I have played many strategy games, to the point where I would say I am a fan, though much less of an adept. Ground Pounders is the game that has shown me that fact concisely and clear as day. I am not a strategic master of gaming, but I know enough to really give it to my foes, and every so often I am able to really pack a punch to devastate my enemies. The other side of Ground Pounders is the universe into which it conveys players. Even more interesting is the deep lore behind the acclaimed Sword of the Stars series that this title is based upon. Kerberos Productions Inc regularly delivers quality material and this title, though a bit of a niche game, is no exception.
Addressing the strategic aspects of Ground Pounders, I played this game on normal mode, and even then I found myself woefully under-prepared for battle! Before I go into too much depth about the variety of aspects about the game I found enticing, I will lay out my grievances.
First and foremost, the game crashed on me numerous times – occasionally multiple times in one sitting. Even with the autosave feature it is frustrating, but the aggravation is thereby mitigated profusely. My other complaints derive from the strategy and battle systems, so I will go into those later.
Deck organization becomes a matter of high strategy in Ground Pounders and the coordination permitted by these cards makes that of most Magic the Gathering decks look simpler than finding the dick on a elephant. I was rather fond of subversive maneuvers that helped me to limit the enemy’s capabilities over the direct-damage cards. But don’t get it twisted, nothing is better than finding a card to raise your anti-tank aspect when your infantry are flanked by a battalion of M-9 Davis MBT’s! That could get messy. I found it most useful to incorporate a variety of combat cards alongside strategic cards that allowed me to limit the enemy and then fill them with the appropriate holes to provide much needed ventilation for their oxygen-deprived organs.
Ground Pounders has 3 campaigns each based on a different race from the Sword of the Stars series. First up are the Hivers, an insectoid race starting on the planet Ipriskin. Khai Khek is the general around whom this campaign’s story centers. Khek rises to power to rule as emporer over the Hiver worlds and is really the bad guy of the game. As such, his campaign felt like the most profoundly taxing, but then again, this may have been because his was the first and, thus, the one I cut my teeth on. Next up are the humans, led by Edward Alton McKenzie. His is the story of a man that catapults from a boy to the leader of a multi-planetary empire, so you can imagine that each of these characters ends up being fairly important to their people. Originally I drew connections between Khai Khek and Ender of the Ender sci-fi series, but after a play through the humans campaign and a look at the backstory of Ed McKenzie, I realize he is the real Ender. The humans also command the titular Ground Pounders, groups of human soldiers hastily organized to combat the growing Hiver menace. Recently, the Ground Pounders: Tarka DLC pack released a new playable race, known as the Tarka. Funny how that works. The leader here, I believe, is Gul Go’Lara, a leader of the military caste that refuses his Supreme Commander’s orders to fire upon civilians. Every time I hear these guys mentioned, they seemed to have been considered pirates and marauders, wiping out colonies and fleets on the edge of the Hiver war.
Gameplay is centered around a turn-based system with phases set on a hex grid. Now I know what you might be thinking “I’ve played games like that before! I am the master at Civilization 5! I will dominate this!” That is not even true on easy mode. This game has more similarities to Dawn of War II than to other systems, minus DoW II being an RTS game. At the start of a level, you have more units in play than you will for the rest of play. You cannot create new units and this game focuses more on the tactical strategy of large-scale battles.
Upon entering a battle, you’ll have to place your personal vanguard of units. This is called the placement phase. These units are the ones you spend money on and they’ll stay with you throughout your career, or until you lead them to their doom. If they survive your ham-handed attempts at strategy, you’ll be able to watch them become seasoned veterans of battle. In the next phase, called the orbital phase, you select the number of cards you wish to discard to decide orbital superiority. I like to call this the “please let me keep my good cards” phase as you will invariably end up praying that you don’t discard the best cards you have in your deck this way. The most you can discard is 5, and I recommend discarding the max every time, unless you want the enemy to have a chance of raining hell down on your FROM FUCKING ORBIT! Generally, whoever has orbital supremacy has a considerable advantage over their foes. The number at the bottom of the cards is added up, slowly so you can see which abilities you have to live without, which I imagine feels a lot like someone is draining your cerebral fluid. Maybe not that bad, but it sucks a bit. Once the tally is made you are informed of your orbital supremacy – or lack thereof – at the start of the next phase. Nothing better to start combat than a little gambling with strategic supremacy, eh? Guys? You’ll have three ability cards in addition to another three cards. Orbital Recon allows you to clear a massive field of view, Orbital Bombardment allows you to decimate a single unit and Orbital Support allows you to buff the attack and defense of any single friendly unit.
These two phases are only performed at the start of the game, and after that it’s go time. The usual turn starts with the resupply phase. This is where you will reinforce units that have taken significant damage and you can apply cards with the blue border, like cargo drops. usually pretty short, this leads into the equip phase.
