Redwall Meets Revolution: Tooth And Tail

Tooth and Tail [official site] is to Command and Conquer what Monaco was to an actual bank heist. If you took an RTS and threw it into a pot then burned off all the fat, you’d be left with something that looked a little like the latest from Andy Schatz and his team at Pocketwatch Games. But would you lose some of the flavour as well? I played the game at GDC (Pip beat me, as usual) and spoke to the team about its design, artistic and mechanical.

Is it possible to cut a fully-fledged combat RTS experience down to brief rounds of 5-15 minutes? Can you retain the basics of territorial control, army structures, resource management, and the flow of victory and defeat? Can you do all of that and have your characters look like the cast of Redwall torn from their life of monastic medieval food porn feasts to the horrors of the Russian Revolution? Schatz believes so.

He makes a compelling argument, delivered in as enthusiastic a conversation as I had during the entire show. Tooth and Tail touches on so many things that are clearly important to Schatz that he’s a bundle of excitement when he talks about it. First of all, it’s a nostalgic pursuit, an attempt to recapture days of playing RTS games competitively while living in dorms. A memory of a social experience now translated into short-form, and thereby made less unforgiving, so that it can fit into a new lifestyle (who has as much time to play anymore?) and a new gaming landscape (there are so many games TO play).

The battle in the video below gives a good impression as to how the game plays, and how quick it is.

On one level, this is the RTS for people who don’t have time to devote to the learning process in a game like Starcraft II. Can’t click fast enough to compete? Tooth and Tail doesn’t require that level of micro control over units because armies are smaller and more compact. Don’t have time to teach your friends to play? They can bungle their way through a match with a few mouse clicks and a basic understanding of buildings and units. That is to say, if they know that a building is stationary and tends to gather or produce, and a unit moves and tends to attack or defend, they’ll be able to play.

That’s partly down to the actual length of time it takes to play a round. Tooth and Tail doesn’t punish poor play for very long because a game is unlikely to last more than twenty minutes. Pip and I played for seven or eight, I think, and when I watched two of the developers play, they lasted ten.

What that means, as well as making a coffee break battle an option, is that you won’t end up base-building for half an hour only to realise your base is rubbish and that the tide has turned against you even before you encounter an opponent for the first time. Think about how many hours you’ve spent knowing that a game is lost, backs against the wall waiting for the final blow that ends that awful waiting for the wrap-up screen.

In Tooth and Tail, the idea is that as soon as the balance of power tips too dramatically in one direction, the end will be a minute or two away at most. That’s achieved by focusing all of a player’s power on a very compact space. Bases are windmills and farms, generating food to keep armies on their feet (paws) and to bring in new recruits, which emerge from burrows placed around your territory.

It’s possible to spread your buildings between one or more focal points but that brings its own risks, chiefly that you’ll have to spend resources between the two if you want to defend both efficiently. Effectively, each procedurally generated map provides a space in which you’ll build, scout for the enemy location, and then attack, misdirect, defend and – if you’re smart and experienced enough – relocate in order to confuse and flank your opponent.

The animals-with-guns setting makes each unit immediately legible. What does a skunk do? And remember, this isn’t biology, this is a cartoon war. So, what does a skunk do if not stink? So those will be units that can gas the enemy then. How about a fox? A cunning, sneaky hunter? That’ll be the sniper. There’s a dark element behind the oh-so-adorable sprites though – the war these animals are fighting is all about hunters, prey and livestock. They’re fighting for the right not to be eaten by one another. There are four factions in total but it’s the aristocrats who stick with me; they’re content to eat the poor, no matter what their species.

None of that matters unless you want it to. There will be a full campaign for solo play as well as up to four players in 1v1 or 2v2 online (you can even play four-player splitscreen should you choose), but whatever mode you choose the heart of the game is in the ability to focus your attention where it needs to be. The title alludes to that – it’s a reference to the tooth-to-tail ratio, a military term about the need for supply personnel as well as combat personnel. In the game, you control a commander unit, giving you an avatar on the map, but your energies are spent ensuring that your home economy – the base – is just as efficient as the teeth of your attack.

