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Upcoming RTS game Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin will soon enter its first open beta test and I’ve had the chance to get some hands-on experience beforehand, exploring what Frontier Developments has been cooking up over the past few years. Entering a new RTS is a special experience – it’s like a wondrous puzzle that has some pre-fabricated pieces and some that you have to shape yourself before putting it together. And you have to do so under a time constraint, because there’s someone else out there who tries to solve the same mystery.

As such, playing just a few matches can only scratch the surface of possibilities, and getting a bit of insight from one of the brains behind the game is the perfect way to answer some of the questions that either couldn’t be answered in so short a time or that revealed themselves upon playing – enter Sandro Sammarco, principal designer of Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin and evidently as much a RTS enthusiast as myself, who I had the opportunity to speak to a few days after playing for the first time.

Realms of Ruin stands in a long tradition of great Warhammer strategy games and stylistically it’s pretty apparent that some inspiration was derived from the Dawn of War series, such as the squad-based units and the victory point as well as resource node system. This had more to do with accessibility, Sammarco tells me, as the game will come out on PC, Xbox Series X|S, and PS5: “We wanted to make sure that you have an equitable great time on all of those platforms. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down in any way, shape, or form. If you’re coming to Realms of Ruin as a PC player, it’s the hope that you should go ‘Oh yeah, cool, a real-time strategy game that’s also Age of Sigmar and the controls and gameplay work how you’d expect them to work.’”

What’s needed was a streamlining process to make the end goal – “fighting the other dude” – as intuitive as possible, and that’s way easier to do with this style of RTS: “We didn’t want to go with the über-high actions per minute gameplay of something like StarCraft 2. Not to knock on any of these games, I love them all equally. But for our game we wanted to make something a little bit measured, where the skill ceiling for actions per minute wasn’t quite so high.”

As mentioned in our preview, several mechanics have been put in place in accordance with this design philosophy, but there is a little of leeway to be had, and Sammarco says that’s completely intentional: “If you’re really good at fine motor control and making good decisions, you will have a massive advantage, there’s no doubt about it. We wanted to make sure to cast a wide net and that as many people [as possible] can enjoy this, whatever their skill level, because at the end of the day we’re in the game of entertainment.

“We want to make people happy and satisfied and feel that they’ve had an engaging experience and that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not just about a particular ruleset or visuals. It’s everything coming together to form a cohesive and satisfying package.”

Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin Stormcast Eternal vs. Orruks.

Units bound in melee combat can't simply disengage in Realms of Ruin.

One of the mechanics introduced to limit the impact of actions per minute is combat locking. As soon as units come near each other, they are locked inside a melee until one of them dies or is forced to retreat all the way back to HQ due to a player order. “We realized Age of Sigmar is very heavily weighted towards melee combat,” Sammarco explains. “There are plenty of ranged attacks, but everyone likes getting stuck in there with some form of sharp, pointy, blunt instrument or weapon.”

Translating the tabletop game faithfully into the realm of RTS didn’t necessarily mean to stick to the rules of the original, because as Sammarco says both titles are very different – one “very deterministic, the other all probability.” Frontier worked with Games Workshop to keep things as authentic as possible, matching abilities and other aspects of the mechanics with the tabletop version wherever possible. In this case, being authentic played right into the studio’s philosophy for the game’s design.

Sammarco rightfully points out that while combat locking takes away control, it opens up another set of interesting tactical dynamics: “When you engage someone, you’re committing. You can try to run away and that can work, but then you’re giving ground. It makes you think every time you go into melee that there is more on the line than normally would be. Once people are engaged, those units are no longer a threat [that is able] to catch anyone else. They’re completely occupied with crushing the skulls of their current opponents, so you can move past them with other squads, so it becomes a little bit of a psychological game.

“You want to bog down and trap the enemy’s melee units, which is going to give an advantage in that fight, and that leaves your other units free to harass other enemy units. That’s an endless mind game, because both parties are doing that at the same time.”

Frontier slowed the pace of the game down slightly from a previous version, because it noticed that the pressure level on players “went through the roof straight away” when melees started. “We wanted to make sure that we weren’t making everything too stressful and come down to one big mega brawl,” Sammarco sums it up.

The decision to make unit abilities cost resources figures into that as well, as it’s basically the only thing you can actively do during a melee aside from forcing a retreat. “If you spam them willy-nilly, then you’re probably not being as efficient as you could be,” Sammarco explains. “RTS at its core, the engine that drives it, is efficiency. Both sides are getting money from the land and the winner is the person that can most efficiently transfer that into damaging the opponent.

“When you strip away, as we’ve had to do, all the prettiness and the nicety, what an RTS is it’s just this capitalist type of gameplay: You’ve got have more than the other person and you’re spending or gambling your money on the hope that you can get a better result and lose less than that person. So it’s very cutthroat, and abilities and technology are playing into it.”

Each faction – two will be available in the upcoming test, but the final game will have four – is unique and asymmetrically designed and they all have their own tech trees. These include a series of upgrades for lower tier units giving them additional abilities or strengths, which allow them to remain effective throughout a match. As in any RTS, though, it’s a crucial decision which upgrades to get and when to do it – as Sammarco quotes one of his developers: “Do you want jam today or more jam tomorrow?”

