Ever felt the need to wage war on your friends, but don't like the random elements of Risk? The desire to demonstrate your tactical prowress, but without yet another game of chess? The wish to wipe out an enemy army without the quick trigger finger needed in a First-Person Shooter? Well, a turn-based strategy game may be what you're after, and there are certainly worse places to start than the (so far) trilogy of Advance Wars games.
The Background Series
Advance Wars is not technically an individual series in itself - rather, it is a sub-series of the Nintendo Wars series. However, the original Advance Wars was the first in this series to be released outside of Japan. The world, plot and characters of the Advance Wars sub-series are, however, relatively internally consistent1 but are not directly linked to the general Nintendo Wars series. It is therefore still relatively justified to refer to the Advance Wars trilogy as its own series, even if not entirely accurate.
The Advance Wars series is so far made of three games2 - Advance Wars, Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising and Advance Wars: Dual Strike.
The Consoles and Titles
The entire series has taken a slightly unusual approach to naming the installments, usually using the name of the console the game is for as part of the title (a notable exception is the recent Battalion Wars for the Nintendo GameCube, although even its planned sequel for the upcoming Nintendo console - the Nintendo Wii - is currently titled Battalion Wars Wii). Hence the original game in the series, made for the Famicom (called the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, in the West) was called Famicom Wars; the next, made for Nintendo's famous handheld console - the GameBoy - was called GameBoy Wars, and so on.
More specifically, the first two Advance Wars games were for the GameBoy Advance (GBA), and the third was released for the Nintendo DS3 console - the game's subtitle of Dual Strike of course mirroring the DS of the console. This game utilises the touch screen of the DS quite well, although never in a necessary way - you can play the entire game using just the buttons instead - but the presence of a second screen is only important in a few games.
The Advance Wars games are of the Turn-Based Strategy (TBS) genre - as the player, you are in command of a number of "units"4 which you move, one at a time, on your turn. Your opponents then each take a turn, moving their units, before play returns to you. This is as opposed to some Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games, such as the Age of Empires series, where your units are moving all the time and simultaeously to all the other teams. In the Advance Wars series each turn is called a day; each team has a turn in Day 1, and the game moves to Day 2 after the last team has finished. Except in a few specific circumstances, units can only be moved once in a turn.
This takes place on a pre-designed map. The map is grid-based, like a chess-board, except that the specific size varies between maps (minimum size is what just takes up the screen; larger maps where you must scroll across the screen to see all of it are more common), and the squares are made of different types of terrain: cities, roads, plains, forests, mountains and seas to name just a few. The different terrains have considerably different features and uses.
Although each team has the same units available for construction (with the exception of some Campaign missions, where certain units may be unavailable for the player until certain conditions have been fulfilled), they are not necessarily of the same strength for everyone. The strength (and defence, and some other attributes) of a unit depends on the Commanding Officer (CO) being used for that army. In the first two Advance Wars games, each team has one CO in any specific battle. In Dual Strike, games can be played with two COs on a side, although only one is actually in command at any one point. Each CO has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, such as having strong air units or being weak in rainy conditions.
To win a level, the specific conditions for that mission must be completed. In most levels, the standard conditions are used: you must defeat all enemy armies by either capturing their Headquaters (HQ), or by destroying all their deployed units (this is called routing the enemy). Some levels can have a different aim; the most frequent of these (and the only other one possible outside of Campaign mode) is Property Capture, where your army must gain control of a given number of properties (cities, factories, airports, etc) before the enemy captures that many. Other Campaign missions can require you to capture certain properties, destroy a specific target on the map or simply survive for a certain number of turns.
Levels vary in a number of ways, but one of the simplest and most important is whether your units are already on the map and ready to go (pre-deployed maps, most common in Campaign) - in which case you may or may not also have production facilities to create further units - or whether you begin with just properties (the standard in War Room maps).
A standard game against the computer tends to follow approximately the following structure: you begin seriously outnumbered, either in number of units or in number of production facilities for units. You produce units to begin fighting off the first of these enemy forces while trying to gain control of surrounding properties, which provide you with funds to build more units with. You out-think the computer (not very difficult, usually) to protect your units while destroying theirs, and move slowly through the map, producing further units and capturing all properties. Depending on the set-up of the mission, one way of victory may be much easier than the other - for example, it may be easier simply to fly a few units into the enemy stronghold and blow up everything than try to capture the enemy's HQ. Eventually the enemy is overpowered or out-maneuvered and victory goes to the player. Simple, eh? Well, yes, until you start seeing just how seriously outnumbered you are in the harder set-ups...
