Premature Evaluation: Battle Brothers

Every Monday we find Brendan sulking in a tavern and recruit him into our brigade of early access mercenaries. This week, the tough, turn-based strategy of Battle Brothers [official site].

The life of a sellsword is not a forgiving one. But don’t take my word for it – ask José the Dog Whisperer, who has just been pushed into a narrow hole by a gang of heavily armoured Orcs and savagely sliced to bits from all sides. Oh, I suppose you can’t. Well, you could ask Fibs O’Hanlon, but no, now that I think about it, he was also stabbed until death. Let’s see, what about Dietrich With No Surname? Yes, he’s the one without the head. Oh, oh I see what you mean.

Battle Brothers is set in a world of grimy fantasy, where goblins and bandits and goblin bandits assault you on the road, demanding your money and your life. You play as a posse of armed mercenaries, travelling between towns and taking contracts, but once you get into combat you really see that you are just a bunch of weird medieval busts, taking turns to die on a multi-layered hexagonal grid. It’s like a swords ‘n’ shields version of Jagged Alliance. But I haven’t played those games. Are they difficult? They must be difficult.

My first band of merry murderers took odd jobs of bandit-cleaning, concluding that this was a better-paying task than the mundane delivery quests offered in most towns. You can get 200 gold for escorting a caravan along a boring road but 500 gold for clearing a bunch of highwaymen from their hideout. We set forth to Dagger Den, where two of my five mercenaries promptly died in a melee with the robbers, who weren’t even particularly well armed or well co-ordinated. It was all down to the fighting.

There’s a bit to learn for this. You have action points, of course, and both movement and combat will eat these up. But your combat abilities depend on each man’s equipment and loadout. Those with a shield can perform a ‘shield wall’ for instance, increasing defense against the next incoming blow, and stacking with all other shield wallers in adjacent tiles. A warrior with a two-handed axe can perform a round swing, slashing at everyone in a circle (even at your own dudes if they are in those spaces). You can get rope nets to throw on people and disable them for a couple of turns, and for ranged combat there’s bows or crossbows or throwing axes or javelins.

The tiles themselves have multiple heights and there’s usually an advantage to be had on higher tiles, but they can also cost more AP to reach. If you and an enemy are facing off, tile to tile, any attempt by either man to move will result in an automatic free swing for the other fighter. And if they successfully land the blow, the stricken person’s attempt to move is cut short. This means when you sidle up to an enemy, you are usually there until one of you dies. There are some ways out of this, though. You can stun enemies with blunt weapons, or knock them back a space if you have a shield, freeing you up to move away. In summary, there are lots of small micro-tactics and strategies to be used in combat. Your enemy will probably use them all better than you do.

So we limped away from Dagger Den and I collected my reward and recruited some more men. The extra coin did not go very far. You have to buy lots of stuff to keep your band in good shape – food is used every day, medicine is important to have on hand, and expensive repair tools are needed to keep equipment ship-shape after every fight. On top of that, all your men have their own daily wage and they will not stick around if you cannot pay. I would learn this last thing the hard way.

I gathered the men and equipped them as best I could. This time, I would not make the mistake of going into battle for anything less than a very good wage. I travelled between the towns, all with very German-sounding names – Brunwald, Stohlhoven, Kargburg – occasionally buying my men a round in the tavern, which has a chance to either put them in high spirits or get them drunk and useless. The towns only had caravan escort missions available. I spat at the offers. Perhaps if I traveled into the shroud of unknown space, we would find a new town where the gold was over-flowing. We stepped off the carefully set roads and went into the wilderness.

On the first day, we reached the sea. There were no towns.

On the second day, we made it through a desert. There were no towns.

On the third day, we ran out of money. Reynhart the Hound, our greatest warrior, deserted us. There were no towns.

On the fourth day, Arnold Axefella left and never came back. We walked through a fetid swamp, where the remaining men got sick and vomited. That night, Gustav the Quick, the only soldier who was not inflamed and vomiting, abandoned the group. There were no towns.

On the fifth day, there was a town. It was called Hurgash Ghaal. It was full of deadly orcs.

Knowing that this was the end of the brigade unless we got some money to keep the last four men happy, I decided to make a desperate raid on the orcs. I knew this was a mistake before I had even clicked on the town with the little sword cursor, but there was no alternative. We were running out of food and I was 123 gold pieces in debt to my own employees. Ten orcs rampaged out of the shadows of the combat screen and viciously enveloped the men, tearing them apart within four rounds of turns.

