Svein the Butcher, as his name suggests, was a butcher before he signed up with the Rising Sons mercenary company, and over the next two months he lived up to that name in a different way. Armed first with the cleaver he brought with him and later graduating to edged weapons of a more martial design, he stood in the shield wall, in the thick of things, and hacked down dozens of brigands, goblins, orcs, and undead for pay. He was immovable and imperturbable, even after his second ever fight left him with a permanently maimed foot. He was a bit slower than the rest of the company, but once he had an enemy in front of him, heads flew and blood flowed. When the war between noble houses broke out and the company picked a side, he was in the thick of things as usual, undaunted.
Until, returning from burning farms and workshops deep in enemy lands, the Rising Sons came face to face with twice their number of heavily armed house troops. They knew discretion was the better part of living to get paid afterwards, and began to retreat to escape. Except Svein, hardened mercenary, had a maimed foot, and couldn't move as quickly as the others. Slowly but surely, the troops of House Gota caught up with him, and while the rest of the Rising Sons quit the field Svein was poked and hacked to death by pikes and swords. The wound he'd got in his second battle was what did for him in his last, two months later.
Battle Brothers is a turn-based tactical RPG by Overhype Studios about managing a mercenary company in a low fantasy medieval world. You take over command after a disastrous contract leaves most of the company dead. Picking up the pieces with just three survivors, you move from place to place on a procedurally generated real-time map of the world, making camp to stitch up your men and equipment, hiring men at towns and taking on contracts for the townsfolk and nobility.
Contracts range from straight-forward caravan protection and clearing the roads of bandits to hunting down monsters that have been preying on the local populace. You earn money and renown through successfully completing contracts. Particular towns and groups you have served well will grow to like you and offer services and goods for less, while failing to complete a contract or betraying your employer can even see them turn openly hostile towards you.
Battle sequences play out on a separate turn-based map, procedural but based on the appropriate environment in the world. For example, if you are ambushed in the woods, your column of men will be spread thin among impassable trees and bushes as the enemy close on you out of the darkness.
Your mercenaries are represented by counters which you move across the map quite freely. Distances are represented by tiles but this a looser system than some hex-based equivalents. Each man has a limited number of actions they can take in a turn, largely limited to moving or attacking. Fatigue also plays a part. A soldier cannot necessarily close several yards on the enemy and make an attack in the same turn. Most weapons have a variety of attacks; a downward blow with a two-handed sword is different to a sweeping cut that can wound enemies in a wide arc. Some attacks use more fatigue than others. Skirmishes are generally of around 10 on each side but get larger as the game continues and events warrant. Enemies come in a broad variety, all favouring different tactics. Fighting orcs is not at all like fighting their greenskin cousins, goblins. Fighting the undead in their various guises is different again. The AI is extremely proficient at exploiting ill-prepared or under-equipped adventurers. None of your men are ever really safe.
This is what makes Battle Brothers such a compelling experience. One of the most critical aspects of strategy games, for me, is feeling an attachment to whoever is under your command. This stems from formative experiences with Command and Conquer, which included certain missions where you had to shepherd a select and limited group of units through a gauntlet of enemy defences. Each death of a soldier in the unit diminished the whole. The mission generally did not fail but continued with the odds increasingly stacked against you. Decisions you make need to mean something.
Simple fail states for bad choices are not as compelling to me as the deeper experience of pushing on past the setback and persevering. Those ragged and bloodied men who make it to the end of the mission despite the comrades they’ve lost along the way, that feeling of cost and of reward – that’s what I want. It's these stories about those who survive and those who don't that Battle Brothers is so expert at telling.
Games like Company of Heroes and the reboot of X-Com have been very good in creating an attachment between you and the teams at your command, as experience generally increases their value and killing power. Battle Brothers very much follows in this tradition. Once a mercenary is with the company for a little time and a few skirmishes, they develop skills and specialisms. They gain experience which can be spent on their key attributes (like health and fatigue – i.e. how much they can do in a turn) and also perks. This is a simple but very effective system which lets you effectively design “classes” for your men individually. There’s a lot of differentiation here. You can make people more proficient with their weapon of choice or more effective in light armour, fairly natural choices that enhance pre-established tactics, but also pick skills such as taunt, so that one man can draw the enemies’ attacks to him, or a battlecry to rally the low-morale men around him. As time goes on, your mercenaries naturally become more valuable. Enemies scale in difficulty and numbers. Your longest serving mercenaries become an essential core and their loss is a severe blow to the company.
A way that Battle Brothers expands on the usual formula of veterancy is an intricate system for upgrading each mercenary’s weapons and armour. At the beginning of any campaign, this is slow progress. You can’t afford high-end items so tattered chainmail looted from dead bodies is repurposed, patched up, and re-equipped. As some of your men have roles which bring them into direct contact with the sharp edge of an axe blade more often than others, you sort the equipment accordingly. The new recruits generally get hand-me-downs. The hauberk of a brother struck down by an orc on a previous contract goes to the quivering lumberjack you hire from an out-of-the-way town. The game tracks damage and wear to all items and your men repair them on the move. There’s a lot of detail here. A helmet that’s damaged will appear dented and scratched on the battle map. Once it’s fully repaired it’ll return to a dull gleam.
