The isometric turn based genre exploded back into the scene not so long ago with the X-COM reboot. What followed was a slew of cover-oriented, turn-based tactical games with dramatically varying rulesets, but a similar style of play: players would move a small squad of allies through a cover-laden battlefield with the end goal of clearing the entire place out. These cover-based games tend to favor conservative, defensive strategies over aggressive ones, and, turn almost entirely on how well you understand and utilize cover and flanking mechanics. The end result is a number of very different games, as varied as Shadowrun Returns and X-COM, that actually feel quite similar in how they play. A player who wants to keep their team in X-COM alive and who wants to keep their shadowrunners from biting the dust in Shadowrun will probably end up using the same tactics in each game: settle in, use overwatch, and engage enemies at maximum effective range using sympathetic cover and line of sight.
But what happens when an isometric game doesn't have an overwatch feature? What happens when you make melee combat more rewarding, and include a number of incredibly useful units whose ability to use cover isn't just insignificant, it's nonexistent? Shadowrun pondered these questions a bit by including physical adepts and melee-based street samurai, both character classes built to engage enemies up close and personal, but many of the mechanics that encouraged conservative play, like the overwatch mechanic, remained in place, and even the bulkiest cybered out troll could still benefit from cover. It wasn't until I played the recent translation of Warmachine from tabletop to turn-based-strategy game that I saw a fully realized turn-based strategy that prominently featured cover without making it the single most important game aspect for the majority of characters.
To the unfamiliar, Warmachine is a miniature based tabletop game that revolves around players assembling armies and bashing them against one another. Those armies are centered around powerful generals, who make use of massive steampunk robots, known colloquially as "warjacks" in the Warmachine universe. Warjacks are big, require some TLC from their generals to carry out most of their coolest functions and, as I hinted at above, don't benefit from cover. Warmachine Tactics is an attempt to bring that game to life on computers, letting audiences who don't usually buy minis, or who don't want to have to spend $200 to be able to play a game "the right way" for the first time. By all reports, it's a pretty successful attempt to do so - it's certainly made me interested in Privateer Press' selection of games, and, while I'm not going to run out the door and buy a box of minis to play at a local gaming store any time soon, I'm actually genuinely tempted to buy the Warmachine Tactics army and unit expansions that are being sold a la cart alongside the game.
So, if it functions as a successful board game translation, what does that say about it as an isometric tactics game? As it turns out, quite well, though with a distinctly different feel. As I said, it feels a lot like a middle-ground between X-COM and Shadowrun Returns, balancing Shadowrun's elaborate ruleset, rife with synergies, with the simplistic "plug and play" kind of mechanics that mark the early bars of X-COM's campaign mode. What separates Warmachine from those titles is that nearly every unit has some sort of melee attack available to them, and it's almost always a good idea to use it. Some units will have ranged attacks as well, which are also usually pretty straightforward. And every unit, regardless of whether it's kitted out for melee combat or ranged combat, has at least one special ability that sets it aside from other units. Maybe it receives extra bonuses from using cover, or the ability to volley-fire with a number of other friendly units. Maybe it has a special attack that doesn't require line-of-sight on its target, or a sword that deals extra damage to units that have already been set on fire. Whatever unit you're using, there's something special about it, and you'd be well-served to figure out just what that is.
That's because the complex interplay of those rules is where the meat of Warmachine Tactics lies, a quality that I understand it inherits from the tabletop game, and while players can skip up and attack anew each round with only the most basic of moves, they'll quickly run into difficulty against all but the weakest AI opponents if they do so for long. The oddity at play for me, however, is that by making synergistic behavior the most important game mechanic, cover mechanics quickly fade in importance. Take the humble Trencher, for instance, an infantry unit with a bayoneted rifle that receives some neat benefits from being in cover. The Trencher can survive a lot longer in cover, but he's best used by making "collaborative ranged attacks," a fancy of way of saying "massed fire on a single target," a shared mechanic for certain similar ranged units that let you increase overall chance to hit and attack damage, effectively mitigating the "flip a coin for each attack" mechanic that often arises in many turn based strategy games. Often you'll find yourself positioning the bulk of your Trenchers outside of cover so that they can guarantee significant damage against a heavy target, or knock out a single light target in a key position. And once they're out of cover the reality of Warmachine Tactics sets in, and you begin to realize that the cover mechanics, so elaborately framed by the game's tooltips and interface, are actually of little use once shit starts to hit the fan.
