Review: Musket Smoke

By Dave Lane 19 Dec 2013 0
I wanted to do 'Smoke on the Water' but couldn't actually get any smoke on the water. Damn it all. Down by the river I shot my baby.

Helmuth Von Moltke's famous maxim that 'no plan survives first contact with the enemy' has always been a bugger for those designing games. Games, by their nature, demand rules, structure, and predictability in order that players feel rewarded for good decisions. The most common solution is to cast the player as a well-informed commander of an entire theatre and abstract the chaos of combat at ground level by way of dice or other randomisers.

Musket Smoke forges its own path and rejects randomness entirely. Straddling the line between wargame and boardgame, it takes the bloody, chaotic combat of the pike-and-musket era and turns it into more orderly butchery with predictable combat results. Predictable, though, seems an unfitting term for a fresh and often surprising game. Musket Smoke is a deterministic, battlefield-scale hex grid game. Both sides are given a roughly symmetrical array of 17th-century soldiers and then try and murder each other in turn-based fashion. The game has only four unit types, but distinguishes them well. Cavalry are good for hit and run tactics, but it is cannon that rule the field. They're inflexible, shooting only in straight lines, but reach all the way across the field. Their presence can dictate enemy movement throughout the game, and using them well is immensely satisfying.

Damage is determined by unit size rather than dice rolls. The rules are quite exception-heavy but simple, and Musket Smoke does both a good and bad job of explaining them. The game's tutorial is a fairly lengthy set of brief exercises, and it replaces the usual the usual dryness of such tutorials with the natural flow and conversational style of talking with an enthusiastic friend - which does help the rules to stick in the memory.

The problem is that nowhere that I could find does the game include a comprehensive and easily referenced set of rules - even after you internalise most things, it is too easy to miss an important detail in your planning, and some elements, such as rivers and friendly fire, seem to be missed out altogether. This is frustrating, as most games of Musket Smoke are quite evenly-matched, which forces players to exploit every advantage possible.

Underlying the mechanics of Musket Smoke is a disdain for a straight-up fair fight. Because troops can reply tit-for-tat to multiple frontal attacks per turn, brute force is a waste of men. Because damage is so small relative to unit size, quick break-throughs can only be achieved by careful manipulation of the morale system. A fair fight? Musket Smoke demands you fight like a coward and a bully - occupy someone's attention and then have you mates do unspeakable things to them from where they're not looking. Once a unit is locked into melee combat, they are open to all manner of nasty things - cannon shots that now eat away at morale, a cavalry charge for horrendous damage, or just being gang-flanked by infantry and stabbed into nothing. And yes, it does feel great when you pull this stuff off.

If you go down to the woods today you're in for a big - OH GOD THEY SHOT MY FACE. Games begin with a few rounds of peek-a-boo. As played with cannon. Not suitable for children.

The game can be deeply unforgiving of errors - Musket Smoke offers no comeback mechanics. An early advantage will more often than not snowball into victory. Having no randomness or hidden information (except in limited areas where smoke and walls block vision), this makes the opening of every battle a naturally cautious dance around covering terrain features, neither side wanting to be the first to chance their arm. That first favourable engagement must often be prompted by a feint or lure.

Some will love getting to gull your opponent fair and square with no luck or secrets to spare their blushes, and that first kill is very, very gratifying. On the other hand, players who prefer aggression and improvisation to meticulousness may be frustrated, and the end of fights can drag as the loser is whittled away.

Between the deterministic nature and slow pace you may be thinking this is an affair of tax-return seriousness. In actuality, one of the most charming things about Musket Smoke is the rich seam of almost adolescent glee running through it - most obviously seen when pounding a melee locked unit with cannon causes a gore pile. With a little pile of bodies sprite covering the hex no less. Roll the juicy sounds of that one around your mouth. Gooooorrrreeeeee piiiilllllleeeee. The game seems to exult in every charge and killing blow with big, chunky icons and sound effects, barely able to contain its excitement.

The game does show its small budget in some rough edges - the graphics are basic and the music grating, the menus are clunky and unresponsive and some UI decisions, such as having buttons that overlap the play area, are annoying. The game's enthusiasm and clarity of purpose, though, covers quite a few sins.

Part of that clarity is how well the game is tailored for asynchronous play -- there's no turn interrupts and every turn offers a meaty set of decisions. With so many games on iOS content to have their players dig through logs of arcane notation to see what their opponents did, Snowpunch knows what players need. You get both a replay and a report detailing your opponent's last turn before you begin your own, and the option of a full replay at any time to help keep your strategy coherent. Other developers should take note - far more lavish and polished games have done a worse job of delivering asynchronous play.

The campaign sets the game not in the Napoleonic wars, but the Franco-Dutch war. I love games about conflicts I wasn't previously aware of. The campaign sets the game not in the Napoleonic wars, but the Franco-Dutch war. I love games about conflicts I wasn't previously aware of.

It's clear the developer sees Musket Smoke as a primarily multiplayer affair. The AI is not egregiously stupid and makes a decent training dummy, but is still beatable by a new player. The 'real' game, according to the in-game info section, is not just multiplayer, but a multiplayer-only campaign (the loosely-historical "A Cold Week in Naarden") that adds persistent elements to the game across a sequence of up to 7 battles. Winning or losing an early battle determines which special unit a player gets, and these special units, provided they survive, take part in later battles. Victory is decided by building an advantage and winning the final siege of Naarden or by killing your foe's commander unit at any point in the campaign.

In a remarkably generous and confident move, the online campaign is the only part of the game you actually pay for - and if you find yourself enjoying the game's mechanics, it is well worth a try because this is where Musket Smoke is at its absolute best. The addition of an incentive to retreat, special victory conditions and the ability to threaten an instant win by killing your opponent's unique commander unit does a lot to help the pacing that bogs down the skirmish mode.

Musket Smoke has its share of oversights and frustrations, sure. It's is a game confident enough to screw with expectations, a game with both intellect and charm. Those who thrive on planning and manipulation, and who embrace the game's multiplayer, will find those first contacts more gratifying than a mere roll of the dice.

Review: Musket Smoke

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