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Ascension: Deckbuilding Game
A deck-building card game in the vein of the more famous Magic: The Gathering (pictured above, and discussed below), Ascension differs principally in that you build your deck while playing the game itself, rather than in your spare time beforehand - thus making the game far more immediately accessible, while perhaps compromising a little on strategic depth.
You and your opponent(s) start with 10 cards, each of which give you a single white 'rune' point (to spend on buying new cards) or red 'power' point (to spend on killing monsters). Each turn you are dealt five of these, and you play them, then spend the points acquiring or killing the various cards that sit in the middle of the board.
There are tons of special cards, all of which demonstrate the unusual (but we think rather wonderful) art style this game offers. And best of all, Ascension is free - although if you love the game as much as we do, you may find yourself coughing up £5 to unlock (almost) all the expansion and promo cards too. David Price
FREE | For iPad & iPhone (Universal) | Ascension: Deckbuilding Game on the App Store
I've put a lot (a lot) of hours into this game, one of 2014's most critically acclaimed, and finally feel able to give it a strong recommendation. But there are a couple of reservations which I will get out of the way first.
Graphics-wise, this game… well, just watch the video below. The graphics are frankly terrible, a mixture of The Saint-esque stick figures and hand-drawn garish cartoons. If this is a deal breaker, look elsewhere (at least for now - the maker has said that a total graphical overhaul could be in the works in a future update, after a fan offered to do artwork at mate's rates).
The difficulty is pretty off-putting, too: I finished Dream Quest once with the thief character fairly early on, but then died more than 100 times before I could repeat the trick with the monk. (You can offset this to an extent by playing on the easy difficulty level, but that doesn't unlock achievements or new characters and therefore feels a little pointless.) If you get discouraged by repeated failure, seeming unfairness and Death By Random Event, you may find Dream Quest painful.
But there is so much to love here. In terms of gameplay mechanics it's right at the cutting edge of current trends: a hybrid deck-building card game and roguelike RPG. The dungeons you explore on each brief, 30-minute go are randomly generated and filled with monsters (which you fight in card-based combat), shops and unique events that offer the opportunity to add cards to your deck or remove ones that aren't pulling their weight. Levelling up gives you more hit points and mana for casting spells, but more importantly gives you access to better cards.
Card play seems basic at first but has surprising depth. Cards are split into colour-coded types (red for attack, purple for spell and so on) and clever deck-builders can construct powerful synergies: chains of cards that each let you draw more cards, multiplication buffs that lead to insane amounts of damage, fight-duration effects that stack and stack until you are causing more damage than your opponent on his own turn. (Buy Fire Shape if you see it, and thank me later.)
By the end, if things have gone right, you should be wielding a thrilling, streamlined killer of a deck, and you'll still probably die because the last-level bosses are brutal.
I do recommend this game, then, if you can get past the graphics. It's definitely a strong pick for fans of deck-builders, and the roguelike setting adds a powerful sense of theme to that often-dry genre. Just don't come running to me when the Lich plays Dark Mending and you smash your iPhone into a fine powder. David Price
£2.99 | For iPad and iPhone (Universal) | Dream Quest on the App Store
Best iPhone games | Best iPad games: Exploding Kittens
Originally a real-life card game that was the most-backed ever (in terms of backer numbers) on Kickstarter, Exploding Kittens subsequently blasted its way on to mobile. The game is more or less Russian Roulette with cats. You play with two to four other people, drawing cards. If someone gets an exploding kitten, they're out of the game - unless they can defuse it. Other cards enable a modicum of tactics: you can skip turns, peek at the top of the deck, shuffle and steal cards, and slap opponents so they take a turn.
The iOS version offers online play against random opponents or friends in private matches, secured with codes. Everything's also been cleverly tweaked for screen, such as with the addition of a 'chance of kitten' meter that starts going nuts when an exploding kitten is likely, and madcap audio and energetic animation that aligns nicely with co-creator Matthew Inman's surreal oddball imagery. Craig Grannell
£1.99 | For iPad & iPhone (Universal) | Exploding Kittens on the App Store
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Basically Magic: The Gathering with Warcraft characters, Hearthstone is a card battle game. Build decks and strategies, summon minions and cast spells. The different classes and their specific cards and abilities add a nice level of variety, and the single-player 'Curse of Naxxramas' update means you don't have to take your game online unless you want to.
As with all trading card games, Hearthstone hinges to some degree on microtransactions for new card packs, but the quest rewards for fulfilling various criteria (such as number of monsters summoned or points healed) minimise the necessity of paying for anything.
The turn-based setup makes it a perfect game to play while waiting for the kettle to boil, and seeing a long-term strategy pay off is surprisingly satisfying. Now they just need to add some decent character taunts… Adam Shepherd
A time sink, a mental workout, an addiction and at its best a sheer unadulterated joy: the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game is a cultural phenomenon with vast influence over the various branches of the gaming industry. This digital adaptation isn't perfect, but it's slick and attractive enough to do what it needs to - which is get out of the way and let the card game soar.
Before the start of a duel you spend a little time (okay, a lot of time) building and honing a deck of cards from your collection. These are made up of spells (which summon creatures or create magical effects, and which cost mana) and lands (which generate mana, and can under normal circumstances only be played at the rate of one per turn). As the duel progresses, each of you will get more and more land cards out, and therefore gain access to more and more mana, and to more and more powerful spells; which leads to a pleasing built-in escalation in the way the game plays out.
