Back in the late 90's, a game called Master of Magic was unleashed upon an unsuspecting gaming public. It was a game much like Sid Meier's Civilization, but with an incredibly well-designed fantasy theme. It came from Simtex, the same developers who made Master of Orion I, and Master of Orion II, and was an instant classic. In spite of the DOS era graphics, you can still buy a (slightly modified for modern operating systems) copy from various reputable gaming sites almost 20 years after it's release. Yeah, it's THAT good.
While the internets have been calling for a truly modern version of this beloved game for many, many years, those who own the rights to it have been silent. As a result, independent developers have attempted to recreate Master of Magic's winning formula a number of times with limited success. One of these plucky upstarts is a game called Worlds of Magic, for PC and Mac. Although it had a rocky launch due to some pretty nasty bugs, the game as it stands now is a wonderful homage to Master of Magic. It borrows heavily from MoM's basic design and spirit but brings some additional elements to the table as well as a much-needed facelift. So what does this have to do with Planar Conquest? Well, Planar Conquest, which recently snuck onto the App Store is essentially Worlds of Magic with a mobile interface and scaled-down graphics. Notice that I didn't say "redesigned for mobile" or "streamlined for mobile play." This is the full desktop game, and it's a very important release for a number of reasons. First of all, it not only plays like a desktop game, it's priced like one. $12.99 will get you the basic game, but if you want to unlock all races and features, expect to spend another $19.99. I can hear the free-to-play crowd howling even as I write this, but some of you are leaning forward right now, wondering if this is the real thing. For all of you hardcore gamers out there feeling a bit disenfranchised by the current mobile experience and wishing you could take your desktop games with you on your mobile devices, it's time to put your money where your mouth is. Think of this as a grand experiment, and one that is likely being watched closely by other desktop publishers. Will mobile gamers pay desktop prices for a desktop experience? Only time will tell. It's important to point out that there are literally hundreds of hours of gameplay here with just the initial $12.99 purchase. Think of the rest of the content unlocks as expansions; take them or leave them, in whole or in part. For me, however, this was a no-brainer purchase as I've been waiting for a full-featured turn-based 4X (eXplore,eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) since I bought my first iPad 1.
If you've never played a 4X game, they're surprisingly accessible, thanks to a pretty straightforward and easily understandable goal. Start with a single city, explore your world, grow into an empire, crush your enemies. This is accomplished by carefully balancing the output of your cities. Each city can only produce one thing at a time, and it's up to you to decide in what order you should build the following things: city improvements (to increase growth, output, and army strength), armies (to explore, attack, defend, and claim resources), settler units (to found new cities). Spend all your output on developing a powerful city in the early game, and you'll either end up ahead or overrun by enemies waltzing into your beautifully built yet undefended cities. Churn out a bunch of low level armies and you'll either catch your enemies with their figurative pants down (see previous sentence) or find yourself outmatched by an opponent who is able to build more powerful units. Focus on expanding your empire and you'll either get a leg up or be unable to defend what you've built. The solution is, of course, like all 4X games, a balanced approach. When it's time to throw down, don't expect some watered-down, auto-resolve battle system between lifeless icons on the world map. Instead, conflict is handled up close and personal on a zoomed-in hex grid. Plan your moves and attacks carefully, using melee, ranged, flying, and magic-wielding units. There is some real depth here, and skilled players can take apart a much more powerful force with some clever and careful play. If you've ever played the excellent Heroes of Might and Magic franchise, you will be quite at home here. Lastly, if you were wondering why it's called Planar Conquest, it's because there are multiple planes of existence accessible form various points on the map, each with their own mysteries, dangers, and riches. With this in mind, starting a game with an extra-large map and 7 planes could easily result in a game spanning months of play.
There are a 7 different planes (3 available with initial purchase) and 8 different races to play (4 available with initial purchase), each with their own units and play style. Further, you can customize your faction each time you play with a give/take point system offering over 40 different boons, traits, perks, and advantages. What about the magic?! You said there'd be magic! Expect to find 13 different schools of magic and over 300 different spells ranging from offense, defense, summoning, blessings, curses, and world map enhancements. You can also build up your cities with 50 different improvements, and create 160 different unit types (not all units available for all races) including some truly awesome and/or hellish magical beasts. There's just so much to do here, and it's all exceptionally accessible so as not to feel overwhelming.
For strategy gamers, this should be an insta-buy. It's polished, fun, accessible, and has that "one-more-turn" pull to it that will keep you playing long into the night. For those of you who bought this game on release, there is currently a known bug in the tutorial that makes it unusable. There is also a bug that has disabled sound effects. Both of these issues have been resolved, and a patch submitted to Apple. Lastly, while Planar Conquest is a universal app, I found the experience to be a bit cramped on my iPhone, and I use a 6 Plus. Those with poor eyesight or huge fingers should keep this in mind. Even with a few bugs, Planar Conquest feels like a game that was made just for me. It looks like I'll be able to leave my Macbook Pro unopened a bit more now that I have an actual desktop quality strategy game on my iPad Mini.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
Graphics: - 5 - Simplified from the desktop version so as not to unnecessarily drain your battery. Crisp and high-rez, just not particularly flashy. Sound: - 2 - I found the music a bit tedious, and the sound effects bug makes it impossible for me to rate the audio any higher. Controls: - 5 - Super slick touch interface. This was NOT adapted from the desktop version. It feels great. Gameplay: - 5 - A true desktop 4X experience on my mobile device. Somebody pinch me.
Playing Hints and Tips:
The first thing you build should be a ranged unit of some kind. After that, build something that will help your city grow, then build another ranged unit, then build something that will improve production. Select Summoning as one of your schools of magic. Being able to summon units in battle as cannon fodder will protect your actual armies. Get a few units out early exploring and claiming treasures. Don't use auto-explore for summoned units, however, because they will consume treasures that grant experience, which only enhances real armies.
Developer: Shortbreak Studios Release Date: February 4, 2016 Price: $12.99 (Additional races/planes/heroes available for IAP within the game) Buy App: Planar Conquest