An even-numbered roll in Titan HD! My kingdom for an even-number roll!

, | Game reviews

If it’s possible for someone to have a patron game, like they have patron saints or patronage at city hall or something, mine would be Titan. No other game has watched over my journey from adolescent nerd to middle-aged geek quite like that thing in the purple gamebox.

After the jump, some very durable cardboard

Strictly speaking, there have actually been many purple gameboxes, as each of my Titan-playing friends has gone through multiple copies. We used to carry it with us to each other’s dorm rooms, and then to each other’s apartments, and finally to our houses. “Wanna roll for towers?” was first an innocent question, but eventually became a kind of familiar and comforting invitation to revisit our shared past, the time when life was so simple that we could hold forth at lunch about the time we all played against Drew with two Angels and he got so mad when he found out. Or the time Jeff would have won easily if he hadn’t hung his Titan, but he did, because he always does. At least he used to. Man, that seems so long ago. And in another way, I can hear him complaining about those dice like it was just last weekend.

Once we had all moved away and could only share things by phone, we still found a way to roll for towers. In the early days of the Internet we played text Titan (pictured above) by email before most people had email. It’s nothing like real-life Titan, because it removes the one thing — uncertainty — that keeps the game from becoming a probabilistic black box. But wow, did we do a lot of that by Unix mail. And then by mm, and finally pine. The fixed spacing was key. Oh for a monochrome monitor and random number generator.

But we still treasured those purple boxes, and whenever we got together for this or that, and our wives or girlfriends had gone to bed, and we were all just sitting around, someone usually asked: “Roll for ’em?” And then Jeff grabbed another beer, and Steve made a vodka and tonic, and Wil just shook his head and smiled, and I was blue and Jeff was red and Wil was black and Steve was usually green or brown. Sometimes Steve chose gold. That meant he was serious.

Titan’s basic appeal — besides letting you throw a bunch of dice over and over — is the little stories it lets you tell about some cardboard monsters you push around on a sheet of colored paper, punctuated by triumphant shouts or agonizing groans as dictated by the aforementioned handfuls of dice. Or about the stacks of square counters sitting on the mapboard, sequestered safely in a tower or pacing nervously below the inner ring, just waiting for the right roll to move up and snatch a giant, or a dragon, or a colossus. But most of all, about your Titan.

Of all the hooks on which this game lets you hang stories — and believe me it’s a huge walk-in story closet — the biggest is its eponymous unit. The whole point of the game is to kill the other players’ Titans, and the surprising escapes or narrow defeats are retold for years (trust me). A big part of it is that of all the units in the game, only Titans gain experience, and by the endgame this can make them by far the most potent units in the game. If you want to play a game in which you control the battlesauron in the introduction to the Lord of the Rings movie, where an armored colossus sweeps away dozens of terrified soldiers with one swing of his morningstar, play Titan.

Titan plays out on a masterboard that for novices is a confusing mishmash of incomprehensible symbols, denser than the most impenetrable Eastern Front hexfest. “Why can’t I move there, again?” is a question asked again and again by players uninitiated into the game’s bizarre geometric lexicography. It takes a long time to internalize the arcane symbols governing the distorted hexagonal spaces, but once you have, it’s all a clear, six-sided probability evaluation. We all grew up with those.

The battleboards, designed decades before anyone had thought to post to developer forums about why it was a war crime that the latest 4X game wasn’t going to have tactical combat, are 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of cardboard where conflicts on the masterboard are resolved. The interaction of terrain effects with just three character traits — toughness, skill, and nativity — creates a wonderful confluence of monster mythology and geek numerology. Silently calculating the number of hits a serpent is likely to score on a dragon while striking up a hill, while almost imperceptibly mouthing encouragement to eighteen white cubes, generates some kind of endogenous gamer empathy.

If you want to understand where Titan comes from, check out this pdf of the original rules, and scroll down to page 10, where it says “Designer’s Notes.” It didn’t hit me until I sat down to write this that the roots of Titan are 42 years old. Who says boardgames are an immature hobby without a history?

There has been a freeware Java clone, called Colossus (pictured above), available for years now. It’s the kind of electronic torch carrier that we all wanted when we imagined what computers could do for gaming long before they started doing it. By the time it was working right, we were past that, and work deadlines and kids’ bedtimes had pushed Titan to the same place as Reagan’s presidency — we all lived through it, and wished it could have lasted forever, but we understood the world moves on, and while everything since will be somewhat diminished, you can’t judge the present solely by an unattainable ideal past. Otherwise you just drive yourself crazy.

But a game as good as Titan deserves better than an ever-dwindling fan base, and with the Valley Games reprint in 2008, gamers could discover the game for themselves at a price substantially less than the $200 used Avalon Hill sets were fetching on eBay. And then a couple months ago, Valley Games released an iPad app. And now here we are.

The iPad is the best strategy gaming platform ever made. That’s right. Because it’s small, and mobile, and has a great screen, games with clean graphics and simple mechanics which would be dismissed as too shallow or boardgamey on the PC get an entirely different hearing from the iPad audience. You don’t get twelve levels of rifle ammunition research because people don’t expect that from an iPad game. The swipe mechanics that move your units around beautifully mimic the way you move pieces on a board. So games that espouse the values of elegance and aesthetics flourish. Titan is one of these games.

