Anytime a game comes along that purports to take an otherwise complex and inaccessible genre and make it more welcoming toward newcomers, I’m usually at least somewhat interested. Anything that can make games more widely accessible is always a good thing, especially when it applies to genres that traditional have a high barrier to entry. Which is precisely what Pocketwatch Games have done with the real-time strategy genre and their latest game Tooth and Tail.
Tooth and Tail is a real-time strategy game that looks to remove the mechanical barriers that make the genre so intimidating. The key lies in streamlining. Instead of constantly micromanaging units, your commands are limited to calling either a selected unit type or everyone altogether. Rather than build units individually one at a time, they’re automatically summoned so long as you can pay for them. With less time spent on management, you’re able to devote more time toward scouting enemy bases to prepare and react accordingly.
It’s a bunch of little tweaks that make things easier to grasp for inexperienced folk like myself. Reducing the number of moving parts to manage manually hastens the pace of each match, allowing for strategies to adapt on the fly rather than lock anyone in to any one approach. I’ve played plenty of matches where I had the advantage only for the enemy to change plans and turn the battle in their favor or vice versa. It makes Tooth and Tail a more reactive game rather than one of long-term planning, bringing it closer to the “act and react” nature of turn-based strategy games. While some could see that as too much of a reduction of the things that make real-time strategy what it is, for Tooth and Tail‘s sake, it works wonders.
No better is this demonstrated than in the campaign. It follows each of the four factions — the Longcoats, the Commonfolk, the KSR, and the Civilized — during an on-going civil war between them. It essentially acts a series of challenges with some narrative hooks on top. Every mission comes with a set of rules and conditions, such as everyone taking constant damage outside their territory, as well as optional objectives that force you to play in different, sometimes unorthodox ways. It acts as a good opportunity to learn how each unit works and how best to use them, as it encourages you to get creative with the tools at your disposal.
In one mission, for instance, I had to play a support role — healing allied units and laying down defenses to slow the enemy down — while my AI-controlled ally took care of offense. I didn’t have any attack units, only able call on healers and provide speed buffs, leaving me to drop barbed wire and mines to slow the enemy’s advance while providing assistance to my teammate’s forces whenever possible. In another, I was only able to spawn new units by stealing stocks of food the enemy left lying around in certain spots on the map, forcing me to carefully plot my movements before sending my crew out to strike.
Though most of the missions are more or less standard games of Tooth and Tail, the various rules they impose give them a sort of puzzle-like quality. Figuring out how to defeat your opponent with the units you’ve been given while contending with whatever conditions the mission enforces makes for a fun challenge — especially since, because the game’s maps are all procedurally generated, they never play out the same way twice. Although, as a result, the missions sometimes end up feeling one-sided. I got stuck a few times in the campaign due to the map giving them a general advantage, whether that be better control over resources or starting on higher ground to increase their line of sight. Frustrating, but nothing you can’t work around.
Procedurally generated maps work wonders for the multiplayer, though, as it ensures the maps don’t dictate the best strategies. It always comes down to improvisation, which suits the game’s faster pace. How everyone proceeds depends on the map they’re given. In all the games I’ve played, I’ve never seen any one player take the same approach. Everyone uses their own strategies, which makes every match all the more exciting as, even if everyone’s using the same pool of units, how they use them differs between players.
It could just be because there isn’t any widely known “meta” yet to influence everyone’s play-style (like what happens with most multiplayer games), but I’m hoping it’s more illustrative of how less prescriptive the game is. Time will tell, I suppose, but I’m hopeful things will remain where they currently are, because it’s nice to have a more accessible real-time strategy game around for once.