This seems to be owed, at least in part, to a prejudice towards melee engagement over ranged engagement in the game's mechanics: Warmachine Tactics loves its melee, and big units that might only be able to make a single ranged attack in a given round can sometimes make up to 8 distinct melee attacks against as many targets as they can reach in a given round instead. Even the aforementioned trenchers tend to be better at hitting with their individual melee attacks than their ranged attacks, and most melee attacks do more damage to boot. This isn't true for every unit, but ranged attacks are uniformly capped by a quality called "rate of fire," which prevents a unit from making more than a certain number of ranged attacks per round. That means that only so many bullets can fly in a given round, and that they're less likely to hit a unit, and less apt to do a lot of damage to that unit as well. Hanging back behind cover might keep you alive, and protect you against a little damage, but acting aggressively, pushing up and overrunning a vulnerable enemy position or collapsing an imperfect formation, is far more likely to prove effective, and the rewards for eliminating threats far outweigh the rewards for insulating yourself against them.
The end result is an isometric game that, on its face, violates all the rules the genre has been built upon. Players aren't supposed to sit back and wait. They're never supposed to stop moving. Constantly advancing, closing to melee range, darting about beyond it, making potshots when they're facing especially big opponents, swarming foes whenever an opportunity presents itself. This is no isometric cover based tactics game - it's all about positioning units, and seeing how your opponent responds. Warmachine Tactics is thoroughly rooted in its board-game heritage, demanding that players tempt their opponents into overextending, or rush into contact as quickly as possible, instead of establishing a position and working from there.
Removed from the digital frame, it wouldn't seem strange in the least, in this digital in-between space, Warmachine Tactics feels like an oddity, a game that doesn't quite fit the confines of its genre. With its focus on up-close and personal engagements, and its awkward relationship with actions like "retreating" and "repositioning," it's less a game about drawing your foe into your defenses and then cautiously advancing, and more a game about executing brutal, seat-of-your-pants attacks and hoping for the best. And when it works, it is truly invigorating. Crashing an Ironclad through a clutch of Winterguard and then rushing into the breach with a crew of Stormblades to clean up feels amazing, and can turn an entire battle around in just a turn or two. Likewise, it's utterly crushing to lose a handful of misplaced Gun Mages to a coy flanking maneuver, or to watch your Charger flail weakly at the Cryx thrall in its face, instead of pulling back and blasting away at whatever was dumb enough to step in front of its cannons.
These aren't the turns of play of a painstaking, quicksaving strategy game. They're the fist slamming, table flipping moments at home in tabletop gameplay. And that's the real success of Warmachine Tactics: not just translating a specific ruleset from a specific, venerated tabletop title to a digital framework, but transporting that heartbreaking, headgaming intensity that board games deliver unlike anything else to a new, virtualized space. I don't know anything about the Warmachine tabletop game beyond what I've read. I understand that this is a loyal re-creation of its various systems, but I have to take the dev's word for it, more or less. But I can say, verifiably, that Warmachine makes me feel the same way I feel when I'm playing a board game. I'm frustrated, I'm ecstatic, I'm intrigued. I carefully position units and succeed, and I make a single haphazard move and, denied a mulligan by the merciless mechanical arbitrator safeguarding the game's rules, my entire army begins to fall apart. I've been here before, but never in a digital space. Gaming began on the tabletop, but tabletop adaptation has never fully simulated the tabletop experience before now. Kudos to you, Warmachine, for breaking genres, breaking hearts, and creating new paradigms that keep me playing, even after I've finished your well-apportioned campaign.