Be at peace, Cowardly Joe. I never saw you land a single hit. Rest well, Heinrich the Historian. You did absolutely nothing of note.

My second gang of mercs fared better. I had played the first game on Iron Man mode, meaning every bad decision was carved in autosave stone. For the second group, I did the same, but vowed to play a little more traditionally. I certainly didn’t turn my nose up at any simple delivery jobs this time. It went much better.

The map had changed, generating new lands and new German-sounding names – Lichtburg, Hattlund, Harkenstadt – I hit the poorest town I could find and hired every cheap fisherman, pilgrim and farmhand that would come along, arming them with bargain bucket knives and straw hats. One of them used to work in a kennel and could command attack dogs. I called him José the Dog Whisperer. I wouldn’t say he was a good fighter, but he did survive right up until the end.

Things started going wrong because of goblins. We had been swanning around the same five or six towns, patrolling roads, hunting direwolves, drinking in the taverns of Grunforst, visiting the kennels of Wolfswall, replacing dead dogs with other soon-to-be-dead dogs, when one of the councilmen of a town offered us a whopping 1050 gold to kill some goblins. It was the highest contract we’d seen so far. I was not going to turn it down. Perhaps I should have. It transpires that goblins are fond of poison.

We came out of the battle alive, but I had lost two men, including my best and most reliable berserker, Wotsit Skullman, who was the best shieldbreaker in the group, but also liked to wear the skull of an indeterminate animal on his head. We got the gold from this job and made even more money from the piles of salt we had looted from the goblins, but the gang never recovered from the loss of its best fighter.

I had a decision to make now. We had money but only five men. They weren’t bad men, but some of them, the archers particularly – José the Dog Whisperer and This Man Looks Like My Brother – couldn’t hit a damn thing. The low chance to hit for all rookie-level fighters is probably the most punitive thing about the combat. But you can level your men up to increase this chance, while also giving them other useful perks, like making them a shield expert for extra defence points, or boosting their resolve so that they don’t start running away in the middle of a fight. Grassy Knees Lee loved to run away during a battle, until he died in an ambush by bandits.

Anyway, the archers were still hitting nothing but air. I decided rather than hiring new men, who would probably only die in a few turns, just like Jaws the Wardog, Fang the Wardog, and Rags the Wardog, we would instead invest in better equipment.

I gave all five men the best armour I could find, equipped four of them with strong shields and gave the last man an impossibly expensive two-handed axe. It was Dietrich With No Surname, and he would swing this shining axe exactly twice before being summarily beheaded by an orc gang we had been employed to destroy.

José had been pushed into his death hole, and the corpse of Fibs O’Hanlon lay bloodied with stab wounds. Naggy Larry was the last to die, surrounded by angry green men who once again ended my game. This time we lasted nine rounds, which is what I meant when I said that things fared much better for the second group.

Battle Bros is a tough game. Soldier improvement happens slowly but their deaths happen quickly, giving battles the same feeling of peril as an XCOM skirmish, if not more. And despite constant scraping for gold and loot, it never feels like you have enough. Your mercenaries’ lives become not so much about profiting, but just surviving the next job and the next job, living long enough to level up and perhaps get a better helmet. There’s a precise crowd who will love this, and I suspect you’ll already know if that’s you.

You can get Battle Brothers on Steam for £14.99/$19.99 or directly from the developer for the same price. These impressions are based on build 1373002

39 Comments

  1. Fry says:

    I bought this months ago and let it idle in the Steam backlog waiting for release. Was hoping for a punishing adventure developed by uncompromising Germans, and it seems that’s what I got.

    • DEspresso says:

      Game: I zee you are becoming attached to this character yes?
      Let me punish you, let me punish you guut!

  2. saillc says:

    Man, sometimes with these reviews its extremely hard to even get a read on whether you like the game or not. I’ve found lately after reading one of your guys reviews im almost more unsure of whether i’d enjoy the game or not, and its certainly not a bad review, just pretty short on information and actual opinions. Its more of a walk through on a few hours of the game, it would be nice if you gave a general opinion at the end or peppered throughout the review, ya know?

    • Brendan Caldwell says:

      It’s good.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      “There’s a precise crowd who will love this, and I suspect you’ll already know if that’s you.”

