Around our campfire, the men eat and sleep and sharpen their axes. I’m worrying about our profit margin. Our contract pays 400 crowns for taking out these bandits, but the fat little nobleman who hired our mercenary company didn’t mention that we’d have to charter a boat and march for a week just to find them. Watching the miles tick by, I keep thinking the same thing: we’re barely going to break even.
This is the kind of commander that Battle Brothers, a new medieval strategy RPG, has turned me into. In combat, I’m aggressive and decisive. But when the fighting stops, I turn into a miser. Every coin and every bandage is money we need to stay alive, stay equipped, and keep going in this wonderful game of tactics and sellswords.
The iron price
As the new captain of a small band of sellswords, my options are pretty much unlimited. Villages and castles sit all around this quaint German countryside. From the map screen, clicking on any settlement will start the company, represented by an adorable little mercenary, marching forward in search of fortune. On the roads and near the towns, army patrols and trade caravans do business. In between are mountains, bandits, and things that growl in the dark.
The wide-open map in Battle Brothers is beautifully freeing. You can march anywhere as long as you’ve got enough food to get there. You can hire anyone as long as you’ve got the coin. It’s the same feeling that I get from playing Mount & Blade—or maybe from watching Firefly. Take a job, don’t matter what it is. Get paid. Protect your crew. Just keep marching. It’s tempting to think of Battle Brothers as a business sim obsessed with profits and losses, but it’s not. Profits are a means to an end: extra money builds the company so it can take more jobs. You’re not building a retirement plan, here, so breaking even is OK.
Even without dreams of riches, money is a real crunch early in the game. Desperate for money, I take the only contract at a nearby city and spend my last cash outfitting three new recruits. There were many good, solid, fighting men looking for work at that tavern. I couldn’t afford them, though, so I hired a drunk, a farmhand, and an elderly shepherd with a club foot. I gave them swords and a saluting lesson, and it was time to go to war.
Choosing which weapons to buy and outfitting the company is a much deeper strategic exercise than it looks. Battle Brothers is a cleverly constructed, carefully balanced board game. Each weapon has special abilities, and each tactic has a potential counter-tactic: maces are weak, but good against armor; heavy axes are very powerful, but slow. Every choice—and there are a lot of choices to make—is an exercise in trade-offs, in choosing the least-bad option.
I took my company and new recruits and marched them into the teeth of a bandit ambush. In combat, the map screen dissolves into a hex-based battlefield dotted with trees and stones. Characters from both sides take turns moving and making attacks. Soldiers look like bobbleheads, their oversized faces grimacing above pixel-art armor. They march with triumphant hop-hop-hop motions, as if they’re counting spaces out loud in Monopoly.
It’s cute until a spearman’s neck explodes from the force of an axe blow, his head rolling in a shower of arterial blood. I have never seen such brutal pixel-art violence. In Battle Brothers, I’ve seen punctured lungs and men slowly beaten to death with clubs, their eyes going black with blood. Combat in Battle Brothers is what you get when Game of Thrones has a one-night stand with X-COM: turn-based, hexagonal, and everything looks noble until someone sews a dog’s head onto a corpse.
At the end of the battle, I’ve lost three men and injured many more. We loot corpses for meager, broken gear, then head back to get paid by the magistrate. After healing and rearming, we’re exactly where we started: six men, no experience, no equipment. We take another job.
Lost in the woods
One of the frustrating things about Battle Brothers is the lack of tutorials. This is a complicated board game with a lot of rules. For example: around each character there’s a one-hex boundary called the Zone of Control. Once you enter that boundary, you can’t disengage from melee. When a goblin rushed one of my archers, I tried to make the archer fall back to keep shooting from a distance, but when I tried to move the archer, he took damage and wasted his turn. I wasted a few turns before I figured out what was happening.
No one explains these rules, so I had to learn by doing. In fairness to developers Overhype, there are tutorial videos posted online. In fairness to me, I shouldn’t have to watch 40 minutes of YouTube voiceover before I’m ready to play. Another example: at the start of every battle, I scrambled to re-order my men, to bring the archers to the rear and the armored core of spearmen to the center. It was several hours before I accidentally discovered that I could use the company management screen to design a formation.
The company management screen, and the surrounding menus, are my biggest complaint about Battle Brothers. Managing inventory can get pretty clunky, especially when it comes to shopping for new recruits or gear. I frequently found a market with a nice-looking weapon, but in order compare it with my current loadout I had to close a screen, open a screen, navigate to a sub-menu, and click through individual soldiers to see who was carrying what. I keep a little notepad by the keyboard so I can compare axes and swords, longbows and crossbows. My company has room for 20 soldiers, and each one has his own loadout screen and skills that level up. The menus don’t destroy my fun entirely, but they’re definitely a grumble.
Despite being fresh out of Early Access, though, the majority of Battle Brothers is well-oiled and dependably fun. I kept humming with the victory and despair I usually reserve for X-COM campaigns: the archer who makes a wondrous 19% headshot; the swordsman who blocks and dodges his way out of certain death; the veteran soldier suddenly gutted, lost forever behind the veil of permadeath. Battle Brothers takes a formula I love and twists it to fit a wide-open medieval setting. I don’t have to save the world, I just have to make enough to fix my gear, hire a new sword, and go on to my next contract. The stakes aren’t as high, but it feels just as rewarding.