How Stardew Valley publishers Chucklefish are taking on Fire Emblem
UK-based Chucklefish is aiming to revolutionise the strategy genre with the groundbreaking Wargroove.
When you think of turn-based tactical RPGs, a few notable brands spring to mind like a spear through an armoured helm: Final Fantasy Tactics, Advance Wars, Shining Force and Fire Emblem, to name but a few. Despite the apparent popularity of this genre, there's been little in the way of evolution for quite some time; the core template laid down by these classic titles has remained locked firmly in place. That's something that UK company Chucklefish – perhaps best known for publishing ConcernedApe's superb farming sim Stardew Valley – are seeking to change.
"We’ve always been big fans of the genre of light tactical games, but we felt that there haven’t been any games fulfilling that niche in nearly a decade," says Chucklefish founder Finn Brice. "When the opportunity came for us to start a new project, the whole company started a game ideas pitching process, and Wargroove was one of the projects that was put into production."
Inspired by genre classics such as Advance Wars, Battle for Wesnoth and Dragonforce, Wargroove aims to inject some much-needed innovation into the turn-based template. "Wargroove is a very accessible game, ranging from its friendly presentation to its simple interactions and intuitive interface," Brice explains. "At the same time, we believe that we have achieved this without sacrificing a great strategic depth, so hardcore fans of the genre will be more than satisfied. In particular, the focus on commanders as very powerful characters in the field, in addition to the standard recruitable units, shifts the pacing of battle in a way that is unique to the genre."
Of course, Wargroove still adheres to some of the well-worn tenets of the tactical genre, such as units which have their own unique strengths and weaknesses when compared to other troop types. Understanding the relationship between these units will be paramount to success on the battlefield. "There are three categories of units – land, sea and air," Brice says. "Units on the ground are the most common, and range from basic units such as the soldiers, spearmen and dogs, to powerful siege machines and towering giants. For the air, instead of planes and helicopters that you may see in modern-themed war games, you instead fight with harpies, witches and fire-breathing dragons. Sea units include the unique mermen, who are the only unit able to capture floating sea villages, as well as being able to walk and fight on land."
However, it's the increased focus on 'hero' units that makes Wargroove stand out from the crowd, and they also serve as the inspiration for the game's title. "Commanders are key to Wargroove," Brice comments. "In a way, they're both the Queen and the King in Chess – they are potent units that can easily swing the tide of battle with their presence, but their loss results in the player's defeat. This encourages an interesting balance between risk and reward, leading to more dynamic battles than typically seen in this genre. Their unique 'grooves' are additional powers that can have a significant impact on the battle, and the differences between the grooves mean that different commanders play entirely differently."
Having a unit that can effectively turn the tide of a single battle by being in the right place at the right time can predictably make balancing a game of this scale tricky – something Brice is first to admit. In fact, he insists that even after Wargroove launches, the team will continue to monitor and tweak, should the need arise. "It will always be challenging to balance a strategy game. We've been carefully looking at numbers and doing a lot of playtesting. We expect to be fine-tuning the balance all the way until release, and even beyond, once community feedback comes in, and the metagame evolves."
As is usually the case with this kind of game, control of the battlefield is of utmost importance in Wargroove. "A typical match will often start with players seeking to extend their influence and to capture key villages, which are your source of income, in strategic places on the map," Brice explains. "Engagement often follows in key disputed areas. As the players capture villages and their income increases, so does the kind of units they're able to bring into the field. Using the commanders effectively is key to winning the important battles, but care must be taken not to allow your commander to be cornered and defeated. Once the grooves come into play, the battle can quickly shift as a result of a clever play. We've seen matches swing back and forth a few times, but ultimately someone will have their commander cornered, or they will overextend their reach, or allow their headquarters to be sieged – and then it's game over. Typical matches last from 20 minutes to an hour, though we've seen epic engagements lasting longer!"
Now for the really innovative bit – unlike most other turn-based titles, Wargroove has a strong focus on multiplayer action, allowing four players to compete on the same battlefield. "We found that four players is approximately the maximum number that a game like Wargroove can have without being too busy," explains Brice. "In fact, we find four-player matches to be very dynamic and interesting to play – or watch. It's probably in part because turns can be played fairly quickly, and you can, on most maps, watch what the enemy is doing." A quartet of generals means that interesting tactics can emerge and evolve, too. "While the game doesn't feature a dynamic alliance system, we found that players will often forge temporary alliances between themselves while playing in a local match – until one of them decides to betray the other, that is!"
Getting three other like-minded friends together isn't always easy, so thankfully Wargroove is also packing online play. "We're ensuring the netplay is smooth, simple and stress-free," Brice says. "Rather than rush players to take their turn, we've opted for an asynchronous approach, where a player can have multiple games going at the same time. You'll be able to 'send' a move to an opponent, for them to respond to in their own time."
Those of you reading this who've lived through the epic campaigns of some of the turn-based genre's leading lights may well be worried that Chucklefish is placing too much emphasis on the multiplayer side of things. However, Brice is keen to stress that the game has plenty to offer solo players, too. "Both solo and multiplayer are equally important," he states. "We know that large sections of the community will be interested in one aspect or the other, and we want to be sure that the game will deliver upon the expectations of both of those types of player. On the single player side, we have three modes: The Campaign Mode tells the canonical story of the game; The Arcade Mode tells 'what-if' scenarios in the form of mini-campaigns for each of the commanders; and the Challenge Mode provides challenge maps for players who want to prove their skill. Meanwhile, multiplayer matches let you play pre-made or custom made maps, with custom rules and settings, locally or even asynchronously over the network, in co-op or versus mode."
This might all sound pretty grand – especially when you consider that the indie team behind Wargroove numbers just five full-time members – but there's another feature which Brice is particularly proud of, and one that could potentially extend the game's longevity almost infinitely. "The Scenario and Campaign editors are some of our most ambitious features," he says. "Players will be able to create maps, and chain them together into custom campaigns, and share them online with other players. Maps are highly scriptable with an event system that requires no programming skill to use, and allow you to create your own cutscenes, winning conditions, or special events. We are using the Scenario and Campaign editors that ship with the game to create the main game content, so players will have access to everything that we do."
Chucklefish intends to bring Wargroove to all major formats later this year, including PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox One and – of course – Nintendo Switch. This hybrid system is one of the hottest platforms for indie devs and publishers right now, and Chucklefish has already experienced considerable success by bringing ConcernedApe's Stardew Valley to the Switch eShop. Brice explains that the studio is taking Nintendo's system very seriously indeed, even going as far as to tinker with the UI to craft a more pleasant experience. "We're supporting both the docked and handheld modes, including adjusting the user interface when the game switches modes," he explains. "Further to that, we'll be looking into some of the Switch's other unique features, and how we'll be able to best make use of them."
DLC is also potentially on the cards, although Brice is quick to point out that Chucklefish's primary aim at the moment is building the best possible game. If it manages to do that – and come through on its promises regarding the impressive-sounding editor mode – then additional content may well be the last thing on the mind of tactical gaming fans; they'll be able to create their own campaigns and stories. Wargroove is shaping up to be one of 2018's most appealing indie releases, and – alongside the equally compelling Witchbrook – will allow Chucklefish to step out of the shadow of Stardew Valley and establish themselves as one of the most exciting UK developers, as well as prolific publishers.
Wargroove is coming to PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in 2018.