I have a new column up discussing the game’s top young shortstops, and recorded a new Behind the Dish podcast, speaking with ESPN’s umpiring analyst Jim McKean about last week’s great moments in MLB jurisprudence. My projection of the first round of this year’s Rule 4 draft will be posted on Thursday morning.
Based on a two-player card game that is currently out of print, the app version of The Battle For Hill 218 ($2.99) plays incredibly simply, making it perfect for an adaptation to iOS, with a strong AI because the number of potential moves at any given time isn’t that large. It also plays very quickly against an AI opponent, with an entire game taking maybe five minutes, and the skill of the Hard AI player was strong enough that I found myself playing again and again because I was going to beat that sucker come hell or high water. (It took about 30 tries if you count my earliest screw-ups.)
The game revolves around a battle for the titular hill, which sits at the center of the playing area, between each player’s home base. Players have decks of cards representing unit types that are distinguished by the strength and direction of their attacks and by the directions in which they can support or be supported by other units, and on each turn a player places two cards. The goal is to take your opponent’s home base (by eliminating the unit there and then placing one of your units on it) before he takes yours; in the event that the players exhaust their decks and hands before either base falls, the player with the most active units still on the table is the winner.
The limited number of unit types available makes strategy fairly simple – you must set up a position on one turn that would allow you to knock out your opponent’s home unit and replace it on your next turn. That means that you need to set up a position that your opponent can’t overcome with his two card plays on the intervening turn, which, as I’ve played it, means that control of the two positions adjacent to the central hill are the critical ones, and most of the game will involve back-and-forth battles over one or occasionally both of those spaces. Controlling that space at the start of a turn means almost certain victory, as a player can use one of his two Airstrikes (eliminating any single opponent’s unit, with no card placement) and then place a Special Forces card (which, unlike other units, can be supported by another unit to which it is connected diagonally) on his opponent’s home base.
The randomness of the order of the cards mitigates the fact that the game revolves around the same basic battle each time. You start the game with five cards drawn at random from your deck, discarding two, and then on each turn you play two and then draw two. (One exception: The start player plays just one card on his first turn.) If a player’s home base is empty, s/he must play a card there first, but otherwise there’s a lot of flexibility with a typical hand of five cards and six different unit types. You have to think through each move based on all of the possible combinations your opponent might hold, and, in the case of the hard AI, assuming the opponent makes the perfect move in response. Learning to anticipate combos like the air-strike/special forces move – which beat me more times than I’d care to mention – and planning moves to prevent it, even a move or two in advance (to the extent that such a thing is possible) is a big part of the fun of the game. I don’t care for chess, because it involves so much long-term planning that it begins to feel like work to me, but nearly all good two-player games involve some of that element, and Battle for Hill 218 strikes a solid balance.
The tutorial in the app is insufficient, so you’ll need to either play the game a few times and figure out how the cards work via context, or go back into the Help/Manual menu to read about what the Supply, Attack, and Support symbols mean. The app is currently only available for the iPad, although the developers mentioned in an interview today on boardgamegeek that an upgrade making the app and offering async gameplay is in the works. At $2.99 it’s absolutely worth the cost even if you only intend to use it for local play.