You often hear the expression "Christmas in July," but this is the first time I've seen Halloween come in May. That appears to be the case in the latest 1v1 turn-based strategy game for iOS from Firaxis (XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Civilization V) and 2K Games. Despite its odd release window, Haunted Hollow proves to be charming and engaging, even managing to overcome many typical free-to-play tropes.
Haunted Hollow takes place over dual mountaintops, perfect real estate for building haunted houses. The twin precipices overlook a Victorian-era village, rife for the scaring. The idea is to build individual house chambers and use the monsters within to scare the villagers and take over the town through sheer fright. Creatures are divided up into three classes: Scary (ghosts, vampires), Fighty (werewolves, Frankenstein monsters), or Special (Zombies). These different monster types serve different functions and all carry their own unique abilities. They can also be leveled up, as players build up their houses.
A friendly tutorial is definitely in order here and Haunted Hollow thankfully keeps things simple. Players quickly learn how to use their Scary monsters to capture houses and manage their "Fear Points," which determine a player's number of moves and attacks during any given turn. Though some rules like item use and movement take some explanation, they're easy enough to understand and remember.
While matching wits with AI and human opponents, both sides will need to watch out for the requisite Victorian angry mob. The mob will be nigh-undefeatable and will kill any monster on contact. It'll move once after each player's turn and will occasionally burn down player-owned houses, taking away any bonuses contained within it. The mob's movements will also require a change in strategy, since winning the game means taking all houses that haven't been burned down.
The downside to the game is the AI proves itself to be about as intelligent as a Frankenstein monster. They'll sometimes make some baffling moves and waste valuable Fear Points, to the point that defeating them becomes a snap. The novelty of single-player will wear thin quickly, but by that point, you'll likely be ready to jump into multiplayer. Haunted Hollow features Game Center online multiplayer, as well as local multiplayer, which is where I found most of the fun to be.
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There are numerous monsters available for purchase, many of whom appear enticingly fun to use. It gets a little annoying to see AI opponents bring out creatures hidden behind a paywall. It's hardly fair for the AI to use swamp monsters, boogeymen, and Wendigos against me when I can't access them myself without opening my wallet. Even with the introduction of new monsters, however, I never felt like there was a case of an unfair advantage. The monsters and their abilities are all evenly balanced--a free-to-play user can just as easily win with a starter crew over an opponent that's shelled out cash for a different roster. I found a number of online opponents utilizing just the starter crew and I didn't feel like the fun was lessened in any way because of it.
Haunted Hollow looks like an unconventional Firaxis title on the surface, but proves to be a perfectly capable strategy title that's worth picking up. It's a deep, satisfying turn-based experience, even with many units kept behind a paywall. While it's easy to find an online match, however, this one's best experienced with local friends. 
This Haunted Hollow review is based on a free copy of the game, tested on a third-generation iPad and third-generation iPod Touch. The game is now available on the App Store (Universal).