When you've satisfied your need to crush candy and your nekos are safely napping, you may feel the need to grind the world beneath the heel of your boot and rise as its unquestioned ruler. If that's the case, I recommend a trip to the therapist and, while you wait, a few rounds of The Battle of Polytopia. This charming iPhone game is a simple but still-challenging mobile take on classic strategy games such as Civilization and StarCraft II. What it lacks in deep, broad play and multiplayer modes, it makes up for in sheer, addictive enjoyment.
With a name like "The Battle of Polytopia," you might expect this to be the heart-rending tale of a polyamorous utopian community torn asunder. Instead, it is the battle of many places; hence Polytopia. The game is free, with several nonessential in-app purchase options. I tested the Battle of Polytopia extensively on an iPhone 6, and by "test" I mean I played games so engrossing that a quick trip to the toilet turned into a 45-minute mission of conquest.
The low price tag compares very well with those of other iPhone strategy and board games. Civilization Revolution 2, for example, costs $2.99. Board game adaptations, like Elder Sign: Omens or Carcassonne, tend to run even higher.
Polytopia stands out visually among iPhone games, even those similar in genre. I've played the official mobile versions of Civilization and been struck by how tedious they feel on the small screen and how visually unpolished they are. The visuals in Polytopia have more in common with the retro aesthetic of Crossy Road. Its palette is vibrant, with glowing pinks and greens. It's not quite the interactive work of art that Monument Valley is, but it's certainly striking. The retro-styled graphics are actually what attracted me to Polytopia in the first place. I particularly like the isometric view, which gives a cross-section view of the world of Polytopia.
The Battle of Polytopia has two modes of play. In Perfection mode, you have 30 turns to defeat your enemies and earn the highest score you can. In Domination mode, there is no turn limit, and the game ends when you have defeated all your opponents. Speaking of opponents, you can play against up to nine, although the default is at up to four. The total depends on how many of the available Tribes you've purchased beyond the basic set—more on this below. Difficulty ranges from Easy to Crazy. A standard game takes about 15 to 30 minutes.
Each map is a randomly generated 256 tiles, which keeps the game challenging and can force you into new strategies. The tiles range from deep water to tall mountains, with forests, deserts, and fields in between. Landscapes are blocky, a little like those of Minecraft but viewed from a distance. Even little details like the cubic trees and whales matter. Should you find yourself trapped on an island, sailing should be your first goal, for example. The setup keeps maps quite small, so you'll encounter enemies within a few turns.
You can play with a friend by passing the same phone back and forth, but you won't be able to take on challengers via the Web. I'm not too sore over the lack of online multiplayer, however. It's not easy to maintain such a system, and some games, like San Juan, lack the popularity to make online play sensible. But for distant pals, Polytopia will leave you cold. You can always compare leaderboard standings, I suppose.
You can choose to play as one of four tribes, each vaguely modeled after real-life groups: the Asian-influenced Xin-xi, the classical Roman analogues Imperius, the Norse Bardur, and the Middle Eastern and North African inspired Oumaji. Six other options are available for 99 cents a pop, adding fantasy and South American-ish playable tribes.
Each tribe has a unique look for both its fighting units and its architecture, giving each an individual feel. Each tribe also hails from its own biome, such as the frozen Bardur tundra or the dead, blackened wasteland of the Vengir. But all the tribes have access to exactly the same units and technologies, even if they appear different. The Imperius tribe rides horses, while the Bardur ride bears, for example. The only functional difference between tribes is that each begins with a different starting technology. The Oumaji, for example, start out with Riding and a single Rider unit. The Xin-xi, on the other hand, have the Climbing technology and can easily move through mountain ranges.
Fans of the long-running Civilization series of strategy games for the PC will feel right at home in the Battle of Polytopia. You start with a single village, the view of the world around you hemmed in by fluffy white clouds. You have resources, represented by stars at the top of the screen, and a single low-level unit with which to begin your conquest. Resources can be spent on additional units or upgrades. In a twist on the traditional strategy game model, you also need to spend resources to gather materials from the landscape; these upgrade your town and allow you to support a larger population of military units.
