Review of Ex-Illis
Bastion Studios really wanted to do something new with Ex-Illis. The only problem is that their idea is way ahead of the technology that currently exists. The hybrid miniatures/video game approach only solves problems that Ex-Illis created in the first place. In the end, Ex-Illis neither a good video game nor a good miniatures game.
Since this review was written, Bastion Studios have made a number of changes to Ex-Illis. for details, see the updates at the bottom of the article.
Ex-Illis is the debut game from Bastion Studios. Like many other companies before, Bastion Studios had the idea to use computer software to facilitate the miniature war gaming experience. Unlike other companies though, Bastion Studios would require players to use their software and not include any traditional form of rule book with the game. This forced computer model only ended up harming game play. While it allowed more in depth tactics in some areas, other tactics had to be scaled back and the whole miniatures aspect of the game seemed to be an answer to a problem which never needed to exist.
Set in the 1300's, this historical fantasy game had a disturbingly similar back story to Arcane Legions. According to the story, a mysterious mist covered Europe creating all sorts of fantasy creatures. Now, with Europe crumbling, angels and demons fight alongside conventional military forces.
Ex-Illis's strongest point is the wide range of combat tactics available to players. Every unit type in the game has several different attack options and special powers. In addition, units can gain experience from battle to battle and earn new and more powerful abilities. Unfortunately, since there is no fast way to tell a computer where your miniatures are on a battlefield, movement tactics took a kick to the crotch. A standard game is played on a 20 square board so a unit is really in one of two positions: Inside charge range or outside charge range. I also found it difficult to block units from cavalry charges since they usually just move around your front line units. Ex-Illis has this flank mechanic which gives charging units a bonus for attacking into the back of enemies. While most of the time the flank attack works great, I've seen the software grant the flank attack bonus to units charging into the flanks of their own units and not the flank of the enemy.
Ex-Illis's software is buggy double edged sword. Without any dice to roll or tables to look up, Ex-Illis flows from event to event in a smooth fashion. Games played with the starter set contents last 30-45 minutes. Also, the art quality of the game is quite beautiful. All the characters, animations, and special powers look awesome. Unfortunately, issues with the software begin with downloading and installing it. The Ex-Illis software is a 1.23 GB download!!!! Then, every time I went to install the software, it would take 10 minutes for the installer to launch. No other program I have ever run on my computer has had that problem.
Once you get into the game, you will be treated to all sorts of fun graphical bugs. If a charge annihilates an enemy unit, the enemy unit won't even be rendered. Sometimes, dead soldiers stand up only to collapse again once they are magically teleported to the next screen. Other times, units will play their death animation two or more times while being attacked. To be fair, these are just graphical bugs. Ex-Illis is correctly tracking the game play stats which is the most important part. Also, future updates to the software could resolve these bugs.
One of the most annoying features of Ex-Illis is the insane amount of DRM that Bastion Studios placed on their figures. You cannot do the following:
1 – Proxy Figures[See Update #2]
2 – Create New Units
3 – Create Special Missions
4 – Use House Rules
5 – Openly Share Figures with Other Players
6 – Sell or Trade Figures without giving money to Bastion Studios
7 – Use the Leveling/Experience System without playing other human opponents who own their own figures.
DRM has never worked on digital media, so it is disappointing to see Bastion Studios bring such a terrible idea to the tabletop. I think the reason this game has DRM is because there is no real reason to buy figures in the first place. I've actually played several small games without the figures. The only purpose of the figures is to give players a complete overview at the battlefield because the software will not display one. Keep in mind that the software could give you a complete overview of the battlefield because it has this information, but Bastion Studios chose to suppress that feature.
I really think Ex-Illis wants to be that cool holographic chess game from Star Wars, but the technology for such a game is just not available. The meshing of miniatures and video game is forced and unnatural. For $70, you can get a box of 54 really awesome looking figures, but that is all you are going to get. In the end, you are just paying miniature war game prices to play a sub-par video game.
Update #1- July 23rd 2010
Bastion Studios have released a few updates to Ex-Illis which address some of original issues I had with the game.
1) As expected, they have released new versions of their rule keeping software. These new versions help address the assortment of bugs that I encountered in my review.
2) Bastion Studios have added a Wiki to their site which discusses the tactics and mechanics of the units in the game. This helps to take away some of "Magic and Vodoo" feel of the rule keeping software.
3) While still not available, Bastion Studios is working on modifying the software to add scenarios are other missing features that are common to other games.
4) If you read this before GenCon 2010, Bastion Studios is hosting a tournament(PDF) as well as large scale demos of the game.
Update #2 - August 23rd 2010
Bastion Studios have notified me that they have been beta testing a feature which allows players to try any unit for free. I do not have the details on this feature, or a release date, but I was told it will be going public very soon.