      I think Brenden nailed it here. I brought it a while back, haven’t played the latest builds but its the sort of game that will appeal to someone who enjoys tight tactical battles with a light side of management and rpgish decisions on top. And its very good at that but you’re not going to like if if you don’t enjoy deciding one by one if your little murder men should stab or block or shield bash this turn then next turn and so on.

      • Aetylus says:

        Yeah, Brendon’s quote nails it. If you describe yourself as a hardcore strategy gamer (I do), you’ll love this (I do).

        If you got excited by the Panzer General reboot, and you played Baldur’s Gate by leaning on the pause key, you’ll like this.

        If not? Well is still a good game… but you might just bounce off it.

  3. Infinitron says:

    One of the most popular upcoming games on RPG Codex at the moment.

  4. Pravin Lal's Nuclear Arsenal says:

    I’ve had it wishlisted for a while. I’ll buy it on release, if they keep their promise of a “dynamic world with faction warfare” (quoting the Early Access blurb).

  5. Henas says:

    I’ve had the game since it entered Early Access and logged around 80 hours, playing on and off with various updates (which would usually wipe your save) and its definitely a favourite.

    It can be difficult early like Brendo is implying but as long as you don’t get too attached to your mercs it should be okay…

    Spears and shields are great to use for noobie mercs, given the increase to chance to hit, spearwall ability (which stops enemies getting into melee range) and shield for extra protection.

    2 handed weapons are usually a death sentence, even with a lot of armour. I generally have one 2h axe man that can jump in to finish off a weakened foe with a big hit…but they are very much glass cannons.

    Looking forward to the more structured narrative driven updates in the release version.

  6. Gothnak says:

    I’ve played this twice, in two reasonably lengthy campaigns, once about a year ago and once about 3 months ago.

    In theory it’s a game i should love, having a rag tag band of mercenaries roam the land, taking on cool and exciting jobs, levelling up, getting awesome abilities and basically being awesome.

    So, it has some of the, the adventuring, the levelling up, but at the moment it doesn’t have a lot of soul. The quests very quickly become ‘kill X’ or ‘escort Y’, the character abilities are really pretty bland, and although you do get to buy new weapons, they just basically have better stats.

    It is basically a bit of a slog to level up your characters (Who certainly do level up slowly) and as said can die in an instant, even with decent armour on.

    It feels like if the world was made more magical, abilities more exciting and different and the enemies fighting in more varied ways, then it’d be pretty cool. The core game IS there for that, but i have no idea what the future goal of development is, so I can’t say for sure if it will ever be quite right for me and just end up being punishing and a bit bland.

    • Gothnak says:

      Oh, and one thing i missed, the character backgrounds remind me of playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, basically everyone is a bit rubbish and has ended up becoming a merc because they have failed at another job. This gives them a bunch more personality when your farmer, or drunk go into battle, if this spread throughout the game it has great potential.

  7. Terribleperson says:

    I start by admitting that i am part of the precise crowd that loves this. It did take a bit of getting used to though as i haven’t played a lot of tactics titles where in your first couple battles, you will see your mens’ heads flying around, and often when you are doing well.
    Some tips on a good start to help new players get over the hump.

    *Plan to die. You are very, very likely to lose some men in your early battles. It helps to view the combat like chess, and have a few pawns on hand to sacrifice. If you have a new hire in your party with good attributes and skills, great, but he will need a meatshield to get him his first few levels, and human meatshields can be had for much cheaper than dogs.
    *A helmetless melee is a dead melee. All damage done to an armorless head is critical. If you want someone to live, make sure they have a helmet.
    *When everyone on the field is bad, have superior numbers. Early in the game when you have bad troops you should be sure to have as many bad troops as you can equip, pay, and feed. Beggars and Vagabonds come cheap, and cost little, and each additional troop you have surrounding an opponent is a bonus to hit for every attack on that target.
    *Kill from behind the shield wall. Pitchforks, and other polearms have a 2 hex range, so as you level, take defensive talents for the front row and offensive for the back, until your guys live most of the time.
    *Avoid Orcs and Goblins early on. You may be offered untold riches to assault an orc camp, but you probably want to stick with bandits until you get some decent equipment and a few levels. Once you have helmets, shields, and a few points added to melee defense, you should be able to handle small direwolf packs easily.
    *(With a few exceptions) Don’t buy Equipment! I would make exceptions for needings helmets, or to get a polearm early on when your opponents don’t have them yet, but you will have ample gear from looting your enemies soon, and can look at paying for the best down the line. In the short term you will need that money for more meatshields, repair tools, and food.
    *(With fewer exceptions) All front line troops early stat upgrades should be spent on Melee Skill, Melee Defense, and Fatigue. These stats will help you get the levels you need to survive and think about spending on other stats.
    *Ironman is a lot of fun, on your second game. There are a lot of things you will learn from experience, but that can feel unfair on your first go. ‘Oh, that zombie i killed wasn’t really dead, and now i am terribly out of position.’ Also, fighting the same fight with different tactics can help you see what works and what doesn’t.

