Battle Brothers checks all of the boxes that interest me; Low fantasy setting, turn-based tactics, Role playing game (RPG) mechanics, resource management, and a brutal difficulty. While this game does a lot right, it also has a few glaring issues that keep it from being truly great. Battle Brothers is developed by a small team of independent game developers, also known as Overhype Studios
Battle Brothers start you off on a battlefield strewn with the dead bodies of your fallen brothers. You and your band of mercenaries are on a contract gone horribly wrong. Hogger, the man you were contracted to kill, runs off while you take down the rest of his gang. Once everything has died down one of the men come up to you and ask what to do next. You are now the leader of this small group of fighters… meager as it is. You travel back to the town where you accepted the mission to at least get paid. From there you choose to go after Hogger or leave him and venture out into wild unknown. Choosing to hunt down Hogger will provide the player with a quest that acts as a tutorial for navigation, hiring units, and buying gear. However, with the nature of this game, you will end up starting many new squads. This provides an opportunity for players to avoid the tutorial quest if they feel like their time could be better spent elsewhere. The rest of the story consists of random events that happen on the overworld map, different missions accepted in towns, and ends in one possible scenario out of three.
Normally, the ending scenario is chosen at random from three ending scenarios called d”late game crisis.” However, the player is given the option to choose the crisis that happens before their campaign starts during difficulty selection. The three endings are “War of the Noble Houses”, “Undead Scourge”, and “Greenskin Invasion”. The War of the Noble houses is suggested to try first as it will conclude with or without you. The Undead Scourge and the Greenskin Invasion act the same. Both will cause undead or orcish locations to spawn on the map. The goal for these crises is to defeat the oncoming enemy or at least try to hold out against them.
You do not have an avatar to represent yourself, but you are still a distinct entity in the world. Nonplayer characters (NPCs) will talk to you and you are the one that makes decisions for the party. These are shown to the player in a pop-up menu. The text will describe an event or a conversation. Some event menus will offer a choice of ways to respond. For example, I once encountered an event where a guard claimed that one of my men was an escaped criminal. I had the choice of turning over my unit or protecting him and fighting the town guard. Sadly I turned him over since the guards would have crushed my men.
The game takes place in a procedurally generated. This means that map features are placed semi-randomly to create a new map each time. However, there are aspects of each map that are the same every time. For example, the northern part of the map will always have snow and mountains, while the bottom part of the map will have an ocean. The world is inhabited by humans, goblins, orcs and the undead.
Battle Brothers uses what’s known as a “low fantasy” setting. This means that while there are still fantasy elements, like orcs and magic, the setting is grounded in a realistic environment. This is opposed to “high fantasy” which uses a completely fictional world with their own set of physical laws. World of Warcraft, for example, uses a high fantasy setting for their world. You often go to places like wondrous floating cities, or a castle at the mouth of a volcano. In contrast, The Witcher 3 would be an example of a low fantasy setting. Although there is magic and alchemy, the environments are more grounded in reality.
The armor, weapons, clothing, and architecture used in Battle Brothers is inspired by medieval Europe around the 15th century. Currently, your units consist of (and are limited to) white men. While there is a good amount of variety in the shape of the face, the hair, and facial hair, you do end up seeing the same person a lot. Since the games aesthetic is modeled around 15th century Europe, it makes sense that your units would be all white, all male. That’s who was doing the mercenary work at that time in that location. However, it would be nice to have some more variety when it comes to units given that it is a fantasy setting. Luckily, the developers have addressed this and stated that they would like to add more races and sexes to be hired in the future if possible.
Resource management is at the heart of this game, similar to Rimworld and The Darkest Dungeon. When you are not in a fight you will be tasked with properly managing your company’s resources. You will need to use the money you get from missions to pay, feed, and equip your units. Failing to do so will decrease the mood of your units and can cause them to abandon the troupe. The safety and well-being of your units are important to maintain. During a fight, your units will be attacked and can sustain injuries. Some of these injuries remain for a few days and apply a debilitating effect to the unit. Sometimes the injury can be permanent like a gouged out eye or a cut off nose. Each brother has a background, zero to two traits, attributes, and perks.
