Every so often a game comes along that reaffirms my belief that things can be done differently. When it comes to 4X, so many games try to follow in the footsteps of great titles that came before. Or they try to embrace the massive, epic scale and scope – and end up drowning in their own tedium. Sometimes less IS more, and when a tightly designed and compact experience delivers a tense and strategic romp, I get excited. The Battle for Polytopia is one of those games.
In case you are scratching your head, wondering what Polytopia is all about, you may have heard about this little release from Midjiwan under its original name: Super Tribes. The game made a modest splash when it launched back in February 2016 (for reasons that will be discussed momentarily) but the name was changed post-release due to unintended trademark confusion. But fear not, because Polytopia is still alive and kicking and worth a serious look.
First things first: what is Polytopia all about? As simply as possible, Polytopia is an atomized 4X mobile game for iOS. It has different civilizations to choose from, terrain to explore, technologies to research, cities to develop, military units to battle with, and trade networks to stitch together. Shall I go on? Yes? Okay. It has wonders to wonder over, achievements to unlock, and opposing empires to vanquish. Heck, it even has one unit per tile – and it mostly works here! In other words, it has nearly all of the bones you’d expect to see in a 4X.
So what’s the catch? While all the basics are all in place, each of the mechanical components of Polytopia are distilled down to their essential core. Most significant however, is that the primary game mode is hard-capped to 30 turns. Yes, three-zero. Victory goes to the empire with the highest score. In case you can’t stomach this hard limit, you can play an extended domination mode that isn’t turn capped. But really, the unique appeal of the game is with the time constraint in place – which I’ll explain.
Polytopia begins, as in most proper 4X games, with you picking your “tribe” (e.g. your faction or culture) to play as. This is a good opportunity to mention that Polytopia is a free game (Wait! Don’t go… The drones need you). There are no gems, or timers, or other BS to contend with this. This is a premium game through and through. The only limiting factor with the free game is that only a few of the tribes are available for play when you first download the game. The remaining ones can be unlocked with an IAP (in-app purchases) of $1 per additional tribe. And to be fair, the only difference between the tribes is their starting technology (and their visual appearance). Some tribes might start with horse riding (with access to Raiders), others with mountaineering (and the ability to climb mountains). It’s a nice feature but nothing too dramatic.
Anyway, once you pick your tribe, you specify how many opponents you want in the game (up to eight), and chose your desired difficulty (there are four levels). In the 30-turn limited game mode, called “Perfection,” the game will generate a new 16 x 16 world of 256 tiles and spawn your starting city and opponent’s within it. If playing in the “Domination” mode (i.e. full winner-take all conquest with no turn limit), the map size scales up, becoming bigger or smaller depending on how many empires are in the game.
As with Civilization, you start surrounded by the fog of war and have to send off your initial units to survey the surrounding landscape. If you research the mountaineering technology early on (or pick a faction that starts with it), units can enter mountain spaces and benefit from greater vision range. This can be crucial in the early game because of how expansion works. One of the simplifications of the game is there are no settler units. Instead, there are primitive villages scattered about the map. Once found, you can send over a military unit to pacify the village and it will join your empire the following turn.
The result is that there is a frantic land-grab race early in the game as empires try go gobble up these primitive villages. Another interesting twist is that when you first meet another empire, you immediately learn their starting technology from them. You can get a leg up on the competition by using your scouts to aggressively find all the other empires in game, learning their initial technologies and thus moving up the tech tree quicker.
There are also a variety of ruins that are scattered around the map, both on land and in the water, which contain rewards once explored. These rewards vary from bonus population or resources to learning new technologies.
Expansion, as referenced above, is quite easy: find an unclaimed primitive settlement, send over a military unit, pacity the settlement for a turn, and it’s yours. It’s very simple and straightforward. While the game does feature different terrain and climates, all portrayed rather cutely, this does not have a bearing on the gameplay. All tribes can settle and occupy all areas equally. Some might claim this is a missed opportunity – but in Polytopia’s case this is a one of many welcomed simplifications in the design.
