Thursday, February 14, 2008

Montjoie! Review

Montjoie!, developed by Tchounga Games and published by AGEod.
The Good: Enjoyable strategic gameplay with just the right amount of luck, great AI, informative interface, numerous scenarios with alternative rules, online play, enlightening tutorials, games are a manageable length, pleasing graphics
The Not So Good: Game pace could be quickened during computer turns, a scenario editor would be nice, some minor bugs
What say you? A wonderfully designed PC adaptation of a board game: 7/8

People have been trying to take over France for ages: the Romans, the Franks, the English, the Spanish, the Germans, and even themselves. The Hundred Years War (which actually took 116 years; and you thought the situation in Iraq would never end) pitted France and a bunch of nations versus England and a bunch of nations (and the fact that the Hundred Years War started in 1337 makes it l33t). We haven’t really had a game focusing on this particular conflict: Europa Universalis picks up right after the Hundred Years War ends and Great Invasions was before the time period we want. So thank goodness for Montjoie! (French for “what is that smell?”), a strategy game based off a board game that simulates the grand struggle between six nations in the Hundred Years War. And yes, I know Crusader Kings simulates this time period, but since I didn’t review it, it does not count. On with Montjoie!

Montjoie! uses a 3-D map of France and it looks pretty good. Although it’s certainly not the nicest map ever created, it certainly does the job and it is in 3-D, so that’s a leg up on the competition. France looks good in Montjoie!, with a decent level of detail that rivals that of an actual board game. The map is easily accessible and clearly displays who owns with region, although the brown outline for Burgundy makes it a bit difficult to see that country’s owned provinces as it blends in with the terrain. The cards also have neat art direction, looking like they were pulled straight from a high-quality card game. The battle animations are purposely humorous, with poorly animated knights and archers jumping up and down as they engage in deadly combat; I like the style. The game’s font is a bit difficult to read sometimes, but it does fit the overall theme. The sound in the game is done well, with signature effects for events and understated by enjoyable music. Plus, the introductory “Montjoie!” sound byte I find quite humorous. Overall, Montjoie! has a good presentation for a board game conversion. Plus, the entire game folder is less than 35 MB, so Montjoie! is not tough on your system.

Montjoie! is an adapted version of the Joan of Arc board game (it uses the French title since everything is better in French). Six kingdoms (France, England, Navarre, Brittany, Burgundy, and stupid Flanders. The object is to fully control the most provinces each round and have the best total at the end of the game. Montjoie! comes with the basic six-player game mode, but also comes with eight variations with different starting conditions in addition to eight “historical” campaigns with preset starting conditions and special rules. This is a great amount of content, since board games, by their very nature, usually tend to have the same setup each time. What I would really like to see is a scenario editor: Montjoie! allows for some really interesting variations in the historical campaign and I’d like to come up with my own. Everything in the game is essentially located in one file, so it doesn’t seem modding is possible. Montjoie! takes a firm grip on history, as each scenario is accompanied with in-depth historical information, and the in-game events have a historical context. Games are also a manageable length, anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours, and you can always save your progress and come back later. And if that wasn’t enough, Montjoie! comes with multiplayer support with a browser. I wasn’t able to test online gaming in Montjoie! since the game isn’t terribly popular as of yet, but reports from third parties seem to be positive. Montjoie! goes above and beyond the call of duty for what a board game should have, and the result is great gaming value.

It takes a couple of games to fully learn the ins and outs of Montjoie!, but the process is made easier by a well-written manual and comprehensive tutorials. The interface is also well-designed, as almost everything is displayed on the main screen all at once. Current victory points totals, cards-in-hand, and alliances are displayed at all times at the top of the screen. Montjoie! also has an information panel that can alternately display round sequence, specific faction info, player rankings, a match summary, objectives and rules, and in-game help. This information is displayed in the bottom corner, so Montjoie! thankfully lacks and full-screen charts that would obscure the game map. Montjoie! will also automatically advance your turn after three seconds if you have nothing left to do. The default game speed is very, very slow; you can accelerate the pace of the game, but even this drags out the action a bit too much: I would like to see instant results of the CPU battles instead of having to watch dice rolls.

