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.