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App Review: Send fantastical armies into battle with Ex Illis on your iPhone

Sebastian Blanco
Sebastian Blanco|September 24, 2010 4:45 PM

(i)Pawn can turn your iPhone into a board game playing surface, but what if you want to expand your battles onto a much bigger playing field, one with mages and cavalry and archangels and big monsters? Then your best option is Ex illis, a new game that uses your iPhone or iPad as a game computer (technically, the "Rule Keeper software") while you act as general and overlord and maneuver your many pawns around the board. Armed with your painted miniatures and a copy of the software (also available for your Mac or PC), you and a friend can spend the afternoon

This is a fairly light miniatures game – it's not heavy like Warhammer or 40K, but it's way beyond Risk – and the software does a find job of making sure battles are won fair and square. For the rest of us, having the iPhone handle things is breezy and fun. One neat way this game is different from most board games is that your armies can gain strength and extra abilities over time. The web-based software keeps track of how your soldiers (or, ogres or whatever) are doing and gives them special powers depending on how they performed in battle. It's neat and engaging, but also gives big advantages to people who play a lot.

You can't build up your forces by playing against the computer, though, even in practice mode. You can sign up for two accounts and play against yourself to learn the rules, but the idea with Ex illlis is to play against a friend on the tabletop, not over the Internet or versus an AI. The investment to get started is pretty steep (the deluxe starter costs $159.95 while the basic version is $69.95 – each comes with 54 miniatures – and the booster packs of minis cost between $22.95 and $29.95. Hey, at least the iPhone app and the 30-day trial are free), but if you're ready to use your iPhone as a game calculator for your fantasy minis, Ex illis is a great way to go. Read on to figure out more about the world of Ex illis.


The Game and App

Ex illis takes place in an alternate historical Europe in 1309. After a strange fog called the Flael blew across the land in 1246, magical creatures of legend arrived, borders were rearranged and, as game players might expect, there was great upheaval. Sound interesting? The game's detailed fake history is available here, complete with the Mongol invasion of Germany and the Battle of Cedewain. It is your role as a game player to pick a faction – 31 at last count, all with special rules – to fight for/with and try and defeat forces of the other side.

Ex illis is played with 25 mm miniatures that need serious assembly before you can play (unless you're using the paper proxies during the 30-day free trial period). For anyone used to opening up a box and playing with the pretty bits, this will be a severe disappointment, as it'll take hours to get ready. For anyone who likes the solitude of building and paining minis, Ex illis has a lot to offer. For one thing, most of the models can be put together in different ways, so, for example, the contents of the $29.95 Archangels box can be used to build either six Nephilim (second wave, ground-based hitters) or Evocati (flying) units and, when you tell the Rule Keeper software that you have purchased the items, you also need to tell it which type of unit you built. Of course, this also means you could, should you want to, buy two boxes and build both types. Studio Figurines Bastion Inc., the company behind Ex illis, would probably be quite pleased if you took that route.

As for the game itself, it's basically a big 5x4 grid where you maneuver your pieces. When two opposing forces come into contact with one another, they fight. The goal is to defeat your opponent's forces. The tabletop miniatures are meant to provide the players with the general's view, while the software is there to show what the individual soldiers can see and for you to tell them how to act. Each turn, you can order your troops to move, shoot, attack, charge, use magic and more. You look the board over, tell the iPhone what your moves are, and the app tells you if your attack was a success. The basic rules are explained here.

The truth is that it's kind of difficult to actually get to your first game (especially if you're trying to review it with only one account). There are a few steps to setting up a game, detailed here. Both players need to log in to the same Rule Keeper software (i.e., the same iPhone) and pick their army and set up where everybody is. Once you've got everything set up (assembled, painted, logged-in, etc.), then it only takes around 30-60 minutes for a game.

Instead of rolling dice as most miniature gamers do, players in Ex illis rely on the results of the fate screen (above) to see if they won or lost. Anyone who wants to dig into the depths of what each unit can do can find a PDF of that information here and maybe predict the outcome of a fight, but the idea behind the game seems to be to have fun with the strategy and leave the details to the software.

Free Trial

As you might have realized by now, there is a lot to Ex illis, and with that high price tag attached to the starter kit, it's a kind of risky jump to make. Thankfully, you can give the game a try through a free, 30-day trial. Registering for an account, a proxy army and getting the app are all free and, for 30 days:
Your temporary trial allows you to live the genuine Ex illis experience; with full access to all functionalities of the game, including the Leveling and specialization of your miniatures up to level 14.

Once the 30-Day temporary trial period is over, we'll keep all your data on our servers for at least two months. In order to get out of the temporary account mode, you'll need to activate at least one miniature, at which point you'll have a permanent uncapped account

This is fine an all, but we can't escape the fact that Ex illis is basically moving DRM from the digital to the real world. In order to play, you need to buy Bastion's plastic figures and use their special software. This means that you can't use proxies (except during the limited trial period) or develop your own house rules. You also can't share or sell figures with other players, unless you're willing to just abandon your entire account. Something to think about when giving Bastion Studios your account information. Here's what one reviewer said:
DRM has never worked on digital media, so it is disappointing to see Bastion Studios bring such a terrible idea to the tabletop. I think the reason this game has DRM is because there is no real reason to buy figures in the first place. I've actually played several small games without the figures. The only purpose of the figures is to give players a complete overview at the battlefield because the software will not display one. Keep in mind that the software could give you a complete overview of the battlefield because it has this information, but Bastion Studios chose to suppress that feature.
What's weird is that there are a lot of good miniature games available that use pre-painted miniatures. With such an easy-to-use Rule Keeper software, you would think that Ex illlis would make more sense as a mass market, pre-painted game. Instead, the target seems to be gamers who like to buy and assemble expensive miniatures but then play light, short games with them. This could be so much more, and we won't be surprised to see the game offer scenarios or some sort of customization features in the future.

Given the ease of play when using the Rule Keeper software and the free short-term trial, Ex illis is a fine introduction to wargaming. If you want to get the full experience of buying and then building up your armies, it'll cost you a few pretty pennies. At least you can gauge if it's worth it before plunking down cent number one.

You can download the game for free in either English or French, follow the game on Facebook or get the Ex illis podcast in iTunes here. There's more information on the trial here. There are also a lot of Ex illis videos available on YouTube. We've embedded an official video from Bastion Studios demoing the game and a longer, very detailed video that shows exactly what you get in the starter box below.