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Games

For Desperate Advance Wars Fans, 'Wargroove' Proves a Suitable Successor

The biggest difference? This one has dogs. Very cute dogs. And they fight.

by Eric Van Allen
Jan 30 2019, 2:43pm

Image courtesy of Chucklefish

There is a distinctly nostalgic feeling to playing Wargroove. It reminds me of the Game Boy Advance, and my first brushes with Advance Wars, a series that made turn-based strategy both accessible and difficult. Wargroove rekindles a lot of that flame, while also giving me tools to spark a whole new obsession.

The new game from Chucklefish, publisher of several indie gems and developer of Starbound, has the look and sound of exactly what I remember from Advance Wars years ago. Units bob up and down on the screen, numbers clash into numbers, weakness into advantage, and eventually all but one commander resigns.

It’s been a decade since the last Advance Wars game, as Nintendo’s focused on other strategy franchises like Fire Emblem and Mario + Rabbids. But when I was in middle school I, like most my age, had a GBA, and most of us had the first Advance Wars. It was a revelation at the time, a persistent arena of strategy and chaos. We made our own maps. We argued over the best commander. (Grit, by the way.) It was easy to pick up but tough, challenging, and demanded chess-like strategy to outwit both the computer opponent and each other.

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Wargroove taps into the same energy, but doesn’t just play rose-tinted melodies. With new ideas that change your approach to strategy, a fantasy setting, and an extremely robust custom creation suite, Wargroove is the real successor to a series I thought had been long forgotten.

The core loop of Wargroove is still very much Wars. Multiple commanders vie for cash-producing towns; unit-producing structures like barracks, towers, or harbors; and the stronghold, the base of operations. Unlike Nintendo’s other grid-based strategy games Fire Emblem, this isn’t as much about individual characters, love and relationships, or building up stats. It’s armies against armies, with dozens of knights, dragons, and skeletons clashing at once.

Since Wargroove takes place in the realm of fantasy, your units are fittingly medieval but still adhere to some basic tenets. Swordsmen are fast and cheap, but not particularly effective against anything; contrast that with pikemen, slightly more expensive and slower, but bulkier and more powerful, especially against cavalry.

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The various rock-paper-scissors triangles can sometimes lock strategy into a stalemate. Wargroove doesn’t just rely on basic strengths and weaknesses, though. A major marker of a good commander is utilizing critical hits. Meet certain requirements, and your unit will do extra damage, potentially turning the tides of a battle. Archers will critically hit if they fire without moving, fliers get critical hits if they’re over a mountain, and pikemen will do more damage if they’re standing next to other pikemen. It rewards not just smart positioning, but risk-taking. Sometimes it’s worth putting a unit in danger to land a crucial critical, ensuring a barracks crumbles or a powerful unit falls.

Because of that, winning can sometimes feel like a Herculean task, driving just enough of a wedge into the opponent’s line that you can start to crack it open.

Commanders, another major change in Wargroove’s formula, are crucial. Unlike the Wars’ series absentee generals, commanders in Wargroove take to the field and lead the charge as actual units. Each has their own characteristics as a commander, whether it’s the scrappy Queen Mercia, the sneering vampire Ragna, or the cheerful prince Koji and his giant puppet/mecha, and each has a signature ability called a “groove.”

One particular mission in the campaign stumped me for ages; I controlled two forces, and had to get one commander from the western side of the map to the east, where my other was. In this mission, Mercia’s healing aura was key to keeping her entourage alive throughout an onslaught of oncoming forces, while Nuru’s teleport beam let me gradually shove out my eastern line to meet Mercia halfway.

"There is a distinctly nostalgic feeling to playing Wargroove. It reminds me of the Game Boy Advance, and my first brushes with Advance Wars, a series that made turn-based strategy both accessible and difficult."

While it was an escort mission, your commander’s livelihood is always a second win condition, the “king” of the proverbial chessboard. This mission seemed determined to halt my progress, throwing waves of archers, harpies, and felbats to strike down Mercia over and over. I repeated the same ordeal over and over until I sussed out the perfect solution. The right mix of units, the right positioning, and the key choke points to secure.

It was brutal, but satisfying. The next mission was a breeze. The gauntlet had internalized some of the overarching strategy in me. That stirring feeling of progress is when Wargroove clicks. By forcing me to break habits (stop spamming pikemen) and utilize a wide range of units, while being careful and checking ranges, I’d become a better virtual general. The next few commanders were no match for me.

The pain of bashing your head against a wall is eased by the charming aesthetic. Have you ever wanted to liberate villagers from an outlaw’s stronghold as a very good dog named Caesar, clad in armor and flanked by two crossbowmen? This is your game.

Wargroove feels both extremely familiar and still fresh. Every battle is still a dichotomy of cautious, careful advances and measured gambits, finessing the frontlines into perfect formation while determining what I needed next from my conga line of reinforcements, shuttled back and forth by carriers, and kept healthy by my towns.

Those battles on their own, in both a well-crafted and surprisingly tough-at-times campaign and multiplayer, which can be local or online (asynchronous as well, so you can send turns and return to your other battles), are fuel enough alone to stoke the fires of my Wars love. But what’s really piqued my interest for the future is the custom suite.

I say “suite” because it’s more than just a map editor. While you can make maps with different win conditions, sizes, and player counts, there is also a cutscene editor and campaign editor on top. Out of the box, you’re able to craft entire narratives, as varied as the base campaign.

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Part of my love for the Wars games was making custom maps and showing them to friends. Passing around a flippable GBA with someone’s interpretation of Helm’s Deep or Ace Combat was a mainstay. It’s what kept us coming back; not just being able to play against each other, but designing the boards on which our battles took place.

Being able to craft my own stories, using actual text and flags, managing a party and creating various interactions, means my Helm’s Deep just got deeper. (Sorry.) The number of flags, variables, and settings you can toy with to craft something your own is staggering. It seems like you could spend hours in the editor and still learn new nuances and methods for making a campaign just as you envision it.

You can also just ignore that and only consume others’ content through the share hub. The ability to easily download maps and campaigns my friends have made all over the world, challenging them or dissecting the terrain and placements on my own time, is sublime. It remains to be seen how effective the curation and sharing will be once servers are live and everyone’s piled in, but right now, it has the potential to be the Super Mario Maker of Advance Wars.

It’s been a decade since the last Advance Wars game. But in Wargroove, the spirit lives on, not just charming my nostalgia but sparking new life and ideas in the format. I can’t wait to see what others make, to delve deeper into the game’s chesslike puzzle mode and challenging arcade mode, and send turn after turn of havoc to my friends, even across various platforms.

But in a week of games that remind me of a decade-gone childhood, I’m happy to see an army on my screen bobbing with the music, as I carefully scrye the board for my next move. It’s good to have the Wars back.