The Christmas celebrations in most of the world has been infused with the spirit of those “charming" Victorians, with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—and its many adaptations—dominating across all kinds of media. And as we all say goodbye to the Christmas spirit—complete with carols, punch, and top hats— we say welcome to Antihero ($4.99), the turn-based digital board game that reminds us that Victorian England was as much about thievery and murder as it was about Christmas carols. We first wrote about Antihero back in 2014, and, after stopping on PC first, the game is finally on mobile, and it’s easily one of the best games of the genre. This Victorian take on the 4X genre offers much more than first meets the eye, and it’s guaranteed to keep you scouting, researching, killing, and thieving for quite some time.
In Antihero, you run a thieves guild as you attempt to gain enough victory points to defeat either the AI or a human opponent. When I started playing the first scenario of the Campaign, I thought that the game would be all about overpowering your opponent by controlling enough territory and killing enough people. I was quickly surprised by the intricacies of the game mechanics and the depth and variations the developers have managed to weave into this digital board game.
You start the game with a Master Thief, and you gradually use that character to burgle for gold and scout the map. Using the Master Thief’s abilities, you begin to build your economy, which will get you gold and lanterns each turn. The gold can be used to hire new gang members (urchins, thugs, Saboteurs, etc) while the lanterns are used to research various upgrades, which include things like giving your Master Thief an extra turn, getting more gold per house you burgle, and many more.
The various members of your gang bring their own special abilities to the game and allow you to win those victory points. Urchins infiltrate various buildings, which then provide you with benefits per turn, Thugs can block access to various parts of the map, Gangs can take out enemies and also evict those poor Urchins, and so on. Using these various members efficiently is the difference between winning and losing. For instance, if you manage to get three Urchins in a church, you get one victory point. However, you lose that victory point if your Urchins get evicted.
Additionally, each Urchin you buy in the same turn becomes more expensive, so you might want to use Urchins to infiltrate the orphanage so that future Urchins become cheaper to buy. And if you fear your opponent will try and evict those poor Urchins from the church and cost you a victory point, you can use a Saboteur to trap that building for two turns, nullifying any eviction attempt.
The game’s many clever mechanics and ways in which the various characters interact make it really fun to play and will get your strategic gears turning. Do you try and have your gang kill more of the enemy’s thugs, since every kill allows you to upgrade that gang? Or do you instead use your gang to evict those poor urchins from the Trading House so your opponent’s lantern intake slows down? Do you upgrade your Thugs’ health and use them to isolate parts of the map (that you can then plunder more easily), or do you upgrade your Master Thief into a killing machine and wreak havoc on your opponent’s attempts to block you? Antihero offers a ton of different ways to play, and I never felt that I only had one viable way to win, which is a sign of a well-designed game.
Antihero‘s various scenarios also help add different ways to approach each match. There’s one scenario where you have to steal jewels from the Palace at the center of the map, but in order to do so, you have to place a Thug on each of the two Guard Towers. As you can imagine, these rules turn the Guard Towers into slaughterhouses and force you to time your moves carefully. Another scenario has you stealing invitations to a masquerade and using those invitations to sneak your urchins and thugs into the Masquerade Ball before your opponent does.
To win in Antihero, you have to collect a specific number of Victory points, but those victory points could come from all kinds of actions, including taking out a specific character, completing a scenario-specific action, or even buying one of the very expensive Victory points. All these variations make for a very entertaining strategy game that will keep you on your toes the whole time you play it. And the game doesn’t include dice, so you won’t have to curse your luck when you see your plan fall apart simply because of a bad dice roll.
Antihero offers plenty of content to keep you occupied, including a long Campaign, a Skirmish mode that can be played against an AI opponent or in local multiplayer, and online multiplayer—which offers both synchronous and asynchronous modes. The Skirmish mode is highly customizable and really fun to play. The Campaign also acts as a great tutorial that walks you through the game’s mechanics and even some of its strategies, although there’s still plenty to discover for yourself.
Visually, the game is a real looker. The cartoonish characters with their oversized heads are charming (even when they are gutting someone), and the maps are colorful and well designed. There are also some great animations when characters are idling on the map, including plenty of side glances. The buildings don’t look that sharp when you zoom all the way in on the iPad, but that doesn’t detract much from Antihero‘s great art direction. The music is also fun as are the various sound effects, including the sounds of clubs on skulls.
Antihero plays very well on the touchscreen, although the game doesn’t offer an undo function, which can be an issue when you accidentally lose an action point because you tapped on the screen without intending to. And it’s often unclear how far your Master Thief can move while scouting, which—combined with the lack of undo—can mess up your move. The game also doesn’t offer a way to watch a replay of your opponent’s move (without exiting to the menu and returning to the game), which can be an issue because you’ll often get distracted when playing on your phone on tablet. And Antihero doesn’t offer the ability to remove or speed up the various animations (like money flying to your money pile or the burgling animation), which can add up over time. These aren’t major issues, though, and don’t detract from the overall quality of this really entertaining game. But I would like to see some of those issues fixed.
Antihero is a premium game with only cosmetic IAPs, and for $3.99, it’s definitely a steal. The three IAPs are just skins for your various characters, but they are quite fun. The one IAP adds four Master Thief skins from the upcoming Armello game, the other one adds four skins based on literary characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Tiny Tim, and the last one turns your Master Thief into Oliver Twist.
If you’ve been looking for a fun but challenging digital board game with a lot of depth and a great visual style, Antihero is the game for you. There’s plenty of content to play through and clever strategies to figure out, and all of that is dressed in a lovely art style. Now go take out all those street urchins and take over the town; just know that you’re in for a challenge and will have to plan carefully and execute at just the right time.