Firaxis is best known for their excellent strategy game work on PC and consoles. At PAX East they announced their ambition to take the iOS world by storm with the release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown this summer. With much less fanfare comes Haunted Hollow, a sleepy, unassuming little turn-based strategy title. Behind its chibi-monsters and freemium veneer, Haunted Hollow ($0.99) is a digital board game that successfully marries the accessible strategy pedigree of its creators with the realities of iOS (pricing and playtime).
Your Victorian mansion sits atop a rise overlooking a small village. Heir of untold funds from wealthy ancestors you spend your time creating monsters to scare the villagers below. But what is that, another mad scientist on the neighboring bluff? In Haunted Hollow you are competing with a fellow monster maker to be the first to haunt every home in the village. To do this you will need to build up your mansion room by room and then summon monsters to do your bidding. Monsters like ghosts focus on scaring homes while those like the werewolf are used to fight other monsters.
You also have special monsters that take on more of a support role. All actions are fueled by scare points which you receive a handful of each turn, and you can earn more by scaring entire neighborhoods (groups of 2-3 houses) in the village. You must also watch out for the mob, which will appear when too many villagers are scared, as they will attack your monsters and burn haunted houses to the ground. Eventually, through planning and treachery, one player will be the last haunter standing.
The main appeal of Haunted Hollow is its simple gameplay. The game is as straightforward as described above (with a few unmentioned wrinkles) and has a well done tutorial to walk you through your first game. You can also get help at any time by hitting the “?” icon and clicking an element on the game screen. It really is meant to ease you into the entire experience. Haunted Hollow also features a series of challenges that act as puzzles but are also a further tutorial to some of the game’s higher concepts. If you have never played a turn-based strategy game before, this is a great place to start. It offers free admission and a smooth slope down into the game.
Despite its cute exterior and accessible nature, Haunted Hollow is a game for all ages. Your choices will determine your success, there is no random element to the game. There are different paths to victory from using fighters to slow down your opponent or rushing in with a large amount of scarer monsters. There are options to play a fairly weak AI opponent and a series of in-game puzzles which are great for learning and experimentation, but the real fun is in playing with others. You can do this through Game Center or on one device around in the comfort of your living room. The online gameplay is asynchronous so you can send over your turn and get on with your day. This title really should include the notice “Friends Required.”
But wait, it is free, so what about IAPs? Well, they are certainly part of the game but not in the way that you think. There is no energy bar to recharge or timers to wait on, IAPs are simply more content. This is the the IAP model done right. You start with a hand-full of monsters and items. For a dollar here and there you can pick up additions or at a better price you can buy things in bundles. With new monsters you can start to customize your play style and your mansion. Victorian and Mad Science mansion are somewhat balanced, while Lost Temple and Gothic styles favor scarers and fighters respectively. Within these categories you can pick which monsters will be on your team. The additional content is only there to expand your options and is a great user-friendly way to present IAPs.
With Haunted Hollow, Firaxis have created a perfect Frankenstein, having transplanted a fun, strategic, digital board game into the body of a casual, cutesy freemium app. It is a not a perfect game and the lack of a really strong solo experience is a serious oversight. The accessible art style may even backfire, causing it to be ignored by those who should be its core fans. Do not be dissuaded by the exterior and pass up the chance to experience this little nugget of turn-based joy.