With Advance Wars Re-Boot Camp indefinitely delayed and a new Fire Emblem tactical game nowhere in sight for now, lovers of cartoonish tactics games would do well to pay some attention to Floppy Knights. It’s inspired heavily by both aforementioned tactics franchises, but is still wholly itself thanks to a whimsical aesthetic and the addition of a deck-building mechanic that throws in an element of strategic randomness to reckon with on top of the usual unit moving and attacking and objective completion.
Floppy Knights takes place in a mish-mash world of fantasy and 90s-era technology, and follows a teenager named Phoebe and her sentient robot arm Carlton. Phoebe’s ready to move out from her parents’ house and build a life of her own, but she’s also uninterested in most jobs and would rather spend her time doing cool science. So she creates a digital army of “Floppy Knights” named for the floppy discs they’re stored on, intending to use them for typical odd jobs. But she quickly winds up commanding them to fight off little armies of goblins and slimes causing problems for her neighbors instead.
On its face, Floppy Knights is a perfectly competent tactics game with an interesting spread of units, some challenging maps and enemies, and plenty of additional objectives for those whose strategic brains want a bit more. But what really elevates it is the way the deck building element interfaces with all the rest. Unlike Fire Emblem, there’s no dumping a pile of units on the field with built-in movement from the start. You need to make sure your deck is equipped with enough units to draw what you need when you need it, and you’ll have to stock it with movement cards too if you ever want them to get anywhere.
Crucially, you only have a certain amount of cards you can play at a time, and everything is discarded at the end of each turn. So Floppy Knights’ tactics are not just about the chess game of trying to stay multiple moves ahead of your opponent; it’s also about playing the hand you have, when you have it. So you might draw a handful of minions early, and be forced to spend a turn playing them when you’d rather be doing something else, otherwise you might not see them again until you can shuffle them back in. Or you might have a unit trapped in a tricky spot, but no movement cards to get them out. The deck building in Floppy Knights opens the door to a level of improvisation I don’t often encounter in games like this. It tickles my brain. In a nice way.
Marlowe Dobbe isn’t just the artist behind Floppy Knights; she’s also the person who conceived it, as part of an internal game jam at developer Rose City Games a few years ago. She’s happy to acknowledge the AAA tactics inspirations of her work, while taking pride in the team’s efforts to make sure Floppy Knights didn’t just stand out, but also functioned well.
Floppy Knights Launch Screenshots
“The most challenging part is blending the mechanics of top-down tactics, deck-building, and card games,” she says. “There are a handful of games that have done that, but not really in the same way that we are. And there was a lot of pioneering of how the UX worked: at what point are you hovered over your cards? At what point are you hovered over your grid? How does that work with each other?… I think it oddly feels very natural where we ended up, despite the fact that there was a lot of trial and error that went into making it flow well enough.”
As the artist, Dobbe is responsible for the slate of goofy cartoon knights Phoebe summons throughout Floppy Knights, from the goofy plant creatures of the starter deck to the funny goblins they fight and all kinds of monsters following after. She describes their creation as almost a fun art exercise, just “making a bunch of little guys.”
“It started out as a shotgun blast of me just drawing whatever monsters I thought would be interesting, and then we picked and chose from those pools and cut certain ones to make it a little bit more thematic with how you would be playing with each deck.”
Dobbe cites a number of inspirations, including vintage American illustration, children’s books, and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. And even though it doesn’t draw on any one thing specifically, there’s something powerfully nostalgic about playing Floppy Knights. For me, the closest comparison to its style that I can come up with, visually, is the 90s cartoon Kablam!. Meanwhile, its soundtrack feels like something I must have heard before in the old Game Boy days but can’t quite put my finger on. It’s distilled nostalgia without relying on a bevy of references to specific things.
And Dobbe confirmed that the unspecifiable nostalgia I’m enjoying so much is entirely on purpose.
“A lot of Rose City games are very focused on that feeling of nostalgia we had when we played games growing up,” she says. “I feel we're all really inspired by that Super Nintendo, Game Boy Advance era of games, in the late 90s, early 2000s, and I think that some of that translates to it feel[ing] a little familiar in some of the games that we make.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.