Where to start…Oh, what exactly IS the game?! This part will take quite some time. There is a lot good about Bang! Howdy. If you want to know how it all got started (walking in the woods thinking about bugs), you'll want to read back to our interview of its designer, Michael Bayne, from last year's GDC. It's launched later than Michael originally expected when we first talked to him, but the extra care taken during that time shows.
Bang! Howdy is a Persistent World (it exists always and your character advances through it); it is multiplayer and can be massively so; it is a series of small 1-4 player battles that take 3-10 minutes to complete that earn the players rank, badges and in-game currency (scrip); it also contains a single-player element of games with pre-defined goals for completion, not quests but with rewards; it will have a "gang" component for friends to play in multi-player combat against other gangs with tournaments, gang outfits, rankings, etc. Yeah, I know, it still doesn't make sense.
Bang! Howdy is not a role-playing game; you have no stats or skills to adjust; your rankings are completely based upon their relation to others playing the game, ergo they can change from one login to another; it is not a turn-based strategy game in the truest sense of the word, but neither is it real time - each unit is assigned a series of ticks and as the ticks count down to zero, the units move - some before others; though it is highly social (gangs = guilds, pardners = friends) there is no way to interact with or show your avatar to another outside of a game or a "social" parlor (I'll explain in a moment). Ok, do I have you confused yet?
Let's play a game, shall we? Because, quite frankly, I've written this twice and I don't think I can explain it any other way.
Each player chooses a Big Shot when they create their account: there's the Old Codger - tough as nails, packs a wallop but doesn't move very far; there's the Cavalry - moves a long way on that horse but he's vulnerable from the air (Artillery and Dirigibles...you know, blimps with guns!); and the Tactician - Mr. Fancypants is your all-around average joe, doesn't move particularly far but that umbrella he carries? It deflects incoming ballistics - artillery not only doesn't hurt him, it bounces.
. . .
Next up will come one of four games (this is only Frontier Town; we won't be leaving there in this review):
To do this, you'll enter the Saloon and either jump right into a game or enter a Back Parlor. Back Parlors are for social chatting and the like and because of this, you can play games but they won't count towards your rank. You'll still earn scrip, but because you can "game" the winner, you'll earn no rank and no badges. Only directly from the Saloon interface where you don't know who you'll be playing with, can you earn all the goodies.
You do have some control here in the Saloon. You can choose the number of rounds, players, ranked/unranked, how closely matched, and how many Tin Cans. I don't think I've sufficiently explained this. You see, Bang! Howdy is Steampunk. If you don't know Steampunk, think of the TV Show (or the movie based upon the same) Wild Wild West; if that doesn't help - it's cowboys in an era when steam power is prominently used to make things like robots or cannons or engines that do anything. Or just click on the Wikipedia link. Anyways, Tin Cans would be the number of NPCs you'd allow in your game if you can't get a "full game". A full game can be anywhere from 2-4 players.
Back to Gold Rush!
I've entered the Saloon! I've chosen a Ranked, Looser Match (so I can play against people that'll whoop me (or me them)), one round, 2 Tin Cans and I get myself a 3-player game with one tin can on any of nearly 100 maps!! I kid you not. I've been playing 3-5 days a week since December and to this day I still see maps that are new to me. You'll get a brief but all critical glance at the terrain then you have a moment to choose: your Big Shot (some people have more than one); your units and your cards.
Your units are the additional fire power you'll take into the game with you. Your Big Shot is just your lead. Based on the terrain and the units you have unlocked, your choices could be critical. A hilly environment or one where you need to lug gold over train tracks (I hate trains!) and you'll want to make sure you've got that Dirigible with you; a narrow pass will warrant the almighty Artillery; if you've earned it (or bought it) you'll want your Sharpshooter - she could knock a gold nugget off a fence post a mile a way in a strong wind! And there are others.
And just to liven things up, you may have cards. Cards can be purchased (for scrip, or scrip and Gold which is currency purchased outside the game or traded for at the Bank) from the General Store and have a number of different bonuses. Not all cards are available to you when you first begin the game; some must be unlocked through the earning of Badges. However, for our game, we'll choose a Giddy-Up card (makes you move faster) and an Iron Plate card (gives you protection from shot for a limited time).
Now, you're off! (This entire process took all of about 45 seconds…)
You, your live opponent and the Tin Can will each have an empty claim and there will be two pieces of gold randomly placed on the board for each of you. Generally, where gold spawns once, it will spawn again. When you click on a unit, it shows the movement allowance of that unit through squares (like hex movement). If you can attack someone, you see a reticule. You choose to either a) move to that square b) attack or c) choose to a square within range and attack. This is, of course, assuming that you don't choose to pick up gold. You do this for each unit you want to move.
Now, as I mentioned above, every unit has ticks assigned to it. Steamgunners - cannons on wheels - are fast, light and move far. Artillery? Not so much. After assigning their movements, chances are your Steamgunner will take off. Your Artillery will just sit there, waiting for its ticks to count down (but it's got a long reach on that cannon). Once it reaches its destination, you don't have to wait for it to tick down again to tell it where to go or to target, you can plan ahead. The initial move can often seem a little slow, but after that, it's this planning ahead and the different tick times that keep the game moving at a rather quick clip. And you've got to pay attention; other people are planning ahead so if you were planning to move into place and weren't directly aiming at an enemy unit, you could just end up in the middle of nowhere!
Your cards can be played at any time. To use them, you simply click on them and place them over the unit you want to have the advantage. Or, conversely disadvantage if that's the card you have.
