by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Advance Wars: Days of Ruin & r & Rated Everyone 10+; Nintendo DS & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & et's do the math. Advance Wars, published in 2001, was a military strategy game in which tiny units (a soldier representing a squad, a truck standing for a convoy, etc.) were moved around a grid-lined map attacking enemy units in adjacent squares, or several squares away if the unit had ranged weapons. The game featured 18 different types of combatants on land, air and sea. That meant 324 different unit-on-unit skirmishes were possible during the course of battle.

Seven years and three subsequent games later, Advance Wars has grown gigantic. The most recent game in the series, Days of Ruin, brings 26 different units into battle, leading to a potential 676 possible confrontations. Complicating this further, the individual units can now increase in rank as many as three times by winning battles, which gives them better chances to hit and defend during combat. This leads to 6,084 possible matchups between units in Days of Ruin.

Like life, videogames create the illusion of complete freedom by offering players a limited number of choices -- in Days of Ruin's case, approximately 4.1 million choices when factoring in the game's 26 different types of terrain and their resultant effects on defense. Compared to the first game's rather paltry 63,504 combat/terrain combinations, Days of Ruin offers nearly 65 times more options, each of which can be exhaustively enjoyed and shared with friends using the game's custom map-maker.

And yet Days of Ruin doesn't feel 65 times better than the original Advance Wars -- it's simply more nuanced in terms of both battle and story. Gone are the hepped-up cartoon characters that waged war in the first three games. Days of Ruin introduces a post-apocalyptic world in which a new, smaller group of warriors questions the validity of war. There are fewer & uuml;ber-attack units, and more specialist and reconnaissance units to field. Even the graphics have been refined, making use of the several hundred colors available on the DS to render the landscape and units bleaker, even as the game itself has grown more complex.

THE GOOD: Despite the proliferation of ways to do battle, Advance Wars is still as easy to play with as toy tanks and soldiers. The most dramatic complications have been in the ways to play the game. In addition to the substantial single-player campaign, Days of Ruin features online multiplayer battles, in-room wireless play, and even a pass-the-DS-around version for as many as four players. Classic maps from the old game are available in the archive, as are puzzle maps to test specific strategies. It's even possible to use the DS's microphone to verbally abuse opponents around the globe.

THE BAD: By now the series has pushed this model of gameplay as far as it can go. In order to make Days of Ruin more entertaining than the previous three games in the series, designer Intelligent Systems needed to add some genuinely new features. I wouldn't have minded the ability to destroy bridges or burn forests (warfare tactics for centuries), or the chance to develop my commanding officers like role-playing characters, making them distinct combat vets instead of archetypes.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Days of Ruin is a grown-up Advance Wars that puts subtlety ahead of originality.

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