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Thursday, April 11, 2024

Gem Wizards Tactics is a bite-sized strategy game that pits potato wizards against corporate demons

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A pair of demons surround the nearest keep. My team includes a potato armed with sunglasses and a water hose, a robed forest witch (who is also a potato), and a demon-powered bulldozer named George Cybercrime.

The splashmaster potato uses his pressurized hose to bump the demons backward into a nearby river. Mr. Cybercrime plows through the nearby forests, paving new road tiles as he rumbles, allowing my mage to close in and use her storm spell to electrocute the now soaking wet enemies for extra damage. It’s my first time combining water, lightning, and fresh asphalt to kill videogame demons, but I’m into it.

Gem Wizards Tactics is a turn-based strategy game that uses terraforming, permadeath, and a healthy dose of fantasy humor to craft a tiny, arcade-like tactics game with an impressive layer of strategic depth. Each match generates a random battlefield of forests, rivers, plains, and mountains, along with several keeps and groups of enemies. The goal is to capture a handful of enemy flags which are found on each keep and occasionally carried by a powerful enemy, like the literal drill sergeant who wields a giant oil-powered drill. Or the reaper, a scythe-wielding horseman in all black who rides a pale horse and harvests nearby forests. And is also a potato.

Three factions are available: the nature-loving, tanky Potatoes, the tech-savvy, oil-infused Business Demons, and the knights of the Azure Order, who have ice powers, or something. Each faction has a handful of unique units like mounted knights and motorcycle demons who can charge through lines of enemies, and archers and trebuchets that can attack at range.

Each turn is full of tough decisions about whether to grab gems to unleash powerful abilities, rescue neutral units (who immediately join your team, leading to some fun faction mixing), or capture flags as quickly as possible. Time is a factor in every match, and they move fast—most are finished in less than 10 minutes. Gem Wizard Tactics pushes you to move quickly, because additional enemy forces begin spawning after the second turn and quickly transform the battlefield into a wave of overwhelming forces.

Positioning and turn order are critical, as when my business dozer clears a path for my slower units, or my fire mage lines up multiple enemies (avoiding allies) for an explosive fireball. Roads and forests have different movement and defensive bonuses, and surrounded units are flanked and unable to counterattack. It’ll be familiar if you’ve played strategy games like Advance Wars or Wargroove, but unlike those games Gem Wizards unlocks terraforming and environmental interactions as a core feature, with each faction specializing in different terrain. 

The Potatoes transform the land into rivers and forests to grow new seed units, plant tree-turrets, and harvest forests. The Business Demons are the opposite, preferring to pave over land and dig up oil to fuel their machines and increase faction leader Bill Milton’s stock portfolio. The emphasis on environmental synergy, such as igniting oil patches or zapping units on wet tiles, brought back fond memories for me of manipulating the battlefield in Divinity: Original Sin 2.

Gem Wizards’ other neat feature is unit bumping. Certain skills can physically bump and shove ally or enemy units in different directions, a la Into the Breach. Bumping can knock units off important defensive tiles, shove them into other enemies, or even send them careening off the map itself, resulting in any instant kill (and a humorous death cry). The poor Potato Roll Guard, while possessing superior defense, has a nasty trait that keeps them rolling in a direction if bumped—possibly right off the map.

Bumping and terraforming are fun but also crucial to winning matches. Beneath the head-bopping soundtrack and colorful pixel art this is one of the more challenging tactics games I’ve played. With overwhelming forces surrounding my meager army after only a few matches, and roguelike permadeath for each unit penalizing the slightest error or overextension, I found the campaign brutally impossible, even when multiple difficulty settings were added in a post-launch patch. 

Custom and ranked missions against AI, which stick me with a random starting team, feel much more balanced. I’m enjoying ranked missions the most, reaching rank five after half a dozen wins before I suffered my first loss. The lack of unit progression is a bummer, but it’s a far smoother curve than the overtuned campaign. 

Despite the harsh difficulty spikes, I’m enjoying discovering unit synergies and playing a full match in bite-size bursts. The potatoes and business demons are a hilarious reprieve from typical fantasy tropes, and the random map and unit generation creates plenty of replayability. The balance isn’t right yet, but the solo developer has already released several patches and updates—including turning down the difficulty of the campaign in the most recent patch—and promises more factions are on the way. 

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