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Review: Keltis Oracle is a great, light strategic board game for iPad, iPhone

Keltis is a relatively new marquee family of board games – in Europe, at least – with a somewhat meandering history. The series started as the Lost Cities card game, which evolved into the original board game in the series, Keltis. That game won the Spiel des Jahres, Germany's highest board game honor, in 2008. Since then, there have been two expansions: a card game version (different from the original Lost Cities card game) and, most recently, a new board game called Keltis Oracle. U.S. board gamers will most likely recognize the Keltis games in the similar Lost Cities: The Board Game. Are you wondering why the European version of the game made it into your iDevice? Because the developers in Tribeflame are based in Finland.

In any case, the universal app (US$4.99) that's now available on the iPad and iPhone (and iPod touch) is the latest Keltis game. Is it the greatest? To some, maybe. It's certainly the most player-friendly of the batch, and it looks good on the iPad screen. The game works, but as you can see in the galleries below, it's crowded when packed into the iPhone's 480 x 320 pixel screen. Read on to see what the Oracle can do for you.





The Game

What all the Keltis/Lost Cities games have in common is the challenge of playing your limited cards on specific piles in the right order. Here's how that works: each card has a color and a number. You can only play cards of the same color together and, to make things difficult and interesting, only higher numbers on lower ones. That's how it works most of the time, but Keltis Oracle makes things a bit easier by also allowing lower on higher. However, and this important, you can't change directions once you've started a pile of cards. So, if you put a red 3 on a red 1, you can't add a red zero later, even though the 1 card by itself could have been covered by either the zero or the 3 (or another red 3, given that there are two of each card in the deck). Keltis Oracle also introduces leprechauns, which steal cards allow you to discard an already-played card or one from your hand that's gumming up the works.

The original Lost Cities card game only focused on building these little piles of cards, and that is a tension-filled little game. Keltis Oracle uses the card mechanic combined with moving pawns on the board. The board is made up of a series of colored spaces in a spiral. Each time you set up the game, you put different special tokens that either give points or one of several special abilities on each space, guaranteeing a lot of variety in strategy and adding to the game's replayability. In the app, of course, all of these little tokens are placed automatically. Thanks, iPad.

For the complete game rules, click here.

The App

If you just jump into Keltis Oracle and tap away, the app's decent AI will most likely crush you. The AI was recently upgraded, and so it is now a much better challenge. In fact, it plays so quickly and cleverly that it's not easy to beat until you've gotten really good at seeing the connections between cards in hand, special abilities on the board where you can chain events, and ways to pick up as many points as possible. This is a game with a lot to think about, and it's good to practice Keltis Oracle against up to four AI opponents (yes, you can pit the iPad against itself, just for laughs) before placing the iPad on the table between up to four people. With the iPhone version, it makes more sense to pass 'n play.



Speaking of other players, the main issue we have with the app is that you can see other player's cards. It's not a dealbreaker, but it does make the digital version slightly different from the physical game. Why the cards in your "hand" don't flip over when it's not your turn, we don't know. In the iPhone version, at least, your cards are hidden from your opponent when it's his turn. Small screen FTW? That's kind of true, but you can zoom the screen out and see those cards.

In both the iPad and iPhone versions, the graphics are good; there's a nice mix of playful colors and board game gravitas. The difference between the red and brown is kind of hard to distinguish, but the app helpfully sorts your cards in these two colors to the far sides of your hand, underneath the piles of played cards in that color. This makes them much easier to identify.

A bug we discovered in an earlier version of the app (back when it was iPad only) – that it would not remember the number of gems or mirrors you picked up during the game if you quit the app before finishing – seems to have been solved now. Not everything is fixed, though. On both the iPad and iPhone versions, when you tap the middle stone, a drop down menu appears that invites you to restart the game, read the rules, or go back to the main menu. While playing the iPhone version, we accidentally triggered some game items under the dark area of the screen. With no undo button, this was pretty annoying. Tribeflame has been really good about listening to complaints and updating and improving the app, so we look forward to having our minor quibbles addressed before too long.

One last and very important note: in the physical board game, the player who most recently visited Ireland starts the game. Not so in the app, where the start player is randomly assigned. We'd really like to have seen this original rule automatically available in the game. The iPad is supposed to be magic, right? Well, get to it.

Keltis is a relatively new marquee family of board games – in Europe, at least – with a somewhat meandering history. The series...