You equip phase starts with the chitinous music of rolling dice. During this phase, cards with the yellow border can be played. Depending on your field commanders, you will get a number of dice each turn to assign attacks. Each die you allocate to each unit enables them to perform another attack up to a maximum that depends on the unit. Infantry usually get a max of 3, heavy weapons typically get 2 and support units tend to get 1. In the start you will be totally all about assigning dice to different units, which allows you to micromanage your attack strategy; after a while, though, it can get tedious, so I started letting the computer auto-assign. However, I noticed that the computer would assign dice based on who it thought I might want to attack with, rather than who I would have wanted to attack with. Ultimately, auto-assigning is good for early combat, but once you are up close and personal, you’ll want to do a bit of fine tuning to your battlefront. A good plan is always the first casualty of war, so this lets you really adjust your attack plans on the fly in a very specific way.
Finally, you are in the combat phase! The one that we’ve all been waiting for! This is where you move your units, attack enemies and assign fire support. Cards with the red border are played here and one thing that pisses me off about them is that using some cards is a little tough. Sure, during the appropriate phase or time, a card that you can use will glow, but that can be tough to find at times. Not to mention, some features of combat make it difficult to figure out how to attack, such as the layer system. There are three layers, the subterranean layer, the ground layer and the sky layer. Units in these various layers can move through each other and can sometimes attack one another, but figuring out how to make that happen was a point of much frustration for me.
Now, when you move it is always good to keep your units close together. I know, this seems completely against the logic of battle, but for Ground Pounders it makes sense. When you close in to attack, units that are also adjacent to the defending unit can also attack the foe. This is useful because it increases the likelihood that you will decimate your opponents by supply additional firepower. Also, keep your artillery units close behind your front line as these units can supply an immense amount of firepower to help raise the bar in your favor. Be careful, though, as your enemies are using the exact same strategies on you. Attack an enemy without fire support and you might live to regret it as artillery rains furious hell down upon you. Additionally, adjacent units that provide fire support will also take damage from the enemy, but artillery units will not. This makes judicious application of artillery shells a well-worn tactic of the wise.
Once you have satisfied your bloodlust, keep in mind that assigning defensive fire support is just as important, if not more so, than assigning it offensively. You can do it at any time during combat, but you’ll have a much better idea of who can fire on what at the end of a fight. This also makes it profoundly important to decide who you want your artillery to fire on as well, since your enemies will throw everything they have within range at you. Some weapons have a much longer range than others, too, so this makes it important to keep abreast of the latest developments within the ranks of your army. Luckily, each unit has a card that can be viewed just by clicking “inspect.” If you haven’t assigned defensive fire support at the end of the combat phase, the computer will auto-assign it for you, so be sure to get that done yourself. I’m pretty sure the computer rigs the outcomes.
Something important to note for combat. When it is resolved, you’ll see your units fire on the enemy’s and vice versa. When this screen appears, you’ll see this chart appear at the bottom of the screen. The numbers in this chart are how you can figure out how many people you will lose. It gives you something to do while the battle is decided. First, the chart slider is positioned to determine a general estimate of how the odds will play out. Based on that section of the chart and how you rolled in the equip phase, the slider will adjust to tell you how many units die. Personally, I tried giving a good range of initial attacks to my units with secondary and tertiary attacks being left wanting, but I found this approach to bear a low success rate. It is much better to select which units you want to lead the charge and focusing your good rolls, rather than spreading them out with the hope you won’t get caught off guard. You will lose units, your task is to decide which ones will die first. Keep in mind, too, that cards with the gray border can be played at any time, and are often pretty powerful overall. They tend to be things like recon, but their usefulness never diminishes.
Aside from the obviously involved gameplay system, the backstory told by this game is one that adds unbelievable depth to the Sword of the Stars series. Each campaign tells the unique story of a people through the eyes of one leader who managed to rise into the seat of power from within, often violently. If you are a newcomer to the franchise like me, you’ll make much use out of the SoTS-dex. This is a sort of in-game encyclopedia that provides cultural context for each units, character, location and situation. The level of narrative depth is truly mind-blowing and makes me wonder what other stories might exist in this universe. It honestly has enough that someone could make a television series similar to Farscape or Star Trek out of this game. Just saying, it could be awesome.
Ground Pounders is a strategic game with a pretty niched taste. It is a lot of fun and I do recommend it highly, but it is not for everyone. Even some strategy fans might find it a bit tedious at times, but with the amount of skill required to play this game well, Ground Pounders rewards players well with a challenge they won’t soon forget. For those with the taste and the mind for this title, its 12.99$ price tag is a worthy sum. Not to mention, it has received good DLC that adds a race, a campaign and more content. Strategists that fail to take this game seriously, however, will find themselves repeatedly outmatched. Prepare for a war the likes of which you probably won’t fight again, unless you replay the game itself, of course!