Paul and Dave have a dream. Their dream involves nothing less than producing "a new era in online casual gaming," and with powerhouse showpieces like Desktop Tower Defense and Flash Element Tower Defense to their credit, they just might achieve their goal. Under the name Novel Concepts, they recently launched The Casual Collective, a social center for multiplayer gaming based around Paul and Dave's game designs. Play there for free, or spend a few dollars to upgrade your membership and enjoy special privileges, like additional game modes and loftier social status. An upgraded membership is only $5 (or $1 if a member signs you up), but if you register a free account, you can still enjoy most of what the site has to offer. The Casual Collective comes with a full set of networking options, including leader boards, chat rooms, and member groups. Be sure to join the jayisgames group, so you can easily find other JIGsters!
If you're just there for the games, though, I suggest you check out Desktop Armada, a tour de force of action strategy that successfully combines the grand sweep of naval warfare with the joy of pushing around a plastic tugboat going "TOOT TOOT". Take command of your very own fleet of model ships and send them across a forbidding wooden ocean to destroy the enemy base, while the opposing commodore tries to do the same to you.
First you'll probably want to play through a few of the single-player missions, which can be found on the Games Menu behind the blue button marked "Desktop Armada Missions". Six training challenges will walk you through the various ship types and options. Once you're feeling confident, you can either head over to the multi-player room (the purple "Desktop Armada" button) or tackle the "Medium" missions, which will trounce you soundly and make you feel bad about yourself. In the future, perhaps we can look forward to "Hard" missions that actually reach through the screen and throttle you, but for now, Paul and Dave are going easy on us.
The game itself is compact and accessible. Four ships are at your disposal: the speedy Patrol Boat, the well-armored Destroyer, the long-range Missile Boat, and the giant Battleship. To launch an attack, simply choose one of your six ports, click on the "build" button for the appropriate unit, and watch your new warship sail into battle.
You have no control over your ships once they launch, which makes Desktop Armada a game of planning rather than reflexes. You are free to concentrate on overall strategy as your tiny fleet rushes to its destiny.
Each port has four preset paths assigned to it, indicated by the thick blue line drawn across the screen, and which you can cycle through either with the [A] and [D] keys or by clicking on the origin of the path. When you build a new ship, it will follow whichever waypoint schedule you have selected. Clever use of attack routes can send ships on flanking maneuvers or join several units together in a powerful formation.
When two opposing ships meet, they fight. Certain ships have a natural advantage over others, so it will pay off to learn, for example, that an hulking battleship can be taken down by a handful of nimble patrol boats. If you favor a particular type of unit, you have the option to upgrade it. Tougher ships are more expensive, but if you plan to win on the backs of destroyers, you'll want to have the best destroyers around.
If you want to, you can control every aspect of the game by mouse, but there are plenty of useful keyboard shortcuts. I ended up using my left hand on the keyboard to switch between ports and choose attack routes, while my right hand on the mouse built and upgraded ships, but you may find another layout more convenient.
Analysis: Desktop Armada's artwork follows in the footsteps of Desktop TD: clean and handsome, with an emphasis on conveying information effectively. Simple shadow effects and pleasant wood textures effectively illustrate the concept that this is a tabletop game come to life.
Sliding bars let you adjust the sound effects and the mournful background music, but these are probably the weakest part of the package. The only sounds are miniature explosions and the pew-pews of cannon fire, leaving the player's direct interaction with the game completely silent. There should be a sound when you click a button to build a ship, another sound when the ship launches, a sound when you switch between ports, etc. Without those audio cues, it can be easy to lose track of what you're doing in the heat of battle.
In every other regard, Desktop Armada could serve as the blueprint for casual strategy games — it's fun, accessible, and dynamic. The philosophy behind every aspect of the game is to provide limited options with unlimited possibilities. You will quickly develop cunning strategies, only to discard them when you encounter an opponent with better ideas. Your upgraded patrol boat swarm may dominate one game, but be decimated by a pack of missile boats the next. Some approaches are stronger than others, but there is no single attack plan that cannot be thwarted. The action is constant, due to a clever income system that discourages stalemates by rewarding you for keeping boats in the field. And with a typical game lasting around 5 minutes, even after a total rout you never have to wait long to dust yourself off and try again.
Gameplay runs smoothly, even when your opponent has a weak internet connection, thanks to sophisticated programming that continually makes adjustments to the frame rate and graphics quality. The Casual Collective is still young, so it's not always possible to find a game at odd hours, and much of the competition is made up of seasoned beta testers, but the only solution to these issues is to spread the word and get your friends playing.
So I'm doing my part with this review. Desktop Armada is an elegant game of remarkable depth; an excellent pastime for casual gamers and real-time strategy nuts alike; and a sign of great things to come. Paul and Dave may take over the world yet.