The barbarians of Crush Your Enemies are living their best lives. Roaming from village to village, it’s a daily schedule based mainly around burning settlements, sticking heads on spikes, shouting inappropriate jokes and drinking every drop of beer within a 30-mile radius. With a horde of blood-thirsty reavers on hand, it seems no stronghold is powerful enough to withstand its machismo tide. But it’s not that simple – if you want to keep the barbarian invasion party going you’re going to have to manage that sea of bulging muscles and unkempt beards, which is far from straightforward.
Here’s how it works. Every battlefield – a single screen of square tiles – begins with a group of pallet-swapped burly soldiers on either side. The objective of the game is to kill every enemy on the field, while simultaneously meeting a handful of in-game objectives (win the match in a certain time, have enough survivors left on the field, etc). In order to reach enemy hordes, you’ll need to claim each tile-sized piece of land for yourself. Green-coloured tiles belong to your foe, while orange ones represent the soil held in the name of your own barbarous cause.
Your troops can only move on orange tiles, creating a sense of tactical navigation where you’ll need to weigh up the cost of spending time turning it orange or sending your troops across neutral ground in order to reach the enemy via a different route. Each horde has a number above it, so if you send a smaller group against a much larger throng the maths simply won’t work out in your favour. The management side of Crush Your Enemies comes in the form of huts. When a hut is coloured red it becomes a friendly recruitment centre, gradually increasing the number of soldiers you can send into battle.
However, it can only produce new recruits if it has at least one or more bodies inside of it to begin with. Now you’re having to think about directing units in the field into combat, moving others around the map, claiming more territory and managing the production of recruits in your huts. These structures, much like tiles, can be lost to enemy groups, but you can also claim those belonging to the opposing side, so there’s an invigorating tug of war at play in every match.
Some of these huts have other uses, including the power to instantly transform the basic grunt at your disposal (the Simpleton, naturally) into much deadlier units including Warriors, Wizards and more. Crush Your Enemies knows how to raise the tension as you try and balance keeping a steady flow of new recruits while syphoning off enough to a nearby warrior hut to make them much deadlier in battle. Add in the fact that recruitment huts that are claimed as your own will transform trained units back into Simpletons and suddenly there’s a sense of sacrificial danger to claiming a strategic point on the map.
Much like the excellent Element, Crush Your Enemies aims to take the often overpowering systems and mechanics of a real-time strategy title and boil them down into an experience that’s perfect for short bursts of gameplay. For the most part, it’s a successful endeavour, streamlining the basic principles of the battlefield into a formula even genre novices will be able to pick up and enjoy. However, once you’ve cleared the tutorial section the game’s difficulty can spike almost at random, making some battles incredibly easy to conquer and others nigh-on impossible.
These conflicts – which see the enemy often starting with far more recruits and access to more specialist huts from the off – are a real chore, but the issue can be negated somewhat by the use of beer. Yes, the power of hops. In order to reach each battle, you’ll navigate an overworld map full of villages, strongholds and settlements. Once conquered, smaller villages will send beer as a tribute to your horde, which can then be spent in battle for temporary buffs. They’re certainly a welcome addition, but they never last long enough to make a truly lasting impact.
When it comes to controls, you can move your troops around with the analogue sticks and buttons of your Joy-Cons, but we find the touchscreen is far better suited to the task. You can tell this is a game that was built with the precision control of a mouse and keyboard in mind (it debuted on PC in 2016), but the title has also made it to mobile, so selecting and commanding units is far more responsive when tapping the screen or dragging your finger to direct your troops. You can still play in docked mode, but this is a pocket-sized barbarian simulator that works best in the intimacy of handheld mode.
There’s a chance Crush Your Enemies’ toilet humour and machismo gags won’t be for everyone – in fact, if you’re easily offended this definitely isn’t for you – but beyond its irreverence lies another successful attempt to transform the often complex RTS into a digestible format. The game’s seemingly unnatural difficulty spikes can get a little tiresome, especially when you’re overwhelmed so quickly, but with plenty of nuance stemming from its simple mechanics (and a really catchy little soundtrack), you’ll soon find yourself managing your barbarian horde like a true chieftain.