I was playing the recent Wildermyth, and wanting to write something up about it, when I realized that I would need to refer to other games to really discuss it, so I figured I’d do a little survey of turn based tactical games computer games that have caught my affection over the last ten years. Unless otherwise stated, assume that all of these games involve grids and a typical “move and attack with your guys, then the enemy goes,” kind of structure.
XCOM ENEMY UNKNOWN
This game is absolutely fantastic and cheap to find on PC, Xbox 360, or PS3. The name is a nod to a series from the 90s, but as I understand it those games were even harder, and I never played them. It starts out brutally difficult as you learn what horrible things are out there and how to respond to them. Unless you save and reload like a madman, your favorite soldier WILL die and it’ll make you want to cry. Few games without a scripted story manage to get you to care about your guys as much as this game does. There are randomly generated battles including saving cities in the midst of terror attacks, stopping alien abductions from happening, and even invading downed UFOs.
Overwatch, which is putting your guys on lookout for anything that patrols into your area or moves from its own cover, is your friend. Hard cover, like tall trees and buildings is your other true friend, and is the cornerstone of strategy in the game. All of your shots are percentage based on your characters’ aim stat, and hard cover reduces the chance of getting hit by 40%, while soft cover reduces it by 20%. Frag grenades automatically hit, and can be used pre-emptively to destroy some types of cover, but they are in limited supply. You can also flank enemies by getting to the side or behind their cover, which removes the cover bonus and even adds the chance for critical hits. There are four types of soldier you get access to, each with their own special strengths and upgrade trees.
There is a loose overarching story that you proceed through as you scientists research alien tech, but the game has pretty high replay value as you try higher difficulty levels or the always-autosaving-no-looking-back Ironman mode.
If you want to find out in about 6 minutes if the game would be interesting to you, I highly recommend checking out the “Ironman Impossible” series of videos from youtuber beaglerush.
There was also an expansion called Enemy Within, which is neat, probably worth playing after you’ve played the base game, but not essential.
BAND OF BUGS
This was a neat XBOX LIVE arcade game from around 2008. It featured cute art and anthropomorphized bugs. There were nods to Final Fantasy Tactics with Ninja bees that could attack twice, and other things like that, but what really set it apart at the time was the fact that pushing enemies into holes would auto-kill them. Using your magic casting moths to melt ice under enemies and drop them into water would also kill them, etc. This is still like $15 last I checked. I mention this title mostly as foreshadowing.
Although a computer game, the art and story are all an homage to 1st and 2nd edition D&D modules, with figures that look like cardboard standees. The story follows a few boys playing in their parents’ basement, with the eventual introduction of the nice pizza delivery girl. It discusses the merits of playing as either a killer DM or facilitating player fun and growth… all while being an incredibly fun game to play. It breaks a number of conventions of this turn based genre, so I’ll try to go through them.
Throughout gameplay, you acquire loot. Each piece of loot has cards associated with it that form your deck, which you draw from every turn, and reshuffle when you go all the way through it, Dominion style. For example, an axe might give you some Chop attack cards that hit two targets in melee range, whereas a spear might add some Stab attacks that can be used from 2 spaces away. They both might have some more generic close range attacks among the 6 cards that a weapon adds to your deck. Armor cards will add armor to your deck which are cards that you keep in your hand between turns and reduce incoming damage, shields add block cards which care about which way you’re facing, boots will add additional movement to your deck, etc… The sheer number of cards and items is insane, and offers a wealth of deckbuilding opportunities. One thing you’ll find with the campaign is that the enemies’ abilities are quite varied from location to location, so one deck or strategy that worked well in one adventure might be pretty weak in another.
Turns themselves play out very differently than in other games. Although you have 3 characters most of the time, you only play one card per turn for one of your guys, and then the enemy does the same thing. A card is usually something as simple as moving OR attacking. (Or casting a spell or turning terrain into hot lava or…) You can also pass your turn. If the opponent goes after you pass, you’ll be allowed to act again if you wish. Once both players pass, all their characters discard down to 2 cards and the round ends, with whoever passed first going first in the next round. At the start of each round character draws a move card based on their race, as well as 2 cards from each character’s deck.