This means, after a while, even individual bits of equipment have their own story, interlinked with that of the company and that of the men themselves.
Occasionally in the game you will run into the undead. These come in various flavours from the resurrected and shambling corpses of bandits and farmers to skeleton warriors, Harryhausen extras from a long fallen and forgotten empire, clad in hardy ancient armour. They move slowly but inexorably, basically immune to ranged attacks, forming dense shield walls with pike wielding elites behind, as a second line. Pikes and equivalent weapons can be used across two tiles so the second line can strike you with impunity over the top of the blockers in the shield wall.
Once you’re through their armour, though, and once you have smashed away their shields, the skeletons crumple to dust and you can take any equipment which wasn’t completely ruined. I stole a rather ostentatious helmet from one of the legionnaires. Big and bronze and with faded, frayed feather plumes. A sergeant of the company used it for weeks, patching and polishing it whenever it became damaged. Then, as is the nature of these things, he was so severely injured he had to retire. I paid him compensation and he returned his items. I gave the helmet straight to a cast-off hedge knight who had just joined the company. On my way to a pick up a contract, we were ambushed and sure enough – there was the hedge knight, surrounded by snarling direwolves, sword in hand, undead legionary’s helmet teetering on his head.
There is a strong connection with practically every person you hire to the company, assisted by the backstories they each have: drunk bakers and disowned nobility, greedy farmers and once fearsome warriors gone to seed even the occasional unlucky court jester. All of them can be hired and put to work. Their individuality is enhanced by the wide variety in their stats and the perks you have selected for them.
A young fisherman hired from a coastal village may not be as immediately deadly as an ex-militia recruit but their respective upgrades do not scale equally. The fisherman may have a propensity towards melee, for example, which means he levels up faster in that area and is soon surpassing established hands in the company. Fishermen, it should be noted, also bring their nets with them to be thrown over unwitting enemy combatants and trap them.
It can’t be overstated how effective the game is at creating stories. The graphics aren't wholly realistic but I actually prefer this. Whereas in something like X-Com, where you see quite explicitly the 99% shot levelled right at an enemy’s face veer off at an angle and miss, in Battle Brothers the level of abstraction allows for the player to fill the gaps, to imagine the full setting. The minimal animation (really just slight movements in the representations of soldiers and enemies) combines with some very good sound design to make fights far more exciting and gruesome than they have any right to be on paper. To this day after many hours playing the game, hearing the creaking bowstring noise of an enemy archer using the 'steady aim' ability, which could presage an arrow through the eye of any of my men, is enough to cause an involuntary cringe.
One of the most atmospheric battles I have had was a defence against orcs. My thin line of mercenaries took position on an earth bank in the middle of a swamp. Bogs and shallow pools give penalties to movement and attacks, so I made sure to get as many of the Brothers onto hard ground as possible. Through the mist, the orcs came, chest-deep in the dark water. My archers killed several in the advance and then they met the shield wall. I was able to win the battle with no losses, despite orcs being a tough and hardy opponent, and it was easy to imagine the exhaustion on their grizzled faces as they dragged themselves through the mud and water, only to be met by the axes and spears of my company.
That wriggle room, where the game isn’t trying to present a 1:1 version of events with every action mapped and simulated, is actually to its benefit. The game creates these scenarios constantly, and each skirmish has little events and details which set it apart.
Fights against bandits and raiders are really the bread and butter of the company, to the point where it’s easy to become complacent. Yet a skirmish can go side-ways fairly quickly if the bandits in question retreat onto high ground and try to pick you off with arrows and the bolts from crossbows. The game navigates altitude a little awkwardly. You have to click up and down through the “layers” and when you lower the camera to, say, the bottom of a ditch, only that layer is visible to you as default. The easiest thing is to turn this feature off entirely. It needs a bit of work.
That said, there are huge advantages to be had fighting an enemy that has to climb up to you. The reverse is also true. A heavily armoured brother, fantastic in a melee, is not at his best clambering over rocks towards a lithe bandit archer. It’s slow progress and the fatigue means you accomplish less and less. When a brother is too tired to hold up his shield, you have to take a risk and send him forward. The archer takes aim, there’s the zip of an arrow… will it strike through your unguarded mail? Battles have been lost on less.
Even when things in the late stages of a campaign become more costly, you still feel each death as a blow – to your income, of course, but to the company as a whole: their mood and confidence in combat suffers, the make-up of your combat line has to change. Importantly, deaths impact tactical decisions in the short and long term. The immediate questions are pressing: do I need to retreat? Can I cover the hole in my shieldwall? Can my archer fill the gap?
