Aerial strategy games usually have a niche appeal. Although there have been a number of board games tackling the subject, only a few computer games, such as Flight Commander and Over the Reich, spring to mind. That’s probably because the tactical aspects of air-to-air combat are hard to capture quite right. We know how to take down the Red Baron when we’re in control of a 3D sim and can perform an immelmann after a strafing run, but converting the knowledge into a turn-based tactical simulation can be tricky.
SteamBirds does a fair job of capturing these tactical elements, but it’s not really a wargame or tacsim. This is a casual strategy game with an aerial combat theme. The premise offers an alt-history WWI/II in which steam-power aircraft do battle with a variety of souped-up tech and weapons. Frankly, other than giving it a nice veneer of steampunk, the alt-history aspect doesn’t actually affect gameplay very much. Since all the aircrafts’ powers are relative within the game world, you might as well be flying von Richthofen vs. Brown.
The gameplay itself is one of puzzle-like maneuver. You set a path or action for your planes with a little arrow, and then advance the clock a bit. The aircraft turn, speed up, reverse course, or perform other special functions in approximately 3-second intervals, and then you adjust the paths again.
Battles thus become a matter of choreography, as you jostle for the best position on an enemy six without overshooting them, or make slashing hit-and-runs on larger, slower-moving targets. It’s a terrificly entertaining–and often remarkably challenging–combination of elements, and I can’t really think of any other app quit like it.
The visual style is very appealing, and the designed translates almost perfectly to the iPhone format.The only tricky part is the occasional lack of precision when grabbing an arrow. They can fall fairly close to each other, making selection a little challenging. That’s neither a large nor a widespread problem, but it crops up enough to be worth noting. The Java version, which has become something of an indie classic, is a more natural fit for the design, but the app works just fine.
SteamBirds is an easy one to recommend for strategy gamers, but if you have any doubts just play the game itself, for free. The entire thing can be found at steambirds.net.