But it's much more subtle than just collecting fantasy monsters and playing them. There are professional Magic players; there are leagues around the world and millions of people who devote their time to fine-tuning Magic strategy. And all of this is because the balance and interplay of the cards has been tweaked and honed, tweaked and honed to create a game that some say rivals chess in its strategic depth.
So why are we playing Magic on the iPad instead of in the flesh? Two reasons. Firstly, while this app is pretty affordable, the secondary market that's grown up around the rarer (real-world) cards can be financially crippling. And let's face it, having boxes of Magic cards around the house doesn't go down well with wives. In both respects the iOS adaptation wins out, although there are down sides; one of which is the loss of the human, social element (the multiplayer mode is decent, but it can't rival face-to-face competition).
We said this is affordable: in fact, the app itself is free, but be warned that this provides only the bare minimum of functionality - for multiplayer games, the single-player campaign after the first world and most deck-building options you'll need to pay for IAPs. David Price
FREE (but requires in-app purchases to unlock most features - see above) | iPad only | Magic 2015 on the App Store
Mobile solitaire often ends up using tiny cards in order to fit them all on the screen. Sage Solitaire has a different solution: a three-by-three grid, quite a bit of poker, and a virtual trip to Vegas.
In the basic Sage Solitaire, you score by removing poker hands; the better the hand, the more points you get. Strategy comes by way of a rule that states you must use cards from multiple rows for each hand. With the stacks at the top of the screen being taller than those at the bottom, the latter's cards are best used sparingly. In addition, a randomly allocated suit acts as a multiplier, bestowing double points when used in a hand, and two 'trashes' exist to remove individual cards.
The Vegas mode, unlocked on clearing the entire board three times, gives you a virtual bank account, awards cash prizes only when using the multiplier hand, and ups your overall payout multiplier on clearing piles from the top two rows. Subtly different strategies are required for success, hence the initial lockdown - it's very easy to otherwise burn through your limited funds. But once you crack Vegas and hit $800, you can try your hand at True Grit. There, once your in-game money's gone, it's gone for good.
Note that there's no horrible IAP to refill your virtual coffers. The game's sole IAP (£2.99/$2.99) exists purely to unlock two further modes (Double Deck and Fifteens), remove the (unobtrusive) ads, provide stats tracking, and give you achievements to aim for. Craig Grannell
Like Lords of Waterdeep, you could argue that this calming little number has what is disparagingly known as a 'pasted-on theme': a forgettable story about precious jewels and aristocratic favour that sits awkwardly on top of, rather than having any true connection to, the game's underlying mechanics. But those mechanics, theme or no theme, are elegantly conceived, and taken as a simple, near-abstract set-collection game, Splendor has a great deal to recommend it.
Each turn you can either pick up some coloured tokens (representing various colours of precious stone) or spend these tokens to buy cards from the common supply. Cards have costs printed on them - you'll need to have enough of the right colours, or the wild-card gold tokens, which can act as any colour - but once you own them, they reduce the cost of future purchases.
A little like Dominion, say, Splendor revolves around 'building an engine': buying cheap cards that in turn make you more and more efficient at buying better and more expensive cards. And again like Dominion, a key part of the strategy revolves around knowing at what point to stop worrying about the efficiency of your engine and just focus on buying cards that give you lots of victory points. Once someone passes 15 points you complete the round and then count up.
I've made it sound reasonably simple, I think, and it's possible to play with moderate success (and a certain quiet satisfaction) by just sensibly adding to your portfolio of diamond mines or whatever the cards are supposed to represent. But it moves to the next level when you focus instead on what your opponents are doing, and on making them have a bad time: snaffling the card they've been building towards, or making an early dash to the finish line if they seem to be dawdling.
We do grieve for the lack of an online multiplayer, since the AI players seem perhaps slightly too easy to beat, but pass-and-play remains a good option. And you've always got challenge mode (a set of scripted, specific tasks within the framework of the game's rules) if you get bored. David Price
£6.99 | For iPad & iPhone (Universal) | Splendor on the App Store
Like Ascension (and like the glorious originator of the deck-building genre, Dominion, which sadly remains unavailable as an app), Star Realms gives each player an identical starting deck - in this case made up of eight Scout cards worth a yellow trading point, and two Vipers worth a red combat point - and tells them to get on with it. Each turn you deal out five cards from your deck, and then use them to either attack your opponent or buy more cards from the central repository, gradually evolving from tuppenny-ha'penny fleabites in the first few turns to titanic flagship assaults in the thrilling endgame. First person to have their 'Authority' points reduced to zero loses.
While you miss out on the painstaking preparation and strategy of Magic: The Gathering, you make up for this in immediacy: the start conditions are a wonderful leveller, and anyone can jump in and compete. As you play you'll master synergies between cards, get the hang of 'building an engine' and learn general strategies (grasping the strengths of the four factions is important, for instance), but it's entirely possible to just read the descriptions on the cards each turn and proceed, reasonably successfully, on that basis.
Ascension and Star Realms are both free, with in-app purchases to unlock certain modes (in this game) and card sets (in Ascension, which is probably a little more generous with its free offering), so there's no reason not to try both and see which you prefer. But we suspect that, since the two games' mechanics are so similar, most people will be swayed by their preference for sci-fi or weird fantasy. David Price
FREE (includes first chapter of campaign mode and easy AI only; in-app purchases to unlock remainder) | iPad & iPhone (Universal) | Star Realms on the App Store