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Firaxis' Haunted Hollow combines monstrous fun with some serious strategy


Hearing that Firaxis Games (the famous studio behind great games like Civilization and XCOM -- which itself is coming to iPad very soon) is making an original game for iOS is very exciting. That game is Haunted Hollow, and I got to see it in action this week at GDC.

Lead designers Will Miller and David McDonough have overseen the game's development for about a year. The group hopes to release Haunted Hollow later this spring. The game is surprisingly complicated, and though it definitely follows the Firaxis tradition of very well-crafted and complex strategy games, it also makes you wonder how the typically casual iOS audience will take to it.

Miller told me that Haunted Hollow has always had a haunted house vibe to it. He showed off a picture used in the initial pitch, featuring two different haunted houses dangling over the edges of a town in the middle. The game contains online Game Center multiplayer, a pass-and-play mode and a single player vs. AI mode, so the title always pits you as the caretaker of one house against another house-building opponent, with a town of unsuspecting civilians lying in the middle.

Each turn tells you which kind of room to build, and provides action points (called "fear points"), with which to perform various actions. Building a room allows you to create monsters, which you can then send with a movement into the town below.

You pick up to five monsters to play with per game, and they all are of three types: Scary, "Fighty" or Special. Scary monsters can be used to scare townspeople, and scaring a house wins it to your side, with more fear points coming to you if you can scare a whole block. Fighty monsters can be used to fight and kill other monsters, and Special monsters offer a blend of those, or other different abilities. Ghosts, for example, are very scary but they don't survive long. Werewolves are very fighty, but can't be used to scare very well. Special monsters each have their own abilities: Wendigo can freeze the opponent, and zombies can raise an army to join the battle.

As the game progresses, each player claims houses in the town by scaring them with various monsters, and the eventual goal is to claim the whole town for your color. Managing the monsters is fairly deep in terms of strategy, and other mechanics build to further complicate things. The rooms you build onto your house can be doubled up and upgraded, if you build them in the correct layout and order. There are different types of houses to choose from at the beginning of the game, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Scaring people in the town can rile them up into an angry mob, which is a completely neutral unit that can not only kill monsters on either side, but even tear down houses completely, which means not as much territory to conquer.

While the graphics on the monsters and houses may be cartoony and colorful, the strategy is definitely not playing around. Miller told me that the game should work for children, but I can't imagine anyone but the very smartest of 7-year-olds really figuring out the mechanics and best strategy. Matches are supposed to last as long as a short game of Civilization Revolution, which means this game will likely be the length (and have the depth) of a fairly serious board game.

Still, for strategy junkies like myself, Haunted Hollow sounds terrific. The model may give some gamers pause: The title will be free to play, with only five monsters available for free. Firaxis plans to charge for other monster types, up to 12 different monsters at a rate around US$1.99 per monster. That would make the entire game about $24.99, which isn't a bad price, but which isn't cheap for an iOS title, either. Especially if one of the monsters is unbalanced (not likely with Firaxis at the helm, but still), the model could backfire on them.

But Miller did say the team was considering a "pay-once-for-everything" price, so hopefully that will work out right. Outside of the payment model, Haunted Hollow seems like an iOS game that fits perfectly with the great Firaxis tradition and reputation, and a solid entry on the platform for the studio. I'm very excited to dive into its fascinating strategy mechanics when it arrives on the App Store this spring.

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