Where things do get more interesting is in how cities themselves grow in population. Each city requires its population meter to fill up before it will increase to the next size class. However, population does not grow on its own like in most 4X games. Instead it is contingent on how you develop the lands around your cities. Developments range from farms and logging camps to fishing docks, mountain temples, and even wonders. Most of these improvements boost your city’s population, but some provide points that go towards your final score. Temples, for example, are worth more points the longer they are around, so it is better to build one earlier rather than later.
You might be wondering about resources and the economy. The resource system is, unsurprisingly, quite simple. There is only one resource in the game, and it is called “resources.” Not the most imaginative name but it gets the job done. Cities produce a fixed number of resources based on their size. So the core gameplay loop is this: use resources to build developments, which boost population and grow your cities, which then produce more resources. Quite simple really. Resources are also used to build new military units (more on them in a bit) and to research technologies.
This is a good time to talk about the tech tree. In Polytopia it’s broken into a number of different branches, each containing half a dozen or so technologies. In addition to unlocking developments, technologies also unlock new unit types. Certain technologies also unlock special quests. When completed, quests provide a massive score modifier at the end of the game. Quest objectives include things like exploring the entire map, amassing a certain amount of resources, and researching ALL technologies before the end of the game (which is possible!). Most quests also reward you with a special “wonder” development that can be built once, providing a big score and population boost for a city.
There are a few other interesting twists to how you can exploit resources to your advantage. Typically, cities only benefit from developments placed immediately adjacent to them. As a result, towards the end of the game cities are limited in their growth opportunities as most tiles are already built out. However, connecting cities to your capital by roads or shipping lanes, gives both cities an immediate population boost, which can be crucial in the late game. When cities level-up, you also get to choose between one of two special perks. This include things like city walls (vital if holding a forward location), extended zones of control, bonus resources, and so on. These are seemingly basic decisions but can nonetheless be tough depending on the situation at hand.
Diplomacy bears a mention as well – because there really isn’t any (ditto for espionage). But this is okay. Diplomacy is more of an implied thing in Polytopia. If you stay away from someone, chances are they might stay away from you. But given the small map size, our territory will butt into your neighbors’ very early in the game and at some point war will be all but inevitable. I’m torn over whether or not diplomacy would add anything to the game. On one hand, it’s refreshing not having to play the diplomatic mini-game and be at liberty to attack anyone, anywhere, anytime. On the other, the war-centric focus of the game (we’re getting there) might benefit from alliances and deal-making. In the end, I think the game is nicely focused in its intent without diplomacy – but I wouldn’t object something being added along these lines.
Given that kind words and diplomatic overtures are impossible in Polytopia, and that in the standard mode you only have 30 turns to execute your grand designs, conflict is immediate and constant. The game uses a one unit per tile (1UPT) system like Civ V, but I find it works quite well with Polytopia’s compressed scope and scale. Moreover, the AI can be a real challenge and seems quite capable of playing the 1UPT mini-game.
But first things first: units. Each faction has the same range of units at its disposal, including basic soldiers, different types of cavalry, archers, catapults, ships, and the “super unit” or giant. Ground units are produced at cities, and will convert into a naval unit if they are moved onto a shipyard (they’ll convert back to a ground unit if they disembark). Super units are a little different, and are only earned as a reward for leveling up a city to the higher ranks. They are quite powerful, and are one of the few units able to take and successfully hold foreign cities in the late game.
Combat itself all plays out on the strategic map, following the 1UPT approach. Units have a certain amount of health and offensive/defensive strength values. Cavalry units can move further, archers and catapults can fire at targets a few spaces away, and so on. Attacking units strike first, but if the defender survives they can attack back in retaliation. If a unit spends a turn idle, they will heal some of their damage. Again, the whole design is quite straightforward with few surprises.
However, Polytopia manages to deliver an intoxicatingly tense experience despite its simplicity. At the higher difficulty levels, I spend most of the game feeling like I’m backed into a corner with nowhere to run – often just one or two wrong moves away from being wiped from the history books. The AI does a commendable job (seriously) of issuing attack orders and combining different unit types to weaken up your lines before it steamrolls through. It’s utterly unmerciful in its use of naval units to bombard your forces from range – so consider yourself warned! Overall, the tactical combat has a definite chess feel to, where careful positioning and planning in advance is crucial.
