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.
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.)
Here's the menu screen, where I select a moderate difficulty and the basic "Classic" game that pits me against a single computer foe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"'Believe in yourself and the power of positivskrrrrshhhhh.' Transmissions from BFE-xr9 have ceased."
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.
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.