Tactical turn-based combat is glorious, but if there's one thing that's problematic it's transferring that tactical fun over to the multiplayer space. It's either too slow or luck and dice rolls have too much sway over the outcome. A new studio with some serious pedigree has set out to conquer the problem and their solution is quite ingenious.
Stockholm's Old Town is becoming something of a game development hub. The narrow alleyways and cobblestones, tourist shops, and medieval buildings are joined by the likes of Raw Fury, Fast Travel Games, and the newly unveiled Embark Studios (headed by former EA boss Patrick Söderlund). Old Town also houses Fall Damage, a studio founded by Markus Nyström, one of the original founders of DICE along with a few other former DICE veterans. They employ 15 people and their first project, Batalj, has just been revealed.
Set at some point in the distant future where mankind has embraced science and technology in a number of different ways, Batalj is a multiplayer-focused turn-based strategy game, with a singular focus on PvP.
"We have a universe built around [the game], and all the settings we have in the game have names and they will have a specific meaning to a story," Nyström explained when we visited the studio in Stockholm. "We would love to share it, but let's start with the core mechanics and see if it starts moving. And we will just keep building on our universe if we get the opportunity."
At first glance, Batalj is deceptively simple. There's two sides facing off with the objective of controlling a majority of the map's control points at the end of each round. The first side to five points takes the match. There are three factions with 63 unique units to choose from. There are the Rusters, scavengers and nomads; the Re-Linked, a more elegant choice that has replaced their bodies with machines; and the Spliced, a genetically enhanced alternative. No mirrored units, no true rock-paper-scissors design. Each side plans their moves and then these are acted out during the action phase. Not an innovation in itself, but what truly sets the game apart is the timeline, that is to say, in what order each of the units makes their move.
The order in which the units move isn't determined by chance nor is it determined by the properties of the units themselves (no one unit is "faster" than another), instead it's determined by the number of action points the unit used during the last round. Leave a unit idle without moving or using an ability and it won't spend any action points and move to the front of the next round, reversely if you use a powerful ability with a high cost it will move to the back of the next timeline. During the planning phase, you always know in what order the actions will play out, so you can plan your tile-targeted or unit-targeted attacks accordingly. There's no chance or dice element here. Sure you can risk a tile-targeted attack on a unit that's ahead in the timeline, but that's a calculated risk, not something that's down to a percentage chance.
"We knew from the start that we wanted short matches," says Nyström. "Between 15-20 minutes, even shorter if possible. We can make this better, we can this work and make the game have shorter matches with the same strategic depth."
The way in which points are awarded is also interesting. As you can only ever gain one point per round there might not be any point challenging for a lone point if the other side will be able to claim two. Instead, you may want to sacrifice the turn in order to hit the enemy hard with a timeline advantage in the next round. This creates an ebb and flow to the action where the advantage in a match can swing wildly back and forth.
The word "batalj" is a Swedish variation of battle, but a proper translation would be closer to skirmish. When asked about the choice of title we learned that picking a name for your game is "hard work", but that it was short and sweet and worked well as a logo.
Deck building and figuring out the meta is going to be key to the longevity of the game. Given the nature of your opposition (you don't know what you'll face) and the fact that you can get any of the four maps, there's an element of making sure your deck is flexible enough to handle any sort of challenge. The good news here is that most units are quite adaptable, but different styles will surely be employed.
Batalj is a premium product (no price point has been set as of now), there are no microtransactions and also no progression beyond unlocking cosmetic options - all the units are available as soon as you've purchased the game. It's purely player versus player, and purely one on one. It's not a game that attempts to appeal to everyone, but to a very specific audience who enjoy testing their tactical skills against like-minded players.
A beta is about to start featuring about one-fourth of the content found in the full game which is pencilled in for release early next year, that is if the beta feedback doesn't call for radical changes.