- Backgrounds can alter a unit’s attributes, gives the unit skills, or even cause random events. The background of the unit also influences the salary of the brother. Some backgrounds include tailor, farmer, beggar, and ex-soldier
- Traits are generated upon hiring the unit. These are aspects of the unit that can affect him in positive or negative ways. Some examples of positive and negative traits would be “bright” and “asthmatic” respectively. Bright provides your character with a 25% increase to experience gained, while asthmatic makes your character have a lower fatigue capacity.
- Attributes are numbers that affect the success of the characters actions in combat. They are changed through leveling up, backgrounds, perks, traits, mood, equipment, and/or injuries.
- Perks are bonuses which are obtained through leveling up. There are multiple tiers of perks which are unlocked the higher the level of the unit. Perks allow units to become more specialized and provide beneficial effects. For example, the “Nine Lives” perk allows your unit to survive a lethal attack once per battle.
Fights are where most of the mechanics of the game are dedicated. Before an encounter players will choose the formations of their units and can choose up to 12 brothers to fight. There are two rows that you can put your units in, each containing nine spaces. Units will take this formation at the start of the battle while facing an opposing team with their own formation.
The turn order is dictated by a unit’s initiative. Brothers with a higher initiative will go before units with a lower initiative. You and your opponent take turns moving and attacking until one team is left standing. All units have health points. when a units health points reach zero they are permanently dead. To mitigate some damage you can equip armor which has it’s own pool of health points. When a unit is equipped with armor damage will be dealt with the gear rather than the unit’s health. Gear and health can be healed outside of battle with tools and medicine respectively.
The playing field, where the units are loaded into, is procedurally generated based on the companies location on the overworld map. The playing field consists of a hexagonal grid with up to four levels of elevation. Battle Brothers uses “fog of war”, which means that areas that can not be seen by your units are also not viable to you. Fighting areas can also be obstacles placed to hinder movement and vision. This is where the first problem comes into play which is that battle areas get repetitive. You will end up seeing the same map a lot.
One aspect of the game which I love is the weapon selection. One problem that plagues a lot of games is diversifying weapons. If a game provides multiple different weapons it’s important for them to act differently from each other. Otherwise, players will find the most optimal weapon for dealing damage, making the choice moot. The choice goes from “which weapon will best help me deal with this problem” to “which weapon will deal the most damage the fastest.”
There are nine different melee weapon types (Swords, Daggers, Axes, Maces, Spears, Flails, Polearms, Hammers, and Cleavers) and three ranged weapons types (Bows, Crossbows, and Thrown Weapons). Weapons can also either be two handed or one handed which changes the damage values as well as give new abilities. Specific weapons can have different abilities, but the themes of the weapons stay the same.
- Swords use less fatigue and are most effective againced lightly to unarmored foes. Swords also have the ability to riposte, which lets the unit punish misses againced them with attacks.
- Daggers use almost no fatigue and can ignore heavy armor completely with it’s puncture ability. The damage, however, is really low.
- Axes have the ability to direct their damage at shields, destroying them and leaving the enemy unit vulnerable
- Maces are effective at destroying armor, but also have the additional bonus of possibly stunning the enemy, making them skip a turn.
- Spears deal mediocre damage, but have the spearwall ability. If there are no enemies in an adjacent tile you can activate spearwall stance which is similar to the swords parry. If an enemy approaches a unit with spearwall active, they will be attacked on entering the tile. This attack can even push the enemy back a tile.
- Flails ignore the defense that shields provide and have an increased chance to hit an enemies head.
- Polearms very the most out of all the melee weapons. All polearms are two handed and can attack from an additional tile away. Their abilities range from displacing enemy units to attacking units in an arc.
- Hammers are the most effective against heavily armored units, dealing damage to armor and health.
- Cleavers are deadly against low armored units. Additionally, cleavers can apply a bleed effect which does damage over time.
