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Review: Viva il Re board game app asks to be crowned

The iPhone might be the most amazing computer you can slip into your jeans, but there are some things it just doesn't do very well. For example, you can't really get into a bluffing match against the machine, at least not with the iPhone/iPod touch app Viva il Re ($1.99). Here's what we mean.

Viva il Re (which means "Long live the King" in Italian) is a well-designed board game by Stefano Luperto that has been beautifully ported to the iPhone by by Pro-netics S.p.A. The object is to score points and hopefully get one of your characters to become the new king, because the old king has decided to retire (can kings do that?). With the retirement announcement, "the pirouette for succession begins!" according to the official game setup. Each player is secretly hoping one of their six characters manages to reach the top, out of 13 total.

When you play the board game version of Viva il Re, called King Me!, the reasonably slow pace of the game and the face-to-face interaction means that there is time to develop guesses about which characters each player is hoping will take the throne. While the app looks almost exactly like the tabletop version and most of the functionally is the same, it's just not as much fun to compete against bots as it is to outwit other people. Continue reading and see if you agree.




The Game

The game is played over one or three rounds, with each round ending with the election of a new king (yes, we know, kings don't usually get elected, but work with us here). To start the game, each player gets a card listing six names. These are the characters that will score you points at the end of the game, so the higher you can get them in the castle, the better.

The castle (game board) is made up of seven sections, numbered 0-5 and 10. The lower six floors are where the characters spend most of their time. In the set-up phase of the game, players place a character on a floor numbered 1-4 (each player will place the same numbers of characters, and the extras start on floor zero). Once everyone has taken their place, movement starts.

Now, with each turn you can move any character up one, and only one, floor. The only time you can't do this is when a floor you want to move to is full with four characters already. Obviously, you want to get all of your characters as high in the castle as possible, because they will each score points equal to the floor they are on when the round ends.

When does this happen? When a new king is crowned. Each time a character is moved to the top floor, an election is held. You can always vote "yes," but are limited to voting "no" to a small number of times based on how many players are in the game (e.g., with three players, you can vote "no" four times, with six, just twice). As soon as everyone votes yes on a character, total up your points and start a new round. If, however, at least one person votes "no," that character is removed from the castle – and scores nothing – and the game continues. One special rule here: if it's the last round in a game, if you manage to score zero points from characters, you get a bonus of 33 points. Even royalty like to shoot the moon, apparently.

The game mechanics are simple enough, and the game is so enjoyable that people have made their own homemade boards that incorporate Star Trek or cute little animals. Board gamers are a pretty dedicated bunch, and you can guess that there's something here worth keeping if they go ahead and re-theme a game. To explore the game in an online, turn-based setting, click here of download the game rules summary in PDF.

The App

As we said, when you go through all these steps with friends around a table, it can get pretty intense, especially once a few rounds of voting have passed. When playing the iPhone app version, though, everything moves a little too fast and the "opponents" (bots) don't have any sort of personality to make you feel like you're playing a bluffing game. Instead, it becomes a simple game of moving your characters up and voting now and again. Sure, this sounds like pretty much the same thing, but if just feels very different and not in a good way. The Toilet expansion is also missing.

There are some nice digital-only touches. Instead of needing to remember who your characters are, they are conveniently highlighted in yellow on the game board. This makes your turns much quicker, since there's no need to refer back to your list of candidates.

It's impossible to know if the bots ever vote "yes" to a character that isn't on their card so as to hold on to a "no" card for later while expecting at least one other player to decline the new king, but it appears they do. We played some games where a round ended much earlier than expected, something that is certainly reminiscent of the tabletop version.

The app also doesn't remember settings – the number of players or rounds selected – from game to game, so you need to reselect them each time. Not cool. Also, each time you move a character to another level, the game automatically shifts it to the leftmost open spot on that level. This isn't a real problem, just kind of silly.

The game's music is harmless and appropriately medieval-sounding, but why can't we listen to iTunes while playing? This is quickly becoming our number one annoyance with iPhone games. We're carrying around gigs of music for a reason, my friends, and we probably like our tunes better than your game's soundtrack.

On the table, King Me! is a fun and light "filler" game. On the iPhone, though, it falls flat. The main flaw of Viva il Re is that it's for one player only. While it would make the game take longer, pass-n-play does not seem like it would be that hard to implement, and it would certainly turn Viva il Re from a C+ game into an A- in a hurry. At the very least, playing other opponents over a network would be nice. This is an interactive game, and any digital version needs to respect that. For now, we're voting "no."

The iPhone might be the most amazing computer you can slip into your jeans, but there are some things it just doesn't do very well. For...