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Etherlords is a free to play strategy game based on the PC franchise of the same name. Without having played the original games, I can't speak to how much this game has in common with its namesakes. As a standalone experience, however, Etherlords for iOS packs a surprising amount of strategy into 3-on-3 battles that last only a minute or two each and provide the player with the matter they need to rebuild the world using a Carcassonne-inspired tile-laying system.

Story-wise, the world has been shattered somehow and is gradually falling apart. The player is an Etherlord with the power to restore the world to rights, one bit at a time, but they need matter to do so and to get more matter they must gather creatures and use them to battle against other Etherlords. The matter so obtained is converted into tiles which can be placed as in Carcassonne, with the player only able to put tiles in spaces where the edges match adjacent tiles and is trying to create complete things like forests, plains, and lakes. Completing segments of the world in turn provides creatures to use for battle, creating a cycle of battling and world building that keeps the two from feeling like wholly separate things.

The player takes three creatures into battle, chosen from any in their pool. Every creature has an attack stat, a health stat, and a special ability. Special abilities can be single- or multi-target offensive moves, but they can also be defensive, such as healing and buffs. Before a battle begins, the player can see the opposing three units and swap out units if they so wish. The battles themselves have two phases, a phase in which each side gets three auto-attacks and a special abilities phase. If one side has only one or two creatures remaining, they still get three auto-attacks; the same creature will attack multiple times. At the beginning of the special abilities phase, elemental glyphs may appear, and if a creature of the right element is standing on it at the end of the phase (still alive and there either because it was there already or the player moved the creature to it instead of using a special ability), that creature's special ability will gain a power boost for the next round. In both phases, the player gets the initiative. The side that destroys all three of the enemy's creatures first wins the battle, even if they do so with only one hit point on one creature remaining.

Ostensibly, the player is battling other players. The game can be played offline, though, and there's never a wait for another player to choose their moves or any time limits on making one's own moves, so it seems that the game matches the player up with just the army of another player.

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Etherlords eschews any overt playtime control mechanics such as stamina and taking forever to get things done. Instead, each part of the world to be restored is a separate mission, with losing too many battles or using too many tiles to restore the world fragment as soft failure conditions. Upon hitting a failure condition, the player is given the option to refill their number of chances in exchange for a currency which is easily earned in game, but which can also be purchased for real money... and which is also used to fuse creatures together to level up whichever creature is chosen as the base. Choosing to allow the failure condition to trigger means the player must restart the mission altogether. Since new creatures can only be obtained through world building unless the player is willing to put down cash on the game, restarting a mission isn't always a bad thing for players who enjoy the gameplay enough to be okay with a bit of grinding.

Most free to play games for mobile lose my interest within about fifteen minutes of beginning to play. However, I find myself picking up Etherlords again and again, and even installed it on my phone in addition to my iPad. There's a lot of depth to the battle system for all its simplicity, and while it's very easy to fit in a few matches here and there, the game is also fun to play for extended periods of time. It's a free universal app on the iTunes store, so if you have an iDevice you should at least give it look.

[Etherlords]