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App Review: Kamon is a great two-player strategy game, but a bit pricey

Kamon iPhone AppKamon (US$1.99 for the iPhone version) and Kamon HD for the iPad (available separately for $2.99) should really be one universal app. There isn't enough meat here to justify the five dollar price tag for both versions -– not when the top-of-the-line board games like the Settlers of Catan cost $4.99. Two dollars for a universal version sounds about right in today's App Store economy/price structure, but I also want more and more board games to come to iOS, and developers need to make their money somehow. So, with that in mind, I can recommend Kamon to anyone looking to expand their app library of well-designed two-player strategy games.

Kamon was created by renowned designer Bruno Cathala who was recently responsible for the particularly good game Cyclades. The elegant leather and wood version has been hard to find in the U.S., but now everyone has access to this simple (yet hard to master) game. Keep reading for more.

The Game

Kamon is a game of putting discs on a hexagon board made up of 37 smaller hexes (technically circles, but they function the same as hexes). To start the game, 36 marker pieces are randomly laid out on the board, along with the start piece that is immediately removed from its random location. These markers each have one of 6 icons on them and a value of 1-6. What those icons are is kind of unclear. I see fish hooks, a bowl, a ginko leaf, a moustache, a flattened mushroom and a lotus flower. I'm sure I'm wrong about some of these.

The start player needs to place his first piece on one of the border (not corner) locations. After that, where you go is up to you, as long as you follow Kamon's main rule: each piece can only be played to a location that matches either the value or the icon of where the other player just played.

The game is perhaps most interesting for its three separate win conditions (players of the abstract strategy games Six or Hexade will find this familiar). In Kamon, these conditions are:

  • Form a line of connected stones that extends from one side of the board to another (with corner pieces counting as either side they touch).
  • Completely enclose at least one opponent's piece and/or an empty space.
  • Make it impossible for the opponent to make a legal play.

Or, as the developers put it, entirely making up a theme:

In Pharao's gardens, by the lily pond, two architects are involved in a tricky game. Who will first finish the footbridge where the princess can take a walk without wetting her feet?

Aww, isn't that nice? You're not only moving pieces on a board, you're being chivalrous.

The three win conditions are what give this games its depth. More than once, I got so focused on the way I was trying to win that my opponent was able to sneak past me using another method. Kamon is a good game for people who really like to plan their moves in advance. Since you can limit where your opponent can go (remember, totally limiting them is a way to win the game), you can sometimes guide their play –- or at least try to. Just like when playing Puerto Rico, you can imagine what your opponent will do, but they can still surprise you.

kamon iphone appThe App

Aside from being easily available and a great game, the Kamon app (Version 1.0.3 reviewed here) also includes a clever puzzle version where you alternate white and black plays and need to be able to NOT let either side win while you fill the board. As you play the game (any version), there is a nice floating background of salamanders, dragonflies and cobras (at least, I think they're cobras) and a vaguely Egyptian/Japanese look going on. Like any abstract strategy game, the look is secondary to the gameplay, but in this case, it all works well together. There is no hidden information here, so it works great to plop the iPad down on a table (softly, perhaps) between two players and get started.

The iPhone and iPad versions have a few differences. For one thing, the iPhone board shows the piece icon and a number instead of simply repeating the design on the piece the X times to indicate the value, as it is on the iPad. Also, the iPhone version says "Game Rule" on the main screen, while the iPad version says "Game Rules." Even better, on the iPhone, you play against the AI opponent. Minor things, but there you have it, and all the more reason for the developer to just make this a universal app and clean everything up.

The latest update made the game iOS 4-compatible, so games are saved when you exit the app, but there's no way to exit, change a setting and come back to the game. If you touch "Exit" on the game screen, even by accident, the game is over. This needs to be changed.

You can adjust music (a decent-enough soundtrack) and sound effects, how fast the AI plays and whether or not the board displays your legal moves. There is no undo button, which is too bad, but the UI is generally intuitive and simple. Unfortunately, once you enter the rules screens, you need to tap through to the end. There's no way to get back to the main menu. We're throwing screen grabs of the entire ruleset into our gallery, but that's no excuse for clumsy UI design in this area.

Sadly, there is also no way to enter player names, no leaderboards or online capability. This is strictly a barebones affair with the focus on the game itself. You're probably better off playing against a person than the device, too. The Normal AI (mid-level) allowed me to create a loop around its piece even though I hadn't yet forced it to give me that move. The expert level is harder, but not impossible to beat by any means.

All these criticisms shouldn't scare you away from checking out Kamon, especially if you like the idea of having interesting games in your pocket. As a two-player abstract, you could do a lot worse. If you're looking for it on the App Store, don't be tricked by Kamon Maker (Kamon means family crest in Japanese). Instead, get it here for iPhone or iPad. For more on the game (tabletop version) click here or here.

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