The Cold War is singular in world history for the level of political complexity combined with the possibility for diplomatic failures to bring about a conflict which could engulf the known world in a horrifying level of destruction. But the period of the Avignon Papacy offers similarly high-stakes drama and intricate machinations, and is relatively unfamiliar to most modern audiences. As such, it’s an ideal setting for a heavy-weight successor to Twilight Struggle, or perhaps a highly thematic, negotiation-heavy behemoth (a role which, admittedly, is likely adequately occupied by Here I Stand). Avignon: A Clash of Popes isn’t one of those. It’s a small game which is actually less portable on an iPad than in physical form. It aims to offer a light, quick, but tense two-player contest between Rome and Avignon, in which each tries to recruit the support of influential people. You also occasionally recruit peasants, which probably won’t help much, but you never know.
The structure of Avignon is lane-based tug-of-war. Each turn you can take two different actions: pull a card toward you, push it toward your opponent, swap it for one of the cards not yet dealt, or use its special ability. These all have nicely thematic names like “Chastise” and “Petition”, but there’s no need to remember them. You win when you pull three to your side, so the special abilities are where the interest of the game lies. The most important of them for keeping this from being a stale efficiency exercise is the Noble, who provides a new victory condition: if you recruit the Noble to your side when your opponent has already recruited a Knight, you win, but if you’ve already recruited a Peasant, your opponent wins. The others all do some combination of moving various cards, and there are some neat combos there, but the possibility of a Noble gives the game a touch of jiu-jitsu, which keeps it from being obvious at all times how well each player is doing.
The design aims to give interesting gameplay with difficult decisions using very few rules and components, and largely delivers. It has one feature I detest, which is that it’s often possible for an opponent to react to your move by simply reversing it, leaving the game exactly where it was before. I don’t like it when games make me think about Existentialism and the absurdity of all human endeavors. Fortunately, both turns and games are quick enough that I’ll never have a chance to descend into ennui while playing Avignon.
Sadly, the app, though attractive, makes a few sensible but disappointing compromises, and a few moderately serious errors. In the first category, there’s no online multiplayer and the AI is very weak indeed. About the best I can say of the AI is that it’s technically possible to lose to it (though I’ve had it bring about a win for me on its own turn, so even that might be harder than you think). If you buy the expansion, you can set the AI’s level of aggression in the same screen in which you select which expansion characters to include in a custom game, but it’s never any good. In the second category, there are widespread reports of a bug whenever the AI uses the special ability of the Guildmaster expansion character, and I found another (see Figure 1). Bugs are somewhat less troubling in a game which is over in just a minute or two, happily. The other major error is a very poor design choice which comes up in local multiplayer. With players sitting on opposite sides of the device, the app smartly inverts the cards so they’re right-side-up during your turn. That’s wonderful, except when you’ve activated a power which allows your opponent to do something on your turn. In that case, there is no indication of this, and the cards don’t invert to show that it is the opponent who should select the move. Attentive players familiar with the rules will be able to work around this, but it’s a baffling choice in a game with so much free screen real estate.
I’m still disappointed in Apple for failing to make it easy for game developers to include online multiplayer. Game Center seemed to have such promise, and seems never to have quite reached it. Without that, the extremely weak AI makes Avignon only suitable for those looking for an alternative to the tabletop version of the game. The developer has reacted quickly to comments on BoardGameGeek and intends continued support, so there’s a good chance the bugs will be ironed out and my one major interface gripe addressed; in that case, it’ll be well-suited to light two-player local gaming. But if you don’t expect local gaming to be an option, there’s no good way to experience Avignon with the app.