There are very few titles that can carry the description “casual strategy.” Fewer still are online multiplayer and in real-time. Add in old west steam punk for the setting and I can say with near 100% assurance that only a single fits this description. That's right, you guessed it – Bang! Howdy.
Developed by Three Rings Design, the fine folks who broke the MMOG mold with Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, Bang! Howdy has little in common with its piratey cousin except Three Ring's polish, great design, and wonderful quirkiness. Unlike a traditional strategy title, Bang! Howdy is played in 5-20 minute segments. Instead of a trekking through a series of campaigns managing enormous armies with the goal of vanquishing your enemy to reach an ultimate goal, the game is played on a series of unique maps using different game types and a series of… special units. How to explain?
Welcome to the Wild West of the US… well, sorta. There's some Tin Cans been rustlin' our cattle and tryin' to jump our claims. You seen em'? Like metal men in overalls. Smart, too. But here in Frontier Town, the first stop in the world of Bang! Howdy we done took some of them Tin Cans apart and figgered out how they work. Just check out that there Derringer – that's right, we made ourselves mechanical blimp and it shoots bullets! Wrasslin' Bob was tellin' me juss the other day about a Steam Gunman – wooeey! does he pack a wallop.
Uh, yeah. Perhaps you get the picture?
You'll begin with a series of what may first appear to be slowly paced tutorials. As you complete them, you may come to the conclusion that everything just went way too fast, but worry not! They can be repeated as often as you'd like. The rewards are repeatable, too!
Play is accomplished when you pick a Big Shot and 1-5 additional units to fight against your opponent(s). The Big Shot is a special unit that carries the ability to complete the goals of the scenario. For example if you are Cattle Rustlin', only your Big Shot can brand cattle; any other units on the board are there to defend the Big Shot or take out the other side.
There are three Big Shots per town to choose from: Frontier Town has the Old Codger, the Cavalry and the Tactician (with his armored umbrella!); the Indian Trading Post has the Revolutionary, the Storm Caller (chain lightning!) and the Raven. All are unique and will determine your playstyle as much as the map or the game played on that map. (I like my Old Codger – he's a tough old coot!)
When you begin in Frontier Town, there are three additional units available to you with two more that can either be won or purchased. Wining is accomplished by meeting a set of conditions (win five games in a row, for example). To buy them you simply need earn enough scrip (currency) in the game.
Though the units may be instinctual – the Sharpshooter is very accurate but does little damage while the Shotgunner does a lot of damage but only at short range – it will take a bit of practice to get used to the fun steam punk elements of the game. It's no matter; just as you figure out how the Frontier Town units work and which are your favorites, you'll hop on board the train to the Indian Trading Post where the Buffalo Rider, Dog Soldier and Medicine Woman will throw everything you knew upside down. It's nothing to complain about. They're downright fun.
Among its many strengths is Bang! Howdy's music and art direction. I don't play with sound on – ever. Ok, let me rephrase… I play with sound on long enough for an opinion for a review then OFF it goes. I keep the music playing for this game because it's simply fun. Even after two years I find myself bouncing to the music.
By using a simple art style that over-emphasizes detail, Three Rings has produced an incredible diversity of maps to play on. Each game uses a random map (I don't know how many there are, I still find new maps on occasion) for play. Until you know the maps well, the more experienced player may have a slight advantage in knowing where units that fly are more advantageous but in general the balance is extraordinary.
For those unacquainted with the idea of playing on a map, don't let the term confuse you. The grids are small – the entire play area can be seen on your screen at the right resolution. Close quarters makes for interesting play but it also allows for short games.
Choosing a game can be a matter of asking for a random game or choosing a specific game type. Each is explained in the tutorials and I would encourage you to play them as often as necessary to feel comfortable. Once an opponent(s) is chosen, the map name will appear and you'll choose the Big Shot you'd like to use and the units to support. Then you can choose your cards.
