Cannon Brawl, by Turtle Sandbox Games, is incredibly fun. It’s a family-friendly real-time 2D strategy game with a fast pace, a smart design, and a good sense of humor. It took me a few levels to buy into the multi-faceted gameplay, but once I got the hang of it, I quickly became hooked. Even now, writing this article, it is incredibly difficult for me to not drift back over to Steam and start playing again.
The game’s main plot takes a lot of hints from Hamlet: your evil uncle has kidnapped your father (the king) in an attempt to take over his kingdom. Unlike prince Hamlet, however, you immediately roll up your sleeves and dive into a military campaign to rescue your dad and reclaim your birthright. Along the way, you save captured allies and convert your uncle’s minions to the good side, so as the levels progress you can choose which character you’d like to use as your main avatar. Each avatar has unique advantages, like built-in shields or the ability to deal extra damage. While the game is all about war, the only time human beings are depicted is when they’re talking to each other at the beginning of each level. The fighting and explosions are all dealt out by presumably unmanned weaponry, controlled by your untouchable airship. So the violence level is at a minimum.
Another big departure from Hamlet? You’re a girl. Representation-wise, this game is awesome. Each character’s strengths have nothing to do with his or her physical appearance whatsoever. Wahoo!
But the plot is really just the tablecloth over an incredibly sturdy gameplay experience.
There are a number of different game modes in Cannon Brawl, but the one I liked most was the single-player Adventure mode. The goal of each level is to destroy your opponent’s castle. As you progress through the levels, more weapons and equipment are unlocked. These include things like shield towers, warheads, banks, and repair centers. When you enter a new level, you can bring only five of your hard-won items with you at a time, so you have to be very strategic about what you choose. Fail to win the level with missile towers and bomb bot blasters? Go back in with different items or a different airship pilot, and the tables may turn. Paying attention to the terrain and your enemy’s strategies is essential to success.
In fact, “paying attention” is this game’s middle name. When I play, I become incredibly wrapped up in all of the minute movements on my screen. I need to focus on every one of my outposts, making sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing and simultaneously calculating what I need to build next in order to make my campaign successful.
My intense focus didn’t come all at once. Cannon Brawl did a great job of easing me into the chaotic levels, so that by the time I got to the point where I needed to pay attention to seven things at once, I felt as if I had total ownership over the process. I had gotten to know each of these pieces of equipment one at a time, so I knew which ones were reliable and which I needed to study further. This game makes multitasking not only teachable, but also incredibly fun. The practical applications of this kind of focus are immeasurable.
There are a few awesome details here that really make the gameplay work smoothly. You can buy an unlimited number of any item you bring onto the field, but you do not have an unlimited amount of money. Your cash comes gradually from your mining operations, and each item in your inventory has a different price tag. Plus, you can only place an item on territory you control, so if you’re not doing well in the fight, you may quickly run out of space to place that new laser tower.
In later levels of the game, you unlock banks, which give you the ability to bribe your enemy’s outposts. That costs money too, but can be essential in turning the tide of a battle that is stacked against you. Sometimes, the best strategy is to simply cover your territory in shields and bribe away until their home base is yours.
Also, you must wait for each item’s countdown timer to run down between uses. Every time you fire a cannon, you have to wait 12 seconds before you can fire it again. The more valuable the item, the longer the wait time. You can see your enemy’s countdown timers, too, which helps you figure out which of their targets is a priority. If one of their shields will be back up and running in just two seconds, you’d better move fast to attack it before the enemy has a chance to turn it back on.
As you progress through the main single-player campaign, you also earn badges for things like quick level completion and number of buildings destroyed. These badges unlock bonus puzzle levels, in which you are challenged to do things like destroy an enemy’s castle in just two shots. These puzzles are great because they remove the time pressure and really force you to think outside the box about how you use your items.
Online multiplayer mode was pretty fun, but more often than not my anonymous opponents would surrender halfway through the fight. Playing online with a friend was more fun, as we could sit across from each other and battle on our own laptops, laughing and exchanging pointers. It’s also possible to sync up a controller to your computer and play on one screen, but I didn’t get the chance to try that out.
Cannon Brawl is a game that is bigger on the inside. I have never really been one for strategy games, but this one has completely hooked me. From the friendly character design to the dozens of complex customizations, it’s a game that keeps on giving. It had me using incredible focus and strategic thinking, both of which feel super-applicable to the real world. Strategic thinking is a huge part of my professional and personal life, and I think this game would be great for any tween who is gearing up to take on more responsibilities.
Cannon Brawl is available on Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux for $14.99. This reviewer played using a 2013 MacBook Pro.