‘Tooth and Tail’ Is a Cute Strategy Game at War with Its Own Genre

There's a fine line between streamlining a complicated game genre and gutting it.
September 14, 2017, 6:15pm
screenshot courtesy of Pocketwatch Games

Pocketwatch Games' Tooth and Tail is pitched as an easy, pick-up-and-play take on real-time strategy that has good controller support and should appeal to fans of the genre and new players alike. It's comes loaded with built-in charm thanks to a good art style themed around armies of cute anthropomorphized animals doing battle.

Like any game trying to broaden the appeal of a complicated genre and make it suitable for more platforms and more players, it had to cut something; it had to simplify around what is essential.

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But none of us can agree on what is essential; one player's chaff is the reason another player might love the game. I was looking forward to this game, but bounced off it pretty hard, almost shockingly so. To me it felt like it focused down on the aspects of the genre I don't like.

Tooth and Tail goes further than previous attempts at simplifying the genre, brutally focusing in on what it cares about: Micro is eased by not letting you control individual units. You control a hero character that moves around the map like any other unit, acting as both scout and cursor; dividing your attention simply isn't allowed. The economy is straightforward, eschewing the complex interplay of having multiple resources to balance. Units are totally ineffectual against their counter-units, so you simply have to have the right units for the job on hand, or face defeat. Games snowball much faster than in other RTS games—by necessity, since matches are only supposed to take five to ten minutes. There's no tech tree, no investment in upgrading units, and you can pivot from making squirrels to making ferrets in an instant.

All of these features are key to the directness and simplicity that has gotten this game praise in outlets like Polygon, Eurogamer, and Destructoid. All of these features are things that I hate.

Every genre is a compromise of ideas and elements that has found an audience, but audiences aren't monoliths. Overwatch players pick their main class essentially as an expression of what aspect of the game they want to focus on; McCree mains enjoy twitch skills, while Mercy mains are in it for positioning and game sense. Within competitive RTS play, you'll find players who focus on micro (high-speed command of individual units), macro (overarching control of the economy), or strategy (high-level decisionmaking about what path to take through the game). And though games lean this way or that, finding acceptance with that audience relies on balancing the three. This balancing act can cause genres to become ossified as developers feel like they can't afford to alienate a chunk of the established audience. The genre becomes a checklist of mandatory design features.

To achieve its goals, Tooth and Tail lops off strategy; you never have to commit to a game plan during the match, and neither does your opponent, since you can pivot very easily from one unit to another. It does away with most of macro play too. Even though it doesn't have the high-APM, single-unit control of Starcraft, this is secretly a game about micro; about sending the right units at the right target. And this just isn't what attracts me to base builder-style RTS games. But this game isn't incoherent or vacant; it made very disciplined choices about what it could do away with and what it had to keep. It's just that those choices make it unlovable for me. There's the risk in trying to reinvent a genre: You'll always leave somebody behind.

What's a designer to do, faced with this problem? Well, nothing. Tooth and Tail doesn't need the entire Starcraft II audience to love it to be a success. This is a merit of small games from small teams: They can afford to alienate part of an audience to hone in on what they're really interested in getting at. I'm glad Tooth & Tail exists, even if it's really not for me. Hopefully it opens the door for a studio to cut away the parts of the genre that I don't love.