eXcursions

Monday eXcursion: Warbanners

Every now and then I want to take a break from the super complex games that fill my Steam library and just play something more straightforward. Thankfully, the most recent time I felt I needed such a break, I had the perfect game lined up and ready to go. Or, at least I thought I did.

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Warbanners is a strategy RPG set in a fantasy world developed and published by Crasleen Games. The player takes the role of a captain of a band of mercenaries who set off on a string of connected, but linear, missions through the game’s campaign. The story marches along with little input from the player in the style of games like Massive Chalice, Fire Emblem, or Final Fantasy Tactics. But there are optional side missions on a regular basis. Well, they are optional in the sense that it would be kind of silly not to do every single one of them – your units need the experience points!

You play as Roderick, a mercenary captain, who is one of the few named units under the player’s control. Roderick is a warrior type with a couple of area-of-effect buffs to toss out once or twice per battle. What’s interesting is that, unlike a lot of other tactical combat games, the leader of your group/band/army is actually a unit on the battle map. Of course it’s not the first game to do that (the Age of Wonders series comes to mind) but commanders as units are far less common than commanders sitting on the sidelines or playing the role of incorporeal omniscient general.

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We will rule over all this land and we will call it… “This Land.”

The majority of your units will be faceless soldiers as opposed to the colorfully named and described sellswords from the well-known mercenary simulator Battle Brothers. You’ll hire swordsmen, spearmen, archers, knights, and the like that behave pretty much like you would expect. Swordsmen get a defensive bonus from standing next to each other because of their shields, archers have ranged attacks, spearmen can attack from two hexes away instead of one, and knights can move a long distance in a single turn. You can eventually hire a priest type unit and a mage who can do a little healing and spell flinging respectively. The units may sound a little generic (and they are), but the selection is in keeping with the mercenary theme.

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Welcome to Soldier-Mart!

There are a few other unique, named units that will join your party but, for the most part, nameless goons are the name of the game. All of your units can gain experience points and stat increases though, whether they have a name or not. When a unit levels up, you’ll get to choose between two or three stats to increase for that level. It was not clear to me whether the available choices were random or predetermined, but I was presented with different sets of options from level to level.

If a unit dies, you can resurrect it after the mission is over. That is unless it’s a hero unit and you chose to play the game on the hardest difficulty, in which case it is game over. Bringing someone back requires some gold, but it also costs the unit some of its combat prowess in the form of a permanent stat reduction. Do you resurrect that level two swordsman? Or should you just hire another one at level one? It’s not always an easy decision. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your particular playstyle), the game has a very liberal save system (i.e. you can save the game at almost any time) that makes it easy to save scum and avoid the choice completely.

Another interesting system in Warbanners is the ability to hire assistants. Basically, these act as a permanent buff to your troops. Sometimes it is a passive buff, like all of your soldiers gaining a bonus to their morale stat at the beginning of a battle. Other bonuses require some decisionmaking on the part of the player, like the one that allows you to set fire to two hexes on the map before the battle begins. There are even a couple of assistants that give you the ability to hire new unit types.

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I always wanted a personal assistant, but I’m not sure this is what I had in mind.

Combat in Warbanners is strictly turn-based and takes place on a hex grid. You move your units in any order you like and choose when and where to attack – just like most other games that feature turn-based tactical combat. An individual unit can move, attack, use an item, and use a special ability but it may not be able to do all of those things during a single turn. That’s because Warbanners uses an action point system similar to the system from Age of Wonders 3. So if a unit moves too far, it may not have enough action points left for an attack in the same turn. If the unit begins its turn with an attack it probably won’t be able to move very far afterwards.

While the action point system can lead to the feeling that units have fairly limited abilities, it actually creates a lot of interesting decision points because of the opportunity costs involved. Since you can’t do everything on every turn, you have to decide which actions you’re going to take and when it’s best to take them. Some actions are single use for a particular mission. Most units can carry a potion or two into battle with them. But once you use a potion, it’s gone for good and can only be replaced by purchasing new ones between missions.

Positioning also plays a big role in Warbanners. Attacking an enemy unit from the side or the rear grants an increased chance to hit. The game very helpfully shows you where the flanks and rear are on every unit on the battlefield, be it friend or foe. There is a small line around the three sides that make up the front of a given unit (remember, the tactical grid is hex based). Make an attack from a direction without a line and it is considered to be a flanking attack. It’s a small thing, but it is visually distinct and makes it very easy to tell the difference between a frontal attack and a flanking assault. This mechanic also makes it easy to quickly determine the facing of your own units, which can be vital when preparing them to defend against the enemy’s attacks.

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Ambushed? Don’t worry, the bad guys will miss most of the time.

Overall, combat in Warbanners is pretty standard – if you have played any game with turn-based tactical combat in the past decade then you already have a pretty good idea how the mechanics work in this game. However, there are a few interesting wrinkles that you don’t see very often in other, similar games. One great example is the effect of light level on combat. A fairly common opponent in Warbanners are groups of undead monsters, and many of the missions that feature the undead take place at night. In the dark, your units’ chance to hit is significantly reduced. The solution? Light the place up! Toss a fire potion and you can set fire to destructible obstacles on the battlefield and create a small bright area for a few turns. Attack any enemies within the radius of your temporary light source and the night time penalty to your chance to hit basically disappears. Little touches like this spice up the otherwise bog standard turn-based combat on offer here.

Unfortunately, the combat mechanics in Warbanners have some downsides. Attack rolls in Warbanners are random and don’t seem to be weighted at all. Your chance to hit can change depending on positioning, distance, and even ambient light level, but I cannot remember ever seeing my chance to hit go much over 70%. The effect of this is that your units will swing and miss a LOT, especially when they are low level. The same rules apply to your opponents, which means they miss a lot too. On more than one occasion, I have had an entire turn go by where all of my units missed their attacks. When an uneventful turn like that is immediately followed by a string of missed enemy attacks, that’s five minutes of gameplay where literally nothing happens. It can be easy to feel like the game is wasting your time.

