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I want more of Phantom Brigade’s simultaneous turns

Return of the Mech

Sometimes you want to write about two things, but don't quite have enough for either. I've noticed mech games, for example, are having a bit of a moment these last few years. It's not huge, and I don't see them absorbing everything like survival games or bloody roguelikes, but they're definitely picking up. It's a bit of a thin premise for a whole article though, right?

And then there's simultaneous turns. I want to cheer them on, to bewail the lack of games that dive into that rift between turn based and real time tactics and scheming. But so few games do it that I haven't found the champion I need. Thank goodness, then, for Phantom Brigade.

Developers Brace Yourself Games are already regarded for 2015's Crypt Of The Necrodancer, and their upcoming Industries Of Titan pleased Steve Hogarty muchly last year. It seems they have a knack for rejigging familiar ideas exactly enough to keep them interesting without losing sight of their influences, because Phantom Brigade is also on track to be very solid.

The influences are clear, and that's okay! Like Battletech, you lead a clomp of four mechs into a non-linear, freeform campaign, gunning down hostile mechs and tanks and pulling pieces off the wrecks in the hope of bolting them onto your own gunsuits. The plot is your basic "nasty men are oppressing everyone, get 'em!" guerrilla campaign, so cash is irrelevant but you'll want to gather supplies for repairs and periodically knocking up new frames and basic gear in your workshop.

Rather than standard models differentiated by what equipment you shove in, each mech is comprised of discrete arms, legs and torsoes, which you stick together in Monseigneur Potato Head fashion according to your needs or whims. Weapons are held, which I personally un-prefer to the built-in option, but it does justify being able to replace parts as you like instead of waiting for a refit on the map.

Terrain and buildings block shots based on line of sight, not abstraction of cover/half cover. Buildings collapse nicely too, especially when bombarded.

It's an appealing system. It doesn't have the granularity of Battletech or even Mechwarrior 5 (both based on the same tabletop system, obv), but there are enough parts to differentiate mechs even early on, and swapping parts changes their appearance for a nice tiebreaker option. You also don't need to count heatsinks or make "ammo:docking fees" calculations. I built a chunky mech with a massive rocket launcher that would overheat after one shot, Astrid-style, before conceding that I should probably replace its armour-heavy limbs with more slender ones that rated higher for heat dissipation. This meant more rockets more often, and a remodel of my harassing riflebot into a harassing riflebot with jet-powered dodges, a sword, and big boy arms.

Phantom Brigade thus skirts neatly between "enough like", and "different enough" on the strategic level, being somewhat streamlined while introducing its own nuances. It's the combat that really marks it out, though. When the mobile base is done trundling to where you clicked, you'll likely be attacking a patrol or camp, tasked with standing next to some supplies for a bit, or - more likely - pushing all the enemies over. You'll want to literally do that if possible too, since PH sensibly builds its economy on disabling or depiloting, not destroying rivals. But instead of sniping body parts, that's best achieved here by attacks from behind. It is viable to wipe them out if needed, or split the difference and slide a shotgunner down its right flank to take that deadly arm off, at the cost of probably not recovering the gun. It might be better than losing a mech, and if you disarm them, enemy pilots often take the hint and eject.

All this is aided by the turn system, which compares best to Frozen Synapse. That's a fine game to build on (Frynapse 2 was the other game this article was almost about), but again, Phantom Brigade distinguishes itself a bit. Each 'turn' is like a spin of the stopwatch, as it's everyone's turn all at once, but you get time between them to plan and change orders around. If you've played Combat Mission or any of Mode 7's Frozen games you already know a more complex version of the concept. If you've played Dominions or Solium Infernum... okay, I'm just namedropping now, they're nothing like this really.

"It's a particularly good system for mech fights, as it really give the sense of huge war machines slamming chunks of each other."

The interface takes a lot longer to describe than to understand when you see it in motion. In Frozen Synapse (or Cortex, a comparably great simulturner whose relative simplicity makes it a great place for beginners. I feel only a moderate level of shame for 'simulturner') you kind of simulate the enemy's moves for them too, setting up any scenario you could anticipate and watching it play out as a hypothetical before locking in your final orders and seeing how accurate your guesses were. In PB, you don't get to watch those imaginary turns, but by hovering over a unit you can track its path, which brings up phantom (oho) images of what it, and everyone else, will be doing when that unit is at that point.

