Do you like tabletop war gaming? Do you like turn based RTSs? Can you eek excitement from the rolling of virtual dice and the running of odds on a table being the deciding factor of your battles against an alien horde? Can positively glacial gameplay pacing, in place of boring you to tears, instead be converted into ever-increasing feelings of tension and anticipation?
If those apply to you, as they do for myself, then Sword of the Stars: Ground Pounders is something you will certainly enjoy. Combining the best of classic tabletop wargames like Axis & Allies and (even more so) their computer equivalents like the classic Panzer General, Ground Pounders is the kind of game that simply does not get made any more and knows it, perfectly streamlining the traditions of the old computer games to work with a modern audience not as well versed in the genre as the gamers of a decade ago were. It delivers subdued thrills on an intellectual level, but along with those thrills come a sense of hollowness, lacking a certain indelible something that makes games like Panzer General so much fun to come back to over and over again.
Part of that, of course, comes from the fact that the game is not, well, done. Currently sitting in Early Access on Steam, only around half of the game is actually available to be played at the moment. Right now, only one of the proposed two campaigns and five of ten “scenarios” are currently open to the public. So, yeah, one could attribute that hollowness to that fact that the game is missing half of its structure. But, with how fun that half is, that hollowness must come from somewhere else.
It certainly doesn’t come from the gameplay, which, like all great RTS games, is simple to learn yet with depth to spare. Combat in Ground Pounders is broken down into six stages. Every match begins in Orbital stage, where players choose how many cards to discharge from their deck in an attempt to gain orbital superiority, which will give the winning player an advantage in terms of the kinds of cards they can play (some cards require orbital superiority to be played). This leads into Draw, where you are given a hand of cards to be played on your various troops. This hand varies in size depending on how you discarded cards in the Orbital stage, but the size difference is negligible. The cards given to you are effectively the life-blood of Ground Pounders; each card carries with it some sort of buff specific to a different stage of battle, and can only be used in those stages (denoted by their color). The cards doled out to you from your deck, which is customizable, are random and yes, they can screw you over, but its a testament to the balance of the game that skilled players can fight their way out of even the worst dealt hand.
The next stage is Supply, where you must organize your troops in a manner that they are all under supply from your central command unit, your base, or a tile/unit under effect of a Supply card (this will be important in a moment). Next comes Recruit, where you bolster the health of your units from a pool of reinforcement points gained from battle. The final preparatory stage of the game is Equip, where the number of Supply points gained in the Supply stage determine the number of dice you can place on your units. This is perhaps the most crucial stage, because the die you attach to each unit (up to two can be attached normally, and four to your command unit) are what are rolled during encounters in the final stage, Combat.
Combat is the truly mobile stage of Ground Pounders, where 90% of the actual action takes place. The game is played on a classical hex-based combat board, one you’ve seen a thousand times in tabletop war games and PC strategies and other bits of lunacy, but credit is due to Ground Pounders for making the system feel fresh. Every unit has a set amount of movement points (created by the reinforcement level and other factors), and you can place them in a sort of defensive chain at the end of your turn; if one unit in the chain is attacked, the surrounding units will support it. It’s a simple, slight, and detached system that is beautifully balanced and easy to understand, making this seemingly long process of a turn go by far faster than it seems it should, although taking the well-done tutorial is recommended. Not mentioned so far is the online multiplayer, which is just the normal game but against far smarter opponents, which makes that cold, thrilling victory in the battle of the minds that much sweeter.
The sense of hollowness instead comes from the technical side of things. Graphically, the game is workman-like; what is there gets the job done and nothing more, though the world designs in the skirmishes and campaign could use a little bit more unique flavor. The music is your typical space opera fare, full of horns and brass, but doesn’t have that definition that space opera needs. Think of gaming’s greatest space opera, Halo: its soundtrack has familiar elements but it constantly finds unique ways to underscore a scene. Ground Pounders simply doesn’t have that. Like Halo, Ground Pounders is also part of a much larger universe entitled Sword of the Stars, which already has another game made in it called The Pit. The lore of this universe is scattered throughout the game, permeating every card and unit and weapon and so on, and while it is certainly well written and has aspects that fascinate, it again just feels like the going through of motions, rather than staking a claim of its own. A more inspiring universe could do wonders for bringing players back again and again for more than just the multiplayer matches.
But that hollow feeling ultimately is outdone by the cold, calculated thrills of the game’s combat. This is pure strategy, where every victory is a victory of the mind. And maybe that icy nature will turn off some players, who cannot get past such a slow-moving contest of moving people back and forth on a plain made of geometric shapes, and for them that hollowness will be most affecting. But for those who can, as the great Yugi Muto did, believe in the heart of the cards, they can find one of the most rewarding RTS experiences out there right now. And its only half done. That’s kind of remarkable.
You can grab Sword of the Stars: Ground Pounders on Steam Early Access right now for $9.99.
[+Tactical gameplay is simple to learn with plenty of room for creative tactical thinking] [+What could be a bloated turn based system is instead a streamlined, fast paced (for its genre) center for both veterans and new players alike] [+Combat is balanced and fair, allowing skill to out-do even the worst luck] [+Impressive level of detail in universal lore] [-Half complete content sort of lends to feeling of hollowness to the experience] [-Graphically and musically, and even in its own extensive lore, does little to distinguish itself from other typical space opera games]