App of the Day: Neuroshima Hex

Sixsational strategy.

Version tested iPhone

If anything needs a makeover, it's surely the humble turn-based hex game. Ever-present, tried and trusted but somehow a little too fusty and dusty to get truly excited about, hex strategy tends to be all substance and no style. Just saying the phrase makes you feel like a spod.

This problem goes hand-in-hand with the issue of introducing new players, and true to form Neuroshima Hex left me initially baffled. In fact this is almost an object lesson in building a terrific game the wrong way - or should I say, was. This app was released two years ago, but only now is it seriously worth considering.

The reason is that it's taken the developers that long to introduce online multiplayer, despite this being a multiplayer game (never mind a promised feature from the get-go). Without it Neuroshima Hex had a barely passable single-player campaign and local play functions, but was otherwise aimless. The difference online makes puts this dangerously close to a must-have.

As the name suggests, the theme is post-apocalyptic, with each of Neuroshima Hex's armies one of many factions battling for survival. The game is played on the same board every time with between two and four players, but this landscape and the battle itself is shaped by bases. Each army begins the game by placing their base, which covers one hex and grants bonuses to allied tiles on any hex around it. Each army has their specific style, and each one flows out from the innate abilities of its base.

This was originally a board game, and it shows through in the near-genius way the very different armies play off against each other. I've had a thing for New York City Cops ever since my teenage Strokes infatuation, so they're my army - a base that fortifies surrounding allies, plus a load of hard-hitting ordnance. They're not the fastest or most flexible, but can dig in and scrap like no other.

The sheer range of what you can come up against is what keeps Neuroshima Hex fresh; from simple melee or ranged specialists to armies that link buffs in great chains across the board, or re-position themselves each turn, or spread contagion across tiles. It's rare to win by destroying a base, instead, the game is about out-thinking your opponent to get those one or two extra shots in before the armies exhaust themselves.

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When the board is full it triggers a battle. As a cursory glance shows, the cops have got this one in the bag - note particularly the shotgun tucked away on the left.

Each game takes up to an hour, though many are shorter, and most of that time will be spent plotting. The armies are composed of 50 tiles, and you draw three each turn - one has to be permanently discarded before you move, which is often an agonising decision. As well as troops there are special tiles that can snipe an enemy unit, place mines on unoccupied squares, re-position existing tiles, or initiate battle. Battles play out according to each tile's initiative, from five (fastest) down to one (slowest), so it's possible to take out enemy units before they fire.

It's instantly graspable, and I've been playing Neuroshima Hex on and off for about two years now. It's a great frustration that it's taken the developers so long to incorporate online and make the game worth recommending - unbelievably, the first stab a few months ago had you inviting opponents via email (it can now be done in-game). The only remaining black mark is the expansion armies, which at 1.49 a pop seem wildly overpriced, and I say that as an advocate.

Neuroshima Hex is the kind of strategy game that keeps on surprising. The simple rules, when combined with the armies' characteristics, unfold into unfathomably complex battles - ones where you're never quite sure what's left standing until the dust settles. It's a game to learn and savour over an awfully long time, and finally has the app it deserves.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments. For daily app coverage, check out our sister site Modojo.

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