The beautiful Tantrix Strategy game app [US$2.99] is an example of why it's sometimes good to wait for the second or third version of an iPad app before plunking down your money in the App Store. We're reviewing Version 1.1 here, and it improves on the original with an AI opponent (three levels). This is a huge boost, and it turns a so-so app into something all strategy gamers will want to at least look at. If you just want to dive in and check it out yourself right now, there is a free "lite" version of the app available here.
For the rest of you, here's the scoop. The iPad-only Tantrix app is a tile-laying strategy game that includes a fair bit of luck. It should not be confused with Tantrix Match, a $1.99 solitaire puzzle game that uses the same pieces as Tantrix, or Connext, a $1.99 two-player game that looks similar but offers different gameplay. If you're already feeling a bit confused, that's OK. The tabletop version of Tantrix is also one set of colored tiles that can be used to play a variety of different games (think dominoes or a deck of cards). The Tantrix app offers us the basic strategy game in a refined, pretty package. Read on to see if you want to get all tantric yourself or with a friend (speaking of apps that aren't this game...)
The set of 56 Tantrix tiles was invented in 1998 and has blossomed into a wide variety of games, including "solitaire puzzles, the multiplayer strategy game and the fast-paced Tantrix Gobble," according to the official Tantrix website. The tabletop set can be used by between two and four strategy people and involves placing tiles to form the longest possible chain of tiles of your own color -- or, better yet, a loop. At the end of the game, whoever has the longest line wins, scoring one point per tile used. If someone manages to make a loop, it scores two points per tile. Your score is the highest of these two options, and the high score wins.
The trick to Tantrix is that there are forced moves. As you can see in the screenshot below (which has the "novice mode" turned on, with hexes where you can play a tile appearing in different colors), there are red spaces. A forced move is created when an empty space is surrounded by three other tiles -- the rules prohibit a fourth tile from surrounding this space until the endgame. These are places where, if you have a tile that fits there, you must play it there. Thankfully, the app will let you know if your hand has a piece like this.
On your turn, you look to see if you have any tiles that you are forced to play, then you get to play a tile wherever you want, then you look again for forced moves. Since you draw a tile each time you play a tile and can see your opponent's tiles, there is a lot of opportunity for long-term planning in Tantrix. This is a game that can tend to analysis paralysis with some players. You have been warned. The full rules of the game are available here and you can play the game online for free here.
For the most part, Tantrix Strategy is well executed and easy to grasp. The rules, while not presented in the best font, are pretty clear. Pop-up messages tell you when you make an illegal move. Tiles get little dots near them when they can fill in a forced space. If you forget which color you're trying to build on, each player's control area has a little ball showing your own color. The playing space is easy to pinch zoom and doesn't get in the way of your hand of tiles. The UI is already quite good. Each player can see their tiles and has an array of buttons. All in all, well done.
It's not perfect, of course. There is no undo button, which almost every board game app needs. There is no three- or four-player mode, which is sad -- you'd think it would be easy to implement. Right now, the game does not save if you exit the app, but the developer promises this functionality -- along with small UI improvements -- in the next version. Also, the first time I played against the most difficult AI player, the app crashed as the computer was trying to make its first move. After that, I didn't have any problems.
The oddest quirk is that the game does have a "take a screenshot" button, but it beats the heck out of me where the images get saved. There's no "album" or "history" section in the app, and the pictures don't appear in your photo roll. If anyone can find these images, please let me know in the comments. Of course, it's easy enough to take a standard screenshot by pressing the iPad's home and power buttons at once, and these get sent to the photo roll no problem.
Like most of the other board game apps I've reviewed, the gaming experience is better against a person than the AI. There are three intelligence levels -- Clumsy, Trained and Deep Thoughtful -- so you'd think it could present a decent challenge. The bot is quite good at figuring out how to lay down its tiles to get multiple plays a turn and, even worse, it can easily make you play tiles to build on its own color (it's almost like it's a computer or something), but it doesn't always manage to set itself up for the win. Even Deep Thoughtful is quite beatable. I won that first game 21-12.
Given the improvements that we saw from Version 1.0 to 1.1 and the promises of more changes coming soon, I'm hopeful that the Tantrix Strategy app we'll have in early 2011 will beat the pants off of what we've got now. Thankfully, what we've got now is still pretty darn sweet.