There are three races, dwarves being tough and slow, elves being quick and frail, with humans being in the middle. There are three classes, with the warriors being your melee fighters, priests being a combination of weaker melee fighter and the buffing/healing class, and wizards being the control and ranged class. This means there are 9 different combinations that a character can be, and you make a party of 3.
It’s also worth pointing out that this game has very satisfying and deep multiplayer! Although the community is pretty small, you can usually get into a game in just a few minutes. If you try to jump in without first playing the campaign, you will probably lack the gear necessary to make the best kinds of decks. There is a neat drafting format called Quick Draw that doesn’t use your gear, so keep a look out for that.
XCOM is still pretty great. Definitely worth playing if you want more XCOM. They added some stuff that you do on the world map, so sometimes you have to decide to get more of one thing or another, and some opportunities will disappear.
The one thing I will note here is that, similar to the original, the hardest part is in the beginning. Once you get over the hump, the game just gets easier. The end game often feels pretty anticlimactic once you have a team full of badasses, and you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for you researchers to do their jobs.
INTO THE BREACH
This is from the makers of FTL, so it has a very cool pixelated aesthetic with nice old school style music. You deploy themed squads of 3 mechs to save the world from evil bugs intent on destroying the city. It’s like Pacific Rim, but with unnecessary time travel. It’s broken down into 30-90 minute runs, which are each broken down into 5 minute sized gameplay chunks, which is nice if you’re pressed for time.
The big difference here, especially if you watch a lengthy game developer’s video floating out there, is that the enemy bugs’ intentions are always telegraphed. You can see what they’re going to attack. So using the limited actions of your 3 mechs is then a mini puzzle each round to secure objectives and protect buildings. Your guys can each take 2-3 hits, so in some cases you might even use their bodies to intentionally block incoming shots. There’s also a lot of pushing going around, so sometimes it’s not about killing stuff, but moving them to a place where their attacks strike a mountain or miss entirely. Also, you can push guys into water or melt the ice out from under them, just like good old Band of Bugs.
Each mech squad plays very differently and there are 55 achievements in the game to direct your play as you unlock additional squads and pilots. Short runs with high replay value is the name of the game here. I could go on for hours about this one though, take a look at the thread we’ve got here to see if you want.
No, this isn’t a kid saying wilderness with a lisp. It’s kind of like XCOM meets… Fable? Your characters can get old and retire. There are little story snippets here and there that put them in moral dilemmas. When taking lethal damage, instead of dying, they can get maimed so they’re hopping around with a peg leg or using a hook (which means they can’t use a shield or big 2-handed sword).
The move, attack, or double move action economy feels right out of XCOM. Some actions are done as ‘swift’ actions, which you can do one per round before they also take a normal turn-ending action. Cover is present, but because much of the attacks are melee, it isn’t nearly as important as in XCOM. Overwatch too… exists as a special upgrade for the Hunter (ranged class) or as a persistent class feature for the Warriors, the melee experts.
One of the neatest aspects of gameplay is how it handles the Mystic, the magic using class. They interfuse with the nearby terrain and gain abilities based on that. A wooden table or tree can be burst and exploded onto enemies, shredding their armor and doing damage. A petrified fox can be picked up and hurled like a discus at two nearby foes, vines can be used to grab enemies, etc.
A campaign is broken up into chapters, which each chapter culminating in some big battle or other story event. Meanwhile, much like XCOM 2, you’re moving around the map securing objectives with your parties, which you can divvy up as you choose. Do you split your 7 guys into a group of 4 and 3 or try to go slow with one big party of 5 leaving the others sitting around? Occasionally your plans get busted up by Opportunities which are special missions which typically level up the hero in question and allow them to retire older based on the wisdom they gain- it’s almost always worth doing, but kind of a pain in the butt when it busts up your plans for how you wanted to attack the map. At the end of each chapter, you're able to use the resources produced by the regions you've secured to acquire more gear for your guys, and they each age based on how many years of peace you were able to secure.
Now that I’ve played through a few stories, I’ve started to see some of the same story beats show up. Much like Dead of Winter on my 20th play, I find myself wanting to just fast forward through some of the story parts. However, I imagine by the time this is out of Beta, there’ll be a good deal more stories in the game so they repeat less often.
This is a solid and fun game worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre, or just been hoping there was a medieval XCOM. It’s remarkable how much standing in front of the door to a house feels like getting ready to pop into a UFO though!