Review: A few hours with Galcon, the first killer game for iPhone

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I’ve had high hopes for games on the iPhone, but for the most part the examples we’ve seen so far have been mostly pap, amusing but inessential bagatelles. And then there is Galcon.

Galcon isn’t an iPhone-exclusive game — a desktop version is available for all three major desktop OSes for $20 — but it translates perfectly to a mobile device, offering modestly epic space strategy battles that can be completed in under a minute or two of play.

Gameplay is simple: To win, destroy your enemy. To destroy him, capture his planets with your tiny wedge spaceships. The larger the planet you hold, the faster more ships are produced. I’ve seen the desktop version described as “arcade RISK” and it’s a description that holds.

But you can’t discount the “arcade” part. Part of what makes Galcon work is the speed at which you play. That makes selecting which action to take next — throw all your fighters at a big, juicy planet; hold back to build up more defenses; go for an unoccupied planet or wage war against an enemy stronghold — occur under the time pressure of interface needs. Which is to say: you can only swipe from your planet to another target planet so quickly, leaving you only half-a-second or so to typically judge your next move. That might irritate some, but in my short time playing I’ve found it encourages flexibility in strategy. One wrong move may lose a war, but with entire battles taking place in just a minute or two, it’s easy to hone new strategies without forgetting the lessons of previous scraps.

There was some grousing when Galcon first hit the iTunes App Store over its price. Ten bucks is a fair chunk, especially when version 1.0 didn’t even include sound. But developer Phil Hassey is up to version 1.4 now, which has added a variety of single-player variants, music and sound effects, a color-blind mode, a player ranking system, and a splendid multi-player mode that lets you go up against up to three other players at once. (Wi-Fi only, I believe; I couldn’t make it work over 3G.)

Plus he’s dropped the price to $5. Give this man your money. He’s working for it. And there’s a free demo now. You have no excuse.

I squealed a bit about Galcon to Brownlee a couple of days back. He bought it but didn’t catch the bug. “Too easy,” he sighed. I asked him if he had actually raised the difficulty level at all from the game’s default settings. He hadn’t, which was his understandable mistake, but one that doesn’t expose Galcon‘s nuance. I’d ask anyone that gives it a whirl to crank up the difficulty up to a level where you actually start losing matches. It’s only then that the tactical possibilities of Galcon begin to show themselves. When you’re matched up with an enemy of nearly equal skill — especially easy in multiplayer, although the single-player A.I. is just fine — those simple routs start turning into protracted, desperate, staggering interplanetary genocides that start to show you how much Galcon has to offer.

Galcon (Full Version) [iTunes]
Galcon Lite (Free Version) [iTunes]

After the jump, a sample game I just played, annotated with screenshots — just in case all that praise I just slopped on Galcon wasn’t enough to get you to try a free demo.

Update: What do you know: You can play the desktop version of Galcon for free in your browser at Instant Action. (Windows only for now.)

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Here’s the menu screen, where I select a moderate difficulty and the basic “Classic” game that pits me against a single computer foe.

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You bet your ass I’m ready. One of the first things I tend to do is switch the percentage of units each planet squirts out up to 75% when I’m busy capturing planets. And today I’ve been trying after that to go all in with 100% attacks. It works…sometimes.

Of course I forgot to switch this at all this game because I was busy taking screenshots.

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I’ve grabbed a few local planets and am trying to build up my fleets. I probably should have skipped the smaller ones, even if they often are easy to capture.

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The first dust-up! That yellow bastard is going for my outer rim — and because I stretched myself so thin capturing planets I don’t have much to mount a defense.

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He grabbed one of my big producers, but two can play at that. It seems that going after enemy planets is more important than building an early empire, but I haven’t played enough both ways to be sure.

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Got it! And my largish attack force automatically garrisons itself on the planet I just captured, providing a decent defense. I even snagged back my other planet before it had time to build up defenses.

But that’s a pretty big fleet coming my way. And “4″ and “6″ aren’t much of a defense.

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Yeah, so…I’m getting trounced. Yellow’s fleet sizes remain consistently larger than mine, so I’ve gone toward grabbing stray planets just to keep alive — a desperate move.

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“‘Believe in yourself and the power of positivskrrrrshhhhh.’ Transmissions from BFE-xr9 have ceased.”

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This would be the point in a multiplayer game where I would start sending out lone ships to various worlds just to stay alive for a few seconds longer.

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Tell my wife I loved her. Oh, she’s dead, too.

This entire battle took place in about sixty seconds. Even I — the wussiest, coddled gamer out there — am completely fine with losing a game of Galcon, because all it means is I can try out my new strategies again in seconds.

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19 Responses to Review: A few hours with Galcon, the first killer game for iPhone

  1. dculberson says:

    Cool! Reminds me of a hyperactive, simplified version of Empire. (My favorite version, of course, being the Amiga one.)

