Wartile and the Beauty of Battle

For fans of tabletop gaming, Wartile looked a dream when it was first announced. Highly detailed dioramas held that same handmade beauty as the best of reality’s own, with its hexagonal tiles adding to its charm rather than marring the landscape. Having returned from the dead after a failed KickStarter campaign, Wartile is currently available in early access on Steam, so we were able to take a look.

First, of course, Wartile’s dioramas are still superb, sprawling levels creeping across the vertical as well as the horizontal. However this very selling point can sometimes become its own enemy. With so many different levels and angles to view and no (or little) auto-adjusting zoom, it can feel a little slow to look around, which isn’t the best feature for a real-time strategy to have. Scenery such as tree branches can also get in the way — a system where objects become translucent if one of your units is behind them would have been useful here, but might feasibly detract from the game’s dioramic nature.

A loose story links each board (encompassing a mission) together, and it is with one such brief introduction that we are brought into the tutorial board, set in the swamp known as ‘Tears of Eir’. The wording of the introduction doesn’t make your quest objective too clear, so it takes a little guesswork to get that the card shown at the beginning is your main objective: to sacrifice a goat at the top of the mountain. This card tucks into the side as an icon along with a secondary objective, which also is not initially clear about what to do with it.

Wartile's first map sees you ascend the hill in a loose spiral to reach your objective.
Wartile’s first map sees you ascend the hill in a loose spiral to reach your objective.

Pretty soon you find out that most objective clues come from the map tiles. In the tutorial, graphics of a mouse and keyboard explain the movement system when you hover over them. Mission objectives appear as cards with the same unhelpful descriptions as before, but are placed near the objective itself to make things clearer, which is good once you learn the cards are there to read, not pick up.

Movement is simple enough: drag your warriors to a tile within range (indicated by a white dot) and let go to move them. Units can’t move through other units, nor can they attack through an occupied square in a straight line to the target. What really takes a while to get used to is the unique nature of Wartile’s real-time mechanics. It has in fact been described as a cross between real-time and turn-based: after each move or attack there is a cooldown before you can do anything else; played cards have a cooldown (or are shuffled back into the deck) before they can be used again; and you cannot pause the game, only slow it to a fraction of its normal speed.

So how well does this system work? Well, it does meet the developers’ criteria of a feeling of urgency in combat, and of the need to make snap decisions. That said, it gives you little time to look around the map and makes it far easier to mis-click or drag to the wrong hex by accident at the last moment. Although you could argue that if they didn’t have it, you would no longer be able to interrupt an enemy’s movement by moving to the same tile before them and similar benefits. Considering extreme slow motion is a feature, would Wartile’s prospects really have been harmed by an option to pause instead? Perhaps not, but with no mid-mission save options, this forced pace is welcome.

Slowing time gives you more time to see how much trouble you're in, but don't stand gaping too long — time moves ever onward.
Slowing time gives you more time to see how much trouble you’re in, but don’t stand gaping too long — time moves ever onward.

Combat for melee units is automatic — get them within equipped weapon range of their opponent and they attack as fast as the cooldown system allows them. This means you don’t have to spend precious time micro-managing them. Archers work differently and while it may at first seem a chore to select each target for them, any automatic system would see them ruin stealth missions.

Automatic combat would get somewhat dull rather fast, so Wartile adds ability cards into the mix. Each character can only bring one of three unlockable cards into battle at once, so choose carefully. Like movement, these cards have a cooldown once you use them, and are brought into play by dragging them to the desired square. Visual indication for area-of-effect abilities can be quite vague, though, so it can be tricky to have to squint at critical moments, but time also slows down while dragging the cards. Item cards, picked up from around the map, can be used in the same way; each character can only carry one at a time.

God cards work in a similar manner, but you can have three in your hand at any one time, rather than limited to a character’s inventory. They are granted with each objective you complete and you can use them for everything from healing party members to summoning undead and turning enemies into frogs. While they don’t use the cooldown system, they do cost points, which are accumulated through dispatched enemies.

God cards can set your enemies on fire — or turn them against each other — before they even know you're there.
God cards can set your enemies on fire — or turn them against each other — before they even know you’re there.

When you complete your main objective, Wartile takes you back to its hub: the board. This displays a map, which encompasses your mission markers and is surrounded by several menus represented in 3D form. From here, you can select any available mission at the difficulty you prefer, alongside managing your party and deck of god cards, which is limited to five cards.

Of the five tabs you can switch through from the map board, the first is a tavern where you can hire new party members. These tend to unlock every few missions, with each seeming to embody a different class. You have the standard shield-using warriors, spearmen, archers and staff-wielding mages. They’re quite expensive to unlock and some may find hiring two of the same class dubious, as often you can only select a limited number from your figurine collection when deciding who to take into battle. You begin with two characters and after your first hiring opportunity, you can still only take two characters — whom you’ll want to be high level — along to the next mission. Considering the size of your ship never changes, this feels a bit counter-intuitive.

A Wartile party, armed and ready for battle. We're not quite sure where the spearman's arm has gone.
A Wartile party, armed and ready for battle. We’re not quite sure where the spearman’s arm has gone.

Of course, level is only half the struggle: equipment ups the stats of your party and makes the squishy marginally less so. You’ll get most new weapons, armour and tokens (which increase certain stats) from drops in combat, but you can also buy them from the merchant tab. That said, items from the merchant often cost more than new party members; you can sell old items, but they never sell for nearly enough to fund a wide range of purchases. Replaying previous levels is the best way to earn money and, thankfully, never grows old.

As characters level up, they gain access to more of their three pre-set ability cards — though only one can be active at a time — and extra slots for tokens to sit in. Every item and ability can be managed through the customisation tab for each character — it’s a nice touch that every weapon and armour piece appears on the figurine itself — and god cards have their own tab where you can manage your deck.

Despite all this  — a sprawling scenery of forward thinking and rushed combat  — Wartile is a title still very much in early access, so comes with its fair share of bugs. They are being dealt with at an impressive rate, largely thanks to one player who seems to post a bug every few hours, even through Christmas Eve and Day. Nonetheless, the game as it stands at the moment can sometimes feel clunky (if characters are free to move but can’t be dragged, which is rare) and can outright crash. A recent patch has solved a lot of major bugs, although we still encountered one random fatal error after its release.

From such an impressive early premise, Wartile has managed to deliver well, although perhaps not in the way that many hoped. Bringing more characters into play strains the real-time’s turn-based façade and multiplayer, which only unlocks once you have completed the first map board (around three to six hours of gameplay, depending on your skill), is difficult to find an opponent in. That said, the core concept is enjoyable, tactile and decidedly moreish. If you find its ideas intriguing, it’s worth taking a look. Those more wary may want to wait for its full release

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