How do you take one of the deepest single-player experiences on iOS and make it appeal to the multiplayer crowd? Keeping all the depth and reducing the price to virtually zero is the strategy embraced by Ravenmark: Mercenaries (Out Now, Free). If you’re already a fan of Witching Hour Studios’ cult classic TBS Scourge of Estellion, suffice it to say you can’t go wrong with hitting that “download” link and giving this multiplayer sequel a whirl. And if you missed out on the first for fear that it just wasn’t your style, consider this review a testament that Mercenaries is one of the most involving strategy games you’ll find for free.

That said, I can’t shake the feeling that Mercenaries is a grand experiment. It strives to be so many things at once: an outright sequel, a multiplayer expansion that appeals to a wider audience, a price model experiment, a stage for gameplay improvements. Mercenaries pulls off a coup in some of these roles; in others it turns in a valiant fight but falls short of perfection.

RMM1Mercenaries inherits the Standing Orders and formation systems that made Scourge a top dog in its genre. Here’s the gist: you go into battle with many units at your disposal, but you have a limited store of command points and won’t be able to assign orders to all these units in any given turn. Unless you get really creative, that is. Linking units into formations lets you move two or three at the cost of one, and you can set a unit to repeat a specific order turn after turn at no further cost. This places the weight of gameplay on the process of maneuver: the Ravenmark formula is about getting your units in the right place at the right time to take advantage of turn order, attack range, passive and active skills, and myriad other nuances.

Mercenaries outdoes Scourge in two respects. First and foremost, pitting your tactical instincts and knowledge of the system against other human brains makes for a downright exhilarating experience. Witching Hour did a standout job crafting a tough CPU in Scourge, but there’s just no way it can compete with the unpredictability you’ll find in a multiplayer environment. Whether you get a Ravenmark veteran or a newbie through the game’s random online matchup, you’re bound to face some perplexing maneuvers that’ll test your ability to dream up new strategies on the fly. As described in our hands-on preview, the asynchronous system here is very flexible in that it lets you tackle giant battles in bite-sized chunks, but also rack up several matches at once to stay occupied if you’ve got more time on your hands.

RMM3Secondly, fans are getting some of the very improvements on the original formula they’ve been salivating for. Whereas Scourge feeds the player a set assortment of units every battle, you now decide which types of soldiers to field. It’s worth noting, however, that choice occurs at the brigade level and not the individual unit level. The impossibility of packing your side of the field with high-value units can still feel limiting, but it ensures all players go in with certain disadvantages — a smart call on the developer’s part considering the shift to multiplayer. A hiring ground lets you trade earned reward cash for specialized brigades that open up new tactical possibilities, which gives you something very cool to work toward if you stick around for the long haul. Mercenaries brings the Ravenmark interface to a new level of perfection, letting the player view or hide battlefield obstacles in ways I wish existed in Scourge.

A cool gameplay tweak that I didn’t see coming is the addition of a morale unit that carries each player’s banner. Keeping the flag bearer well centered among your heavy hitters grants your army stat bonuses; let this unit fall and your army will weaken. The flag bearer’s presence adds one more layer to your strategic options: you can pick apart your foes as you normally would have in Scourge, or go straight for the bannermen to soften the opposition first. Your banner, in turn, gets more customizable as in-game rewards pile up.

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