Checks Out Battle Brothers

I bet you didn’t expect two episodes of Checks Out within one day of each other, did you? What can I say–I like to keep you guys guessing!

Today, it is my pleasure to check out the public alpha of Battle Brothers by Overhype Studios. Developer Jan Taaks was good enough to send a copy my way recently. In fact, he’s been offering me copies of this game as far back as February 2014, but I wanted to wait until it was a little more feature complete to give it a look. Now seemed like the right time, and so I sat down with it and recorded the experience. Here is what happened:

So! What’d I think?

In short: I really like it so far. I confess, I’d been planning on designing a game very much like Battle Brothers for a number of years now, and I’m a wee bit jealous that they’ve beaten me to the punch. Overhype Studios have done a really excellent job of it so far, too–Battle Brothers strikes me as very well-designed, with fights that are challenging but manageable.

Even if I hadn’t known that the developers were German, by the time I finished this play session, I probably could have guessed at the game’s European origins: relatively static combat mechanics and exposition-heavy narrative seem to be popular stylistic choices over there.

The expository style of text works quite well for this game: it frees the developers to confront the player with a variety of different narrative scenarios without having to account for consistent characterization (which, needless to say, would be terribly tricky to accomplish in a game with 100% randomly generated characters–and perhaps somewhat futile, given that said characters die rather frequently). I love the various backgrounds that the game attaches to your characters; they seem to strike the right balance between establishing character arcs that never get resolved because your men keep dying, and making your characters seem like they’re not just interchangeable pawns.

Combat in Battle Brothers is really solid. Skills and effectiveness against armor are tied to weapon type, which gives the player good reasons to use different types of equipment. Elevation effects matter here, with not-insignificant bonuses for fighting from the high ground. The fact that I can hide units in thickets is awesome, and the ability to anticipate enemy attacks with ripostes, shield walls, and spear walls is an excellent touch (though I found most of the other special weapon skills a little underwhelming). It’s great on an aesthetic level, too: the sound effects are visceral, I love seeing the unit graphics visibly reflect their wounds as they get hacked at, and there’s something deeply satisfying about watching an enemy’s armor bar disappear with a few swift strikes.

I have mixed feelings about BB’s zone of control mechanic, however. It works really well when you’re chasing down bowmen, as they can’t just keep kiting your close-range attackers for eternity–but the results are much less impressive on the front lines. There, it tends to result in melee fighters just kind of glomming on to each other and swinging back and forth, at which point things are essentially down to whatever numbers the dice feel like coughing up (unless you care to risk moving away and getting cut down in the process). Encounter a necromancer, and the zone of control mechanic becomes downright maddening, as he just keeps raising that same zombie you already cut down turn after turn, effectively paralyzing your adjacent men.

Ultimately, though, if I had to criticize just one aspect of the combat design, it would have to be the game’s heavy reliance on randomized results. Characters in this game are fragile and death is permanent, and yet Battle Brothers’s to-hit percentages approach Wesnoth-ian levels of randomness, with chances to hit frequently hovering at (or dipping well below) 50%. Attack damage is randomized too, and depending on the weapon, maximum damage can go as high as twice the weapon’s damage minimum. Add in a random chance for enemy attacks to instantly decapitate your characters, and you have a recipe for occasional frustration. The heavy use of randomized results can be particularly annoying when it leads your archers to piss away your limited stock of hyper-expensive arrows. You quickly learn to make your shots count, but no amount of planning can overcome the will of the RNG gods.

Despite a few misgivings, I’ve really enjoyed my time with Battle Brothers. We live in a world filled to the brim with highly randomized turn-based tactics systems, and the simple fact is that this is one of the best ones I’ve experienced in years. I don’t know yet how well BB will hold up in the mid-to-late game, but I understand that the developers are constantly adding content, so with luck it will remain just as compelling all the way through.

You can roll the proverbial dice on Battle Brothers for $19.99 on Steam Early Access; Windows only.

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  • Rya.Reisender says:

    Really hoping for a DRM-free release on this one. Do you have any info if something is planned in that regard?

  • Galdred says:

    I think the comparison to Battle for wesnoth is too harsh : The problem in BfW is that you cannot recover from a bad random event : if one of your best units get killed, there is a good chance the whole campaign will be in jeopardy.
    On the other hand, recovering in Battle Brothers, while a bit tedious (if the recruit is level 1, and his battle brothers are all level 11), is much easier, as you can pick your battles, until your fresh recruits are good enough for the job.
    The level of randomness is no worse than in X(-)Com, and I’d say it is lower than in Jagged Alliance 2 (because you can deplete your pool of potential recruits really fast in JA2) :
    In other words, I think the problem with BfW is not randomness itself (it is just personal taste after all), but the snowballing effect it has on campaign balance, which does not apply there.

    • Craig Stern says:

      Well, the comparison to BfW here is just in terms of the randomness of the tactical battle mechanics–I’m not saying that the result of character death on the larger campaign in which those battles take place is the same. (I haven’t played enough BB to make a pronouncement on that point just yet.)

      That said, though, if you want to be technical about it, recovering from a random event in BfW is actually easier than in BB, since BfW lets you reset the turn and go for an entirely different result. 🙂

      • Galdred says:

        Actually, my main problem with BfW is that it almost forces you to do so, which produces quite a boring gameplay on some occasions, but I digress 🙂


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