6th of August, 2021
Hello! Welcome back to our regular feature where we write a little bit about some of the games we've found ourselves playing over the last few days. This time: beads, Blood Angels and an endless runner for the ages.
If you fancy catching up on some of the older editions of What we've been playing, here's our archive.
I've been hooked on Mancala for a while now - the ancient game in which you move beads around a board. It's a lovely thing to look at, as the beads are often brightly coloured and the boards are often beautifully carved. And it's lovely to listen to, because of that percussive click-clack of movement and play.
Best of all, I'm at a special point in learning about the game. That point that feels slightly wordless - when you're learning how to make good moves, but you don't really know what you're learning or how you're learning it. When I make a good move, I know in advance that it's good sometimes - but I wouldn't even know how to start to put this into words.
Because Mancala is so old, there's something else here too. When you struggle with a match, you can feel like you're part of an ancient struggle, part of a chain of frustrated Mancala players that stretches back from the present moment into the distant past, through cultures and across timezones. Mancala is an excellent game, then, but it's also an excellent game just to think about.
Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector, PC
XCOM meets Warhammer 40,000? Battlesector, from Battlestar Galactica Deadlock maker Black Lab Games, is a decent stab at just that.
I have found myself playing this turn-based strategy game most evenings this week, and have come to the conclusion that it is mostly a game about unrealised potential. This is a compliment!
Battlesector stars the Blood Angels, that rather angry chapter of the eternally duty bound Space Marines, who return to face what's left of the Tyranid threat on the Blood Angels homeworld of Baal after resurrected Primarch Roboute Guilliman swooped in to save the day against Hive Fleet Leviathan.
I'm a sucker for Warhammer 40,000 lore, and this setup is right up my street. There is much to like about the very, very Warhammer 40,000 dialogue in Battlesector, all delivered as the hero characters chat before and after missions. The voice acting leans in like a Warhammer 40,000 audiobook with a 'Jason Statham run through a cogitator' bark. I love it, love it, love it.
Out on the battlefield, things are a little more bland than I'd hoped. With the Blood Angels and the Tyranids and one other faction I won't spoil the only toys to play with, Battlesector is in desperate need of variation. There are some nice models within what we do have to play with, and credit to Black Lab Games for doing what I'm sure was its best within the scope of the project. But Battlesector lacks heft, oomph and impact, which is a shame.
I really like some of the mechanics, though. The momentum system is, essentially, a special power gauge you fill by leaning into each unit's speciality. You lose momentum by using overwatch, which encourages aggression (and feels very Blood Angels).
And the more you learn about the way Battlesector works, the more engaging it becomes. Understanding how to position your troops so they react to a melee attack during your opponent's turn is essential, as is working out how to fall back properly and avoid zones of control. Even turning your units to face the right direction is important.
In many ways, Battlesector is one of the best video game representations of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game around. It's turn-based, for a start. You have an army points limit you need to stick to for each mission. You can swap out weapons on units, although that costs you points. Line of sight makes a difference. You must consider the optimal range of the weapon you wish to use. What is the accuracy falloff per tile? It's all here.
And then we come back to unrealised potential. I do hope Battlesector has done well enough to justify new factions in the form of DLC, because I'd love to see new Space Marine chapters and even new races thrown into the mix.
For now, I'm sticking with Battlesector, and will see its campaign to the end. My Dreadnought would have it no other way.
I don't know what it is about Santa Ragione, but this team can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. MirrorMoon EP is as close as I get to a favourite gaming memory, and everything else this Italian micro-studio has made turns out to be poised and elegant and thought-provoking and really, really different.
While I wait for Saturnalia to turn up, with its twisty Sardinian horror stories, I've been playing the team's iOS (and PC) classic, Fotonica. It's an endless runner, but that's a very weak way of describing it.
Okay, for one thing, it's often not endless. Play the campaign and each stage has a beginning, middle and end. But more importantly it's about so much more than most endless runners find time to fixate on. It's first-person in a vector-graphics world, all bright lines and sharp edges. Your hands appear in frame as you move faster, and for a game built of light there is an astonishing sense of physical presence.
Best of all it's a game that asks you to play with gravity. Hold a finger to the screen to stay on the track. Lift it to jump, and then jab it back down to bring you back to earth. I love the sense of wildness this control scheme allows for - like an aircraft, the Fotonica runner wants to be in the sky, an it is almost a crime to keep them on the ground. What a beautiful, beautiful game.