A head to head battle of rival thieve guilds!
Android & iOS
# of Players
1 - 2
Antihero is a 4x digital board game from Versus Evil which pits players as rival thieves guilds battling for supremacy in a setting pulled straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. Players take control of a Master Thief to explore an area of town, fight opponents, carry out assassinations, bribe, blackmail clergy, and recruit new guild members to assist along the way. The game has an extensive leveling system and takes around twenty minutes to play, ending when either player reaches the required victory point total.
Time for our disclaimer; Antihero is NOT a port. You’re not missing anything when you can’t find it on BGG. We occasionally review games that aren’t ports when they clearly draw inspiration from board games, and Antihero it is titled “Antihero - Digital Board Game” on the iTunes listing. The game was in development for a few years before hitting PC/Mac in July 2017, and mobile in early 2018.
Both players in Antihero start with their Master Thief and a home base, the majority of the game's city play area is undiscovered. On each turn a player may perform each of three types of actions: exhaust their Master Thief’s actions, use the action of each other guild member, and purchase an upgrade from their store/tech tree. The Master Thief can scout new areas, burgle buildings, or attack (once you unlock the ability). Using coins, you can recruit new guild members to perform other valuable tasks. Their primary tasks are infiltrating buildings for bonuses, evicting buildings your opponent has infiltrated, attacking other characters, and defending yourself. Guild members come in a few different types and they can each perform one or more of these actions, the ability to recruit each guild member type must be unlocked as the game progresses. The goal is to accumulate the required number of victory points before your opponent, the number varies based on map or custom setting, with the max being ten. VPs are usually earned in three ways: assassinating a marked target, blackmailing a church via infiltration, or bribing officials. I say “usually” because there are some maps with their own additional VP conditions.
The game has two currencies; coins and lanterns. Coins are used to recruit new guild members while lanterns are used to purchase upgrades via the game’s tech tree such as unlocking guild members or even buying a bribe for a VP. There are a number of paths you can take in the tech tree, the choices you make here which will shape the game. Coins and lanterns can be gained a number of different ways, providing many avenues to success.
The last major component of the game are the six guild members that can be added to help your guild. Urchin: workers who infiltrate buildings. Thug: block the path of opposing guild members or join your gang to increase its HP. Gang: attackers who can kill enemies. Saboteur: plant explosives in buildings you control to prevent evictions. Assassin: one time use attackers who can take out strong foes. Truant Officer: evict opposing player's urchins from a building, causing them to be lost forever. Many of these members have upgrades you can unlock by infiltration, the tech tree, or carrying out their actions.
Those are the basics of the game, with each aspect having its own depth that we can’t fully dive into here if we want to keep this to a reasonable length. Just one example, the buildings you infiltrate give you a bonus upon the first urchin added, nothing for the second, but a large gain for the third. A church gives you one gold per turn to start, then when the third urchin arrives you earn blackmail status which brings a VP. Beware, however, as your opponent can evict those urchins which causes you to lose that point and gold, but naturally you can counter this with a saboteur. This commitment/reward system makes for interesting decisions. It’s not useful to house two urchins in a building, so do you hurry to get three or spread out across more buildings with only one, ignoring the larger benefits provided by 3 urchins?
As mentioned, Antihero is a 4x game; Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate. 4x games are typically huge endeavors, but Antihero does a great job of distilling the genre down to its basics and allowing most games to played in under 30 minutes, but that does vary as the number of VPs required to win changes. The thing that really stands out for us is how balanced everything is. A strong gang, for example, can absolutely wreck havoc on their opponent. However, the game offers assassins which, while not cheap to unlock or recruit, can take out even the strongest gang in one attack. Gangs take quite a few turns to upgrade from basic to full strength powerhouses, that the game gives you a way to take them out in one single swoop is a huge balance check which helps prevent potential runaways.
The takeaway from all of this is that game all works together very well. Games often turn quickly with a key eviction or string of assassinations. Some games end relatively quickly if one player can race to some churches and assassinations their opponent fails to counter, but most of the time both sides build up formidable guilds and play out a fun battle for limited resources. Carefully planning an assassination, protecting a church you have blackmailed, bribing at the right time, it all plays together so well and really plays off of the theme. Antihero is a great game with very thoughtful design choices throughout, we’re impressed.
Barrier to Entry
Without a physical game to rely on, Antihero can’t assume players come in with any sort of knowledge about how to play. This works in the game’s favor as we’ve seen some other apps seemingly breeze through tutorials which can leave new players struggling. Antihero doesn’t offer a separate tutorial, but rather uses the first few stops in campaign mode to teach the game. The first campaign game is short and acts almost purely as a tutorial to introduce the very basics of the game, it does a great job of hammering home the basic actions. The second goes a few steps further and is also an abbreviated game. The third introduces almost all of the remaining pieces of the game and generally lets players guide themselves. All in all, the campaign does a fantastic job in teaching the game. It holds the player’s hand when appropriate then slowly builds on that until they are ready to play on their own. The only gripe in this category is a lack of a rulebook to use as reference, but the tutorial works well enough that it isn’t a big deal.