This is the story part of the game. Each game is set on a new continent of the optimistically named Wars World: Advance Wars is in Cosmo Land (although not called this in that game - the name is given in the sequel, to explain the different location), Black Hole Rising is set in Macro Land, and Dual Strike is based in Omega Land5. The player moves through a series of progressively harder missions trying to save the land from the latest invading force.Spoiler Details Follow!
In the first game, the player is an advisor to the Orange Star Army. You begin in your territory, fighting invading Blue Moon forces. Before long, however, your army is marching through their land, and into the other countries of Yellow Comet and Green Earth. However, something odd is going on - Andy, a new CO to the Orange Star army, is recognised - and hated - by the leaders of these other countries despite never having seen them before. Eventually, the truth is revealed - everyone has been set up by a mysterious enemy who has somehow cloned Andy and attacked these other countries. The enemy - Sturm, head of the Black Hole army - is chased down and defeated, but for how long...?
A short while later, in Black Hole Rising, Black Hole forces begin to take over Macro Land, pillaging its resources and forming armies at incredible rates. Sturm has returned, now aided by four COs (no longer clones, but still eerily familiar to certain other characters in the game) - Flak, Lash, Adder and Hawke. The four other nations work together to throw Black Hole out of their countries and persue Sturm back to his hideout, where he is killed, with the aid of Hawke. Rather than becoming all good, however, he becomes the head of Black Hole and departs to gather strength.
An astonishingly short time later, Black Hole has regained amazing strength and is attacking Omega Land. The four countries, now united as the Allied Nations, fight them through the continent, discovering they have developed ways of draining the energy from the planet, turning the land into desert6. As Black Hole is fought off, it becomes clear Hawke is not actually in control, but rather that the new Black Hole COs - Zak, Candy7 and Jugger8 are working against the remaining COs from before - Lash and Hawke - and for a new commander, the mysterious Von Bolt. Lash and Hawke eventually defect to the Allied Nations after Von Bolt attempts to kill them; with their help Von Bolt is hunted down and defeated. His three aides escape with the possible intention of fighting again, but not just yet...
Spoilers End Here
Campaign mode follows a different structure in each of the three games, but is fairly linear. Secret missions, with various degrees of difficulty for finding, are available in each, and defeating Normal Campaign in any of the games allows you to purchase the right to play Hard/Advance Campaign from the in-game shop, which have different starting set-up of units and/or altered maps to make the missions harder.
On completing each mission you are awarded a rank based on three things - Speed (how many turns you took to finish it), Power (the maximum number of enemy units you destroyed in a single turn, compared to the number produced throughout the mission) and Technique (how many units you lost compared to how many you had). The best rank is S, beneath which is A, B, C, D and E (the lowest grades are dropped in the later games). You are also awarded medals/points (medals in the first game, points afterwards) based on these stats. These points can be spent at the in-game shop. Completing Campaign missions can also unlock products to be bought in the shop, such as the ability to use certain COs outside of Campaign.
A selection of maps (20 in the first game, 30 in the second, 44 in the third) are available with pre-determined enemy COs. These maps are designed to put the player at a disadvantage to begin. To win, you must defeat all the enemy armies (of which there are 1-3 allied teams) by HQ capture or Rout. Upon completing a map, you are awarded a grade and medals/points, as with Campaign. War Room maps have no place in the story, and can be played at any point and in any order, although some must be bought from the in-game shop before they can be played.
This is the general "go and pick a fight" mode. This offers the greatest selection of maps, and allows you to pick conditions - as well as the COs for each team, you can determine factors such as the weather, the amount of funds received from each allied property9, whether capturing a certain number of properties will win the battle and any turn limit on the game. Versus also allows you to play a multiplayer game on the same console - you take your turn, then pass the console to the next player to take theirs. A nice idea, but can be a little boring while waiting for the other players to act. Due to the flexibility, nothing in the game is gained from playing these missions.
This exists only in the first game, and is simply a training mode to introduce you to the principles of playing. A very thorough tool, it is useful for the first-time player, and is probably the best way to get into the series. Brief training is provided in the first few missions of the Campaign in the second and third installments, but this is far less thorough and may cause some confusion to novices. In the first game's Field Training, the maximum rank available for each mission is an A (as opposed to the S in every other ranked mode).