Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Brass Hats Review

Brass Hats, developed and published by Square Earth Games.
The Good: Straightforward strategic gameplay, good tutorials, well developed campaign with increasing difficulty, nice graphical style
The Not So Good: No random maps or map editor, no Internet matchmaking, poor performance
What say you? A good wargame for novice players: 6/8

Strategy games have run the gamut from very complicated wargames to more straightforward offerings. Each of these ends of the spectrum appeals to a different audience, so eventually everyone is happy. There have been some more casual games in the tactical wargame theme, where you move small numbers of units around a hex-based map. One of these is Brass Hats, which hopes to marry the strategic depth of wargames with an easy-to-use accessible game.

Despite the 2-D graphics of Brass Hats, I actually like the presentation of the game. The levels and units might not be spectacular 3-D replicas of their real-life counterparts, but Brass Hats has a very effective cartoon-like atmosphere. I like the design of the units and the maps and I would much prefer this style to a muddled 3-D world with poor textures. The music is along the same lines: it is repetitive and MIDI-like but catchy at the same time. Not every game needs to make the jump to 3-D or have an inordinate amount of cash involved in the graphics in order for them to be successful. It is weird, then, that Brass Hats has some performance issues on my dual core computer: mouse lag is bad on large levels involving lots of units, and it rears its ugly head even on some menus. I would also like to be able to play the game in windowed mode, since Brass Hats is displayed at a low resolution. Still, overall, I was pleased by the graphics and sound of Brass Hats.

Brass Hats is a turn-based strategy game where you order units across a hex-based map to take over the enemy capital. The game centers around World War I-era units and includes a rather lengthy 28-level campaign. The campaign includes a branching structure that offers increasing difficulty as you attempt to eliminate the Central Powers from Europe. You can play cards earned through good performance that will give benefits to certain units. New players can learn the game through the well-written tutorial missions that teach each aspect of the game one lesson at a time. There are also a few single missions intended for skirmish play or multiplayer matches. These missions are more balanced than the campaign missions; there are not very many missions to choose from and Brass Hats lacks a map editor or random map generator, so you will exhaust the single battles quickly. Multiplayer can be done on the same computer or over the Internet, but you need to know your opponent’s IP address since Brass Hats lacks a matchmaking program. Still, the single player campaign offers enough content to keep you busy for a while.

Brass Hats features a number of units that can be built at captured factories, airfields, and ports. These include infantry, artillery, tanks, flamethrowers, fighters, bombers, and an assortment of naval units. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages and associated costs; money can be earned by capturing cities. Brass Hats emphasizes an assorted crew: tanks are the most powerful close-range unit, but only infantry can capture enemy or neutral buildings. There are also roles for the aircraft and ranged units like snipers and artillery. Brass Hats does a good job in making each unit important to the gameplay. Some missions contain a fog of war that obscures enemy locations; snipers or units stationed in mountainous areas can increase your sight range. Units can be ambushed (which stops their turn immediately) so there is a definite benefit to scouting ahead. Most units can move and fire in the same turn; units near enemy forces can only move single hexes to prevent fast retreats or moving past enemy forces unopposed.

Combat is straightforward: Brass Hats gives you odds that are calculated based on the units involved. Units can gain experience through combat that can impose restrictions on an enemy unit’s ability to counter-attack; this makes keeping experienced units alive important. Units with decreased health can repair at a city (for infantry) or factory (for tanks), although new units cannot be produced there while the hex is occupied. Being successful in Brass Hats requires planning ahead, using your unit’s strengths, attacking appropriate units, and using combined arms to bring down the enemy. I found the gameplay of Brass Hats to be quite enjoyable and it stays true to the wargame theme without being bogged down with sight lines or supply or any of that other stuff. You move, attack, and produce new units while advancing towards the enemy HQ. The pace is slow enough to allow for some plans to develop, but quick enough to get the game over with. Brass Hats is a simple game, but it is still challenging and requires some thought in order to be successful.

If you are scared off by the complexity and monotony of wargames, then Brass Hats might be the game to change your mind. The game is very easy to learn, thanks to simplified controls and useful tutorials. Despite its simplicity, Brass Hats maintains a high level of strategic gameplay, which should satisfy players of all experience levels. I really like the overall design of the game, from the mechanics to the graphics and sound. Brass Hats may be missing some features that would extend the life of the product, but $24 gets you a good amount of content and the campaign will provide a lot of entertainment. Brass Hats is a well-designed strategy game that is easy to learn and fun to play.