As the Fire Emblem series has grown in popularity and critical acclaim, developer Intelligent Systems has left their other turn-based strategy franchise, the Wars games, in the dust. But as is common for abandoned gameplay formulas, a team set out to fill this niche. Wargroove is a turned-based strategy game that successfully emulates the appeal of the Wars games, offering a satisfying tactics experience with succinctly defined rules. And most importantly, there is a deft balance between strategic depth and simplicity, embodying the easy to learn, but tough to master design philosophy of its spiritual predecessor.
Here players are tasked with outmaneuvering, outproducing, and outthinking their opponents. Set on a tile-based map, you must utilize different unit types, each with varying movement speeds, unit counters, weaknesses, production costs, and critical hit conditions. When a unit attacks another unit, they deplete their forces, causing the damaged party to deal less damage. To win you have to either destroy the enemy Commander, a particularly powerful unit with special abilities or topple the opposing stronghold. By capturing villages, you can increase your gold production, allowing for the creation of increasingly powerful units. These simple building blocks give way to a nuanced strategy game which requires the proper creation and usage of your troops.
Since all unit types counter and are countered by other unit types, engagements are transformed into an intricate chess match where you must carefully move around your pieces to best meet your foes’ advances. For instance, Cavalry are exceedingly nimble and powerful units that trounce most other ground forces but can be neutralized by cheap Spearmen if you aren’t careful. Flying units can shred through non-ranged units without taking any damage, but Mages and Archers can spell the end for them quite handily. This interplay between troop types is what makes the core strategy play so rewarding, as it places importance on which units you produce and how you position them. Additional layers of complexity are added in the form of critical hits, which occur when a given criterion is met, such as if your Trebuchet hits an opponent at max range, or if your Soldier is standing next to a Commander. This further rewards clever unit placement, and ensures that winning a skirmish isn’t as simple as building the most expensive unit type.
Due to the alternate win conditions, and the need to defend villages for the sake of gold production, tough choices need to be made constantly. Although your Commander is a powerful asset, putting them in a dangerous position can lead to a swift defeat. Securing a stable supply of resources is essential to victory, but sometimes laying siege to a distant village can lead to troop overextension. Damaged soldiers can steal the health from your own buildings, but this weakens the building’s defenses. The nice thing about the complexity in Wargroove is that it is all of its mechanics are clear and apparent. Unlike many 4X or real-time strategy games, it doesn’t take dozens of hours to unveil the complex interplay between all the underlying systems. By hovering over a unit you can view their damage matrix, and the value of all unit types are explained at a reasonable pace through the main story mode. The only real form of randomness exists in the form of slight variances in damage output, but this variance only accounts for a couple percentage points of damage. All things considered, the game’s complexity doesn’t come from obtuseness, but from finding the right counter for any given scenario.
As for the story mode, we follow Mercia, the Warrior-Queen of Cherrystone, as she attempts to stop the undead forces of Fellheim. While the writing’s light tone often undermines some of the more dramatic beats, the core cast is charming enough to make the narrative breezy and pleasant, buoyed by a marked feeling of inclusivity. Overall, the campaign does a good job of providing a variety of scenarios which take advantage of the core gameplay, and missions have enough variance to make the twenty to thirty-hour campaign engaging throughout. In some cases, you must survive against wave after wave of opposing forces, while in others you will have to defeat enemy detachments without any backup. These situations force you to adapt and constantly reinvent your strategy. While there are a few too many missions that have the standard “topple the opposing base” or “defeat their leader” win-conditions, these engagements will generally introduce new unit types or have some other unique wrinkle to keep them interesting. Despite a few outliers, the battles generally feel fair, even as the odds are always stacked against you. The enemy AI usually doesn’t exploit your initial production disadvantages or troop disparities, instead testing your ability to properly position against and bait out your foes’ attacks. By making good usage of your Commander unit, effectively countering opposing troop types, and seizing key strategic points it is possible to turn the tides of most skirmishes. Still, although the majority of engagements are well-considered, unfairness will occasionally creep into the picture.
Many missions have hidden triggers that suddenly unleash a horde of enemies. Entering a specific area of the map, or killing a certain detachment of enemies can cause a tidal wave of foes suddenly barrel towards you, offering little wiggle room for counterplay. This is somewhat mitigated by the ability to create save states in the middle of engagements, but it shouldn’t be necessary to resort to trial and error to overcome these challenges. These moments break the game’s otherwise well-maintained rule that your opponent’s strength in numbers can be beaten by clever strategy. Another unfortunate characteristic of the story mode is that some of the late-game missions can be something of a slog. There is a tipping point in some of the encounters where turns become exceedingly long due to the sheer number of units you control. Here weighing every possible move that can be performed by the legion of enemies can be somewhat tedious. Although this is mostly only a problem in a few of the later optional side missions, it is very hard to unlock the “true” ending of the story without completing the vast majority of these. But despite these annoyances, most of the missions strike a balance between challenging and overwhelming, creating an interlocked series of smaller tactics puzzles tied together by grand strategy.
In addition to the main campaign, there is also Puzzle mode, Arcade mode, and online multiplayer. Puzzle mode is an interesting addition, setting up a variety of scenarios where you must achieve victory in a single turn. These interesting micro-missions are cerebral challenges that call for some fairly intense problem-solving. While they obviously aren’t as well-rounded as the full experience, they offer fun palate cleansers which can each be solved in a variety of ways. Arcade mode is fairly rudimentary, letting you control the various Commanders in an escalating series of matches. Like its fighting game namesake, this mode feels like playing multiplayer against bots. Since the victory conditions are always the same, and the maps are symmetrical, this is easily the least interesting component of the experience. For multiplayer, you can play Quickplay games, which match you up with opponents based on a hidden skill score, or you can play custom games with friends. Unfortunately, in my experience, it was very difficult to find an online match, making it hard to recommend the game based on this feature alone.
Wargroove does a great job at emulating and honing the appeal of the Wars series, demonstrating why this type of straightforward strategy game is such a treat. The multitude of troop types, various win-conditions, and resource management offer complexity, while its turn-based nature and well-explained rules lend an air of approachability. A few bad apples aside, the lengthy story mode presents an abundance of diverse missions that feel challenging but surmountable. Successfully funneling your opponent’s troops into a carefully curated ambush, or coming up with the perfect counter to a particular enemy charge is always deeply rewarding, and the diversity of mission setups keeps the experience interesting throughout. Wargroove successfully revitalizes a largely abandoned style of game with its own unique sense of charm and mechanical innovation.