Each round in Montjoie! has a number of phases (ten, to be specific). First, you get gold you can spend on additional cards (used during combat) or fortifications from the number of towns you own. You then get to vote for peace or war. Peace gives each player four cards and limits each side to only one attack, while war comes with six cards and essentially unlimited attacks. Some scenarios come with a diplomacy phase where you can influence the vote or give gold bonuses for storming specific cities (much like bounty in Sins of a Solar Empire) or bribing other nations into not attacking you. Cards are then dealt; left over cards are removed at the end of each round, so you should use all of them. There are a number of cards you can receive to assist you in combat: basic combat cards that give between three and six points towards attacking and defending, heroes that add two points, influence cards that add one point, traitors that cancel the opponent’s strongest card, engineers that reduce defenses or attacks, retreats that let you save your best card if you lose, and the glorious sign of god that doubles your highest combat card. You can also play a number of cards on the game map: pillagers to gain gold from enemies and ambassadors that can conquer enemy towns, give extra cards, remove cards from a player, or grant a hero (which choice depends on a dice roll).

The order in which nations play is randomly determined each round, though the same side can’t go first twice in a row. There are obvious advantages to going first, including random chance events that can grant the first player extra attacks, stealing cards, pillaging towns, protecting a city, and preventing naval assaults. Other events include ending the turn immediately, establishing a mandatory peace, and halving tax incomes. It’s best to either go first or last (which gives you a leg up on attacking weakened foes that have no cards left), and the faction order is just one of the random elements of Montjoie! designed to make the game more interesting. Nations can also expand into neutral territory (most of the maps include empty provinces) before the conquest phase begins. In order to attack, you simply choose an adjacent or coastal town. The attacking force plays two combat cards plus any of the bonus cards (engineers, influence, traitors, retreats, heros) and the defender plays one, though the defender gets a bonus based on the defensive structure built in the town. After all of the cards are played, its down to a dice roll to find out who wins. This is a great way of calculating the victor, as better cards will usually (but not always) give you a victory: thrown in some low rolls and the leading nation will soon find themselves behind.

The random unpredictability of Montjoie! makes for some interesting decisions in how to play your turn: should you use your best cards immediately, save them for defense, or a combination of both? Since the loser loses their cards, it’s sometimes better to just play crappy cards on defense if you know (or think you know) you are going to lose anyway. This is where going last has its advantages: you know you won’t be attacked in the future, so you can use up whatever remaining cards you own in a full-out attack on humanity. There are some turns in the game where nothing seems to go right, and some turns that are extremely lucky. Your ability to attack also depends on the cards you are dealt, and waiting for the good hand may be a good idea. Montjoie! features some great AI: occasionally they will do something stupid like fortifying a central town that can’t be attacked, but most of the time the computer players are very competent. They will gang up on the leader, use the cards appropriately, expand in reasonable directions, and generally play, well, intelligently. While I’m not usually out-smarted by the AI, they do provide a good enough challenge to make Montjoie! entertaining from a strategic viewpoint. The game could use some more polish: I have experienced occasional crashes to the desktop and some graphical glitches, but they are infrequent enough to be simply minor annoyances.

Montjoie! is a good board game that’s become a great computer game. The execution of the port is well done (better than a lot of console-to-PC jobs), with an informative interface, numerous scenarios, online multiplayer, and the basic game intact. The AI is a good foe that doesn’t single out the human player; it’s pretty difficult to get six people together to play a historical board game, so Montjoie! is a great substitute for friends. The graphics work well and present an appropriate theme with a very small amount of system resources. Montjoie! provides some great, entertaining strategic gameplay as well. There are a couple of small issues with stability and game speed, but these are relatively minor when you look at the big picture. Plus, Montjoie! is available for only 25 Euros (which, using current exchange rates, is equal to 37 million U.S. dollars), so it is certainly reasonably priced. Fans of board games or the strategy genre should definitely check out Montjoie!, as its one of the best adaptations of a board game you’ll see on the PC: c’est magnifique!