Managing your limited supply of resources is really the crux of the game. You need to balance investing in new technologies and improvements to your city against the cost of creating units to fuel your lust for new lands (or defend those you've already taken). Adding to the difficulty is that the cost of technologies rises with every turn (up to a point), preventing you from simply racing up the tech tree and rolling over enemies with super-advanced units.
Another wrinkle on the traditional strategy game model is that you cannot build new cities wherever you please. Only designated villages scattered throughout the map can be brought into your benevolent embrace and eventually built up. Because villages provide additional points and units, it makes competition for housing fierce. Also, all of the units in the game are military units. You have to make improvements to the town or the surrounding landscape, such as turning fallow fields to population-supporting farms or building roads.
Civilization has always offered several paths to victory, and some do not rely on military conquest. Polytopia also takes pains to make conquest just part of the game, and not the only option. You can take on challenges, such as exploring every tile of the map or connecting five cities by trade routes. Doing so unlocks special buildings that boost nearby cities and also racks up additional points. But none of these assure victory, and the game's overly simple AI often attacks without provocation. Without a mechanism for diplomacy, warfare is inevitable, which can be frustrating—and repetitive. Especially since AI aggression is the primary stumbling block to achieving nonmilitary accomplishments.
While you will certainly go to war in Polytopia, the point system means that conquest can only take you so far. At the game's conclusion, the points you've accrued are tallied and compared with a tribe leaderboard of other Polytopia players' scores. Points are earned for all kinds of activities, even the simple act of exploring unknown corners of the map. That means that you can brutally wipe out the other tribes and still come in with a subpar score. It's an interesting twist that keeps the game from lapsing completely into a repetitive slugfest.
And speaking of slugfests, Polytopia manages to squeeze out a surprising amount of strategy from such a simple setup. Each tribe has access to the exact same units, and the stats are exactly the same, too—with a a few exceptions, of coure. More on this later. In general, however, Warriors always start with the same health and Archers always do the same damage regardless of your tribe. Note too, that battles aren't a cinematic festival for the eyes, using minimal animation to convey the action.
In fact, combat in Polytopia feels more like board game combat than traditional PC strategy game combat. The mix of units is often not as important as how they are positioned and the order in which you send them into combat. That's because units cannot occupy the same space, are immovable after they've moved, and automatically counterattack each time they are attacked. It is, for example, often a good idea to send in low-health units to die in a counterattack in order to free up space for fresh troops. I wasn't expecting this when I started playing Polytopia, but, as a board game nerd, I relish it.
There are a few exceptions to the rule that all units are the same. Riding units, for example, get a second movement phase after they attack, letting them strike and retreat from retaliation on the opponent's turn. Archers and units in boats can attack from a distance, evading retaliatory strikes and shooting over the top of friendly units that might block their attack.
One problem with Polytopia is that in its attempts at simplicity, it seems to have forgotten some basic things. You won't find an Undo button, for example, so be sure that you absolutely and entirely intend to perform every single tap on the screen. I have abandoned cities to conquerors and started wars I couldn't finish with a slip of the finger.
The Battle of Polytopia succeeds because of its straightforwardness. It has a clean, uncluttered look, and it's easy to pick up. Taking a few turns while waiting for a train can quickly turn into global conquest. Polytopia, which offers little in the way of multiplayer abilities, places heavy emphasis on combat and can get a bit repetitive, thanks to a simple AI. Still, the game offers a fun balance of satisfaction and strategy. If you're looking to lay waste to your enemies from your iPhone, you'll love it. If you're interested in a more puzzling experience, with a healthy dose of artistry, I heartily recommend Monument Valley, a PCMag Editors' Choice iPhone game.