- Bows are fast to fire, but use up more fatigue than other ranged weapons.
- Crossbows can be fired easily, but need to be reloaded which takes up a lot more fatigue. This allows crossbow users to move further and attack when the crossbow is loaded.
- Thrown weapons have the lowest ammo count, damage, and range of the ranged weapons. The upside is you can use them with a shield equipped.
Battle Brothers does weapons right by providing each with its own mechanic. The choice of equipment comes down to preparing for problems rather than trying to pump out the most damage. Worried about not being able to get past shields? Bring someone with an axe to destroy it, or a flail for a chance to ignore the shield completely.
Armor selection offers a variety of choices. Having heavy armor will provide more protection, but tire out your unit faster. Having a shield will protect your unit, but further decreases his fatigue. Shields also provide more defense versus certain attacks depending on the shield. Heater shields are good at blocking melee attacks, but not as good as kite shields when it comes to defending against ranged attacks.
As I mentioned earlier, the overworld map of Battle Brothers is procedurally generated. Players travel the map by clicking on a location to go to. The pawn that represents your party travels at different speeds on the map, depending on the terrain. There is a day and night cycle which is recorded at the top of the screen on the overworld map.
Part of the generation of maps is nations. There are many different nations, but they function the same. They spawn towns of varying wealth in close proximity to each other. Towns can have a number of locations within them depending on their individual wealth. These locations include:
- The Marketplace: A place where items can be bought and sold and is present in each town. The market sells a wide variety of food, weapons, and tools that the company could find useful. However, markets do not sell specialized things like high-level armor or weapons.
- The Tavern: This is the place where you can get the scoop on rumors and improve the mood of your units. Be careful about overindulging. Drunk units are not the most effective fighters.
- The Barber: This is a place where you can change the appearance of your units. Its free to swap the appearance of your brothers and is purely for aesthetics.
- The Kennels: This is a place where you can buy war dogs. War dogs act like a unit when used. You can’t directly control them, but they are fast. As a side note, you end up fighting and killing dogs in this game. This bums me out a little, but they’ve been historically used in war… what are ya gonna’ do?
- The Fletcher: This is a place where you can buy specialized ranged weapons.
- The Weaponsmith: This is the place where you can buy specialized melee weapons.
- The Armorer: This is the place where you can buy specialized armor.
- The Chapel: This is the place to heal your units of any injuries that they might have sustained.
- The Harbor: This allows the player to travel quickly to another settlement, so long as the second one has their own harbor
Missions in Battle Brothers are given in the form of contracts. Players can pick up contracts in settlements. The difficulty of the contracts is determined by the level of the mission and the number of days that have passed in the game. As you pick a contract, you are given a text pop-up that describes the events leading up to you accepting the quest. While the lead up to the mission is varied and a nice read, the missions themselves become repetitive. The missions consist of either guarding a caravan against attacks, delivering goods to another town, or attacking some other group of combatants. This could be improved by providing new types of missions that have specific goals rather than killing all of the enemy units. For example, a mission could have you hunting for a specific combatant and provide the player a bigger reward if they are taken in alive.
Before we end there’s one last issue that I would like to tackle and that’s the price. Battle Brothers is a $30 game. Price doesn’t dictate the quality of a game, but it does influence recommendations. The development team for this game is small so updates are going to be sporadic. In addition, there isn’t mod support meaning that the game will only be in English and the content is only going to be dictated by the development team. What you see with this game is what you get. Mod support is by no means a necessary thing for all games, but mods could go a long way to combat repetition in this one. These things combined make it hard to recommend to anyone who isn’t a die-hard fan of this kind of game.
Battle Brothers is an enjoyable game despite its flaws. This game does a good job at making you feel like the head of a band of mercenaries which is not something that I have felt from any other game. The dialog and events that happen in the game are dark and appropriate for the era that it is emulating. Battles are a genuine thrill because of the constant threat of losing units permanently. Lastly, it’s incredibly satisfying to see the squalid band of thugs that you start with evolve into a deadly gang of mercenaries.