“All warfare is based on deception,” said Sun Tzu in The Art of War.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms Touch developer Koei has obviously (and appropriately) read that ancient military guidebook and learned its vital lessons.
While the game only ever shows you static screens of information and abstract representations of feudal Chinese armies, you’re fully deceived into thinking you’re a 2nd-century warlord.
Spend ten minutes with it and you may as well write the next couple of hours off because this truly is one of the most engrossing experiences on the App Store.
Pick a caste, any caste
You begin by selecting from five consecutive periods of Chinese history spanning the end of the 2nd-century through to the middle of the 3rd. Each is tied to an important historical event, such as an influential political figure being overthrown or the start of a major conflict.
Next, you pick from a number of factions vying for supremacy. Even at this early stage you’re given pause for thought, as you must weigh up which faction to choose based on size, geography, resources and military strength.
Do you, for example, go for the dominant power (early on at least) of Dong Zhuo, rich in gold and land but somewhat unwieldy and surrounded by aggressive enemies, or do you opt for Sun Jian to the southeast – a small, relatively poor lord, but isolated from his enemies in a corner of the map that’s ripe for non-violent expansion?
Whoever you choose to command, your ultimate goal is the same: overthrow every last competing faction.
This is no Command & Conquer-style real-time strategy game, though. Unrestrained aggression will lead to swift defeat.
Instead, you have to take time to build your empire by increasing productivity, which determines how much gold and food you receive every twelve turns. These two resources are the foundation of everything you do in the game, funding your military endeavours and keeping your people in check.
Once your coffers are filled the possibilities really open up. Using your officers you can implement a range of commands. As such, officers are rated according to their abilities in war, charisma, intelligence, and age (they can die of natural causes).
In addition to utilising their unique talents, you also have to keep them happy with regular rewards. Enemy-initiated rumours can sap loyalty, increasing the chances of defection, along with the troops under their command.
It’s worth remembering that anything your enemy can do to you, you can do to them. If you want to destabilise a prosperous opponent then you can dispatch one of your officers to sow seeds of doubt among the populace or sabotage their food crops.
You can even entice opposing officers to your side, if their loyalty is sufficiently low and your offer too good to refuse.
Command and conquer
Once you’ve built up a sizeable force and a healthy stock of both gold and food, you can start to think about direct engagement. This section of the game plays out as a turn-based strategy game in the mould of Advance Wars or Mecho Wars.
While far from rivalling the aforementioned games in terms of depth, battles add a welcome dose of action to an otherwise cerebral game. Sneaking in to steal my numerically superior opponent’s supply base after artfully drawing them out ranks as one of my most gratifying gaming moments of recent months.
Given its depth and scope, it’s perhaps unsurprising that something has been lost in the game’s touchscreen translation. While menus are laid out well, the dispersal of relevant information can be maddeningly counter-intuitive.
For example, when seeking to employ a new officer you would hope that you’d be able to obtain each candidate’s stats through the “employ” command branch.
Touching on the officer here, though, merely selects them. You have to back out of the menus, scroll to the “info” pane and select the “all officers” command, examine the information, then return to the “employ” screen to make your selection.
Navigation of the core map is also a little inconsistent, slow in scrolling and zooming but skittish when skimming across the regions.
It’s a testament to the quality of the game’s core systems – the yin and yang of decision making, the surprising variation in battle tactics, the elegant presentation and the historical intrigue – that such flaws don’t ever threaten to stop you from returning to Romance of the Three Kingdoms Touch.
It’s a tough, punishing and demanding experience that won’t be to everyone’s tastes – even some of those who would consider themselves fans of previous iPhone strategy titles. Those with the patience to mine its depths, though, will be richly rewarded for their loyalty.