Cards are something akin to mini-buffs and de-buffs. You can purchase them at the General store in packs of 13, 52 or groups of 3 of each card. They will temporarily increase your speed, distance travelled, armor… Or they let you drop things on your opponent. That one is my favorite!
To keep things fair, only three cards can be brought to each game (I really like dropping things on my opponent, dag nabbit). But, what about those situations where you end up with an opponent who gains the upper hand and you can't get it back? Look on the ground, cards will start to appear. Then the choice of whether to continue on your course or stop and pick up that card becomes important. Cards are not powerful enough to sway a game but they can bring it back into balance.
Unlike a 'true' real-time strategy game, Bang! Howdy uses a series of ticks to determine how fast a unit moves. As the timer counts down, each unit (on both sides) will move to the location you've set. Some move every three clicks; some wait for six. This reduces the confusion of constant movement on the board and needing to keep track of too much at once. It also allows you to set advance orders – you can set a move in advance of the ticks counting down and move on to the next unit.
Setting these limitations – ticks for movement, 2-7 units maximum per board, short games of 5-15 minutes on average – this is what gives Bang! Howdy one of its clear advantages over other casual strategy games. Even when you lose a game you win. Just like the silver and bronze medal, the game rewards you for playing, not for winning. Everyone gets scrip!
And boy is there plenty to spend it on!
After you've completed your tutorial (yes, this is backwards from most games – in a good way!), you'll create your character. Or rather your character portrait. From what begins as a limited – but not small – number of variations for your Cowpoke, you can customize to your hearts delight. Unique to Bang! Howdy is the ability to customize not just your primary portrait, but your Victory Portrait – what is shown when you take first place in a game – and your Wanted Poster. Below you'll see the three poses of Bonnie Ophelea, my character, as well as a fourth pose I use only in the Indian Trading Post. The second row are some of the more colorful players in the game.
Not every item or color is available upon play; many must be earned. I was surprised how hard I worked to get 'leather' as a color; I was even more surprised how glad I was to have pink for clothing and violet eyes; and then, on the last match I played before writing this, after taking all of my images, I opened up lavender as a color in the store. Of course.
Your Wanted Poster is something akin to a homepage in the Old West. It indicates what Gang you are a member of – I'm the leader of the Notorious Rubber Bandits – an image of your Gang Buckle, catch phrase, your rankings for various games, and who you were “last seen with.” The last seen with are your four favorite badges you've earned while playing – you get to pick. Do you want to celebrate how much you've won? Show that you play far too much? Or have fun by advertising your less-than-stellar skills?
Being part of a Gang isn't a requirement but it can be fun. Not all of the game is pitting yourself against a few other players. As a Gang member, you'll play in groups – ow. Ow ow ow. It is said of The Notorious Rubber Bandits that, “You can hear the twang of their spurs as they walk down the street.” Yeah, we're not so good at the fighting but we have fun. When playing games you'll earn a second currency – Aces – that will allow you to purchase items to customize your Buckle.
These were all created by players.
Then there's the Sherriff – sad sort he is. There's a constant need for help chasing down Bounties. Bounties are single player scenarios you can complete for scrip and items. I wear my very first Sombrero proudly. Bounties are also a spectacular place to practice your skills without getting your clock cleaned if you're new to the game. Warning: The Sherriff has a lot of bad guys to chase down and some of them are just plain smart.
There's a lot to do in Bang! Howdy. If you want you can just open a private parlor and sit and practice all day with a friend while shootin' the breeze. Yet for all of this amazing, confuzzling, whimsical, wonderful content, you have to choose to spend time each day on it. Most people who catch the strategy bug will spend a few long days playing but after that it's a great title for 10 minutes or 2 hours. And can you think of another title that gives you the chance to tell your friend you're playing a “wild west steampunk online multiplayer strategy game dressed as a saloon girl/gold panner/dog soldier/wolf trainer”? If you do, let me know.