Speaking as a generally terrified person who curls up into a tiny ball whenever they feel threatened, the tower defence genre really resonates with me. Like a besieged castle, I am also in a state of constant high-alert and paralysing, teeth-grinding stress. I am incapable of any kind of meaningful conflict resolution, and embarrassingly vulnerable to being destroyed by hundreds of angry men with swords over the course of several helpless minutes.
Diplomacy Is Not An Option doesn’t bill itself as a tower defence game, but it is a real-time strategy game about protecting your medieval settlement as wave after wave of attackers try to smash it up. Rather than have you traipsing around the map in search of trouble to make, there is a refreshing focus on defence – offence’s nerdy younger sister – with victory determined not by how well you’ve conquered the surrounding land, but how capable you are of taking a beating and coming out on top.
In the moments of respite between attacks you’ve got a precious handful of minutes to expand your town with more homes for settlers, more farmlands and fisheries for food, and resource-generating buildings like iron mines and lumber mills. As your storehouses fill up with stuff you can upgrade your structures from wood to stone and expand your growing army with better equipped units and weapons. You can build a hospital to prevent the corpses of fallen soldiers festering where they fell and causing a plague, and you can hire gravediggers to properly bury the dead so that they don’t reanimate as vengeful zombies.
Plonked at the centre of the map and initially exposed on all sides, your weedling town hall needs encircling with as many defensive towers, gates and crenellations as you can build before the next wave arrives. These waves come thick and fast, with increasingly aggressive enemy forces eventually numbering in the hundreds and thousands of units, until they’re flowing between buildings like meaty rivers and crashing up against your defensive line like, well, waves.
Enemy forces number in the hundreds and thousands, until they’re flowing between buildings like meaty rivers and crashing up against your defensive line like, well, waves.
Diplomacy Is Not An Option is pretty much that mobile game constantly being advertised on Instagram, which you obviously don’t download because you’re certain it will turn out to be a Candycrush clone that will somehow steal your national insurance number to destabilise an election in Uruguay. It’s that mobile game, but as you first imagined it, right down to your ability to fire off godlike and visually spectacular magic spells: things like divine rays that scythe a path of devastation through an attacking army, and a meteor strike that sends soldiers flying skywards on a sub-orbital trajectory.
The imagined mobile game is a helpful point of comparison. Diplomacy Is Not An Option is strategically about as light as you’d find on a phone, a conveyor belt of simple army management that unfolds the same way each time you play. It’s only by repeatedly failing that you begin to learn which bits of the tech tree you need to fast track from day one, and how many mines and mills are needed to keep progress ticking over, and how many farms are required to reliably feed your population. There is a correct answer for all of these questions, and learning to play the game simply involves finding them through trial and error..
But what the game lacks in variation it makes up for in its finely tuned and scratchcard-like approach to compulsive play. The cartoonish low-poly visuals and punchy sound effects make building out your expanding fortress an irresistible pleasure to be repeated over and over again, like scratching an itch somewhere deep inside your own skull. Assigning a few cohorts of crossbowmen to your towers and watching them effortlessly obliterate an approach wave of angry peasants is soothing, a cool balm for the mind, like slowly pushing your hoover of an especially dirty bit of carpet and hearing the crackle of debris clattering up the tube. Mmm.
Of course if you’re less into gaming ASMR and more into actual strategy games – if you went on Mastermind and told John Humphrys that your specialist subject is strategy games and then you got 19 points in the first round and made John Humphrys say “Christ” under his breath – then you’ll bounce off Diplomacy Is Not An Option so hard it would make your teeth fall out. Right now the game is stripped right back to just a handful of unit types, some simplistic resource management and a research tree that peppers your soldiers and workers with light buffs, rather than anything so drastic as reshaping the game around your preferred playstyle.
The campaign mode infuses the missions with a bit of character and depth, allowing you to take sides between the royals and the serfs, and is intercut with unexpectedly funny little cutscenes and storylines to link the otherwise very similar missions together. The endless mode feels more like the real core of the game. Whereas the campaign missions rudely reset your progress after each win, in the endless mode you can keep building up stronger fortifications so long as you’re not overcome by a particularly hunky enemy invasion.
For all its simplicity, Diplomacy Is Not An Option is also bloody hard. Even on the lowest difficulty setting – which I exclusively play games in now because I am a confident, beautiful person with nothing to prove to anyone – it’s possible to make too little progress early on in a campaign mission and find the last few enemy waves simply impossible to repel without going back in time by around 45 minutes and telling your past self to upgrade a couple of lumber mills. Which is frankly a poor use of time travel.
The game has also launched Early Access with, predictably, some rough edges. The developer’s ambitious adherence to a purely physics-based damage model, rather than traditional hitboxes, works so well you don’t notice it until it stops working. Your archers’ arrows follow proper trajectories, whether that’s to their intended target or to an adjacent tower that’s slowly being turned into a pincushion. A few small annoyances crop up over and over again, such as the game failing to alert you to a single enemy soldier chipping away at your town hall with a pitchfork while you’re off doing something else. Both easily fixable in an update, or simply by training your ear to recognise the sound of a pitchfork repeatedly hitting a town hall.
Diplomacy Is Not An Option is a compelling little game with short-lived appeal for super serious strategy fans, but one with loads of character and entertaining physics. It’s a delightful merry-go-round of building stuff and defending stuff that sometimes handcuffs you to your merry-go-round horse and doesn’t let you off.