The latest bit of digital entertainment based on a Reiner Knizia game to hit the App Store is your typical Knizia numberfest: a brilliant game design with a theme that could be anything. In this case, with Battleline, the theme happens to be ancient Greek military. In fact, the very first version of the card game was called Schotten-Totten, and it depicted elderly comic Scotsmen vying for nine stones; there was also a re-themed Narnia version (called the Prince Caspian The Shield of Courage Card Game) to coincide with one of the recent movies. If you're looking to play with physical cards, you have a choice of theme, but on an iDevice, you've got ancient Greek armies. Luckily, this is a perfectly fitting theme, and since you'll spend most of your time thinking about possible number combinations, you wouldn't care if the game involved nothing but Smurfs and Garfield. Keep reading to find out why the new iOS version of the 2000 game Battle Line (yes, there is a space in the tabletop version, but not in the app) is worth checking out, even if you aren't a math person. Hint: it's more about poker than anything else.
Like many of Knizia's games, the rules to Battleline are deceptively simple. Each turn, all you need to do is play a card from your hand to one of nine places (flags) in the battle line, then draw a new card from the deck. A complete deck is made up of 60 cards (six suits, numbered 1-10). Each flag can hold, at most, three cards. The goal is to win either three fields next to each other or five total. You win a flag through a poker-like ranking system where three-of-a-kind beats a flush, which beats a straight. if it helps, you can think of the game as nine hands of three-card poker where it matters which hands on certain parts of the table win. Or you can think of it as ancient Greek armies squaring off. After all, there are little silhouettes on the cards.
Since you know exactly what cards are in the game, once you've crossed the half-way point, you can start to calculate which flags are still up for grabs and which ones you can be sure you'll win based on what's visible on the board and the cards you have in your hand. Figuring out these options is where the theme truly melts away, but it's so fun that it's all right.
That describes the basic game, but the app includes this purely numerical version and an advanced game, which introduces special tactics cards like "mud" and "fog." These cards are useful, but they need to be used wisely. For one thing, you can't just load the field with tactics cards, because you can't play a tactic unless your opponent has played as many as you have or more. There are 10 cards (click the names to see what each one does): Fog, Mud, Leaders (x2, the Hero and the Champion, which both do the same thing), Companion Calvary, Shield Bearer and Redeploy, Traitor, Deserter and Scout. The win conditions remain the same, but your hand size goes from six to seven when you play the advanced game.
As always, you can find the complete in-game rulebook in our gallery (click here to start).
On both the iPhone and the iPad, the US$2.99 universal app looks great. There are no flashy animations or wow-worthy visual effects, but that's not required because the meat here is the game itself. The important graphics – the suits and values of the cards – are simply and cleanly displayed, but not exactly breathtaking. The sounds, too, are well-done, and you can play your own iTunes music as you're playing the game using an in-app playlist-generation function.
While playing, everything moves around as you'd expect, so the lack of an undo button isn't that big of a deal. The two most-recently played cards are highlighted in white, so you know what your opponent did on his turn if you're playing against another person with pass-n-play. If you don't have a friend handy, you can play against two AI levels: Polynikes (the weak one) and Dienekes (strong). We easily trounced Polynikes and split wins with Dienekes, but other players are saying that they find even the hard AI to be an easy opponent to beat. Maybe once we're a bit better at the game we'll feel the same way. There isn't a way to play online just yet, but this functionality has been promised, and you can already pull your player name and icon from your address book.
It's important to point out that there have been some serious updates since the first version was released. The developer notes that the changes in the latest version (1.1, reviewed here) include:
Weak AI rewritten and made stronger.
Strong AI rewritten and made strong.
Fixed an issue that would cause AI to think forever.
Several flag claiming issues resolved.
Resolved a bug that would cause leaders to not be honoured correctly.
Fixed a bug that would cause app to crash on some devices when returning to game.
Fixed a bug that would cause music volume to default to 0.
That's quite a list, but some players are still reporting tactics cards bugs. We also had a slight bug happen when we tried to load a previously saved game, even though there wasn't one to load. We hope that this game gets the final bit of polish in the next update. Knizia's numbers deserve it.
UPDATE: The forum I lined to was people complaining about an older version of the game. The developer wrote to TUAW to say:
App isn't perfect yet, we have another update coming out soon that sorts out a few more issues, but the tactics cards all work now as far as I know, although pre 1.1 update they did not.
Also, while there hasn't been any promise made about online play, let's just say we should see it soon.
Battleline was coded by the Rational Brothers, and they've done a better job than a similar Knizia app: the Knights of Charlemagne. I'm glad to have both on my iPod touch, but I think that Battleline is probably going to get more plays than the older app, especially once the AI is beefed up. For one last take on the game, there's a video review of the original card game embedded right ... here.