That means lots of running around, building, repairing, setting up defenses and directing attacks. You don’t need more than a couple of buttons and can play with either mouse and keyboard or a joypad, and that’s integral to the philosophy of the design: anyone with an interest in RTS games (and some without) should be able to pick up and play, and find a style to suit them.

Whether that means carefully selecting structures and units before the battle to give your army shape (you can choose seven from a wide selection; there’s no tech tree as such but there are three tiers of units, each more expensive than the last), or improvising on the ground and reacting to what your opponent throws at you, even the most punishing defeat should leave you wanting one more go rather than leaving you disheartened.

Pip and I both managed to control our armies effectively, although we didn’t get the knack of giving orders to specific unit types until the end of our game. By that point, everything was burning on my side of the map because Pip is a monster.

Despite the simplicity there’s all kinds of room for deception. The tier of a burrow can be seen, for example, but you won’t know exactly what kind of unit it’s going to produce until you’ve seen them in battle. That means a great deal of the strategy for each player is dependent on the choices they make before the skirmish begins – unit and structure selection gives your army a shape that you’ll have to work within. It’s possible to choose barbed wire and other defensive assets to create a bristling, bustling base that’s difficult to puncture, but you could go the other way and pick fast, stealthy units and move around the map nomadically, living off resources while they last and having a back-up plan ready when they end up getting razed.

And that goes back to the tail-to-tooth balance. Will you concentrate on the fast-changing economy of supply or will you build elite units and lead surgical strikes into enemy territory? Whether or not the game will grab me long-term, I’m impressed by how many choices it forced me to make within the short span of each game.

Tooth and Tail is a short-form RTS that you can play with a controller. It works, is challenging and complex without being complicated. That in itself is a hell of an accomplishment, and if it can do for the genre what Monaco did for the stealth game, it’ll have achieved many of Schatz’s goals: accessible, enjoyable, generous and layered. The procedural maps throw up some surprisingly tricky layouts, with both bridges and ridges offering advantages that certain units can exploit. And there’s room for intricate high-level play with control of the commander, utilising teleportation-like burrowing to jump to emergencies as they escalate.

It may not be a recreation of Command and Conquer or Warcraft, but it felt like my memories of those games. Fast, thoughtful and tense. With this and Offworld Trading Company, it’s entirely possible I’m going to rediscover my love of RTS games and I’d never have predicted this compact, condensed approach would be the way to win me back.

You can follow development of Tooth and Tail on the Pocketwatch blog.

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Aitrus says:

    “monastic medieval food porn feasts” – Redwall in a nutshell. Rest in peace, Brian Jacques.

    • AndySchatz says:

      Redwall as a fav of mine as a kid :) We actually got probably the most prolific Redwall fan artist to do our character portraits, Jerome Jacinto… timelapse painting

      • QSpec says:

        My wife and I have an 8mo. We have started collecting the Redwall series. They were easily my favorite books for years and years, and I’m actually pretty excited about passing them down.

        • Premium User Badge

          Mentalpygmy says:

          passed Redwall down to my niece at Christmas. Fantastic for a 9 year old I thought (as a 9 year old).

  2. TΛPETRVE says:

    Great article for an already great, and soon to be even greater game.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Is this on early access or something somewhere? Their patch notes seem to imply there’s community testing going on, but I can’t find a way to throw money at them yet.

  3. LionsPhil says:

    Monaco didn’t get me at all, but this looks pretty entertaining, a sorta AirMech-scale RTS…with artillery ferrets in it. Artillery ferrets.

    • TΛPETRVE says:

      AirMech – or rather its spiritual ancestor Herzog Zwei – has left its influence in the direct control scheme, but unlike those games, Tooth and Tail does not entail (no pun indended) any action elements, or otherwise direct physical interaction with your units, such as transportation. Everything is kept as simple as placing/selling off structures, and rallying either troops of a specific type or your entire company at your position.

      • TΛPETRVE says:

        In fact, even its scale is not really comparable. What you get is essentially a free-form strategy sandbox. The only limit is your resources. While usually squad guerrilla tactics are the prevalent modus operandi in the game, it is – at least technically – absolutely possible to build a huge army of 100+ squirrels and try to steamroll the enemy, or wage a defensive trench war with nothing but mines, barbed wire and heavy artillery until one of the teams simply starves to death.

