After more than two years, I still have the absolutely worst time finding anything to play on my iPhone. And it' s not for want of trying, either.
The fact of the matter is that most mobile games aren't really meant for me. I refuse to continuously spend money to play a game I already own, I find most touchscreen design to be cumbersome rather than intuitive, and I'm not a big fan of either puzzle games or endless runners. That pretty much eliminates Candy Crush, Temple Rush, and yes, Angry Birds (in all its forms).
But if you're reading this article, chances are none of this is news to you. Perhaps, like me, you hate everything the platforms stands for, but wouldn't mind having something to break out for five minutes on the bus or train, and find the 3DS and Vita to be kind of cumbersome. I want you to know that I'm totally with you. That's why I'm writing this series: to help people like me find that one diamond among the dreck.
One thing I'll mention before I continue is that I'm omitting tablets because, while they have some pretty excellent games, I'm more interested in the immediacy offered by a traditional mobile device. Hence, no FTL, at least until it becomes a universal app (that iPhone 6 Plus screen is pretty big, after all).
Alright, here's my first recommendation.
Skulls of the Shogun
The premise: A famous shogun is stabbed in the back and washes up in the afterlife, where he discovers that he's been replaced by an imposter, prompting a roaring rampage of revenge. Skulls of the Shogun offers an interesting take on the turn-based strategy genre, eschewing hexes in favor of a more free-roaming approach, and including the ability to power up by literally devouring the skulls of your enemies. It's currently available on pretty much every system imaginable—even Ouya—but it's arguably at its best as a mobile strategy game.
The pitch: As with most iOS games, I picked up Skulls of the Shogun on a whim, downloading it shortly before heading off to Europe. There it remained untouched until, bored waiting for my number to be called at a service desk in Berlin, I fired it up. I knew I had a winner when I didn't want to close it after five minutes, which is the case with roughly 99 percent of the other iOS games that I download.
I was initially grabbed by its art style. Rendered in striking 2D art, Skulls of the Shogun manages to look good even on my little iPhone 5, and its suffers absolutely no slowdown. The former point is important to me because a lot of commercial mobile games these days are rendered in dull, flavorless 3D reminiscent of the early PlayStation 2 era. They lack character and are quite frankly boring to look at. Thankfully, that's not an issue for Skulls of the Shogun, which leans heavily on stylization for its graphical appeal.
Perhaps even more importantly, Skulls of the Shogun's interface doesn't suffer on the small screen. This is a big deal because a lot of strategy games can end up feeling crammed and difficult to navigate, making them unfeasible on mobile devices. Skulls of the Shogun, by contrast, benefits from a minimalist interface that eliminates extraneous numbers and gauges. Commands only appear after selecting a character, and even then they are functional without being intrusive. The rare moments when characters become clumped and difficult to differentiate are easily alleviated by pinch-zooming in closer to the battlefield.
The strategy is similarly well-developed. Playing in some ways like X-COM, units can move anywhere within a given range, and can expend the rest of their movement gauge following their attack. Cavalry units are especially useful in this regard as they can conduct hit-and-run attacks, minimizing their frailty with extreme mobility. As the campaign continues, it becomes possible to capture ride paddies that heal units and produce resources that can be spent on new soldiers, making them important objectives.
Skulls of the Shogun's most interesting element, though, is the way in which units are powered up. Upon defeating a foe, it's possible for a friendly unit to devour their skull and extend their life gauge. Eat three skulls, and the unit becomes a demon capable of acting twice in a single turn. Naturally, the guardians of the afterlife as horrified and disgusted by such wanton cannibalism, but they soon engage in it themselves, making each map into a kind of arms race—let your enemies eat too many skulls, and they will soon become unstoppable.
Resource production, multiple unit classes, and interesting movement mechanics make Skulls of the Shogun one of the more involved strategy games you will find on iOS, but it feels surprisingly breezy thanks to its lightweight interface. For that reason, it feels like a perfect fit for mobile devices. And no, there aren't any microtransactions.
Comparable experiences are tough to find on iPhone/Android. Those that are equally deep are often saddled with impenetrable interfaces, hampering the kind of accessibility that facilitates a quick game on a bus or in a waiting room. Others, like Civilization Revolution 2, are surprisingly shallow (not to mention ugly). Skulls of the Shogun straddles that line with relative ease, making it a rare bird on the iPhone.
So if you're looking for a nice, juicy game that fits snugly within the limitations of the iPhone, Skulls of the Shogun is a very good place to start. In the meantime, stay strong, fellow iOS haters. There's an ocean of crap out there, but a few gems as well. We'll find them together.