StarCraft II thought it had the secret to delivering a truly accessible version of its predecessor. The original game’s troop-management battles are unmatched in terms of balance, so the sequel directed more attention to QoL tweaks like resource management, unit assignments, and movement pathing. In short, you could click a little less, and otherwise, you were still tied largely to the same gameplay systems and faction differences (aside from some significant rhythm-shifting changes).
But what if a StarCraft sequel, spin-off, or shameless homage took the entire game formula apart, then put its LEGO pieces back together to make a new, more approachable shape? No RTS game in the past two decades has reimagined the genre quite like the incredible Tooth and Tail, a years-in-the-making project from IGF Award winner Andy Schatz. It’s as if three-man studio Pocketwatch Games looked at the mouse cursor in RTS games, made a joke about turning it into an actual mouse, and then called their own bluff.
The resulting game sees players face off in asymmetric explore-and-exploit battles that add speed, accessibility, and surprises (along with cute and, uh, cannibalistic critters) to the RTS world. Yet the depth’s still here. Say “goodbye!” to zillions of hotkeys and skill trees. Say “hello!” to the first RTS game that legitimately works with a standard gamepad (and even shines as a split-screen versus battler).
Stop arguing—you can both have the ferrets
T&T‘s basic skeleton will sound familiar to anybody who’s clicked through an RTS in the past 30 years. Manage an economy of resources to build an army, expand to other bases on a map, and eventually annihilate any number of rivals. (Up to four players can face off in team or free-for-all combat). Each army unit has its strengths, weaknesses, and resource costs, and victory requires understanding how your army, which is likely different than your opponent’s, can particularly triumph.
The game’s unique properties begin with your cursor, which does not exist in as a pointer icon but as a walking, talking mouse. (If you’re wondering, it’s dressed as an army commander from early 20th-Century poverty-stricken Eastern Europe.) To do anything on the battlefield, such as issue orders to armies, claim new bases, build or sell structures, or spy on your opponent, you have to direct your commander, either using a joystick or WASD keys, to run, run, run.
But that doesn’t mean this game is all that similar to “active RTS” games like Herzog Zwei or AirMech. Unlike those games, your T&T commander can’t shoot a gun or otherwise directly engage. Instead, you have two primary buttons: rally all armies, or rally one species’ worth of armies. You can use different taps to order either selection to: focus on a specific enemy unit; have units move-and-attack until they reach a certain point; or sheathe their weapons and retreat to your position. Movement is relatively slow, though you can “burrow” to any captured base by holding down a button to dig for a moment. Be warned: your commander health bar regenerates very slowly, and getting killed while spying on a foe (or waiting for your map-warping burrow) will freeze you out for a few seconds’ worth of respawn.
Additionally, Tooth and Tail opens its unit selection up to a free-draft system before every battle. Instead of picking a faction with its own balanced, pre-determined package of units and upgrades, players have to pick six of the game’s 20 unit types. Fifteen of the choices are active soldier types, split into three tiers of power and value. The remaining units are defensive and barrier options. Should you wish to burn five of your picks as barriers, go right ahead—and your foes can do the same without any limit to duplicates on the battlefield.
Those six units are it for your battle, by the way, which means you cannot build any research stations or base upgrades. The units you build cost “food,” your sole resource, and you can only get more food by building farms. Each windmill you capture counts as a “base,” and you can build up to eight farms around each base. These all eventually exhaust, so you’ll want to keep acquiring more of them (and be mindful of each map’s limited, finite resources before reaching an endgame).