  4. CaptnFog says:

    This game is exactly what I’ve been searching for. I’ve been playing the alpha with the devs and it scratches my RTS itch without being overwhelming or stressful. Plus I can send in 10 exploding toads to take out my enemy! What other game lets you do that?! I’m just beginning to discover the amount of depth it has while still being easy to control.

    Plus it’s so pretty. They have cloud shadow movement on the ground and everything feels like that time of day when the sun is setting and everything is golden.

    • Rwlyra says:

      Your post reminded me of Speed of Darkness novel, which was good writing for a mormon.


      That was his word for it, that rare, perfect day that warms the soul with a golden glow of joy. There was peace in a golden day.

      Some days were gray, hung with leaden clouds and rain punctuated by brilliant flashes of burning white and rolling thunder. Other days were a vibrant cold blue arching over the frost-encrusted domes and sheds of the settlement. Some days were even red — the evening sky painted by the dust in the spring winds before the crops had gotten their own hold on the soil. Some days even extended into the night with a velvety cobalt blanket across the sky.

      Each day held different colors for him. He had experienced them in all their hues. Each held a memory and a place in his heart. Yet none in his experience could compare to a golden day. It was the color of the wheat fields that rolled like waves across the low hills stretching out from his father’s homestead. Golden was the warmth of the sun on his face. Golden was the glow he felt within him.

    • tnankie says:

      You mean the golden hour? At least that is what it is referred to by cinematographers/photographers.

  5. Universal Quitter says:

    Looks cool, but I’m really tired of the trend of small, compact experiences becoming the focus in games.

    I get that everyone is getting older and having less time for gaming (though, in my opinion, this is generally a self-inflicted problem), but it’s becoming the Next Big Thing in some of my favorite genres, and that’s frustrating.

    • LionsPhil says:

      We could do with another proper stab at peaking beyond Supreme Commander‘s heights, but I don’t think Pocketwatch working on this instead has an opportunity cost against that.

    • AndySchatz says:

      I do believe that Ashes of the Singularity JUST came out…

    • jayfear says:

      They’re not mutually exclusive. The existence of shorter games hasn’t killed Supreme Commander, Civilisation etc.

    • Pantalaimon says:

      The games might be short but in my experience of playing these kind of games at least as much time is spent around the game, talking about it and thinking about it. Just because the gameplay has been crystalised in certain directions, it doesn’t mean that there are not complexities to the experience. Remember that the best games use the least amount of mechanics as they can, and focus on the interactions between those elements.

  6. SuddenSight says:

    Thanks for linking the video, that has given me hope that this might be a good game.

    Airmech was close but too Dota-y for my tastes, so I honestly assumed a controller-compatible strategy game was impossible. But this looks like it might actually achieve the dream!

    All aboard the hype train, I guess.

  7. bill says:

    Hmm. Reading this article it sounded like just the kind of RTS i’ve been looking for. Looking at the screenshots it looked lovely.
    Then I watched the video and it seems to involve a lot of running units around and chaotic structureless battles and it turns out it’s the opposite of that I was looking for.

    • AndySchatz says:

      I’m curious, what are you looking for?

    • Pantalaimon says:

      It probably seems a lot more chaotic at first glance than it does after you’ve played a few games. And then when you’ve played a few dozen games – and eventually hundreds beyond that – it’s all going to seem to slow down and be much more readable from a strategic standpoint. At least that’s my assumption based on other games.

      It seems like the controls are intentionally looser and it’s more forgiving mechanically. That’s something I look forward to. Although I wonder if that will change once players get into playing it competitively and mechanical skill might give a larger edge akin to other RTSs. If so that would be disappointing.

  8. AndySchatz says:

    I’m curious… what are you looking for?

  9. zreeseplus says:

    The more I see of this game the more I’m convinced it’s going to be a genre-maker, like Doom or Mario 64 or GTA 3. Like everything is going to change and years from now we’ll look back on Tooth and Tail as the first “hyper real time strategy” game or whatever.