One last thing on the board: bonuses and influences. Something that's rather nagging about real-time strategy games is that you can reach a certain point and it's certain that you're going to lose. It just is - overwhelming odds and all that. Bang! Howdy has a system whereby cards, bonuses and influences will drop onto the board near you and, should you be able to take advantage of them, you can even the score and bring yourself back up to snuff. There's Bonus Points, Ramblin (move faster), Reinforcements (bring in another unit) and a wide range of others. Getting to them may be difficult, but you're never out of the game.
Finally, no matter what place you take, you'll always win scrip. Even for last place.
Now, those Badges I keep mentioning. There's lots of 'em. Some you earn simply for playing - I got one for dying. Some you earn as achievements - get a score of 500 in a game and you'll unlock the Steamgunner unit. Others will unlock colored hair, eyes, multitudes of cards to be played, and still more units.
But I've still not said what exactly it is you do with all this money and ranking. Well, as I briefly mentioned above there are two currencies: scrip which you earn by playing games and gold which you can buy. However, both are exchangeable at the Bank. So, effectively, you don't ever have to spend a penny should you earn enough scrip.
Some items such as small groups of cards, basic hats for your avatar and the like you can purchase for scrip only. But nearly everything else is purchased for a combination of scrip and gold. This includes multiple big shots; units you just can't seem to unlock; new clothing; new looks (the default avatar choices are rather limiting); multiple looks - you can have a standard post, victory pose and Wanted Poster pose; purses - these give a % bonus to your winnings; and my favorite, a train ticket to Indian Trading Post where there are 3 other Big Shots, 3 new units, 3 games that are not at all like those in Frontier Town (including one co-op) and a whole host of maps, clothing, etc.
I'm not someone who cares about graphics or sound. They don't make or break a game for me, well ever. But the art design in this is dead-on perfect. It's fun! And I can say with honesty that the sound adds to the game. This is the first game I have ever played where I leave the sound on intentionally because it's more fun with the music. They hired SomaTone Interactive Audio to score it, and after many requests, made the tracks available in game for 5 gold pieces.
The systems designer is one of the best I've seen when it comes to understanding balance. I've never played a better balanced game from day one. Some units may have advantages over others but all of that can be negated by terrain, the drop order of the units, cards in play or simply player skill. And although the AI is easier to beat than a human (as most are), it will give you a run for your money until you understand it.
That is, until you hit Bounties. These are a bird of a completely different color. Bounties are a recent addition to Bang! Howdy and will try even the best tactician. Bounties are single player missions where it's your job to hunt down outlaws and return them to justice. You must do so through a series of trials. The first simply introduce you to the system. You don't get to pick your units; you don't get to pick your cards; and your goals are not to win with the most points - ex. you may have to come in at least 2nd place and have 8 pieces of gold while having no respawn on units in Gold Rush. This last part is crucial. It's a wonderful way to learn new strategies and how to use units in unique ways, but until you realize that the AI isn't playing to win, but to keep you from making your goal, you'll never win a single game. They're fun, they're tough and they pay well…but they take time.
The items for purchase are just the right items, primarily vanity items. Nothing that is for purchase is something you need to play the game. You don't need clothing; you don't need cards; you don't need second big shots or additional units. But, you may want them. That being the case, if you don't have a lot of time or patience, you can buy gold for as much as $.25 each or as little as $.22 each. If you've got the time, play the games, earn your badges and your rank, and trade in your scrip for gold.
I don't know that I define this as bad as much as I do annoying. Communication for the game seems limited to the bulletin board that supports it and nowhere else. There is an in-game "newspaper" in the saloon but it doesn't get updated. Patches are listed on the boards, but not changes. People find out about clothing items that had to be removed (and refunded) because of avatar limitations only after they logged in, saw them missing and then asked. No warning. And there have been other instances - trivial, but again, annoying.
There's no key for "help" in the game. You're expected to go to the forums, and you're expected just "to know". As the game isn't and won't be in retail channels, I suppose this isn't completely unreasonable, but neither is it particularly service oriented. In a persistent world, service is key.
I will give Three Rings the benefit of the doubt at this point, however. The game has just come out of beta 2 months ago and they have a history of releasing a game, testing the systems and adjusting accordingly over the long haul. My hope is that as the community grows, so will their community support.
There's no trading in this game. It's a customer service issue for them; I accept and I respect that. However, because avatar viewing is limited to playing games and "if" you want to visit social parlors - as someone who doesn't enjoy immature social banter I do not - I have little to no way of meeting people or sharing my victories. I can't show off my new hat. I can't trade my hat for gold or scrip. One could argue that to monetize the game they're limiting trade so that people must purchase.
But, economies don't work that way. The one way to make any economy grow, small or large, is to stimulate trade. And the one way to make any social system grow is to play to the ego - show off that avatar and everything you have with it. As I said above, Three Rings has a history of releasing a game and testing its systems, then tweaking. This area I'll be watching closely. I find it an interesting experiment.
Despite my above reservations, I unequivocally recommend this game. Both of my sons play it, and quite well. They don't partake of the social aspect and don't care about the clothing. But wow, do they love the games! I find that it's an easy game to spend 20 minutes on when I need a break. It's also far too easy to spend 3 hours on when I'm not paying attention! It has a really steep learning curve if you're not familiar with tactical games; use the tutorials to your advantage. Also, there's a Ranch where you can practice with units - give it a try. Once you get past the, "I'm just clicking on thing and I'm not sure why!" experience, things just click…and then Bang! Howdy!
Update: There's a player-managed compendium of game information at HowdyPedia, which helps mitigate the lack of player documentation for Bang! Howdy.
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.