XCOM. Fire Emblem. Civilization. Invisible Inc. Endless Legend. Don’t look now, but if you’re a fan of video games where the action is broken up into turns, you’ve never had it better.
Despite being one of the oldest game design fundamentals around, having been so liberally lifted from tabletop gaming all those decades ago, over the past few years developers seem to have found a number of ways to retain the strengths of turn-based gaming — whether it be in a strategy title, RPG or something else — while improving pretty much everything else about it.
Invisible Inc. turns a system normally used for combat into one designed to avoid it. XCOM’s camera makes the slowest combat system on earth feel like an action movie. Fire Emblem marries warfare with romance. And this is just naming a few. There’s Massive Chalice, and the Trails of Cold Steel series, and Order of Battle, all doing their own thing, and doing it in weird and wonderful ways. It feels like every few months a new game is coming out that redefines what a turn-based game is and what we can expect it to do.
The latest game like this to get me excited is a new standalone expansion for PC strategy title Panzer Corps, called Soviet Corps. While the core game (and its 117,000 expansions) have a ton of campaigns letting you fight as the Germans and western Allies, this is the first time you’ve been able to play a full campaign as the Soviets, and while most of the campaign goes as expected (you retreat initially before steam-rolling the Germans with waves of tanks), there are some very pleasant surprises tucked away in some of the missions.
Anyone who’s played old Westwood or Blizzard RTS games will remember the hero/indoor missions, where the standard base-building level design gave way to something more intimate as you guided a small team of infantry through a confined space.
Soviet Corps brings this back, only within the confines of a turn-based strategy game. In previous Corps campaigns (and most games like this), your objectives are normally fairly conservative. Capture XX objectives, or destroy XX units.
Soviet Corps also lets players take on the Japanese in the East
And while there are plenty of missions here that still ask you just that, you’re also occasionally given allies and goals like helping partisans behind enemy lines blowing up bridges, convincing the Romanian army to swap sides, capturing German officers from an airfield and, most insane, there’s an urban warfare mission with a sewer network that will shuffle your infantry across the map.
Given the inherent issues of pacing and repetition present in turn-based combat, these kind of tricks really help break up the monotony of pushing tanks across a hexagonal battlefield for hours on end. They’re also a great challenge, forcing the player to rapidly change their existing strategies and move on the fly to protect or meet their objectives.
It’s exactly the kind of thing I love seeing in my turn-based games these days: a solid implementation of traditional combat with an injection of something new and/or weird that changes things just enough to make the whole thing feel nice and fresh.