You might think that four gangly muppets pushing wheelbarrows have no place on the same battlefield as a battalion of catapults, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time with Totally Accurate Battle Simulator, it’s that strategy requires an open mind. It also requires that you accept a fundamental truth of the universe: Victory, no matter how hard-won, is rarely pretty. It is, however, frequently hilarious.
They say that war is hell, but Totally Accurate Battle Simulator imagines it as a drunken ragdoll mosh pit filled with screaming Gumby men. The game — in which you pit massive armies of comically inept soldiers against one another in AI-powered battles — finally released into Steam early access today after making waves with a barebones alpha version back in 2016. The new version is, frankly, still kinda barebones, but it’s also fun as heck in a way so compulsively consistent that it borders on maniacal.
Right now, there are two main modes: one in which you can spawn as many units as you want on a two-sided battlefield and let armies have at it, and another in which you play through a campaign of handcrafted levels. The former makes for an amusing timewaster, but there are only so many different ways you can pit two Zeuses against a horde of 50 bone wizards before the (admittedly very funny) novelty wears off.
Campaign mode is TABS’ real highlight, at least for now. Each level is an exercise in bizarro alternate-history creative thinking. Questions I’ve chewed on have ranged from “How do I turn that pack of hobbits into a quivering mass of dismembered hobbit feet before they clamp onto my men’s clavicles and never let go?” to “How many snakes—fired from archers’ bows — will it take to stop a single rampaging minotaur?”
Early on, you’re constrained by the era of units you have access to, but once levels open up, the only leash on your creativity is how much money you have to spend on units, which varies from level to level. I’ve yet to encounter a level that’s particularly hard, but experimenting until you figure out the right combination of units to take out, say, a single king granted almost godlike power by a small army of priests is great fun — especially when one of many correct answers turns out to be a bunch of ominously floating scarecrows who summon magic birds.
There’s a delightfully weird internal logic to it all. Paired with a rapid-fire pace, it makes it easy to while away hours on the game’s menagerie of mini-challenges. Unfortunately, while the early access version includes quite a few levels, there aren’t that many yet. I’ve been playing for about two hours, and I’ve already finished nearly two-thirds of them.
Details, however, are what really sets TABS apart from other semi-automated, extremely accurate battle simulator games. Unpredictable physics-powered animations turn every skirmish into a teetering, tumbling bar brawl between freak idiots from all across history.
You can zoom in and watch the cartoon carnage up close, and you’ll want to, because the game never seems to run out of funny little physics-based interactions. Expressive characters and animations mean that every screenshot of victory (and defeat) tells a charming little story about boneless dummies fighting for their lives. Here are some of my favourites I’ve taken:
Despite how ludicrous the battles tend to get, you can probably more or less guess what happened just by looking at those screens. Well, aside from that time Zeus wouldn’t stop throwing lighting at a pile of extremely fried corpses. Even I’m not sure what was going on there.
TABS’ AI, in case you were wondering, is not very good, but I think that’s on purpose. Units flail in circles and scream, something that never fails to make me laugh. They slam face-first into each other like Looney Tunes characters. They fall off cliffs like different Looney Tunes characters. However, other elements of the game are unintentionally busted. On a couple occasions, it just stopped letting me place units for no apparent reason, and I had to jump back to the main menu and reload the level I was on.
Thus, we find ourselves at an impasse: On one hand, it’s hard not to wish TABS was in better shape—or at least a little less early—after the amount of time it’s spent in development. On the other, it’s wicked fun, a series of slow-motion train wrecks you can’t look away from because you engineered them. Despite my reservations, I can’t help but recommend it. There are plenty of video games that I’d call “dumb fun,” but few are this dumb or this fun. TABS is, in so many senses of the phrase, a no-brainer.