War, the Game is a real-time strategy game that turns its back on the usual notion of building bases and constructing units.
It also turns its back on fancy graphics, complex hierarchies of units, leveling up, stories and just about everything else you've come to expect from the ever-more byzantine RTS genre. In fact, it's devilishly simple, and really quite a lot of fun to play.
Set in the modern world, the game offers up a set of 20-odd scenarios on a wireframe version of the world. But this minimalism is there for a reason. Designer Obbe Vermeij (aka GabberGames), a self-confessed RTS nut, wanted to create a strategy game without any of the frills.
Vermeij has been working as a game designer for two decades, spending much of that time employed at DMA and Rockstar on various Grand Theft Auto games. But this, he says, is the strategy game he always wanted to make.
"Base building games can be fun but predictable," he said. "Build barracks, then a power plant, then your tank factory, then a second power plant. There are few interesting choices in it. With the base building removed there is more time for interesting choices. I am all about removing monotonous grinding and making sure each mouse click represents an interesting decision."
Each scenario offers you a win-state and a selection of armies. These are very basic units of infantry and armor along with airborne and ocean support. Units are 100-strong and one unit is always just as powerful as another. If you have two units and your opponent has only one, you win 100 percent of the time. The only exception is when a unit is defending a city, in which case its power doubles.
Units do have some basic and unique characteristics. Only infantry can occupy cities. Armor moves fast, but cannot cross oceans. Air power does not take damage while it is supporting ground troops. These differences are at the core of the game's decision-making attractions.
There is a very basic economy. Cities generate cash, according to their size, and you can build extra units. But they take a long time to arrive and they can then take a long time to move from the sparsely distributed bases, to the action. I got used to this pretty quickly, and stopped building my strategies entirely around stacking units soon after. It's clear that, although amassing power stacks is helpful in a lot of scenarios, it's usually about organizing your logistics around the military units you've been given.
The game offers a quick tutorial (I recommend turning off the help as soon as you can.) At first, the game seems almost laughably simplistic. It also has a few user interface quirks that take a bit of getting used to. But I found myself unable to resist going back to the scenarios and playing them until I was satisfied that I had them whipped. Often, you can replay the scenarios as different sides, and you can pick AI allies.
War, the Game is based on a globe, not a tabletop version of Earth, and so units seek out paths that may be unfamiliar to anyone who is used to, say, the Risk view of geography. Many of the scenarios I played demanded that I take a global view of events and seek to make use of waterways, just as the real military does.
"The simplicity of the game mechanics is what sets War, the Game apart in my mind," said Vermeij. "Players can focus entirely on the strategy of moving their armies about. The later scenarios are very challenging. They are interesting because of the task at hand and not because of the complicated tools to work with."
At its heart, War, the Game feels like a puzzle, in which you move the pieces according to your own comprehension of the solution. It is about taking measurements of time and distance, solving problems that these two factors pose. The scenarios have been set up to make you seek out the non-obvious solution. Happily, the enemy AI can generally be relied upon to behave in a way that is seems logical, with units sometimes falling into a trap of being teased out of safe bases, but usually having the wit to stay put.
"I always envisioned the game to progress from the puzzle character to a more high level strategy game in the later scenarios," said Vermeij. "I think this puzzle element is very interesting. It really matters how you allocate your units and time your battles."
War: the Game is available on Steam now, for a very reasonable $8.99.