You also get a timeline along the bottom, weirdly reminiscent of Achron, the technically incredible (but also somewhat crap) time-travelling RTS, that shows you what everyone will be doing. At present, this is almost totally reliable, making PB a shot or two easier than it perhaps should be. The devs have suggested this might become more fallible in future, and I'd guess that difficulty modes could play a major role here. But I kind of love it already. The simultaneous turn system does what it's best at conceptually; you get to plan elaborate moves and switch things up on the fly without one wrong turn utterly screwing you.

It's a particularly good system for mech fights - much more forgiving than Frozen Synapse's one-hit kills - as it really give the sense of huge war machines slamming chunks of each other, wearing down armour and raining bombs and bullets. The mechs feel less explosive than Battletech with its surgical soldier strikes, and the granularity of movement means there are fewer instances where you're stuck on a turn where firing will overheat your guns by one kelvin, but resting will get your legs shot off.

Ghosts of future moves make predicting shot angles and ranges and odds pretty solid. Tuning up the interface is on the roadmap, but it's already decent.

And I haven't mentioned it yet, but yeah the effects are terrific. The mechs themselves still need a little more personality or some more outlandish aesthetic options, but they shoot and collapse very satisfyingly, to the point where I'm dissatisfied with almost all my screenshots. They fail to convey the satisfaction of dodging out from a rocket barrage at the last second, watching the mech-sized gap in the spray of shrapnel behind your unlucky target, or disarming an enemy in a three-way crossfire then coolly walking away while it falls over and the pilot nopes out in a smoke-strewing eject pod.

Or the collisions! Your mechs feel a bit more like robots at times, being slavishly obedient to the point of running directly into each other if you're careless. Collisions are predicted with a very visible yellow dome if you take the split second to check your moves, and each shot in a burst or even shotgun blast is simulated, so stray ones can hit someone on the other side of the map, take out a chunk of building, or hit your own pilot in the back because you consider what you'd told your sniper to do that turn. You dolt.

Those pilots are non-entities at present, and the setting, too, is absent the flavour it'll probably need over the long term. The campaign map and workshop are sort of uneventful, and the gradual unlocking of things as you liberate parts of the map could be livened up a bit, as could enemy and mission types. But many of these things are in the devs' roadmap already, and I can see where others might fit in later. Parts of Phantom Brigade may be a little undercooked, but that's exactly what the Early Access period is for. Brace Yourself have estimated a November 2021 release (at which point it will also be available on Steam), and their steady progress is very encouraging. It's already shaping up to be a strong contender for my favourite simultaneous turns game, and even if it takes longer I think it'll be worth the wait.

Simulturners Do It All At Once

It's hardly a new concept, but there really aren't enough of ‘em. It's a bit tragic that I've already played so many of the best ones without particularly seeking them out. So let's do a quick roundup.

Combat Mission
Phantom Brigade is a tiny dim baby in comparison to Battlefront's dozen or so wargames. Beyond Overlord is the one I'm most familiar with, but at 21 (argh) years old it may be a rough start. Super-realistic war sims are a perfect fit for such a dynamic treatment of time, but they can be as punishing and arbitrary as war, and the abstractions involved necessitate some imagination.

An instructional diagram of that Dominions 4 game

Dominions 4/5
A series that measurably improves with every release, but if you love/hate one you'll love/hate them all, so get whichever you can afford. Dominions is a unique war of gods via hundreds of monstrous, mundane, and magical creatures, warriors, and horrifying spells and items (want to create the ark of the covenant? It'll blind your entire army. Do it). Everyone sends their orders, which are then calculated to happen all at once, resulting in often unexpected battles you have no direct control over at all. I pitched a multi-writer Dominions 4 feature in 2015 and it was one of the best times I've ever had in a game. But the draft was over 22,000 words so uh, sorry Graham. Sorry other writers. Maybe one day.

Frozen Cortex
Synapse is the big hitter but Cortex is the one I use to entice people. Analysis paralysis is the biggest downside to simultaneous/wego/etc. games, but FC's short games, predictable length, and sport league structure mitigated mistakes and made losing a natural part of the bigger picture. Americaball, but good, and with robots? Yeah, go on.

Naked War
I’d be stunned if you found another player, but the hot seat mode should still work. Part chess, part Worms, it pits the four soldiers of two players in a complex dance in which co-ordination is key. Each soldier has a 'doofer' until they run out of health, at which point they surrender their doofer to their killer. The goal is to have all the doofers, but undoofered soldiers can get back in the game, and if you hit the guy who has 6 doofers you get them all. In theory it was predictable. In practice a single turn could change everything. It was charming, exhausting, and brilliant.

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Sin Vega