App Review: Viking Lords is good fun, but could be "borrowing" too much
Sending miniature warriors –- cavalry, spearmen, archers, dwarves and giants –- into pretend battles has a long tradition, and there are already plenty of ways to do so on your iDevice. We looked at Ex Illis a while back, which used your iPhone as a scorekeeper for your physical miniatures, and there is no shortage of Risk and Stratego games in the App Store. Today we'll take a peek at a third: Viking Lords, a US$3.99 iPad app that is fun to play, but has a big potential problem.
Viking Lords is an iteration of Richard Borg's popular BattleLore game system (also used in Memoir '44 and evolved from his Commands and Colors System), and this can be seen as a good and bad thing. It's kind of a good thing, because the original BattleLore tabletop board game is out of print and expensive right now. BattleLore was first published by Days of Wonder in 2006, but the rights now belong to Fantasy Flight, which will reprint the game in France. It's a bad thing because this app appears to be, pretty simply, theft of intellectual property. According to the developers, "We have had inspiration from various computer games as well as card and tabletop games. Attempt has been to try to combine the best from both worlds." Rumor has it that Borg is looking into legal action against Puffin Software, the app's developers.
Since you cannot trademark game mechanics, any legal outcome is uncertain. Still, don't be surprised if this app suddenly disappears from the App Store. Perhaps it will return one day as a licensed version of either BattleLore or Memoir '44. We don't condone any sort of IP rip-offs, but I wanted to review this game for two reasons: A) it's an iOS "tabletop" board game, and that's kind of my thing, and B) I wanted to show the people who do have the rights to the game that there is an interest in porting this sort of thing over to digital devices. Plus, since Apple is still allowing the app to exist, we'll take a moment to review it. If a miniatures strategy game sounds interesting to you, read on and decide if you want to support Puffin or sit this one out and wait for an official port to hit your iPad.
Anyone who's played BattleLore will feel right at home after firing up Viking Lords. You pick your parameters (see next section) and get right down to it. You see a hand of cards at the bottom of the screen and a board full of pawns/miniatures, each with a different ability (see this for details). Your first action is to pick a card to play. Most are easy to understand -– "2 Left" means that you'll be activating two pawns on the left flank -– and if you're uncertain what the card does (like the "Mounted Assault" card in the screen grab above), you can tap and hold the card for a pop-up explanation.
You play cards in order to move units and to have them attack the enemy, trying to meet a victory condition. Exactly what counts as victory varies between scenarios, but it's usually a combination of claiming certain areas of territory or eliminating enough of your opponent's forces that the rest of army suffers a morale failure. See the full rules here and here.
The game board is divided into three sections, and the cards you play allow you to move characters in a specific way, based on where they are or what color they are. The special cards are detailed here. Even if you want to attack a with bunch of your soldiers, you're limited to activate (move/attack with) the characters the card you play applies to. You need to plan ahead and make sure you can achieve your goals with the cards you have in hand; you do draw one at the end of each turn, though, so there's always hope.
In the tabletop game, you use dice to decide the outcome of each battle, but the app handles all of this off-screen and just tells you if you delivered a hit or not. If you kill a character, you get a point, no matter what kind of unit it was. This may sound pretty routine, but it's a quite engaging experience. It quickly becomes clear that this is not an easy game to win the first time out, as you try to understand how to play cards in the right order and how to maneuver units around the board.
There are two game modes in the app: campaign (which has eight scenarios) and skirmish (which has seven maps). You cannot build your own map or set up your own army, which is a shame. In Skirmish mode, you can play as the British or the Vikings (or against a friend) in a number of skirmishes with names like "Defend The Walls," "Dwarven Fortress" and "Two Towers." Campaign takes you through the pre-set scenarios (on easy or hard setting). When you pass-n-play, your cards are hidden from your opponent, but the screen does not rotate, so one player will always be at the top of the screen and the other always at the bottom.
The app (Version 1.0 reviewed here) offers some dramatic flair, with engaging music and a well-done voiceover for the text describing the various campaign scenarios. The rulebook is detailed and helpful, though in some cases there are small typos. However, you can only navigate from one page to the next; there is no index, and you always start in the middle (on the Terrain page) instead of whatever page you were looking at most recently. I did have a problem with the app crashing when I tried to use the rulebook to look something up during the game. I'm not the only ones to experience this issue, so you might want to memorize the rules before starting a game (or use our helpful gallery, starting here, which includes screen shots of each page).
I also missed having some sort of scoreboard that shows you a tally of how many soldiers you have left and their strengths. There are little health meters above each fighter, though. Each scenario does have a score tally, showing you how many points you need to win, which is important. My two biggest complaints were the serious lack of an undo button and the fact that the app does not save in-play games if you exit the app -- this may be a dealbreaker for some users.
There is an online mode, but I couldn't ever find anyone to play against online in my testing. The app told me that only one game had been played online in the past week, so you might need to organize something with a friend if you want to play at a distance.
Unsurprisingly, none of BattleLore's numerous expansions are included, and if this were a legitimate BattleLore app, I would expect to be making in-app purchases for them for the foreseeable future. On top of the mission expansions, there is one big reason to opt for the tabletop BattleLore game: Viking Lords is missing the "lore" aspects of the game, including the lore cards and the lore masters.
Speaking of legitimacy, let's get back to the legality discussion. There's been quite a few comments on the legality of Viking Lords on the Touch Arcade Forums, but the bottom line is, your morals are your own. I like this game, but I have to recommend that anyone interested in playing it on an iPad wait until the "real" thing comes out. If that just plain doesn't happen, then perhaps it'll be time to buy this questionably-sourced app. As long-time gaming geeks know, sometimes you've got to hit the black market.
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