First Look: Warbands: Bushido

By Nick Vigdahl 30 Jan 2017 2

Warbands: Bushido is a turn-based tactics game by Red Unit Studios, a small indie studio based in Russia. The game released on Steam Early Access in late November and, as such, remains a work in progress. It can be hard to evaluate early-access games given they are most often in the alpha or beta stage of testing. I've given Warbands: Bushido a go, however, and feel that the game has a lot of promise in a couple key areas. First, gameplay is fast and seems to favor strong strategic setup and good tactical decision making. Second, the game has an attractive aesthetic meant to bring tabletop gaming to life as well as evoke 16th-century Japan.

Warbands: Bushido already delivers on the first area to a large extent. At its core this is a game of small-scale warfare between two bands of 16th-century Japanese warriors represented by miniatures. The warbands fight to the death in a turn-based manner. The game rewards strong strategic setup through your selection of warrior units with which to play and by building a deck of orders cards—special abilities that can be played to help your units or hinder the enemy.

The game offers a wide variety of miniatures from which to choose—an aspect that will appeal to the collection enthusiasts among us. You acquire new units through a blind-buy system. One pack of warriors costs 100 ryo, the game's currency, which is collected by completing Hearthstone-style daily quests, selling spare units and cards, and eventually through tournament play. Each pack includes three miniatures and is backed by the well-known CCG promise to include at least one rare unit. There are no in-app purchases in the game at this point, but again, it's early and I'd be a both surprised and impressed if they don't show up at some point.

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Orders cards come with new units and can also be acquired by buying packs through the same blind-draw system used for units. There is a deck-building aspect to the game where you have to weigh the effect of a card versus the morale points needed to cast it. Each warband has a pool of morale that only gets added to if you roll a certain face on a die. In combat, you must make good use of those points to boost your warband to victory.

As your collection of units and cards grows so will the number of strategic options. Certain warriors complement each other well. Many order cards have great synergy with specific warriors. This combination of warrior units and order cards offers a lot of variability in one's game plan. Undoubtedly Red Unit Studios would plan to add more of both over time, and if they can keep a handle on the resulting metagame it could make for a very intriguing multiplayer experience.

The developers do seem to have an eye on fair play and Warbands: Bushido limits one's ability to just dump all their best warriors on a team and go forth to smash all resistance. The game uses a war point system that dictate which warriors can be added to your team. Higher rarity and more powerful warriors cost more points to add which forces some decision making on which elite units make the cut, and which more common units round out the band. As you win battles, gain experience, and level up you get more points to spend on your roster.

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Games are also quick—all of the ones I've played have hovered around the five-minute mark—and tactical. On each unit's turn you can move it, attack, and play an orders card. Combat takes place on a hexagon battle map littered with buildings, trees, bridges, and streams as well as smaller obstacles like bundles of wood and barrels. These maps encourage the use of basic tactical advantages like cover and choke points. At this point player-versus-player skirmish mode is the main way to play Warbands: Bushido. The game's matchmaking system looks for an opponent at a similar level, where possible. If no players are available—which is surprisingly rare for an early access game—an AI opponent steps in.

The thing that stands out to me the most about Warbands: Bushido is not the gameplay—lots of games offer an opportunity to bring sound strategy and tactical gameplay to bear against an opponent—but the second area of promise, the game's aesthetic. Red Unit Studios has done a great job recreating the look of a tabletop war game in digital form. The miniatures, dice, and diorama-style combat maps could all be straight out of a war game box. A cool touch is the ability to color and customize your units, no magnifying glass required.

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Given the game is in early access a lot is likely to change. We do know that the intent of the development team is to build out a robust, single-player campaign to complement the skirmish mode. There is one campaign available now, though it is called a work-in-progress by the developers who suggest checking back after launch for the full suite of single-player options. It sounds like there will be a dozen stories, each broken down into twenty to sixty different missions. That's a lot of content and the game's key opportunity to bring some historical realism to the setting. The missions could explore art, history, and other aspects of medieval Japan.

Red Unit Studios is in a position to deliver on Warbands: Bushido's full promise. A game that includes fast-paced, strategic and tactical gameplay along with an attractive design that replicates a tabletop game, and makes smart use of its setting will have a lot of fans. If they can pull it off Warbands: Bushido will be an attractive title for fans of turn-based combat, tabletop war game aficionados, history buffs, and collection enthusiasts. The game will release to Windows and Mac around springtime with an additional release for iPad later in the year. You can bet that we'll be back with a full-on review after launch.

Warbands: Bushido is currently available via Steam Early Access.

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