On the PC, Titan would be expected to have 3D battles, and the combat would immediately be dismissed as too simplistic. Shouldn’t all units gain experience, not just Titans? Why can’t you research spells for your warlocks? A 3D masterboard would be considered essential, but would just make it harder to see where units could move to without any offsetting benefit whatsoever. And what about a backstory? It’s for these reasons that the PC version of Puerto Rico sank like a stone despite being a very faithful (and functional) port. It might be a great experience somewhere else, but on the monitor-and-keyboard machine it’s not the experience you’re expecting.

Put it on the iPad, though, and clever mechanics are rewarded. Titan is brilliant in its simple progression of monster trees, with terrain-specific branching points and several dead ends. Legions can only recruit if they move, which makes static play suicidal and once you master that infernal board, the game becomes an almost choreographed dance of pursuit and evasion, of bluff and counter. The iPad version does a great job of recreating the physical maneuvers of the boardgame with the swipe-move mechanism. It’s the mental maneuvers that make it stumble.

Every electronic version of a limited-information boardgame has the same design problem: how do you keep that information limited? It’s even more problematic with asynchronous games, because players have essentially unlimited time to uncover the information. In Titan, all legions on the masterboard are kept face-down, revealing creatures only to prove that a new recruit is legal. Three centaurs in the woods can recruit a warbear. When someone’s six-unit legion moves to the woods, he or she needs to show that three of those six are centaurs. That’s it. Then the warbear goes in, face-down, as do the briefly revealed centaurs. And you have to remember that the seven-unit stack has a warbear, three centaurs, and three something-else.

It sounds easy, but with twenty legions on the masterboard at once, you can imagine things get messy. Stealth and bluff become paramount. Was that his big gorgon stack that just moved to block me? Or just gargoyles and cyclopses? Man, I lost track. Attacking the wrong stack can kill your chances, because winning battles gains you points and additional units (angels and archangels), and because simply having stacks on the board gives you room to maneuver. That maddening masterboard has chokepoints, and blocking enemy moves is part of the game. Which you can’t do when you’ve lost a whole stack in an ill-advised attack.

In the crude email Titan I described at the beginning, it was basically a given that everyone knew what was in your stacks. It was just too easy to keep track. Sure, splitting still created uncertainty, but that was erased with your next recruits. I used to keep a notepad with everyone’s likely stack contents written down back in the email Titan days, because I knew everyone else in the game was doing it, too.

This iPad version, though, tries to confuse you by moving everything so fast that you can’t really follow it. Or maybe it isn’t trying to do that. Because French New Criticism taught us long ago that authorial intent is irrelevant, all that matters is that you can’t really follow along, so you’re confused. Except that you still can, if you take the time to stop and go back, which gets tedious quickly. If you do, you’ll know what the AI has in its legions. If you don’t, you won’t.

Titan HD sure knows what’s in your legions. It makes very precisely calculated attacks, which often are just enough to beat you when you thought you were safe. In face-to-face games, there’s a built-in safety margin to any human evaluation that makes every enemy just a bit stronger, and every friendly stack just a bit weaker. Not here. Give whoever wrote the “can I beat this stack in this terrain?” algorithm a bonus, because he or she knocked it out of the park.

But just because you can beat a stack, doesn’t mean you should. When you win a battle, you’re only left with your surviving creatures, so it doesn’t always make sense to jump a stack, be left with one unit, and then have that unit devoured by the enemy stack coming up from behind. Yes, sometimes it does. But when is that, Mr. Game? Oh you don’t know? I can tell.

The tactical AI makes a lot of mistakes, too, but you’re tired of all this by now. It constantly hangs its Titan, as though my friend Jeff wrote the algorithm for how much risk you’re willing to accept of losing the game right now … oops, that was it. There is something called a time-loss, which the AI doesn’t seem to understand, or actually thinks it understands but really doesn’t, like the guy who laughs at everyone’s jokes just in case they’re funny. Just take my word for it because it’s true.

The iPad Titan HD leaves me with the overwhelming impression of having been designed for me, Jeff, Steve, and Wil. It is for anyone who just needs to look at the mapboard and say, “he didn’t move to the Plains on a 4, which means that split last turn must have been his Lions.” The game moves along quickly, with minimal explanation, as if to say “you know how this goes, right?” Which is just fine for me, but must be pretty frustrating for beginning players. Why can’t I move there, again? I know, man. I was there once.

If the iPad version misses anything, it’s this chance to ease new players into the game. You can’t examine your legions without holding your finger on them, which leads to a lot of your finger being in the way while examining your legions. The battles move faster than you can really follow, which is fine for experienced players, since they’ll just look at the results. But again, beginners will miss out, since you can’t slow the combat down at all.

So to recap, the game is designed for me and my friends, except I can’t play with them because there is no multiplayer. And when I play by myself, the AI commits suicide. The presentation and art sure are slick. They get five stars. The rest of it gets zero. Average it out.

2 stars