From a strategic standpoint, the tech tree embeds its own little arms race dynamic into the game. Often unlocking a new unit ahead of your opponent, even if only for a few turns, can be game changing and will turn the tide of a war. But your opponent might also leapfrog ahead with their own technological advance, forcing you back on your heels until you can seize the initiative again.
I’ve wanted to see what a shrunk down 4X game might look like for sometime now. Likewise, I’ve wondered how a game could hit the feeling of a 4X game but compress the experience down into a 30-minute show. Would the experience hold up? Would I feel a sense of accomplishment? Would there still be room to strategize? Would it provide a challenge?
Polytopia answers these questions by saying – yes, a compressed 4X game is possible (albeit with some features like diplomacy being axed). It shows that it is possible to make the resulting experience quite deep and engaging. The game puts the military conflict, border tensions, and tactical positioning front and center. And yet – the game’s winner is determined by a score victory in the standard game. This creates an added level of tension between military conquest and score-focused development. Buildings like temples or wonders provide few resources and little military might, but are crucial for achieving a high score (and thus a win) when your 30-turns are up. Balancing these competing demands is always a challenge.
Beyond the dynamics, Polytopia’s aesthetic is quite charming. The low-poly look is a great companion to the quick paced gameplay. Each of the different tribes as its own subtle appearance for the units and also has fairly distinct-looking cities. I particularly enjoy the animation effects when a city levels up, as it sort of “pops” into its larger form. One could knock the style as being cartoony or retro – but I think it works quite well. Sound effects, touch controls, and all of that are spot on. These elements come together in a way I can only call addictive. It has that tactile feedback that sucks you in and keeps you playing.
Developers Midjiwan have continued to update and tweak the game: since launch there have been half a dozen substantial updates. Most of these have been released alongside a new tribe (unlockable for $1), which is a nice way of building in some long-term support for the game. The most recent patch added in multiplayer, which I think could be a blast. Most patches have grown the technology tree as well. I’m eager to see where Midjiwan takes this game next.
In the meantime, if you’ve been looking for a lunchtime 4X game, look no further. Heck, you could probably knock out two or three games during a lunch break if so inclined. While the game could certainly be layered with more systems (diplomacy, special resources, yadda yadda), its depth despite its simplicity is the game’s signature selling point. It really is a 4X game stripped down to the bare essentials, and I worry that adding much else to the pot would just cloud up the experience. For now, I’m happy with this game and suspect it will always have a place at home in my pocket. As for you… Well, Polytopia is free-to-try so why not?
TL;DR: The Battle for Polytopia is an atomized 4X game, crushed down to a mere 30-turns and played on out in a 16×16 microworld. It covers the basics of city growth, expansion, tech progression, and research with well thought-out mechanics that strip away the fat without taking the meaty strategic choices off of the table. Yes – the game could be saddled with more complexity, but that runs the risk of spoiling the carefully crafted and condensed gameplay. As is, the AI offers a surprising challenge and will press you to make some tough trade-offs. Couple this depth with a deceptively charming aesthetic, and you have a real winner.
You might like this game if:
- You want a shorter, compressed 4X game that can be played, start to finish, in less than 30 minutes
- You’ve been longing for a 4X game that scratches the world-conquering itch but fits in your pocket
- You don’t mind the one unit per tile combat system (which is done quite well, BTW) and enjoy chess-like tactical shenanigans
- You are easily seduced by the dark side of bright and shiny low-poly aesthetics
You might NOT like this game if:
- You have no interest in playing “simple things” – regardless of how deep or not they appear
- You stopped reading after I mentioned the game was free, despite it really being a premium mobile game at heart
- You’d find it too off-putting to play a 4X game without a diplomacy or espionage system
- You are looking for something with deep lore or narrative richness – Polytopia is pretty barebones (i.e. non-existent) in this regard
Oliver has played 15+ hours of The Battle for Polytopia on an iPhone 5s, iPhone 6s Plus, and iPad Mini.