Review: IWO: Bloodbath in the Bonins

By Matt Thrower 08 Jan 2016 0

I like my strategy games to make me feel great and glorious. I want them to be all about the combat, the challenge and the carnage. I want to crush my enemies, see them driven before me, hear the lamentations of their women. But I’m not such a fool as to think that real life leadership is remotely like that.

Instead, as leaders from Wellington to Patton have attested, good generalship is about planning and logistics. Given that, it is remarkable how few wargames really evoke this feeling. Possibly, because it has the potential to make a game drier than twice baked rye bread.

Solitaire titles make the best go of it. The only one on mobile that’s really been worthwhile is the excellent Phantom Leader. Now, here’s another contender.

IWO: Bloodbath in the Bonins is the next in HexWar‘s continuing adaptations of lesser known tabletop wargames. Previous entries have looked and played much like their simplistic in-house strategy titles from World War 2 and the American Civil War. This is an entirely different beast.

Your challenge is to clear the island of Iwo Jima of occupying Japanese troops in a sixteen turn limit. Most of their units are static emplacements that only defend, but this is still a pretty tough task. To win, you also have to do it while minimising your own casualties. And just to really make you weep into your MRE’s, the Japanese units on the map all have their combat strength hidden until you attack.

Winning is hard – I’ll admit to not having managed it yet, which is not always an awful thing in a solo game, where it’s a legitimate route to replay value. What’s less forgivable is that it’s made harder by an almost non-existent tutorial, which will drive you to the in-game rules where you’ll learn another flaw: your chances of victory have a strong component of luck. There’s an odds-based combat resolution table that the game rolls against behind the scenes. Weather conditions and limited Japanese offensive action also have random components.

Yet once you’ve digested the rules, you’ll begin to understand that there’s a lot you can do to ameliorate that luck with good planning. Move units so they’re massed for initial assaults. Cycle wounded troops back and forth from the front lines so you can re-enforce them. Coordinate the use of infantry, tanks, flamethrowers and aerial bombardments in their appropriate roles.

This much should be obvious to any seasoned commander. But the game has further heavy ammunition to deploy against the unwary. In the real battle, the Japanese used a network of tunnels to keep popping up in sectors presumed to be clear. They can do that here, too, erupting like an angry blister against smooth, clear hexes. And while the rules allow you to manage it with good planning, it’s a horrible surprise when it happens.

There’s also a trade-off in the number of troops operating on the island. You do seem to have plenty of Marines, especially once you learn to effectively resupply damaged units. But the more you pour into the assault, the shorter your time limit becomes. Top brass wants to see results and if they give you more firepower, they want to see it used productively.

By the time you’ve learned all this, you’ll have started and abandoned several games. And you’ll start another, hoping to use your new knowledge to formulate new plans for a more fruitful attempt. If you’ve reached this point, then it’s too late. IWO has the potential to be a potent drug if the thought of learning rules, formulating plans and failing a lot appeals to you.

Of course, the number of gamers who fall into that slot is unlikely to be large. It’s also unlikely to contain many of HexWar’s existing audience of light strategy fans. This was once a solo tabletop game and it shows, the mechanics you need to master poking through the interface like the rusty bones of a ruined tank. Even if you appreciate that, you have to be happy with a big dose of dice to enjoy the game.

It would have helped a lot if the tutorial was better. It would have helped a lot if the presentation was brilliant and the flow of play smoother, but both aspects are full of inexplicable niggles. Zooming in to the map judders as the game switches from a flat design to a faux-3d version that looks totally different. You’re asked to end phases manually even when the game informs you that you have no legal moves. There’s no undo function. The whole implementation feels cheap and shoddy.

I enjoyed IWO in spite of these flaws. I like the fact that it made me feel like a real general, worrying about logistics and conditions relevant to the historic battle. But then again, I am a tabletop wargamer. Someone willing to slave for hours over complex rules, a paper map and ragged cardboard counters only to see their plans destroyed by dice. If you’re not the type to use a helmet for your pillow, IWO may not be for you.

This review originally appeared on Pocket Tactics.

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