In the long term, who can fill the role of the two handed swordsman who I use to turn the flank of enemy lines? Do I re-hire or do I re-skill an existing member of the company?
The real trick up the sleeve of Battle Brothers is that men do not always die when they are struck down. In the battle mode, they may collapse in a crumpled, bloody heap but – unless they have been outright decapitated (a career-ender for anyone) – there is a chance they will recover from the wounds with a permanent injury. If a brother loses an eye in the melee, he can return to action eventually with appropriate penalties to vision and accuracy. Some wounds mean you simply have to let men go, as with my poor, missed sergeant and his ancient helmet. The archer who can no longer shoot straight needs to take his lump sum and find a farm somewhere. Death in the game creates choices but so does injury. That swordsman who loses his fingers, if he uses a polearm instead can I compensate for his lack of proficiency?
Re-sorting and reorganising is simple but meaningful. It feels right, as the leader of a mercenary company, to place men in reserve to recover from their injuries and draft in replacements to fill their roles. The man with an eye gouged gets an eye-patch. The man without a nose gets an unsightly hole. Perhaps you can cover them up with a nasal guard helmet. The narrative for each man unspools with every fight and encounter and every event on the road.
Early in the game, you can’t be picky about who you hire. Each town has a pool of men who will join your company for a one-off fee and then a daily wage. I recruited a rat-catcher to fill my ranks and he started compulsively catching rats on the road, keeping them in cages. They broke free and ate the company’s food rations. Early on, as you’re making a name for yourself, everything is at a premium and you rarely have an excess of supplies. Little moments like this add colour, certainly, but also feed back into the game mechanically.
In a recent campaign, I took a risk and spent a good amount of my money on a unique, 'legendary' set of armour for the company's swordmaster: Imperishable Padded Leather, tougher than the average suit of mail and still very light. This necessitated selling almost everything I had in the inventory and even selling helmets belonging to men in the back line, who I figured would be okay hat-less for a couple battles, and even with all that selling it left me without enough money to buy food for more than a day. This meant I had to take the first contract I came across, just to keep the company going, and it wasn't a contract that I would normally have taken because it was a bit too risky for my blood. But I'd taken the risk in buying that fancy armour already, so I had to take more risks to make that first risk workable. Stories emerge like this all the time, and they continue paying off down the line – in this case a stray arrow shot killed one of those helmetless back-line men, causing some of the company to break and flee, but Edmund the swordmaster in his fancy armour held the enemy brigands up long enough for the fleeing men to reform and come back to the fight.
The main addition to the latest edition of the game (the real Beta, a final iteration before the full release) is that of end-game events. These come in a variety of flavours but are world-changing events. I had to face a widespread return of the dead. The dead legionnaires, riled no doubt by my theft of their helmet, returned in strength to end the world of the living for their Emperor. You still have to take contracts but most of these are themed about the event. Roaming bands of undead are far more plentiful and tougher than before. In combat, anyone who dies has a chance to return, even your own mercenaries and the men of militia units that are raised by towns affected in the crisis.
Enemy numbers really do spiral out of control and battles change from the relatively low-level skirmishes you have been having to proper battles, 20 on each side. Death is frequent. Towns are besieged by hordes of roaming zombies, meaning they have no supplies. The contract related to this: fighting off wave after wave of attack is brutal and tiring.
The aristocracy callously send you into the wilderness to clear out tombs and caves full of the unruly dead and this has to rank as the hardest contract in the game. Dozens of enemies will face you, that implacable shield wall advancing across the sand, bearing down on your scared farmhands.
In my case, my company was gutted. The recruits I brought in to replace the dying weren’t quite sufficient to hold the line. I think I was a bit underprepared, in all honesty, and had probably wasted a good portion of the earlier game on easier contracts which hadn’t netted me either the experience or the cash to really see off the endgame.
The high-tier units in the undead army, the fully armoured Honour Guard, are extremely deadly and not to be trifled with. Contracts to defeat them are extremely lucrative but, perhaps, not lucrative enough. How many gold crowns can compensate you for the death of all your best men?
Perhaps that is a larger problem with the game. It is so good at creating a bond between you and your Brothers, so effective at writing a dozen different stories in every fight; it’s ultimately hard to be all that mercenary about them.
Battle Brothers is due for release on 24th March. The early access Beta available now is feature complete and a very entertaining game that easily manages to compete, despite the small team and relatively small budget, with popular turn-based strategy franchises like X-Com. There’s so much heart and detail in the game, and a great deal of warmth and humour which means it doesn’t descend into the usual grimdark low-fantasy of decapitations. Violence here can be shocking but is never gratuitous because a loss of one of your comrades is never a small thing.
Having played it for a while now, pre-release, the game has developed significantly and I am sure the team have plans for continued support and expansion after the end of this month, campaigns are only going to become more complex and interesting.
It comes highly recommended from both of us.