Review: Battle Line (iPhone)

Posted by James (admin) on February 8th, 2011

Battle Line is one of my favourite portable 2-player games.  Consisting of a deck of cards and a few wooden pawns (and even the pawns aren’t totally necessary), it packs lots of punch by posing constant difficult choices and the potential for clever tactical game play.

The basic game consists of 60 troop cards (values 1 to 10 in 6 different colours) and there are 9 flags laid out in a row between the players.  On their turn, a player places one card next to any of the flags from their hand of 7 cards, then draws a new card.  Each player can only place a total of 3 cards next to any one flag.  When there are 3 cards on both sides of a flag, the player with the strongest set of 3 cards wins the flag and moves it to their side.  The cards are compared similar to poker hands: a straight in a single colour is the best, then 3 cards of the same value, then 3 cards of the same colour, then a straight in any mix of colours and finally the total value of the 3 cards.  A player wins the game as soon as they win 3 adjacent flags, or a total of 5 flags.

The advanced game adds an extra set of 10 cards (tactics cards) which all have special powers, e.g. discard an opponent’s troop card, one flag now needs 4 cards, counts like a troop joker (any colour/value), etc.  Also, in the advanced game, players can only claim a flag at the start of their turn which gives the opponent a chance to intercept.  Plus, players can claim a flag if they can prove from the cards already laid down that their opponent can not win a flag (i.e. I have three 4’s against my opponent’s two 7’s but four other 7’s have already been played on other flags so my opponent will not be able to beat my three 4’s using troop cards).

Battle Line is a great mental challenge as you need to work out what cards you can combine to make strong sets but also keep your options open so you can react to the cards you draw.  Any placed card is almost always permanently committed so you have to act carefully.  Plus, placing a second card next to a flag gives your opponent a lot of information about what you will be aiming for.  As you’re drawing cards, there’s some luck involved but this rarely feels unbalanced and doesn’t feel like a luck-based game.

I find the advanced game is the ‘real’ game as it adds the options to give it depth and tactics – even relatively inexperienced gamers enjoy the advanced version but the basic game does offer a lighter option. The theme (different ancient world troops making formations) is rather pasted on but works well enough to give the abstract game underneath it (from which it descended) a bit of flavour and identity.

In the advanced game, players can not play a tactics card if they have already played one more tactics card than their opponent.  This is a nice balancing mechanism that ensures tactics cards feel special and are played carefully.  A player can hold as many tactics cards in their hand as they like but still to a maximum of 7 cards so you must balance the mixture carefully (especially if you can’t play a tactics card until your opponent does).

Turns are short so you always feel involved (any time your opponent takes is time when you can analyse your own options) and it doesn’t take long to complete a game.

The iPhone game looks decent enough and plays smoothly with the cards now represented by stone tablets.  The AI offers a decent challenge in strong mode. (I have seen some comments saying the weak AI setting is too easy but I haven’t played that so can’t comment on it.)  As a result, the entertainment of the card game is fully present in the iPhone version because it’s an exact copy of the card game.

Visual feedback and information is good especially since the recent update added two extremely important enhancements.  One added feature is that you can view descriptions of each tactics card by pressing the relevant card and, most importantly, you can now press any flag to view how the different set strengths compare.  (Even after playing Battle Line for years, I still need to refresh my memory occasionally.)  Before the app update, you had to go through the menus to get this info.

I like that you can tailor the 3 different game factors: easy/hard AI, basic/advanced game, and claim flag at start/end of a turn as this allows players to pick their mix and experienced players can skip straight to the most difficult combination.  Also, you can resume your game if you leave the app part-way through, rather than losing your progress.  I would have liked some form of game progression to work through but I don’t mind that too much in this game as it’s hard to expand the original game.

Multiplayer offers a hotseat mode (one iPhone passed between two players).  This is nice option to have but it’s a slower game as you can’t view your cards while the other player is taking their turn.  I don’t mind that there’s no online play too much as it’s a lot of extra development work for not much gain.  However, I would have liked wireless play so 2 players with an iPhone each could have played directly whilst constantly viewing their hand.  (The @ symbol buttons during set-up let you auto-fill the player name and image from your contacts which is a bit unnecessary but nice.)

There are still a few interface issues.  The animation is smooth and fast so the game can be played quickly; however, this is too quick for some tactics cards as it’s easy to miss which card was played or which troop card was affected (and that can leave you not knowing which remain in the deck or your opponent’s hand without examining the discard pile and the cards on the table).  Also, one tactics card (draw 3 cards & return 2) needs better handling.  Having 10 cards in your hand overlap so much it’s hard to see their values making it almost impossible to choose which to return, and tapping cards to return them has no undo which can ruin your game if you tap the wrong one by mistake (which is easily done).

These interface issues are relatively minor though and the only real interface negative is that there’s no indication of how many tactics cards you and your opponent have played.  This is vital so you know if you’re able to play 0, 1 or 2 tactics cards at any time.

As a result, Battle Line is full of tricky choices, assessing the odds, and committing to plans without full information.  The good news is that the iPhone version’s negative points are minor and it’s an excellent implementation of a great card game.


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Reiner Knizia's Battleline - Rational Brothers LLC
Reiner Knizia's Battleline - Rational Brothers LLC
For iPhone (reviewed)
Reiner Knizia's Battleline - Rational Brothers LLC
Reiner Knizia's Battleline - Rational Brothers LLC
For iPad

2 Responses to “Review: Battle Line (iPhone)”

  1. Gerald Says:

    “players can claim a flag if they can prove from the cards already laid down that their opponent can not win a flag”

    This is a very important aspect of this game. How is it implemented? Are flags claimed automatically, or does the player have to explicitely make a claim?

  2. James (admin) Says:

    Hi. Good point. Flags are claimed automatically. Some players will prefer that (rather than try to work out it out) and others will dislike that aspect.

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