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Why I'm obsessed with Advance Wars

Adorable strategy game hides a savage, tactical heart beneath a cartoony exterior

There are two types of people who play Advance Wars. Those who leave the battle animations on, and those who switch them off.

When you start, you'll be a member of the first group, cackling delightedly as your cute little primary coloured tanks blast adorable little army men off the screen.

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But by the time you're finished with the game - if you ever finish with the game - you'll be a member of the second group. You've seen the animations a thousand times, and no longer need to watch the scraps play out to imagine the carnage. And besides, you can get a larger dose of pure, uncut Advance Wars into your system faster once they're turned off.

That's ironic, however, because to start with it's the visuals that lure you in. Cheery and welcoming, Advance Wars is the jauntiest conflict going. It might be set in the depressingly named Wars World, but Advance Wars' fields of conflict are lush green ones, spotted with forests, with bright blue oceans lapping at their shores. And the armies themselves are even cuter - the brightly coloured planes, tanks and soldiers look as though they've tumbled out of a packet of Haribo Starmix.

War Games

The adorable appearance is a dangerous feint, however, and once this turn-based strategy has lured you in it ambushes you with richly complex tactical possibilities and rewarding mechanics.

At its heart, with Rock Paper Scissors writ large, every unit type has its predator, as well as its ideal prey, and every turn requires you to weigh the damage you can deal against possible exposure. Bombers can decimate ground troops, for instance, but are easy prey for a squadron of fighters. Those fighters, however, could be picked off by anti-air guns that won't last long against tanks.

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Those simple relationships govern the outcome to every encounter, but a complex array of variables ensures you're never out of options. Usually, bazooka-wielding mechanised infantry are vulnerable to vehicular units, but stick them on a mountain top and they'll benefit from increased defence, and be able to rain merry hell down on your enemies for turn after turn.

Even more important is your choice of commanding officer - in a brilliantly Nintendo-esque touch, you can bring a touch of personality to your scraps by picking a CO who suits your style of play. Prefer hitting the enemy hard with close-up damage-dealing units? Then lantern-jawed Max is your man. If you prefer to sneak up with base-capturing infantry, however, go for Sami. And then there's Andy - the bland all-rounder who can heal his forces.

It's this combination of core simplicity offset by endless variables that makes Advance Wars intoxicating. And as you learn, by heart, the intricate systems at the heart of the game, it opens up more, levels played long ago revealing fresh possibilities.

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Advance Wars might lack the purity of chess, the king of turn-based strategy, but beneath its kid-friendly coating, it certainly offers the rich possibilities of that ancient game.

Promo credit: RETROnoob

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