Welcome back to the In-App Purchase Inspector - our regular look at free-to-play games from the consumer's perspective.
In each instalment, we consider the incentives or pressure applied to make in-app purchases, their perceived value, the expansion offered by IAPs and the overall value of the experience.
The end goal is to see whether the game makes a good enough case for us to part with our cash, or if players are content - or engaged enough - to 'freeload'.
This time, we're taking a look at turn-based strategy title Warlords - the debut release from Wooga's spun-off midcore studio Black Anvil.
Going from casual game development to midcore, or vice versa, is never an easy process.
When strategy game developer Goodgame Studios cut 114 jobs at its Hamburg headquarters in August, its new casual studio - barely a year old - was one of the biggest casualties.
And even Supercell hasn't managed to land a truly casual hit yet, canning its soft-launched match-3 puzzler Spooky Pop in February 2015.
So when the traditionally casual-focused Wooga spun out a dedicated midcore studio in Black Anvil, announcing a turn-based strategy game, one could be forgiven a certain wariness about the venture.
But now its debut game Warlords has actually been released worldwide, where does it sit in the increasingly crowded midcore strategy space?
Keeping it pure
Wilhelm Oesterberg, Head of Studio at Black Anvil, is a man with a clear vision.
He pushed the case for midcore gaming at Wooga for two years prior to Black Anvil's formation, and has strong ideas about how things should be done.
If you put auto-play in, something has gone wrong somehow.Wilhelm Oesterberg
“Everybody on the team more or less agreed that if you put auto-play in, something has gone wrong somehow,” he told PocketGamer.biz back in April, discussing Warlords' rejection of the trend towards automation in mobile strategy.
And indeed, what immediately stands out about Warlords is how traditional it is.
Presented from a top-down view, the turn-based combat takes place on a hex-tiled map - almost akin to what you might see in a classic tactical RPG.
But as a smart compromise to modernity, a ponderous pace is ditched in favour of super snappy animations that mean you can power through battles as quickly (or slowly) as you wish.
Up to speed?
The result, however, is a game that still very much errs on the 'core' side of midcore, with plenty of stats to pore over and a genuine depth that's perceptible from the off.
The game's monetisation isn't introduced until after an excessively long tutorial phase, and yet somehow still isn't properly explained. But, thankfully, it's all pretty straightforward.
There are two currencies: Gold (soft) and Diamonds (hard). You're granted 250 of the latter to start out with (worth approximately $2.50) and bundles range from $4.99 for 500 to $99.99 for 14,000.
Dewport Harbor is the hub for all the game's gacha-style random item drops.
One of the main places you'll be spending these is at Dewport Harbor, a mapped location that serves as the hub for all the game's gacha-style random item drops.
First there's the Merchant Ship, which provides the chance to get rare loot. Loot comes in all varieties, can also be gained through battle, and is used to upgrade your units.
Here, you can get a single item for 150 Gold or five for 675. There's also a new free shipment of five available to claim every four hours.
The premium alternative is the Smuggler's Ship, available for free every 12 hours, which charges 190 Diamonds for five random pieces of loot - including the guarantee of at least one shard.
Shards go towards unlocking new unit types (of which there are 19), the collection of which becomes a key part of Warlords' metagame.
Shards are a key part of Warlords' metagame.
And finally, priced out of contention for all but the high-rollers, there's the Imperial Ship. No freebies on this one, and it'll cost you a whopping 1,800 Diamonds (approximately $16) for 10 shards.
What're you buyin'?
For more specific gains, the merchant offers a new selection of six items - some priced in Diamonds, others in Gold - every 30 minutes.
But what's really smart (or evil, depending on your perspective) is the decision to charge 50 Diamonds to refresh the offering, allowing players who need just one more item for that elusive next upgrade to keep spending until they get it.
The player is nickel-and-dimed elsewhere, too, with niggly Gold costs for each upgrade, wait timers and new areas that often cost a lot of Gold to slowly unlock over a period of several hours.
But this feels like it goes hand in hand with the game's hardcore leanings. It's been a far more enjoyable experience thus far, but it reminds me of Mobile Strike.
One would struggle to think of a F2P turn-based strategy game as fully-featured as this.
Of that game, I wrote in this column that “its entire structure seems designed to immediately weed out those who aren't prepared to spend money”.
Furthermore, in MZ's effort I also identified a drawn-out tutorial phase that doesn't actually teach the player anything - also present here.
Its own beast
However, while Mobile Strike's approach is to bombard the player with hard monetisation and retailing from the minute they open the app, Warlords actually hides all that stuff away.
The idea seems to be that anyone who gets past the extended tutorial sequence - complete with the 200MB extra data download it precedes - is sold on the game and therefore willing to either spend money or grind through it.
And maybe Black Anvil is right to think this. After all, one would struggle to think of a F2P turn-based strategy game as fully-featured as this.
The idea of actual tactics might make your autoplay-conditioned blood run cold, but it admirably serves its niche.
The IAPs offer a decent bang for their buck, too, including a generous starter bundle that employs my absolute favourite system: a daily dripfeed of 100 Diamonds every day for a month, for just $2.99.
All in all, then, Warlords breaks a few key free-to-play rules with its slow start and reams of sometimes confusing stats.
But on the flipside, this makes it a refreshing break from the homogeneity of mobile strategy and a slice of genuine, good value, tactical fun.