I think the key to a really great strategy game lies in finding the correct balance between accessibility and depth. Not that success can’t be found on either side, as the longevity of Checkers and Go prove, but at least for me, I like my strategy games to be fairly easy to pick up but with a nice, long tail of mastery. Fortunately, there are a lot of very clever strategy game designers out there, so I never feel like I go too long without something to satisfy my urges. The latest one to catch me is appropriately named Catchup ($2.99), an iOS version of a board game released a few years back. It’s hard to imagine a strategy game with simpler rules than this, but the game still provides a satisfyingly complex punch.
Catchup is a two-player game in which players take turns coloring in a specific number of hexes on a grid. The player taking the first turn can take just one, while on subsequent turns, you can take two by default. Just to throw an interesting wrench into the works, in certain situations, a player will be able to take three hexes in a single turn. Hexes are claimed until the board is completely filled, with the ultimate goal being to create a bigger group of linked hexes than your opponent. You can play against an AI opponent, another person on the same device, or against another player over the Internet through Game Center.
Being able to take three hexes on your turn is a major advantage, so it naturally only tends to kick in when you’re at a disadvantage. Specifically, if the biggest group of linked hexes becomes bigger on your turn, your opponent will get to take an extra hex in their next turn. This will most frequently come about when someone takes the lead or builds on it, creating a bit of a rubber band if one player is carelessly dominating. I call that careless domination because Catchup is as much about keeping that third hex out of your opponent’s hands as it is building your territory. Keeping your groups fairly small and then linking them at the end is generally going to work out better for you than just building one giant group from the get-go. Doing that risks having your claimed hexes cut off from one another by your opponent, however, so at some point, you’re just going to have to go for it. Knowing when and where to do so isn’t always easy.
The game’s rules are straightforward enough that I think almost anyone could pick them up nearly instantly, but the catch-up mechanic and the relatively large size of the board make for some pretty interesting strategic possibilities. Catchup is not really about winning at any given moment, but about planning to win. I find strategy games of that type often have a long life, since there’s a huge psychological element that ensures even the same two people rematching each other are very unlikely to have things play out similarly. You have to misdirect your opponent throughout the game without actually sinking your own plan. I also like that if both players are present and active, each game is over fairly quickly compared to a lot of other abstract strategy games. Not that I don’t have room in my heart for big, massive games that take days to resolve, but it’s nice to have something you can get into without a major time investment.
There aren’t a lot of frills to this iOS version, with its extremely simple graphics and laidback audio design, but what’s here is welcome. You can fool around with the colors, view some very thorough stats, and adjust the computer AI, as well as more typical things like audio options or the ability to review the rules. You can manually set the computer AI on one of 20 different levels, or you can rely on the game’s auto setting to handle that for you. If you opt for the auto setting, the game’s AI will increase one level each time you win, and decrease one level each time you lose. I’m pretty happy with the range of skill the AI covers. It’s obviously not a perfect replacement for a human player, but it’s strong enough to keep you busy when you’re out and about.
As mentioned, the game offers you a bunch of ways to play with other people, including sharing one device or playing against friends and strangers alike online. The online part of the game is handled by Game Center, and while I found it worked perfectly when playing with strangers, there seemed to be a bug when playing with friends. By the looks of it, the developer has caught this bug and will be fixing it in the next update, which might already be available by the time this review is up. There are also a number of achievements set up through Game Center, some of them very cleverly devised to force you to play outside of your comfort zone. That’s my favorite type of achievement.
Like most abstract strategy games, Catchup is at its best if you have people to play with. I will say that the AI serves as a lot more useful backup than most games like this on the App Store, but the real fun is definitely best found in flesh and blood opponents. Happily, the game gives you just about every possible option you could ask for in facilitating finding a human opponent, and the rules are so simple and non-intimidating that it’s fairly easy to pull someone in if you’re really hard-up for other players. About the only things I could ask for here are perhaps a few optional board shapes and sizes to mix things up, and maybe a slightly slicker presentation. Even without that stuff, this is an excellent strategy game suitable for beginners and experts alike. If you’re even a little bit into strategy games, you need to get some Catchup all over your mobile device.