Punch Entertainment’s Reign of Swords received serious critical fanfare when it appeared on mobile phones and PCs earlier this year, and deservedly so. Here was a turn-based strategy game that gathered up all of the genre’s best ideas–from classic games like Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics–and skillfully redeployed them into a medieval setting, while adding cross-platform online competition to boot. The newly released iPhone version of the game delivers the same excellent core experience, and that’s more than enough for us to recommend it to tactics nerds, even with its noticeable performance and interface issues.
Like its ancestors on the Nintendo GBA, Reign of Swords basically boils down to a big tabletop war game, complete with a lengthy set of rules and a ton of little figurines. Your army (and occasionally an allied force) faces off against the enemy on a gridded battlefield; you and the computer take turns moving units around the board and commanding them to attack the enemy’s soldiers. You swap damage, conduct sorties, and generally bleed one another dry until someone satisfies their objective or runs out of able-bodied men.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and Reign of Swords is marvelously nuanced in many different ways. First of all, there are a wide assortment of units, from various kinds of infantry, to archers and musketeers, to magical support staff, all the way up to the big bad seige engines. The more powerful units also cost more, and this forces you to carefully consider the tradeoff between quality and quantity when choosing your army’s composition before a mission. Each type is useful in its own way–a feat of game design all by itself–and you will need to master them all, by themselves and in combination, to become a competent player.
As you progress through the game, you will earn ‘spoils of war’’”the goods you need to upgrade your existing units, such as weapons, beasts, and lore’”as well as new units given to you intact. Like much of the rest of the game, the unit upgrade tree in Reign of Swords runs deeper than it looks. Some goods are extremely rare, and you can’t demote units once they’re promoted, so you must spend carefully to build up a powerful, versatile, complementary collection of forces.
Another important subtlety lies in how the battlefields are put together. The game’s boards are tricked out with roads, fields, walls, castles, villages, forests, and rivers. It’s important to take advantage of defensive terrain; your guys play defense a heck of a lot better holed up in a castle than they do standing in the middle of a field, and they can even gain life back at the beginning of each turn if they’re posted on top of a house in a village. Meanwhile, castles, cliffs, and other barriers can blunt the advance of opposing armies, or funnel them into natural killing zones, if you position your troops the right way.
Reign of Swords’ campaign is structured as a series of missions, played out in the context of a vast civil war, on a continent that looks suspiciously like Europe. You play as an Imperial loyalist fighting rebellious nobles in the provinces. Typically, you have to complete three missions of increasing difficulty in each province to secure it and move on. The standard mission is to annihilate all the bad guys within 30 turns, but there’s a lot of variety here, too. Sometimes you need to kill (or save) a particular noble, or escape an ambush; you usually get to choose your own tools for the job, but you are occasionally assigned an army, too. The missions are brilliantly designed, and they steadily ratchet up the difficulty as you gain skill’”and there are a lot of them.
After you beat the tutorial province, you can hop online and try Reign of Swords multiplayer on for size. The online functionality is built right into the single-player campaign; when you log in, new multiplayer battlefields open up in each province, under the regular battles.
The multiplayer game plays very differently than the single-player version. Each player surveys the battlefield, picks his or her army, deploys each unit into ‘battle groups,’ and then gives the groups basic orders; the multiplayer takes over from there. You then go back and watch the game unfold after it’s done. This is expedient for dealing with dropped connections, but it’s also a complete remove from the close, turn-by-turn tactical action the game painstakingly trains you to enjoy.
In our experience, success or failure here depends more on identifying and exploiting weaknesses in the AI than on being good at Reign of Swords. It’s an enjoyable challenge in its own way, but it’s not anywhere near as good as the single-player experience. On the other hand, you can earn rare goods and units playing online much faster than you will in the campaign, and you can also play from your PC, so it definitely counts as a plus.
The minuses in Reign of Swords have to do with the game’s performance and interface on the iPhone, which are simply not as good as they should be. Turn-based strategy games don’t need to run fast, per se, but they should certainly run smoothly’”and Reign of Swords doesn’t. The screen scrolls jerkily from one end of the map to the other, the user interface elements take a long time to draw, and the CPU is sluggish with its movements. You can’t skip to the end of its turn, either. A device capable of playing 3D racing games at 30 fps shouldn’t have this amount of trouble running a 2D turn-based strategy game. Furthermore, the game controls much better on mobile phones; you can manage with the iPhone’s finger mouse, but every command seems to take more touches than it needs to.
Reign of Swords’ presentation is not what we’d call impressive, but it does contain certain small touches that add a hint of flair to the gameplay. We like the portrait art quite a bit’”you’ll really want to kill those sneering rebel aristocrats’”and there’s also a bit of combat animation to remind you that you’re playing a video game, not a board game. The combat and movement sound effects are nice and realistic, and the music, a competent collection of martial dirges, sets the mood for wholesale butchery.
We hope that the developer cleans the game up a bit in future updates, but even if it doesn’t, Reign of Swords is an easy purchase for anyone who likes turn-based strategy games, military simulations, tabletop games, or premodern European warfare.