Massively successful. And I can't help but thinking that $20 turns the "our game will only appeal to a small niche" into a self-fulfilling prophecy. David Dunham, the developer behind the very successful King of Dragon Pass talks about the app store having "pricing sweet spots" above which you lose groups of potential users, and he describes $10 as "the highest price where an App Store listing alone is enough to sell someone — more than that and you will need some additional form of marketing". I view KODP as being every bit a 'serious' game as Battle Academy, and one which arguable appeals to an even smaller niche, but I think that price point worked out for them. At $20, the only people who are going to buy Battle Academy can be described as "people who are already inclined to buy Battle Academy". And that seems to me like it misses a chance to expand the market.
If Slitherine asked me how I, a complete stranger who has no skin in the game, would risk their hard work and money, I would suggest that at a minimum, they need to have a free trial of the game. It doesn't have to have all of the features in it - give it two single player scenarios from the Western Desert campaign, no multiplayer, and let the user buy the rest of the features via in-app purchase. By doing that, you're opening the door to a different market: people who love your game, but don't know it yet. That, I submit, is what has made the app store such a success. If you make a game on the PC, you're selling to gamers. If you make a game for iPad, you're selling to people who don't self-identify as gamers, but happen to love games. And there are way more of the second group than there are of the first.
I'd like to close out this review with a tangential note. Those of you who are long-time readers have no doubt noticed that the format of the site has changed substantially. We're experimenting with some new software, and along with it we've rolled out a forum for discussion of games and other topics of interest. Please feel free to register an account and start some conversations. We'd like to hear what you have to say.