Amber Route Review

Green is for Go. Amber is for Annoyance.

There’s a growing range of great and not-so-great board game conversions available on the iPad. But occasionally a board or card-style game tailored specifically for the platform appears, attempting to make use of all those multimedia capabilities and do something not possible with physical components. The latest is Amber Route.

In the game you drive a caravan across a medieval fantasy land, attempting to reach your goal before your opponent. Your caravan has two resources, Amber and Escort, that you can spend to move it. But you also have a hand of cards which can be played by spending three other resources, Runes, Meat and Gold. These cards can influence the levels of all five resources for both players, move your caravan or impede your opponent.

The first thing you’ll notice is the striking and unique art style of the game, quite literally since it’s all over the short animated introduction. It’s absolutely wonderful, a rich and evocative blend of medieval painting, mythic archetypes and bizarre humour. Every static picture seems to tell a little story by itself, such as “horseflesh” with its illustration of a feasting man wearing a horse’s head.

Visually the whole app is quite a treat, even the terrain across which the caravans race is varied and finely detailed. But other aspects of the presentation fall short. Sound is minimal, a pleasant little background tune but little else. Usability is a bit of an issue too, with no tutorial, although the game is really easy to learn and play.

Playing reveals that underlying mechanics to be something of a chimera, as odd and mixed-up as the card art but with much less pleasing effect. Everything should work really well. The spread of resource management, terrain effects and cards offers lots of interlinking things to track and plan around. You can plan strategy around your hand, trying to make sure your caravan is best positioned to make use of what you have. But the random draw and unexpected spoiling cards from your opponent keep things exciting.

Sometimes this all works out, and the game is a ton of fun. But in a significant number of games, probably the majority, something goes wrong. There seem to be an awful lot of aggressive cards in the deck, and far too many games see both caravans starved of resources, stuck and unable to move, resulting in a very dull and frustrating experience.

Worse, though, are the Cards of Deities. These are super-powerful cards that can be purchased and played at a cost of 20 resources, instead of the 10 or less that most other cards will set you back. But for all their considerable expense, you don’t even get to see what they’re going to do: they’re drawn randomly, face-down, when you pay up. And although most give you a big boost, some are actually negative, hurting you further after your outlay.

Amber Route

They can, and often do, completely dictate the game. You can have your caravan bogged down for ages, and be carefully hauling it forward inch by painstaking inch, planning your route and your plays in advance to maximise your meagre resources. And suddenly your opponent will buy a Deity Card that moves them six spaces and come from behind to take an instant win. The next game you can try the same trick and draw a bad card, causing you to suddenly lose. Then the game is no longer fun, but actively annoying.

If you can grit your teeth and endure a significant number of bad matches, then the game proffers a variety of ways to play. There’s a campaign mode in which a win unlocks the next scenario, although there doesn’t seem to be an overall plot to follow. There are also a number of one-off game scenarios that can be enjoyed against a reasonable AI, or human players face-to-face or over the network.

I like Amber Route in spite of its faults. The art is just lovely, each session weaves a unique narrative, a palpable sense of journey and adventure. And when the mechanics work it’s an engrossing game. It’s hard to understand why, after hitting an essentially solid formula, the designers failed to make the necessary tweaks to the card decks to make the mechanics work more often. If they had, this could have been must-play material. As it stands it’s an occasional diversion and a sadly missed opportunity.

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