Caylus on the iPhone lost in translation

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Caylus is at once intricate and elegant, a nifty worker-placement game where players compete for limited resources to build a castle, develop a town, and progress through a unique scoring system. It’s challenging and rewarding. I guarantee you’ll be nonplussed your first few play-throughs. Somewhere around game three or four, it will click. And if you’re the kind of strategy game wonk who plays Caylus more than two times, it’ll probably find a place in your heart. As a boardgame, Caylus is a classic.

As an iPhone port, it’s not.

After the jump, lost in translation

Part of the beauty of Caylus as a boardgame is how much it expresses on a surprisingly small board. This is a design with enough clearly presented variability that it doesn’t need no stinkin’ dice. It’s all about player choice. In support of this idea, the layout is a masterpiece of economy, efficiency, and clear information. Nearly every single rule has some visual representation on the board. You can tell at a glance what’s happening, how long the game has to go, what needs to be done, what’s already been done, and what will happen if you do any given thing. Boardgames have interfaces every bit as important as videogame interfaces. Caylus’ is one of the best.

And it is lost entirely in the iPhone port. Rather than rework the layout to something more suitable to the iPhone, the developers at Big Daddy’s Creations have slavishly tried to recreate the actual board. You’ll often have to go back and forth between various displays to relate two pieces of information important to each other. The longer a game goes, the harder is is to track your options as the town grows past the border of the iPhone’s screen real estate. You’ll spend no small amount of time scrolling around. It’s like medieval suburban spawl and playing Caylus on the iPhone is like having to commute.

The AI provides a great challenge. As a Caylus fan, I can’t deny that it’s nice to get a game going without having to scare up a few more Caylus fans, or press into service a couple of friends to march up the learning curve. But the initial release of Caylus seems to have some lurking technical problems, which are especially painful given the length of a game. This is not a short single-session iPhone trilfe. A full game of Caylus, even against relatively spry AI opponents, can easily last an hour. So when a game encounters a fatal and reproducible crash, it’s hard to recommend it as anything other than a work in progress. Based on developer Big Daddy’s history with Neuroshima Hex for the iPhone, I have every confidence that Caylus will eventually work as intended. Here’s hoping that happens soon.

Finally, there’s the multiplayer. Part of the appeal of these iPhone ports is being able to play boardgames online, ideally asynchronously with my friends. Caylus will have none of that. This is a game only playable in real time, requiring at least three players. The best case scenario is that you and some other random dude will be parked in the lobby long enough for a third player to show up. The worst case scenario is that you’ve got a game with DOA multiplayer.

What it all comes down to is this question: Is Caylus a good candidate for porting to the iPhone? Given the length of games, given the poor multiplayer support, given that the elegance of the boardgame is lost entirely, I suspect the answer might be “no”. Which is a real shame after Big Daddy Creations so successfully ported Neuroshima Hex to the iPhone. It just goes to show that some games fare better than others when it comes to jumping platforms. Caylus suffers in the extreme.

2 stars