Here's a little gem, if you're in the market for a slice of slickness. Highlands.
Set in a fallen kingdom across a stratospheric archipelago, you play as the remnants of the royal family in the wake of a curious coup. Not content with a Romanov ending -- despite a fitting fantasy riff on the aristocratic pomp of Olde Europe -- fiery princess Caelecia and a growing band of survivors begin to sweep the sectors of the dark invasion. Played out via the mechanics of Risk, with cumulative dice-roll combat, Highlands is a refreshingly simple tactical game to understand, and a welcome harsh mistress.
A game of territory control, Highlands has you shunt an increasing number of characters and detachments around a series of interconnected islands. Certain sectors contain resources that can be salvaged and added to an overall pool, one that feeds the use of skills, acts as currency or is used in the crafting of items at specific locales. The mechanics are easy to grasp, with character development being automated leveling with a smidgen of paper doll itemisation.
Combat is handled by collective combat damage, with single characters within a mob acting as a block against a similar collective combat force tally. Players throw groups of main characters and hired troops into enemy stacks, then watch as the fight plays out under the automated roll of dice. It's not a particularly clever way of resolution, and in no way deterministic, but the slow burn creation of troops with a selection of leveled officers and main characters makes it -- as any seasoned Risk-taker would know -- a question of the right territory with the right people, rather than snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with wily prowess.
Wrinkles to what is otherwise a gorgeous Dice Wars are concepts like certain characters' ability to fortify sectors, giving them autonomic defense against enemy incursion. Other characters can perform the aforementioned crafting at specific workshop locales, enticing players to shunt and blitz through the map in spearheads for strategic gain. Every eight turns, more enemies spawn, so rushing for these scattered objectives is paramount for success. As an aside, crafting takes a number of turns, so being able to defend your smith as well as cauterise the flow of dark troops is a careful balancing act.
And when the apple cart is overturned, territory falls fast. Forget for the moment that the instant a main character dies, it's game over; when enemy troops break your line, or you've had to pull back to recoup and regenerate, sectors can turn in a torrential, galloping onslaught. Highlands is deceptive; the Bakshi-esque visuals and whimsical soundtrack belie an astute, voracious little strategy game. You'd be excused in thinking that being a Risk riff would provide simple, accessible fun. While accessibility is certainly there, the uppercut difficulty makes this a game for the grizzled, rather than the green.
Highlands was quite the surprise. The art is splendid, the music sublime and the gameplay offering a challenge beyond expectation. While the punitive nature of character's death forcing a restart undermines any impact of loss, this is a finely-tuned strategy experience. Good gear.
Thanks to the developers for supplying a review code.