App Review: Pentago is a twisty strategy game with legs
The ideas behind the two-player abstract strategy game Pentago are about as old as any abstract strategy games we can think of. If Connect 4 is an evolution of tic-tac-toe, then Pentago is an evolution of Connect 4. There's also a bit of Reversi/Othello in the game, with enough of a twist (and I use the term advisedly) to make it different.
The game designed by Tomas Flodén and was first released IRL in 2005 in Sweden and has received two Game of The Year awards (2005 in Sweden and 2006 in France) and was also named a Mensa Mind Games selection in 2006.
In the App Store, its history is questionable. The currently available app, called simply Pentago [$1.99] was in the store for a while but then disappeared. That app did not have an AI, but a similar app from a different company, Pentago HD, offered the same gameplay and an AI opponent for a short while. It disappeared without a word and has not resurfaced. Now, Pentago is back, and you might want to snag it while you can even though this looks like an official port from Mindtwister, the company that makes the tabletop version. Don't know if you want to or not? Read on to find out.
Pretty much anyone who's played a board game – any board game – will recognize the parts that make up Pentago: Two players, two colors of simple pawns, a board with places for these pawns. What's different here is that the board is made up of four sections, each with nine fields for your pawns (marbles, in the tabletop game). On your turn, you need to place a marble and then twist one of the sections 90 degrees. Your goal? Get five of your marbles to line up in a row, either before or after you rotate part of the board. If all 36 spaces get filled without a row of five being created, the game ends in a draw.
I haven't played enough to really delve into all of the strategic options of the game, but it seems to me that the most important decision to make in each game is whether to go for a diagonal or horizontal/vertical line from the get go. There doesn't seem to be enough time or space to go for both, unless you can squeeze a sneak attack of the opposite type as you're trying to advance a particular method of attack.
The AI opponents run the intelligence level gamut, and the easy level should really be called moronic. It's a good level to play against when you want to learn or feel superior to your iPhone, but that's about it. The middle level gets more clever, and the top level is devious. Trouble is, after maybe a dozen plays against the bottom two levels, it's possible to figure out that the AI falls for certain tricks every time. Like many other iPhone board games, this one works better as a game between two humans, and the pass-and-play mode works well for that.
There is a slight annoyance with pass-and-play mode, though. You need to assign each player a name, even if you don't need or want to. Once fired up, thought, gameplay is smooth and easy. You're focused on the strategy, not on the interface. Well, until you mis-tap. And thig brings us to the most important thing I want to see in an update: an undo button. It's far too easy to place a piece and then see a better spot for it to go. It'd be nice to be able to change where your marble goes before you need to rotate. In the app, there is no way to fix it, you just need to deal with your error. It's also be nice if a future update offered the 3-4 player version of the game called Pentago XL that uses a board made up of nine 3x3 boards and four colors.
Aside from single-player and two-player pass-n-play, Pentago also offers a sort of campaign mode, where your wins and losses against the computer are tracked and you can unlock new board themes (forest! space!). It's not a lot – and spending time repeatedly beating the computer on the easy level just to advance is kind of annoying – but this mode is still a welcome addition.
If you exit a game in progress, even when fast switching in iOS 4, you can't get back in. It's not like a game of Pentago takes very long, so it's not a huge loss of time, but it is strange. Another strange thing -- The app uses a proprietary keyboard to enter players names, one without a shift key and one that doesn't look very good. This is where the app shows its not-very-Apple aesthetic. Everything works, but it doesn't have a the spit and polish that Mac aficionados fanatics are used to. Make of it what you will.
Curious to see if you'd like the game before downloading the app? You can play online for free here or pick it up for around US$15-$20 in game and toy stores. We also a video description of the tabletop game, which you can check out below.
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