I’ll let you in on a secret. As I type this sentence, my small-but-fierce company of mercenaries is slowly escorting a trade caravan to the town of Stakenburg. Yes, on the other screen, I’m fighting battles against hordes of orcs, because I can’t stop playing Battle Brothers long enough to write a review. The only way I could make this happen was to compromise. If I write a little bit, I can play a little bit. Deal?
Battle Brothers is a turn-based medieval combat game by Overhype Studios. You start the game in the middle of a losing battle, with most of your mercenary company destroyed. Your goal is to rebuild the company, but resources are limited. You can’t afford to recruit professional fighters right away, instead you pay what little money you have to recruit farmers or gamblers from the nearest town. There’s a chance the new recruits may desert or gamble your money away, but you have to take what you can get. Once you begin to rebuild your company, you can accept contracts from villages around the map, which will pay you in gold and renown. Most contracts consist of escorting trade caravans across the map, protecting a town from bandits or monsters, delivering a package, or recovering a relic from a nearby ruin. The game is open-ended but scales in difficulty as the days pass, and your decision to retire from your mercenary group is the intended end game.
What sets Battle Brothers apart from other turn-based combat games? Your soldiers have the standard action and hit points, but they also accumulate fatigue or lose morale while fighting. If he becomes surrounded by enemies or frightened by an undead creature, your soldier may lose all morale and attempt to run for his life. A soldier can become fatigued by fighting a long battle or using a heavy weapon, and this causes actions to become unavailable until the character can rest and recover. Unlike some turn-based combat games, the AI is incredibly intelligent, and the enemy will almost always go after your weakest fighter. When that weak fighter dies, he’s gone forever. Permadeath is a major threat during early battles. Careful planning is required throughout the entire game to protect your soldiers from fatigue, fright, and from becoming the target of an entire army of enemies.
Battle Brothers is a challenging game to begin. There’s a steep learning curve, and it takes a while to fully understand how the unique combat system works. The “Tutorials” page listed in the game menu links to the Overhype Studios YouTube channel and only provides two 20-minute videos, one about the World Map and the other about Combat. By choosing the “Scenarios” menu option, you can choose to practice some of the various battles you’ll encounter throughout the game. They may provide a safe practice space without fear of sacrificing your carefully-crafted army, but the Scenarios don’t teach you anything more than what you’d learn by working through the game yourself. This is the weakest point of Battle Brothers, and it’d be much more accessible to the new player if an in-game tutorial was offered as an option. It would be helpful to have a tutorial built into the start game that would explain how to rearrange your party, put soldiers in reserve to heal, repair items, and how to accept your first contract.
If you don’t build a strong army right away, it’s perfectly acceptable to start a new game, and you may be surprised to find an entirely new map with each game. The world map is randomized whenever you start a new campaign, changing not only the city locations, but the names, terrains, and the offerings of every village. When hiring a new recruit, the men are randomized, and you generally don’t know what you’ve gotten until you’ve already paid a hefty sum for him. Luckily, there are no class systems in Battle Brothers, so you are free to build your soldier as you see fit. There are dozens of random weapons found throughout the game, and new hideouts and ruins to explore. You can create an entirely new mercenary company with different skills and weapons every time you start a new game, which allows for a high level of replayability.
If you appreciate small details, you’ll enjoy the graphics in Battle Brothers. The soldiers and enemies resemble small chess pieces on a hexagonal combat map, but the utmost care was taken when designing them all. As a battle progresses, the men get bruised and bloodied. It’s easy to tell at a quick glance if you need to move a man from danger, not because his health bar is low, but because you can see it on his face. One of my soldiers lost his nose in a battle, a permanent wound with a fatigue penalty, and his pawn reflected his loss of appendage. Even after the rest of his wounds healed, he still looked like a broken man.
Speaking of Sir Roderick the Noseless, I should be getting back to my worn-out company of mercenaries. We’ve got more battles to win and relics to reclaim. Maybe I’ll recruit a graverobber or a ratcatcher this afternoon. Who will you find for your small army? It may take a while to feel comfortable leading your group of fighters into battle, but if you enjoy turn-based strategic combat, Battle Brothers should be on your radar.
A PC review copy of Battle Brothers was provided by Overhype Studios for the purpose of this review