Ah, Stratego. A game with rules so simple you'll understand them fully the first time you play, and yet so open to strategy and cleverness that you'll never play the same game twice. With its fast setup and addictive play style, it's the kind of game you find yourself playing twenty rounds of when you only wanted to play one or two. The fact that the board game is a stone-cold classic doesn't mean anything if the port itself is lousy; so how, exactly, does Stratego: Next Edition fare? Pretty well, actually.
For those unfamiliar with the game, Stratego is played on a single board that’s laid out like a grid. When the game begins, each army (red and blue) positions its pieces wherever they like on their side of the board, and neither player can see which opposing pieces are which. The pieces each contain a number, though exceptions to this rule do follow, and this number determines their rank. When a piece of a higher rank attacks (or is attacked by) a piece of a lower rank, it defeats the piece of lower rank which is then removed from play. If two pieces are of the same rank, they are both out of the game. The two exceptions are the flag and the bomb. When a flag is touched by any piece, it is captured and the game ends in the captor's favour. When the bomb is touched by any piece, that piece is removed immediately and the bomb remains.
Of course, it can't be that simple, can it? Certain pieces have additional abilities. The Miner (rank 3) can defuse bombs, and he's the only one who can do so, which makes him valuable and always worth protecting. The Scout (rank 2) can leap over as many empty spaces as he likes, whereas the other pieces can only move one at a time. Finally we have the Spy, who despite being a measly rank 1, can actually take out the highest ranking piece on the board (rank 10), provided the Spy is the one attacking.
This may sound like a lot to remember, but Next Edition always reminds you of which pieces are capable of what whenever you touch them with your stylus. This is nice, as you don't have to keep asking the friend you're playing with what each piece can do, more or less giving away the arrangement of your troops as you do so.
Next Edition keeps the classic Stratego formula intact, which means you're not likely to discover any unpleasant surprises if you're already familiar with the game. Everything in this game is controlled with the stylus, which couldn't be easier, though we do wish the game required you to be a bit less precise when tapping the screen; many times we had to issue the same command twice because we were tapping a pixel or two away from where we needed to be.
There are two main modes of play, single player and multiplayer, and several additional modes relating to each. In single player you can play a classic game or a popular variant in which the game board is rotated 90 degrees – believe us, it changes the strategy more than you'd think. Then there’s Stratego Duel, which is a much faster game in which each player only gets 10 pieces, rather than the traditional 40. It's a very different experience, requiring a totally unique method of planning, so it can be considered as a puzzle mode, of sorts.
Whichever mode you choose, you will then be presented with several options. Of primary interest here is the difficulty, which includes three settings. Easy setting will still put up a good fight for new players, but even the most seasoned Stratego veterans will get their money’s worth out of Hard mode. In fact, the ability to play a legitimately challenging game of Stratego without having anyone else around may justify the cost on its own.
You can also choose to use a pre-determined lineup which, puzzlingly, is the default option. We didn't see much appeal in this, any more than we'd see the appeal of letting somebody else make our first ten chess moves for us before we got to play. You also get to choose to control the red or blue army, which also determines who moves first. An option to randomise this decision would have been nice. Pleasingly, you can choose to save any game and return to it later, but the games are commonly pretty quick so this is more a bonus than a necessity.
On the less pleasant side of things, the game features only one music track during play; this is of decent length and quite good, but strangely when it ends it takes up to a full minute for the music to loop again. Also, some customisation options for single player gameplay would have been a good addition. For example, once you discover the identity of an enemy piece, its rank is displayed for the rest of the game. Depending upon the house rules you use when playing the board game, you may have revealed the piece's identity for that turn only or not have identified that piece at all, just telling the attacker whether they won or lost. Similar options would have been an enjoyable bonus to this title.
Multiplayer plays much like the game you remember. With another player nearby you get to tease, taunt and mislead them as you see fit, and they get to do the same to you. There's no Download Play however, so you both must own the game. In fact, Custom Stratego sees you choosing unique, unlockable rules every time you play, and that can lead to some truly unpredictable outcomes. The other multiplayer-only game is Open Stratego, which allows each player to see all of the other player's placement choices from the start.
All in all, Next Edition is faithful to the original game, and the graphical flourishes take special care not to get in the way of a clean and simple presentation. Stratego may not be a game you always wished you could play alone against a computerised opponent, but once it kicks your butt on Hard mode, you won't rest until you get your revenge.
While the absence of true customisation is a little puzzling, Stratego: Next Edition mainly delivers on its promise of a strong port of a classic game. Your mileage with it will, of course, depend on your enjoyment of Stratego in general. If you dislike the original game, this release won't provide much to change your mind. On the other hand, if you adore Stratego, we doubt you'll regret the purchase. It may look a bit different than you remember, but all of the fun is intact, and Hard mode is going to keep even the best players busy when they can't find a partner. At 500 points, Statego: Next Edition will make for a lot of happy fans.