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The leader of the Commonfolk faction is a one-armed mouse. Here she waves a red flag while here army hungrily devours its foes. Pocketwatch Games

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Tooth and Tail is the perfect bite-sized alternative to StarCraft

A simplified control scheme perfect for consoles, but systems as complex as any RTS

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

It’s said that an army marches on its belly, and in Tooth and Tail that old aphorism could not be more true.

You see, I’m the kind of person who enjoys playing real-time strategy games for the spectacle. I love seeing massive armies on the march, turning to face each other on an open plain. It’s the metagame, more often than not, that leaves me cold. Multiple resources, complex build queues and cool-down timers all tend to put me to sleep.

That’s why Tooth and Tail, out today for PlayStation 4 and PC, has me so surprised. The game takes the essence of an RTS — shepherding units from their birth at point A to their death at point B — and keeps the spectacle in place. But in effect it pushes unit management to the side, choosing instead to focus on the forces of supply and demand.

Instead of frantic battles, Tooth and Tail is an exercise in frantic economics. While playing it, I almost get the feeling that I’m learning something about RTS games in general, that if I can get good this game I just might be able to get better at other RTS games as well.

A lizard, clad head-to-toe in furs to keep warm.
This stealth unit is modeled as a chameleon, and carries a large spiked club.
An owl regurgitates mice, which act as light infantry units. Pocketwatch Games

Tooth and Tail embraces its theme boldly, right down to the ambitious concepts for each unit. They run the gamut from fur-wearing lizards to stealthy chameleons and aerial carriers that are actually owls regurgitating live mice onto the battlefield.

In Tooth and Tail, players take the role of a commander on the field and use the analog to move them around. To rally troops to your commander, simply hold down the right trigger. That brings the entire army running. But moving en mass isn’t useful all the time, so players can use the left trigger to rally units of a single type. By scrolling through the available unit types with the shoulder buttons you can quickly draw up battle lines.

Need your skirmishers out front to protect against air units? Tap the left shoulder twice and the left trigger once. Want your heavy infantry on the right flank? Tap the right shoulder once, move your commander to the right and press the left trigger again. With only about a half-dozen unit types on the field at any one time, the early missions of the single-player game are very manageable. Before long, the quirky control system began to fade away.

In its place is a daunting economic system.

In the world of Tooth and Tail, the entire animal world has suddenly developed a taste for meat. The main production unit is the gristmill, where wheat is used to feed pigs for slaughter. That meat is your currency, used to build tunnels, which in turn produce units for your army at a regular pace so long as the workers are fed.

Red versus blue in split-screen multiplayer.
Tooth and Tail includes the option for split-screen local multiplayer.
Pocketwatch Games

But wheat fields will only produce food for so long before they go fallow, forcing your entire army to move on like locusts.

In this way, the rate at which you can produce units is tied directly to the number of units you can produce at a given location on the map. Knowing the placement of the enemy’s forces is critical to knowing where and when to attack their infrastructure, because once they run out of food they’re easily destroyed in detail.

The trouble is, I’m not entirely sure that the single-player campaign in Tooth and Tail is all that well balanced. I spent the better part of the weekend playing the same few battles over and over again, trying to unlock the next part in the story. And it’s a shame, because the plot — inspired by the Russian revolution — is filled with endearing characters and well-written dialogue.

Where this game will no doubt shine is in multi-player. Tooth and Tail’s systems are so finely wrought and the games so incredibly short — between five and 10 minutes each — that the game is poised to eat up the attention of hardcore RTS players looking for a bite-sized alternative to a full game of StarCraft 2.

But while Hearthstone made collectible-card games compelling and digestible for casual players, I don’t see the same happening here with the RTS genre. Tooth and Tail is more of an evolution than a revolution, and the initial learning curve right now is simply too steep for most players.