Published on June 4th, 2013 | by Melissa M. Parker1
Amber Route Review
Amber Route is a simple turn-based strategy game with extraordinary artwork, inspired by the ancient Amber Road that ran through the Baltics. If a physical copy were available, Amber Route would make a nice addition to anyone’s tabletop card game collection, if only because of how special each of the illustrations are. Styled after Slavic folk art, the fantasy-themed cards have images that are both unique and oddly humorous. One card has a drawing of a man shaking a crystal ball while riding a donkey. Another shows a man wheeling around a cart of dead bodies (presumably shouting, “Bring out yer dead!”) There are over 100 cards in the game that depict various creatures and scenes in stunning color, each a miniature work of art. Unfortunately, the developers at Mobile Wings seem to have confused “miniature” with “microscopic,” and it’s a real problem.
In the full version, you can play against the computer on twenty different maps. In one corner you keep track of all your own resources, and in the opposite corner you see those of your opponent. Running across the center of the screen are all the available spaces on the board, named according to their geography (the mountains, the forest, the ruins, etc.) At the bottom of the screen are the six cards in your hand, along with three special “deity” cards. Depending on the card, you might advance a few spaces, send your opponent back towards the starting line, accumulate resources, or knock out the resources of your competition.
Gameplay is linear. The object is to reach the end of the board before your opponent and meet the victory conditions required for that particular map; for example, have at least five escorts in your party at the finish line. Then of course, there’s the amber. If you run out of amber, you automatically lose. If your opponent runs out of amber, it’s an automatic win.
This is all pretty straightforward, if your eyesight is up to the task. Though you can touch a card to enlarge it, the text is still maddeningly small. Even with the 5-inch display, I had to hold my phone about four inches from my face to be able to read all the information on the screen. This is the kind of game that should have been designed for Honeycomb, or another tablet-only operating system. Granted, none of the icons were too small to press with accuracy, so at least the game doesn’t discriminate in favor of those with nimbler thumbs. However, teaching yourself to play the game is more stressful than it should be, given that you only have 60 seconds to make a move and you’re constantly second-guessing yourself—“Wait, does that say +3 Runes or -3?? HELP.”
As far as gameplay goes, something that distinguishes Amber Route is how deceptive its linear structure is. You would think that bounding toward the finish would make the most sense, but patiently waiting near certain spaces (each space has its own condition) can win you the game. For example, if you make a point of depleting your enemy’s resources before moving to the sacred spot, an area that reduces all resource generation to +1, your opponent will be crippled for several turns because playing cards requires sufficient resources. Or if you have zero escorts, it might be a good time to move to the mountains before acquiring more. Landing on the mountains would normally cost you two escorts, but you can’t be penalized if you don’t have any. Plotting when to move forward—or even backward—is one of the cleverest parts of the game.
Though I enjoyed developing an optimal strategy, after ten or twelve maps I was just going through the motions. By the time I made it to the final map I was pretty bored, and there wasn’t much thrill in beating the game. I thought that upping the difficulty would make things more challenging, but the only difference between the three difficulty levels is how much amber your opponent has at the starting line. There’s no difference in AI as far as I could tell, so even in hard mode the computer would play a card that was completely disadvantageous when it had the option to swap the card for a different one.
What I can’t get over is that the whole point of the game is to amass as much amber as you can to deliver to the king—but in rounds where the victory condition doesn’t require you to keep any specific amount of amber you can burn through it without consequence. Amber is useful because you can trade it in along with escorts to move forward on the board, but at the end of the day there’s almost no incentive to hold onto it.
I can’t comment on Multiplayer mode because every time I tried to access it the game would tell me to wait indefinitely for the next player without ever finding me one. However, Amber Route also has a duel mode where you can pass the device between you and a friend, and that was the most fun I had with the game. Playing against my brother was a lot more satisfying than playing against the computer, in part because the computer doesn’t understand you when you curse at it.
If you can get over the interface problems, Amber Route is still a good game to play with a friend when you’ve got time to kill. The developers should be commended for the unique concept and detailed artwork. But they’ve done themselves a disservice by developing an interface wherein their content and art is difficult to discern and appreciate. Furthermore, it is a disservice to the people who buy it. No game should be too small to play.
Is it hardcore?
Summary: Amber Route has crazy good artwork and some interesting strategic elements, but it’s fairly easy to outsmart the computer. You also better invest in a tablet if you want to be able to read the game's teeny tiny text.