How to gain VPs
Early in a game
Look and Feel
Antihero looks great. The artwork jumps off of the screen, with the guild members’ bright colors and cartoon graphics really standing out among the dark and dreary cityscapes they inhabit. The menus carry out the theme well, it is an all-around great visual package. The controls are good as well but could really use an undo button (assuming your action didn’t uncover any previously hidden information, such as scouting a new area). Especially in my first handful of plays, I would immediately realize that a move I just made was suboptimal. To be fair, there is a “confirm” button on the actions, so if I made better choices this wouldn’t be an issue.
The biggest gripe here are a few nagging slowdown/loading issues. On Android, the app handles screen locks particularly poorly. If your screen locks during a game, unlocking it will present you with a blank screen. Exiting and re-opening the app will fix everything, and the games do auto-save, so you won’t lose anything, but you’d really expect a game to be able to recover from a screen lock. And, for the record, this isn’t the only app that has issues there, so this isn’t a unique problem. Some load times are a little long and the app doesn’t offer much feedback at times to let you know its still working, a frozen loading icon in the corner is a common sight when you first launch a game. It takes long enough that Android offers up the “App isn’t responding” dialogue every now and then. These all seem like fixable issues and once the game gets going (and you don’t lock your screen), everything plays just fine.
Antihero features two online play modes: Casual and Live which are asynchronous and real-time games, respectively. Either mode can be played via invite or with a random opponent. Finding a random opponent will result in a game on a randomly selected board. If you choose, you can invite a specific player to a casual match with custom settings. These include selecting which map you want and a handful of options described below in the Single Player section. The game features both system and email notifications, you can turn off the email notifications via game settings.
Antihero works very well as an asynchronous game and a little less well as a real-time game. The primary reason being that turns will take a few minutes to complete once the game gets rolling. There is a time limit on turns, but there is still a lot of downtime which makes asynchronous play a great fit for Antihero. Another minor Live annoyance is that the game doesn’t prevent the screen from locking so unless you have a long lock set for your screen, it will sleep while waiting for opposing players, and we’ve already discussed the issues with the game handling screen locks.
There is a local pass-and-play option in Antihero. The game provides a blacked out screen after one player completes their turn to ensure that the play areas aren’t seen between players. There are online leaderboards for both casual and live modes, which rank players based on total wins or skill rating.
Single player in Antihero is in the from of a campaign mode or custom matches versus AI. All of the single player modes have Easy/Normal/Hard difficulty levels to choose from. As mentioned earlier, the first few of the campaign games act as a tutorial to get you familiar with various aspects of the game. The first two are very much hand-holding games which seem setup as easy wins. The third really ramps up the difficulty and will take new players some work to prevail. The fourth level introduces the final guild member type which essentially wraps up the tutorial portion. The opponents in campaign have their own strengths which provide unique challenges compared to standard AI games. All in all, the campaign is well implemented and a fun addition beyond just its use as a tutorial. I have my hands full against Normal AI, Hard is truly a stout challenge, but it is nice to see the range of difficulty levels.
For the custom AI matches (and casual/pass-and-play multiplayer), there are a handful of customization options you can change which can greatly scale the game in different directions. Those are: number of VPs required to win, bribes (on or off), blackmail (on or off), starting number of gold/lanterns, number of turns a thug/explosive lasts, cost for an assassin/truant officer, and starting gang/thug health. These can greatly change the way any game plays, if toggled a certain way you could be drawing out the game to an epic length, or you can speed things up considerably, or just tweak certain parts of the rules to your tastes. It is great to see this many settings the player can alter to customize the game.
Small map game
The only in-app purchases available at this time are skins for the Master Thief which run about a buck or two. You can purchase a group of skins from the Armello universe (full disclosure; I had to look up what that was. It’s another digital board game), a single Oliver Twist skin or “The Book Club” which are Alice (in Wonderland), Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes, and Tiny Tim. The game has such a striking visual style that skins are a fun addition, albeit not something every player is going to be interested in.
The Wrap Up
Antihero is a great game with a great app. There are a few issues here and there that could use some cleanup, but the overall package is impressive considering the amount of modes, quality of the visuals, and the strength of the game itself. With straight-to-digital board games like this, it’s fun to look at what advantages the game is using that could only be pulled off in a digital setting. The clear answer here is the amount of hidden movement information as your opponent can’t see what you’re doing until they come explore your side of the map. The random setup is also a factor which helps make each game unique. This could probably be pulled off in a physical game, but the amount of bookkeeping would likely explode the playtime and complexity past the point of fun. It is great to see designers and developers teaming up to get interesting digital games like Antihero released, we look forward to more of them in the future.