The classic board game goes online multiplayer
You don't need to have played Stratego to know this board game has entertained boring winter nights for over five decades. I have seen the old box in living rooms and pubs, sitting next to Scrabble and Monopoly. But even if the name doesn't ring a bell, this is the perfect opportunity to learn and play the game on your iPad thanks to this modern version by Keesing Games.
Without any aim to explain the rules I'll say Stratego is like a hidden version of chess. You play against one opponent using the same tools — pieces representing soldiers with different abilities. The hidden part of it is that you know the enemy has the same pieces as you, but you cannot see them. The challenge to capture the enemy flag — like the king in chess — turns into a game of memory, analysis and simple fun strategy.
The new iPad version tackles the main drawback of the original — finding someone (good) to play with thanks to a multiplayer system that matches you against Stratego players on other platforms. Yes, finally some use for the Facebook players tired of farming.
The game includes a clever match-making system that supports chat and saving some of your layout settings to speed things up. Oh yes, unlike, chess, in Stragego you arrange your pieces on the board as you like.
For newcomers, the experience is terribly overwhelming. The iPad version doesn't have a tutorial or a set of instructions, let alone a strategy guide. If you tap the help menu you're sent to a website. Fortunately the port of the traditional board game to a tablet is faithful enough that all the strategies and help you can get from wikis is perfectly valid.
If you choose to spruce up your strategist skills with the single player mode, you'll be happy to see the quick version of the game limited to 10 pieces lets you try several ideas without the investment of a longer game against a human opponent. Although I might not be great at the game, I always lost again the enemy AI. Seriously, there's no way to hide the flag from the computer. And of course, the miner always, and I mean always, knows where your bombs are. With this level of frustration the only alternative is to go multiplayer, knowing your online ranking will suffer if you try crazy ideas again real people.
For the initiated player craving new challengers to play against, the multiplayer route is perfect. And that's where the game shines. The match-making system allows you to browse other parts of the app while it looks for an opponent. Then you have up to six minutes to set your pieces on the board, which you can reduce to jump to the game if the other player is ready. I particularly like the quick games with ten pieces, as they're a great way to learn basics of attack and defence, using special units such as the spy and the miner properly.
The multiplayer mechanic is fluid, giving each player 15 seconds for each move. In case you exceed that, there's a buffer of two minutes and a half per game. And there's a chat window to communicate with the enemy. While I was testing the multiplayer mode I got to use the chat feature to ask my opponents how did they like the game and which platform where they using. I learned players using a Facebook account can import an avatar from the social network. Users with an email account can only choose two basic ones to start playing. Friendly user Hammitime, who was playing via web browser, wouldn't pay the price asked to download the iPad version when I asked.
And this brings me to the next point: the value proposition. There is no tangible difference between the web and Facebook versions and the iPad app. The game shows a bullseye when an enemy piece is in rage, I guess to make it more intuitive with touch controls. Other than that, the versions are the same to me.
This doesn't mean the web version is a bad game. It's just that Stratego for iPad could take advantage of the native features of the platform. There are achievements and a ranking system which aren't tied in with Game Center. The game offers cosmetic in-app-purchase designed for a free version, although the app is priced at the premium end on the App Store.
The price of a port
Most players won't even care but for me an iPad game in 2013 must ship with Retina Display resolution. The graphics look great on my Macbook's 1440x900 display. However, the assets are noticeable low quality for the higher resolution of an iPad 3 and 4 at 2048x1536. The board itself could easily take more space, zoomed in. Now it's surrounded by empty space that could be hidden easily with some easy UI tricks.
Having the label of a cherished game maker and the big pool of online players makes these drawbacks much easier to swallow. Those familiar with the original will find hours of fun as long as they have internet connection — the single player mode is simply not worth it. Being sold as a big ticket item along similarly priced board games shouldn't confuse the prospective owner. This Stratego iPad edition is nothing more than a port of a very fun online game.
Top image by Derek Bruff