There’s a pair of Rainer Knizia games currently available in the App Store. Both are based on already existing physical games, neither of which I’ve ever played, but seeing Knizia’s name attached to anything is enough to pique my interest. Add to that instant availability, portability, a low price, and remove the need for another physical human opponent and the purchase becomes a no-brainer. I bought both games, Poison (iTunes link) and Knights of Charlemagne (iTunes link), and have been playing them over the course of the last week. Some impressions follow.
Poison was made by Griptonite Games and at $2.99 is the more expensive of the two (as opposed to $1.99) if you consider three dollars “expensive.” It’s also the more polished overall since it’s produced by a full-on game studio (Griptonite is a part of Foundation 9, which also has the fantastic Backbone Entertainment) and not by one guy.
Poison‘s premise is simple. Four to six players are dealt specially designed cards spanning three colours and covering the values 1,2,3,5,7. There’s also a green “wild” card that is valued at 4, but I’ll get to that later. During each turn you are required to play a card into one of the matching coloured cauldrons. If, after placement, the total value of the cards in that cauldron is greater than 13 that player claims all cards from it save for the one they just played. These cards are removed from play and counted, each is worth one point. The goal is to have the lowest score at game’s end, after the last card has been played.
Having the lowest score does not, however, mean having the fewest cards. There are two special conditions: first, the player with the most cards of a specific colour negates that score. In other words, if you have 8 blue cards and everyone else has 2 or 3, you score 0 while everyone else scores 2 and 3, respectively; secondly, each green “poison” card, which can be played into any coloured cauldron, counts as two points. You definitely do not want to be stuck with these.
That’s where the give and take of the game happens. Depending on your hand, you can either try to take nothing or try to take the most of one colour (maybe two if you’re ambitious, but this too is harder) since neither of these scores you points. But if you try to focus on one colour, and if anyone else was eyeing it, chances are the other players are going to poison that cauldron. Each turn you have to decide what high or low card to play and which to hold on to (you don’t want to get stuck in a situation where you have to take something you don’t want; always try to keep safe outs), and manage the risk and reward of the poison cards. It’s a fairly simple game but a very well balanced one and one that has a decent amount of strategic thought. In some ways, it’s reminiscent to Hearts.
The iPod version does a good job with the actual card playing, and the drag card to a cauldron interface feels fine, but it offers very little on top of that. The only available options are a mute button and the choice of how many computer controlled opponents to play against. That’s it. The AI is competent and puts up a good fight, but with only one difficulty level it does start to feel a bit same-y after a few games. The absence of any multiplayer, local or otherwise, further adds to the repetitious nature of Poison. I believe that games like this would benefit greatly from even a basic goal, aka. achievement, structure. The added incentives those provide might be minor but they do encourage a little more play variety.
Poison feels very temporary. It doesn’t keep a record of past games, or any play history, so it feels a great deal like a quick distraction. At $3 that’s not a problem, but you can’t help but wish that there was more to it.
Knights of Charlemagne pseudo-review to come, but it’s worth saying, slight spoiler, that it is the game that I return to more often.
Also, those interested in App Store boardgame versions should note that award winning game Zooloretto (iTunes link) is now available.