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Review: here's hoping the Kachina board game app gets some serious kinks worked out


The tile game Kachina came to the iPhone/iPod touch platform in waves. First, the app appeared as a single-player puzzle game using the Kachina rules. Then, an upgrade with in-app purchase allowed you to spend US$2.99 to get multiplayer functionality. Now, the Kachina app [$2.99] that you can find in the App Store is the full-featured version that includes both the puzzle and multiplayer modes. The developer, Gourami Games, has posted a mea culpa of sorts, saying:
The in-app upgrade has been removed and all copies are now enabled to play 2,3,4,5 player games. Now with an option to chose the computers difficulty level. Those of you that have made the in-app upgrade purchase, Thank you for your support, and we will make it up to you in a future update that will automatically detect the sale.
We like the idea behind the Kachina game, which uses Hopi spirit imagery and tests your math skills as you race for the high score, but this is a situation where too many serious bugs destroy what's really an elegant game. Read on to see what we mean.

Gallery: Kachina iPhone App | 26 Photos

The Game

The rules (see here) to Kachina require a bit of memorizing. Each turn you have to make a single, simple action – place one of your tiles (you have a hand of five) onto the grid. Each one needs to be placed next to other tiles and never in a row longer than seven tiles. If the tile you just placed has the highest strength in that row or column it "dominates," and you will score one point for each tile in that row or column (both, if you manage to win the strength contest in both with one play). The challenge is to find the spot where the tile will score you the most points and hopefully deny your opponent(s) the chance to score more on their turns.

Most tiles have some sort of special power that affects the board when you lay them down. Koshari (the clowns), for example, give all orthogonally adjacent tiles a strength of zero, while Eagles can fly up onto another tile and cover them up. The two most powerful tiles, the Sun and the Chief, are worth seven and eight strength, respectively, but don't get to do anything special. Still, that much raw power is tough to beat in this game.

The game is played until all the tiles have been laid out, and the high score wins. It's a clever game with a lot of chances for big point swings through good plays. It's not perfect – usually, trying to help set yourself up for a good score only serves to give your opponents a great opportunity, which means it helps to know how many of each tile are in the game – but it's got a lot going for it.

The App

We'll start with the good stuff. The app's graphics are slightly tweaked from the physical tile version, which makes them easier to read on the iPhone screen. The game uses OpenFeint to track high scores. Also, when you put a Koshari down, the neighboring tiles get their strength values reduced to zero. This is exactly how an app with dynamic piece interactions should operate. But there are problems. For example, a Koshari placed in a row with other Koshari can win even if they tie, even though the rules (as printed and as published in the app) say nothing about letting Koshari dominate rows when they tie for strongest character in that row. Usually, ties are counted as not dominating. We have to assume this is a bug.

Why do we have to do this? Because the app is buggy as all get out. Score over 100 points? The middle digit will disappear from your displayed score. Like the checkerboard pattern to the background? The gray squares will sometimes turn white. If you pause and exit the game and then continue it later, the tiles affected by a Kachina will sometimes not have their scores displayed as zero. The game will score them correctly, but you won't get the benefit of seeing the current strength value of some tiles. The useful faded icons that sit on spaces where you can't play a tile also have a habit of disappearing and reappearing during the game, which means the app sometimes allows you to create lines longer than seven tiles (see the game-in-progress image above). Whoops. Speaking of display, the pinch and zoom sometimes becomes totally unresponsive. One workaround is to exit the game and then come back in. This will allow you to zoom, but see the Kachina problem mentioned above. It seemed like the longer we played, the more problems we found. Not a good set-up. Maybe this is due to playing the game on a first-gen iPod touch, but it's still unacceptable.

Other frustrating aspects: There's no way to start a new game except by totally exiting the app and restarting. And you may like your iTunes music, but the game sure doesn't. Playing multiplayer using the only method available (pass-n-play) works, but it's not ideal in a game where the action is so centralized. When you get the iPhone back, it's annoying to a.) not see other people's scores and be able to know how you're doing and b.) not have the tiles played since your last turn highlighted. With the physical tile version, there is a score board included and everyone's current score is displayed. Also, you can see people place their tiles, two features we totally missed when playing on the iPhone

In the end, Kachina deserves a better app than this. The numerous bugs just can't be overlooked, and without some major changes we have to recommend you stay away from this one.

Disclaimer: I've done some work with one of the publishers of the physical version of this game, Bucephalus Games (which they have yet to pay me for, the punks). The (in)actions of Bucephalus Games did not in any way influence my review of Gourami's app.

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