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Battle Brothers is one of those most delicious of treats: a game I'd never even heard of before getting it to review, then installing and playing it with a completely clean slate, with no preconceived notions - and then discovering a wonderful little gem.

Here's the deal. In Battle Brothers you're the captain of a struggling band of mercenaries in a gritty fantasy world where the noble houses are as much a threat as the hordes of rampaging orcs or the graveyards overflowing with necromancers and zombies. It's up to you to provide for your company in this unforgiving world by taking contracts, trading, and trying to keep your men alive.

Most of the game takes place on a randomly-generated world map (each of which provides a short coded seed so you can share particularly fun maps with your friends, Worms-style) where you move your company from town to town looking for work. At first, it's the town mayors who give out jobs (always accompanied by some short fiction describing how you're given the job), and later on once you've made a bit of a name for yourself you'll start to draw the attention of one of the handful of noble families who have influence over whole regions of the map.

When you're not moving around the world map or interacting with the static city screens, you're fighting stuff. Once it all kicks off, whether because you're chasing down a bounty or the caravan you're protecting is attacked by bandits, play moves to a hex-based map screen with your line of mercenaries facing off against a line of enemies. Generally speaking, these combats tend to play out as two battle lines closing with one another and duking it out, as there are great synergies if you build a shield wall with your brothers, and besides you need to keep your missile guys (not to mention, later, your standard-bearer) protected from melee. Particularly at first, combat can be gruelling. Sometimes, you'll lose a lightly-armoured mercenary to a single hit from a zombie with a pickaxe, and even if they avoid death, they'll often suffer permanent injuries such as missing fingers or gouged-out eyes. Weapons and armour are decidedly 'low-magic': When you get your first coat of patched mail, you'll be just as excited as you are in most fantasy RPGs with a suit of mithril plate mail.

All of this gritty, dangerous rough-and-tumble is intentional. The frequent short paragraphs of fiction that help set the scene and build the story emphasise that you're very definitely in it for the money, and as you hire on new mercenaries you'll be building a team who, at first, have backgrounds in farming, fishing and milling (with maybe an ex-tailor who can keep your armour looking natty and occasionally make you a dapper dire wolfskin cape), but they all have a reason for abandoning their lives and joining a mercenary group. And it's rarely a belief in doing the right thing.

The detailed backgrounds each of your men has, and their evocative yet randomly generated names (like Gunnar the Butcher) and the admittedly slightly clunky experience system all lead you to care about your mercs more than seems really appropriate considering (a) none of them are capable of any movement, and (b) none of them have any legs.

Okay, I guess that needs some explaining. Well, yes. None of your guys ever moves. In fact, there isn't really a frame of animation in the whole game aside from a slight movement with your shield when you activate the shield wall, and flying heads when someone gets decapitated. Your men are depicted the same way whether it's in the battle screen or the inventory - a head-and-shoulders image that is just enough to show what armour, helmet and weapons they're carrying. These little weebles bounce around the battlefield with nary a frame of animation, and somehow it all still works. The story is strong, and you learn to care about Jost (a fugitive psychopath who killed his own child and is on the run from the law) and Albrecht (an asthmatic historian who wants to see the world and write a great epic) as you try to keep them in one piece throughout the game.

Outside of combat, your men need feeding, and the better the variety of food you give them, the more morale they'll have. When money is tight you can get by with grain and bread, and perhaps a few handfuls of berries that your wild man mercenary gathers when you're in a forest, but when the money starts to come in, it's a good idea to grab some smoked ham and mead to raise spirits a little so your guys don't head for the hills the moment the enemy arrive. And it goes without saying that keeping enough money in your purse to pay the men is sort of required.

Like many small-unit tactical combat games, there's a curve. More of a hump, really. In the early game, you WILL lose men in combat. After a while, though, you'll get decent shields and armour for your front-line guys, and far fewer will just die outright after a single hit. Of course, by this point, many of them will have eye patches or a bit of a limp, but that is just another way in which the game emphasised your company as grizzled veteran mercenaries. Once this initial hurdle is surpassed, the game does tend to get a lot easier, and some fights can feel like a formality.

So there's something of the old Warhammer game Shadow of the Horned Rat in here, and - weirdly - something of Sid Meier's Pirates (in that your actions can have direct consequences on the prosperity of the settlements around you). Battle Brothers is a game that recognises these classical roots and the way they allow room for the player to use their own imagination to fill in the blanks left by a mostly simplistic interface, but has also learned the lessons of the modern age - for instance, there's always a late-game disaster such as a rampaging orcish invasion to stop things getting too stale once you're over the curve. Combat can often devolve into a straight-line slugfest at times, and at other times terrain can make avenues of approach somewhat unclear and adjacencies a little hard to pinpoint. But for the vast majority of the time, the feeling of leading a desperate crew of die-hard sellswords is captured better in Battle Brothers than in pretty much any other game I've played. A surprise hit.