  2. Dayv says:

    I’m not an RTS person, but if we’re talking great iPhone games, you have to play Toy Bot Diaries.  It’s a strategy/platformer, and I keep resetting my save data so I can play it all over again.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nicely done Joel, a great write up. I love this game and you did well at reminding me why.

  4. sisyphus says:

    Alright, Joel. I’ll buy Galcon. I had been resisting so far. You make compelling arguments, and I dig the play-by-play.

    I wanted to say, though, that I disagree about your general assessment of the currently available games for the iPhone (or the iPod Touch, which is what I own). I think there are a lot of developers putting out a variety of apps classified as “already awesome” and “brimming with awesome potential.” Gameloft’s Asphalt 4 is surprisingly entertaining, with tons of gameplay. I can pick it up and do a single race in a few minutes. Input for their Real Soccer 2009 is hard to get used to, but equally entertaining and easy to pick up and play instantly.

    Currently, I am whole-heartedly enamored with Reign of Swords from Punch Entertainment. They’ve implemented a really neat and intuitive multi-player mode to an otherwise incredibly deep turn-based strategy game.

  5. TJ S says:

    Neat! For some reason it reminds me of Ender’s Game a little bit. Think I’ll pickup the desktop version to distract myself at work :)

  6. Joel Johnson says:

    Sisyphus, Reign of Swords looks fantastic. Grabbing it now!

  7. sisyphus says:

    TJ S: it totally reminds me of Ender’s Game. That’s just plain spooky.

    Joel: Awesome! Turn-based strategy has always been the coruscating heart of my inner gamer. Years ago, I bought a used GBA and only one game to play on it: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. That alone was worth the investment.

    I’m still learning to fiddle with the “Tactical Groups” in multiplayer challenge mode and haven’t won yet, but the single player is enough to keep me sated for dozens of hours. By that time, I feel like I’ll have a better handle on it.

  8. Reverend Loki says:

    Sounds a lot like Nano War, a Flash game I ran across earlier this year. Except instead of ships and planets, it’s gone the other way in scale, and it’s cells and.. well, globule thingies.

  9. sisyphus says:

    Anon. at #13:

    That’s just the thing–gaming will never be the focus because one-off gadgets are a thing of the past. Granted, I don’t have the iPhone, just the Touch, so integration of yet another device seems counter to my point.

    Regardless, I bought the Touch because I wanted a new portable media player. The App store (and games–the only type of app I’ve really fully explored) was an afterthought.

    Actually, the real reason I bought it was simply the alchemical fusion of impulse purchasing and Joel’s timely collection of “Daily Deals.” I snagged the first gen 32gb after learning of their deep discount.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Is this designed by the same group that did the Star Baron flash game. Outside of some graphics changes the two games are practically identical.

  11. Clif Marsiglio says:

    It doesn’t just sound like Nano War…it is EXACTLY like Nano war…the tactics are identical.

    Having said that, I’m glad to see this on the iPhone!

  12. royaltrux says:

    Nano War is pretty cool – thanks. I made a game called StarMonger several years ago that is also similar.

  13. Doctor Popular says:

    Amen! I love Galcon. I also totally recommend Mote-M for nonstop addictive gaming. It’s a low priced desktop tower of defense clone.

  14. The Lizardman says:

    I made the anoymous post #13 due to problems with login on a public terminal…

    @15 You, and others, are missing my main point. This game is not a killer iphone game because it does little to nothing to promote the iphone (and touch) as a gaming platform due to it being a cross platform title and the apple platform versions not being the definitive ones to play. As evidenced by recent ads apple is trying to push the gaming (or in the ad terms ‘fun’) aspect of the iphone and touch but no matter how great this game is it doesn’t really help out that case because it doesn’t drive you to get one of the two to play it since it is readily and as easily played on other platforms.

  15. Pieps says:

    Hmm, reminds me of Dyson (http://www.dyson-game.com/). The gameplay seems similar, except you have a bit more control how your forces are built up. It’s not for the iPhone though…

  16. Anonymous says:

    No qualms with the game as it is a fine piece of work and should be enjoyed by all who want but calling it a killer game for the iphone is just plain wrong as it is cross platform (as covered).

    I don’t see this doing anything for the iphone specifically as a gaming platform. A killer game for the iphone needs to iphone exclusive or the iphone version must be the definitive way to play the game over and above other options.

    I’m all for the iphone getting a gaming focus as its the only thing that could ever convince me to get one – or more likely a touch, but this doesn’t qualify.

  17. dculberson says:

    TJ S: Ender’s Game!! You’re right, it is a lot like Ender’s Game. Weirdly so.

    Let’s hope that we’re not really controlling the human defending fleet.

  18. omnifrog says:

    Am I the only one who remembers the ASCII based Galcon 24 from the late 80s or early 90s? “Look to Carol Alt for inspiration” The only major difference? Galcon 24 was turn based. But we gladly traded in such minor things as graphics because it was so much fun to play.

  19. rstevens says:

    SO right on this one, my man. Galcon, Lux and Tetris are all the games I need.

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