All of us here at Slide To Play are fans of tabletop games. A really good board game can take complicated strategic decisions and boil them down to a few simple rules and game pieces, good for hours and hours of fun. Slay is a tabletop-style, turn-based territory grabbing game that was originally released on the PC. It looks and feels vaguely familiar, but is unique enough to have an engaging strategy all its own. Unfortunately, understanding how Slay works takes a long time, and its lack of options and customization will probably turn off most players.
Slay takes place on an island built out of hundreds of different-colored hexagons. Each player’s goal is to grow his or her empire until it dominates the island, along with all the other colors. Any group of two or more hexes of the same color forms a territory. A territory generates income proportional to its size, which can then be used to buy and maintain units and defenses. You expand your territory by building units to capture adjacent hexes… but you have to play defense, too. A unit protects all hexes of its territory that touch it, and you can also build a stationary castle that protects all adjacent squares from the two weakest attackers.
In order to take a protected square, you must attack it with a unit that is stronger than the defender. You have four unit types of increasing strength to play with, and you can build the stronger units by combining one or more of the basic ones. The more powerful a unit, the more it costs in upkeep, so you have to be careful that you do not raise an army that will cost you more than your territory provides each turn. This economy dictates the main strategy of the game–connecting your territories while trying to slice up your opponents territories. If you can manage to cut an opponent’s territory in half, it creates two territories with half the income of the whole. If a territory cannot afford to pay its units, it loses all of its money and all its units die. This powerful stab can cripple an opponent and win you some easy space on the board. Plus, any space where a soldier falls to starvation sprouts a tree. Trees spread every turn and negate the income of a territory’s spaces. If you do not move a unit onto the square to remove these trees, they can envelop your kingdom and leave you in ruin.
Each game of Slay usually takes less than a half a hour to complete. The game comes with 384 boards to play and has four levels of difficulty. While this sounds like a ton of content, the boards seem to be randomly generated, more or less, so they all play out almost identically. This means that there’s no welcoming ramp-up in difficulty to help new players get their head around the strategy. There is a pretty good manual for the game, but even if you read through that you will likely find yourself overwhelmed by all the things that you have to pay attention to at first. Even though we consider ourselves board game veterans, it still took us a few hours of play before we felt like we had all the mechanics in hand; this process was also complicated by a few bad launch bugs that have fortunately just recently been resolved in an update.
Slay’s basic graphics and sound won’t impress anybody, but they’re perfectly capable of representing the state of the game. The interface gets the job done as well, and it does a good job of staying out of the way of the action on the board. This spartan presentation applies to the features in the game as well. It would be nice to have more variety in map sizes or number of opponents (which is set at six). In fact, there are no game settings or options for setting up a level, aside from the AI’s skill level. Multiplayer of some kind would have been a nice addition too; the AI is satisfactory, but it occasionally seems to miss an obvious move, or make a boneheaded decision that can throw a close game. Without such ways to lengthen the game, you may tire of playing through the massive amount of functionally identical maps.
Slay can be a fun and addictive experience, but only for those willing to take the time to learn how to play it. We were eventually hooked by the core gameplay, but we still wish for more variety in the maps–even the ability to randomly generate maps with a few user-defined settings would have gone a long way towards keeping the game fresh. Slay ends up looking clunky and a little incomplete against the competition. It needs more work before it’ll get our recommendation.