Another problem with Warbanners is that there is no hurry to do anything. The game has given me a new appreciation for tactical combat systems with turn limits and turn timers, mainly because Warbanners doesn’t seem to have any. You can take as many turns as you want to finish a given mission and there are no apparent consequences for doing so. When you combine this fact with the game’s brutal damage characteristics, unit adjacency bonuses, and limited healing capability, it’s easy to feel as if the game is encouraging slow, defensive play.

As a result Warbanners feels like it has a plodding, tedious pace at times. The best strategy for most missions is to form a defensive block and let the enemy units come to you, funneling them through a choke point if possible. It can be tempting to split off a small contingent of units to address a group of enemies in a far corner of the map, but you should resist that urge unless you like getting your forces killed. But don’t worry, any enemy melee units will eventually charge your formation if you are patient and the ranged bad guys will miss often enough that you can weather their attacks until you can safely deal with them.

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When under siege, play defensively. When attacking, play defensively…

Enemy magic users do have area of effect attacks, and other enemies throw offensive potions at your forces from time to time. These area of effect attacks usually take the form of debuffs rather than direct damage. Yet the effects are relatively minor and don’t do much to discourage keeping your units in tight formation and not really moving very much. After all, the effects of splitting your forces up are often far more serious (i.e. death).

As a result, combat in Warbanners often feels sluggish, especially when compared to the turn-based combat in other games like the masterful Age of Wonders 3. In AoW3, attacks never miss – they may not do much damage due to positioning, resistances, and other factors, but they never actually miss completely. Tactical combat in AoW3 is about finding ways to maximize the damage your units do while minimizing the damage the enemy can do to you in return. Since attacks never miss, good positioning and well-timed use of special abilities is rewarded in a clear and obvious way. The pace of combat is snappy because you don’t have to worry that your efforts will be wasted.

In contrast, Warbanners offers little incentive for creative, or even active, play. A flanking maneuver is guaranteed to pay off in AoW3. In Warbanners, you still have a great chance to totally whiff on the goblin you just flanked. In AoW3 luck is an element of combat (damage is RNG-based) – the player never feels like luck actually dictates the outcome. But in Warbanners, the forces of random chance are far more powerful and have just as much influence over the outcome as your tactical decisions. There are things you can do to give your chances to connect with your opponents a boost, but there are still a lot of missed attacks in this game no matter what you do. Watching my units (and the enemy units) uselessly flailing around, not hitting anything, just isn’t much fun and battles tend to drag on as a result.

When it comes to presentation, Warbanners is unremarkable and utilitarian. The graphics are easily distinguishable two dimensional sprites and they stand out from the backgrounds (mostly earth tones) well enough, but that’s about the best thing that can be said about them. The graphics aren’t bad; they are just ordinary and serviceable. The music is bog standard fantasy game stuff that you aren’t likely to find yourself humming in the shower later in the day. Again, it does the job, but in a dry and mechanical way.

The story is similarly uninteresting, at least what I saw of it. I am a mercenary captain, I save a village, I get linked up with some army of fantasy dudes, they send my group to do the dirty work because we are expendable, and so on and so forth. It’s pretty pedestrian as “gritty” fantasy stories go. Does it get better later on? It might, but the gameplay did not inspire me to hang around to find out. Warbanners might have the best story in the history of video games, but when playing makes you want to stop and go play something else…

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Choose your own adventure.

I did not finish the campaign in Warbanners and, quite frankly, I don’t want to. Overall, Warbanners feels like a missed opportunity caused by an unfortunate series of events. Choices like the miss rate, the lack of turn limits, and the generous save game system are not bad design decisions in isolation. But they combine to make Warbanners a slow, plodding, save scumming affair. A turn-based tactical combat game can feel a little slow by its very nature. Design decisions that slow the game down even more don’t do Warbanners any favors. It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but the pacing really drags down the total experience and makes it hard to recommend to anyone who isn’t already a dedicated turn-based tactical combat gamer.

DLC Note: Warbanners Death Speaker is an additional campaign for the game that allows you to play as Orcs rather than humans. The Orcs actually play a bit differently and courageously charging ahead is something you can actually get away with, unlike the human troops in the base game. It’s a welcome change of pace but much of the rest of the critiques of the combat in Warbanners still applies. The miss rates are still too high, there is little in the way of external factors in place to motivate you, and the pace of the game is still painfully slow at times. Overall, it seems to be a nice addition but it doesn’t really address the game’s core problems.

TL;DR: Warbanners is a by-the-numbers, turn-based, tactical combat game set in a generic fantasy world. The graphics are serviceable and easy to parse but the combat itself can be aggravatingly slow, even for a turn-based game. The hit rate of units is just too low and the game seems to be designed to encourage turtling and overly defensive tactics.

You might like this game if:

  • You have played every other turn-based tactical game on Steam
  • You think patience is the highest virtue
  • Praying to RNGesus is part of your daily routine

You might NOT like this game if:

  • You find lots of missed attacks annoying
  • Game pacing is important to you
  • You’re only kind of interested in turn-based tactical combat games

Micah played 15+ hours of Warbanners on a custom built PC with a FX-8320 CPU, a GTX 970 GPU, and 16GB of RAM. Explorminate was provided with a key at no cost for purposes of this review.

2 replies »

    • To me, Battle Brothers is the better game on every front. Warbanners isn’t a bad game at all. It’s just that Battle Brothers is a great game.

      I actually wrote the article for Battle Brothers too. It will pop up if you use the search box at the top of the page. Enjoy!

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