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Here we find that most elusive of creatures: a 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) strategy game for iOS that's not compromised by a free-to-play model. Autumn Dynasty Warlords scores a victory on that front alone. This tale of martial ambition in ancient China may have a harder time conquering on some other fronts, but its simple strengths usually suffice to rout its flaws.
It's essentially Shogun: Total War Lite, delivering a compact take on that PC favorite. Warlords is designed for conquests on 10-minute subway rides, and thus it lacks the depth of, say, Sid Meier's Civilization – though what's here does the trick. Diplomatic missions exist, for instance, but they involve little more than clicking on an officer and sending him to chat or trade with rivals. City building, that old mobile strategy standby, also guest stars here to let you train new units and generate resources, but space limits keep it from detracting from Warlords’ focus on bite-sized schemes. Each element yields enough complexity that the tutorial pop-ups never sufficiently explain Warlords’ nuances, but the gameplay's straightforward enough that you should pick them up on your own.
All of this is secondary to the dirty business of war and the multiple battles it takes to conquer a province. There's beauty here that gives new meaning to the "art of war," both in the attractive aesthetic inspired by early Chinese watercolors and in the sweeping brushstrokes that trail your fingers as you direct troop movements through terrain. Pity, then, that it sometimes fades in battle. Troops tend to work as intended, but strategy falls flat as soldiers automatically attack when they're near enemies (and bugged foes may not fight at all), and the limited troop selections for both sides sometimes turn warfare into barefaced games of rock-paper-scissors.
Other aspects threaten to spoil the fun, such as the absence of a multiplayer mode and the ever-present time limits for battles. Master Autumn Dynasty Warlords’ quirks and start to expand your empire, however, and you'll discover a rewarding mobile strategy experience that currently has few peers.
The bottom line. Autumn Dynasty Warlords does a great job of translating 4X strategy for mobile play, although its simplicity threatens the appeal of its combat.
iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch running iOS 4.3 or later
Gorgeous Chinese watercolor-styled art style. No microtransactions. Presents workable standbys of 4X strategy while keeping gameplay fast.
No multiplayer. Occasionally buggy troops. Lightweight tutorials.