There are plenty of types of strategy game that don’t work so well on your average tablet: complex real-time strategy; detailed empire-building games from the 4X lineage; wargames that try to model battlefield physics down to the slope of armor on a Panzer Tank – the list goes on. If you need to fit more than about twenty things on a single screen, or you can’t tap your way through it with only moderately nimble fingers, a tablet is not going to be your friend. But if there’s one sort of strategy game that tablets do extremely well, it’s the turn-based province-mashers of the Risk or Diplomacy type, where the world (or part of it) is yours to conquer, turn by turn, slice by slice. And it just so happens that Age of Civilizations Asia, and the Age of Civilizations series in general, is a prime example.
So for those of you interested in being a latter-day Genghis Khan, here’s the deal: the game provides you with a map of Asia, divided into the aforementioned provinces. Each turn, you earn gold (more provinces = more gold, of course), recruit soldiers, and tell your armies to move about the map to attack or defend one province at a time. The soldiers come only in one type, so it’s the numbers that matter, and one point of gold stored in your treasury will buy you one new soldier: with no technologies, and almost no empire management, the game’s economy is as simple as it can get and while remaining interesting. Luckily AoC Asia adds a fresh dollop of gameplay to spice things up, as you also generate movement points each turn, and any action you take – moving, recruiting, adding defenses – uses up those points. To be a modern-day Genghis, you have to balance the need to do many things with small forces against the need to do a few things with large forces.
AoC Asia also adds some nice touches to its core gameplay, including a well-rounded set of diplomacy options allowing you to offer non-aggression-pacts, alliances, and peace treaties to your AI opponents. Another neat feature is that the game gives each nation a ‘capital’, or home province, that must be defended at all costs: any nation that holds another nation’s capital for three turns will automatically annex the occupied nation in its entirety, meaning that clever moves can let you assassinate a powerful opponent whose armies are busy elsewhere. And once you have taken somebody’s capital, the game also allows you to create a vassal state from the ashes who can then form autonomous armies and help you beat down your enemies.
You’ll have a lot of enemies, too: the default map features fifty-nine starting civilizations, and you can increase that number to sixty-eight if you feel that your Asian conquests need to feature more pipsqueak nations being ground under the sole of your boot. The many different nations, though effectively identical in terms of their capabilities, offer the varying challenges of different start positions – some of which can be rather extreme. I found there was a substantial difference between starting as Israel, surrounded by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and the numerous other Arab and African states, and starting as lonely Mongolia or Kazakhstan with acres and acres of uncontested steppe territories to expand into at the start of the game. This imbalance isn’t a real problem, though: you can’t play this game against human opponents, so with the hardest difficulty setting presenting only a moderate challenge, I found this was a nice way of tweaking the difficulty even higher.
In some ways the simplicity of the game doesn’t respond well to these major imbalances, though. Mongolia in particular, with its almost uncontested access to the top right corner of the game map, always grows troublingly large: in my playthroughs most of my successful strategies revolved around forestalling this by attacking the rapidly-expanding Mongolia as soon as such an attack wouldn’t constitute suicide. Another small flaw is that the AI, even at its toughest, struggles to handle pressure placed on its capital: even when I had no plans to actually take it, launching an assault against an AI capital usually put it into panic mode, leaving its outlying territories vulnerable to conquest as it rushed to defend its core. The AI is also unfortunately rather land-focused: I never found it launching long-distance amphibious assaults, instead seeing it constantly focused on the nearest land frontiers available. It also struggles to launch surprise assaults or open up new fronts, and fails to prioritize larger, more dangerous opponents – which usually allows one or two AIs to grow incredibly large in each game if left unchecked. In short, the AI is good enough to be a challenge, but bad enough to be beatable from a weaker position.
But ultimately this is largely irrelevant: AoC Asia only occasionally makes deeper strategic play feel rewarding, being mostly about a frenzied tap-fest as your armies sweep across the embattled continent. There’s enough variation and enough configurable difficulty to make the game worth replaying; though not overly deep, I can’t deny that there’s some addictive fun on offer here. Even when the late-game turned to the inevitable mopping-up, I still found myself enjoying throwing troops about with the streamlined, fluid interface. In fact, I had fun; if you feel like that’s all you need from some tablet- or phone-sized strategy, it’s likely that you’ll find it here too. At that kind of price, you don’t need to ask for much more.
Fast-paced and just deep enough to be interesting, this nifty little province-masher sheds the bells and whistles to get you into the business of conquering your chosen landmass as fast as possible – so long as the landmass you choose is Asia, of course.