    TL:DR, my patience with this one has been richly rewarded. It sucks to be on the receiving end of an orc beatdown, but delivering the beatdowns feels tremendous.

  8. Palindrome says:

    Its actually not that difficult a game, you just need to know how the game works. Brendan obviously doesn’t :)
    Orcs and Goblins are late game enemies, don’t go anywhere near them (Goblins are significantly easier in the dark though).

    Battle Brothers is well worth getting, I have 161 hours on Steam (my 6th highest game). There are few better turn based tactics games and the game itself is due its last major update in January before its release sometime in 2017.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      See this a lot with comments in early access reviews “oh its obvious/easy etc… I’ve played a billion hours” – its all obvious and easy when you’ve spent that long on it and while I like the game I think Brendon is fair about it not communicating how to learn to play especially in the beginning – sure its not finished yet but thats what a new player will have to deal with until they learn the game.

      • Palindrome says:

        Generally speaking the mechanics are fairly obvious though (stay in formation, wear good armour, don’t stand in a hole surrounded by Orcs…)

        Some things are quite obscure (like fatigue) and some things are just broken (quest ratings) but its easy to pick up the basics.

    • Tuidjy says:

      I try not to miss any of Brendan’s articles, and reading them usually lets me know whether I’ll enjoy the game he is covering.

      But I think that if he had somehow ended up as my commanding officer, I’d have probably fragged him before end of the first battle.

  9. Warwise says:

    I have 205 hours in this game. Its pretty good. Pretty soon, it will be even better, due to a major update.
    Its mostly a tactical turn based combat strategy game. You have the overland map, where you make choices on where to go, who to hire, what to buy, which quests to accept, when to fight and when to run. And you have your combat map, which is turn based, and your choices make you win or lose.
    The game is quite complex. The combat has a lot of variables, which fortunaly are show and can be learned. Every single weapon group has a function, and you have to learn all the systems to perform well enough.
    This game is great. It has a lot of depth, mainly due to its systems and gameplay mechanics, which take time to learn, but make the game extremely enjoyable, because you either live or die due to your choices, which are based on what you know. The more you know, the better your choices become, and you can engage in harder circunstances.

  10. Michael Fogg says:

    IS there an implemented or planned option to take control of towns, lay sieges etc?

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      There wasn’t last time I checked – they’re aiming more at a mercenary company feel, wandering the lands fighting for money not building a home.

    • Palindrome says:

      No, it is apparently beyond the scope of the game. There will be expanded faction mechanics though so you will be able to raid towns (a lot more easily than you can at the moment at least).

  11. Elusiv3Pastry says:

    I backed this a year or so ago and I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s come a long way. Other people have nicely posted the same tips already, but I want to reiterate that you absolutely need to read the fine print on skills and stats to understand how the very lethal combat system works. Everything is shown, so if you don’t understand why one of your guys got his head caved in beyond bad luck then you didn’t pay attention.

    I really enjoy the small details here too. When I first saw that everyone was a little bust I thought it was ridiculous, but when actually playing everyone’s bust becomes appropriately battered and bloodied in appropriate spots when taking damage (head trauma, torso damage, etc). Really a nice touch.

    It’s a pity Brendan got a crap RNG roll for his first world, what with the lack of towns and nothing but escort quests. It’s better than that, honestly, and still something that’s being tweaked in EA.

    One additional tip I’ll add is that your recruits’ professions affect their stats and skills. Check out the wiki here if you’re not sure if you should hire the fishwife or the eunuch: link to battlebrothers.wikia.com

    Two severed thumbs up; buy it!

    • JB says:

      “everyone’s bust becomes appropriately battered and bloodied in appropriate spots when taking damage”

      OK, I have to ask, as I’m curious now: what happens if/when you take arm or leg damage?