“This is just classic RTS. We weren’t out to create a new type of gameplay. We love RTS and we wanted to make a really fun, engaging RTS, and that means taking into account all of these different aspects,” he says. Sammarco also tells me that he doesn’t think the “RTS genre is dead or broken or needs fixing.”

Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin Orruk.

Even lower tier units like these crossbow-wielding Orruks have their uses later in the game thanks to the upgrade system.

Frontier isn’t here to reinvent the wheel, but there is some innovation in Realms of Ruin, if you look close enough. I was impressed with how the territory mechanic brought an active economic element into a game that has a passive economy system. “Our rationale behind that was that capturing points is cool, it’s very understandable, and you can have fights over points,” he explains. “But we wanted to make sure that there were options that were viable, that would have meaningful impacts for not fighting at those points. It’s one of those evolving strategies that players in our QA testing have been going through. You can try and capture an Arcane Conduit and that’s the basic core thing, but it can be expensive to do that if it’s defended. Or, if there’s no one around, you can just walk into it, shrink the enemy’s region, and that’s having a very real effect on their economy. Then you can wander off and they have to get a unit there to stand in the zone and grow it again.”

You can in turn block this by creating a deadlock between the two units, keeping the zone shrunk and forcing your opponent to commit even more resources to lifting the blockade. This sort of harassment strategy can be used to open an opportunity for a big attack or ambush the forces sent to deal with the incursion. It’s another “layer of intrigue” to be explored and used.

“There is this phrase of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ and that’s one of the options you can use on your enemy. You don’t always have to go all in and try to take every point. That’s the plan, anyway, it’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to give players as many options as possible to keep it interesting,” Sammarco says.

In the background, though, there is always the directive to keep things widely approachable. The terrain is one example for this: There will be terrain types that slow and even damage units – in fact one of the Orruks’ Bastions creates that – and those effects have visible indicators. More complex terrain interactions won’t be present, though, such as a high ground advantage. Frontier felt it too difficult to convey the effects of terrain heights and additionally didn’t want to limit the creativity of map designers by introducing this factor.

Another system you might have expected from a game of this style is an XP system allowing units and heroes to level up over time – especially with a retreat button being present, like in Company of Heroes. The essential grimdarkness of Warhammer had something to say about that, though: “We’re quite happy for it to be a bit of a meat grinder in that sense. At the end of the day you want units to die and kill each other, because it looks really cool and it’s a lot of drama,” Sammarco explains.

In a sense, the retreat button is a panic button. “You can retreat from a melee, but if you retreat because you lost, it’s not going to get any better when you go back, unless you heal up or take some burlier soldiers with you. There are good, valid reasons to retreat, but we wanted to make sure that there are also valid reasons to let units die and bleed the enemy,” he says. “Even the weaker chaff units have some tricks up their sleeves that make them nasty at the right moment, so we want you to use them. Sometimes real-time strategy games are a war of attrition. A high body count normally means that something quite fun is going on.”

Translating all of this gameplay into something that could be easily controlled from your couch with a controller was “a massive challenge,” Sammarco tells me. Frontier’s solution is the most innovative control scheme for a RTS in a long while, an intricate system it calls DirectStep.

“We moved away from trying to slavishly recreate a mouse and keyboard on the gamepad,” Sammarco explains the history behind this step, “because they’re just fundamentally different. Instead, we took a step back and asked ourselves what the first principles were. What are you trying to do in a real-time strategy game? It’s trying to select units very quickly, move between them very quickly, and iterate on orders very quickly. And an order is a very transient thing – there’s no long-term importance to it. You say ‘Go there’ and then a split-second later ‘No, go there’ because things move in real-time.”

He describes their new approach as “a little bit more over the shoulder.”

“When you select a unit, the camera locks onto it and you can orbit it. When you give an order, you’re effectively extending a heading indicator out into the distance and you’re plotting routes for your unit to follow directly,” Sammarco explains. “It very much gives the impression of being a commander and standing behind your unit, telling them to go that way and then there. It’s visually intuitive and it’s very different to standard controls, but you can plot routes incredibly quickly.”

You can also jump to a different unit and cycle through your army in a fast manner, but you’re not limited to steering one squad a time – you can change the control mode to select several units in case you want to go for a general attack or something like that, sweeping over the map in a more traditional RTS manner.

Sammarco seems a bit surprised about the end result himself: “It’s shockingly fast to use. Real-time strategy games were made for mouse and keyboard, so our goal wasn’t to dumb down the game, our goal was to get other control systems and get them to emulate the meaning of what mouse and keyboard give you.

“We’re really proud, frankly, of what we’ve done. I think it’s a, there’s no denial, bold step, because we haven’t just tried to do the normal thing there. I think we’ve got a system, in which for me it feels like I’m not fighting the controller – I’m fighting the enemy. That’s what it’s all about.”

You can test Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realms of Ruin for yourself with a controller or on mouse and keyboard during the game’s first open beta test from July 7 to 10, 2023, and give valuable feedback to the developers, who’ll use this data to finetune the title ahead of release.