I have to say, I’m surprised I like Gem Wizards Tactics as much as I do. I took a first look at it and thought “this looks like a hex game with a neat aesthetic” and I was right, but didn’t realize the tactical depth behind that first look. There’s enough mechanics here to keep a turn-based tactics fan pleased for bite-sized scenarios for a long time, especially considering the procedural nature of the game.
The premise of the game is thus: there’s a magical land with 7 gems, the 8th one, which is extra magical, has been discovered and now you have to fight to keep your home safe. Pretty standard fantasy premise, but the game is pretty cheeky with it. Anyway, as you begin a campaign, you get to choose one of the (currently) 3 factions to lead against the forces that would oppress you. Essentially, it’s an excuse to go beat up on enemies in a series of small scenarios. Perfectly reasonable stuff there.
These 3 factions are led by unique hero characters, that will be the heavy hitters of your force through the campaign. The Potato faction is led by Andromeda Robin, a witch that can grow fast but weak allies, and create a lightning storm centered on an enemy. The Azure Order, led by Gelf Lanz, is a knight/ mage that can also summon allies, and charge into enemies, bumping them out of position. The last faction, the Business Demons (lol), are headed by their CEO, Bill Milton, who uses money as a unique currency to buff his units. Most other special abilities cost Gems, which are strewn around the map, but good ol’ Bill loves to offer his units Predatory Loans (yes this is a real ability) for dosh.
The factional units are the stars of the show in GWT, as they all have unique skillsets that play into a faction’s strengths. Some units, such as the Potato Roll Guard, will roll forever when shoved, until they hit an obstacle, another unit, or roll off the map. Others, like the more standard Azure Order Longbow, have a special ranged attack, which is just them firing arrows, go figure. And others still, such as the Business Demon (lol) Drill Sergeant, can modify the terrain around them for fuel for future attacks. There’s a nice variety to these units, and their abilities often synchronize well with other units from the same faction. For example, several of the Potato units can create wet ground, from which Andromeda can create her seedling allies. A particularly good combo I found was using one of the Potato Splashmasters to push a Roll Guard into an enemy, and the water trail the Splashmaster left behind can be used to grow seedlings.
Each campaign sees your force choosing to deploy at a few different maps, each offering a different level of progress toward completely freeing your people, and sometimes units you can approach and recruit on a map. The new player could be tempted to focus only on recruiting new units, but making progress is important as there’s also an enemy progress counter. Yet, the only way a player can grow their forces is by rescuing units on these missions, which is necessary to bolster your army. Handy too, considering that you can recruit units from other factions and therefore diversify what your army is capable of. The scenario maps are quite nice too, with a variety of terrain features that alter attack and defense, and frequently play a role in unit abilities as well.
The goal of each scenario is to capture a number of “flags”, represented by either forcing your way into a fortified castle and having your unit capture it, or by killing certain enemy leaders on the map. This must also be done with relative speed, as more enemies will spawn in on the map every few turns, and considering that you will always be outnumbered, speed is key. No playing turtle here! The need for speed is balanced with a need to keep your forces alive, as units are persistent and your strong veteran units are essentially irreplaceable. Their basic attack and defense stats are stronger than most units, and it takes time to grow that kind of experience.
All in all, Gem Wizards Tactics is a solid, but small, game. The combat is tight, the scenarios are tough and engaging (you will likely lose a lot until you figure out how to use your army’s abilities), and it’s easy to play in multiple sessions. It doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack and writing for the game are really good. The game isn’t that deep, but it comes in a tiny, replayable package, and if you’re looking for something to scratch a tactics itch, you can find it here.