      • Warwise says:

        During battle? Mosly nothing. Taking head damages usually counts as a critical hit and you lose more health.
        If your soldier becomes incapacitated due to wounds, he may survive with a permanent injury, like a broken bone or a maimed foot. These change your statistics, like, for example, a maimed elbow reducing your melee skill by 20 or 25%. If you lose an eye, it heavily reduces ranged skill and eyesight etc.
        There are a lot of statistics and prevailing in the game requires you to understand them and using them the best way possible.

      • Elusiv3Pastry says:

        Pffffffahahahahahha, ok you got me there.

  12. mitthrawnuruodo says:

    Its a great game. Combat system is bloody brilliant. Just two issues for me –

    1.The devs are a bit obsessed towards pandering to the ‘hardcore ‘we love to loose”‘ crowd. The forced survival elements can undermine the wonderful tactical aspects. It frequently becomes more frustrating than challenging. Luckily this can fixed with simple modifications and bit of savescumming.

    2. The low number of events and settlements means you would have to spend an atrocious amount of time looking at your party slowly moving across forests and such. It badly needs a gamespeed option on the strategic map like M&B (not sure if they have added this in now). For the ‘hardcore ‘we love to loose”‘ it is apparently a blessing, but for the rest of us its a massive waste of time.

    • Warwise says:

      That is why they have 3 dificulty levels.
      Playing them requires you to understand more gameplay systems and make your choices acordingly.
      For example, weapon types. In the beginer dificulty, you can just give any weapon you find to your guys and they may do well enough. At veteran, you need to properly choose each weapon due to its role in the battlefield, and specific enemy type. The right weapons can heavily change the outcome of a battle, specially since the armor mechanic in the game is somewhat complex.

    • Shadow says:

      I believe point 2 is quite the strawman. The lack of speed options has nothing to do with the pandering to hardcore players. It’s a user friendliness issue that ought to be addressed.

      If it hasn’t been already: haven’t played in a while.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Lars Westergren says:

    Does it have any overarching story and end game as, say, XCOM, or is it just “watch numbers get bigger infinitely in our randomized world and build your own story in your head”?

    • lordcooper says:

      They’re currently working on all the endgame stuff.

    • Warwise says:

      Its mosly about survival and combat.
      It is quite chalenging.
      The real core of the game is improving your party, your own knowledge, and face harder and harder chalenges.
      Its not really about finishing the game, its about becoming good and winning harder and harder chalenges.

    • Palindrome says:

      There isn’t an overarching story. Most of the game is levelling up and looting monsters/bandits (which is basically what the game is about). There will be end game ‘crises’ much like the end game events in Stellaris. Currently there is an Orc invasion, an undead invasion and a war between noble houses.

    • Shadow says:

      There will be major, pseudo-endgame crises that will represent great challenges. Things like significant wars between the noble houses, greenskin invasions and an undead resurgence.

      But as far as I understand them, they aren’t really unique events, and can happen more than once if you keep playing. They aren’t arbitrary ends. The game only really ends when you’re all killed, or when you choose to retire. And retirement has a number of outcomes as to the future of your company depending on how successful you were at the time of calling it quits.

  14. Crafter says:

    I have been following this game for years and just waiting for mac support in order to buy it.
    Seems like a very solid xcom like.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Lars Westergren says:

    Cool, thanks lordcooper. Thooper.

    Edit: damn, reply fail.

  16. strummer11 says:

    Last played this in Spring 2015. It was a big, empty shell of a world with a few empty towns and not much going on but random basic quests (defend this caravan, kill those bandits). From this preview, I’m not getting any sense that much has changed. I’d recommend this as a definite wait-and-see if they deliver on promises of breathing life into the world.

    Is is still not possible to save during a battle? Imagine X-Com where you can only save games while at base – an annoyance that would have been a deal-breaker if I’d known about this “feature” in advance.

  17. Fumarole says:

    This is by far my favorite tactical combat game of recent years. I have 182 hours in so far and can easily see that number doubling. The game is an example of Early Access done right, as each patch improves the game in some small way yet the cumulative effect has been enormous.

    For those on the fence watch the very good developer videos on YouTube that show how to play the game, it certainly helped me a lot when I first started.

    link to youtube.com

  18. Idealist says:

    My stream of consciousness, as I read the article and comments from those who had played it: “Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY,” etc.

  19. brotherthree says:

    This game is fantastic.
    If you enjoyed Mount and Blades campaign map, and don’t mind changing the real time combat for turn based/grid based, then I can absolutely guarantee you will enjoy this.

    I don’t post this often, if ever – but trust me this game is as a hidden gem.