After playing the deckbuilding RTS just revealed at Summer Game Fest, I believe in better, simpler realtime strategy

Back in March, I attended an advance preview summit for Battle Aces, the RTS from Uncapped Games revealed tonight at Summer Game Fest. There, David Kim, former lead multiplayer designer on StarCraft 2 and current Uncapped creative lead, pitched the new studio's ambitious goal: a game that would trigger a "paradigm shift" for realtime strategy games by stripping the genre to its fundamentals. And after two days with the deckbuilder RTS? By god, I think Battle Aces could do it.

If the words "deckbuilder RTS" generate some immediate skepticism for you—even an instinctive animal hiss—I understand. It did for me, too, and Uncapped is fully aware it's going to get that reaction. But let me dispel some of those doubts: Battle Aces isn't a StarCraft knockoff with card mechanics hastily bolted onto it as a gimmick retrofit. It's a reevaluation of RTS philosophy, designed to focus on the core joys of realtime strategy—of pairing broad-scale strategic decision making with commanding your units in satisfying moment-to-moment action—while streamlining everything else.

Uncapped is hoping to make a game that's approachable for players who are interested in the fantasy of strategic command, but might've been intimidated by the high skill actions-per-second demands of RTS pillars like StarCraft. I think they're already off to a great start.

Strategic revisioning

Putting you in the role of a mercenary commander of a sci-fi army of space drones, Battle Aces pares the RTS down to one core base building with one build menu. That building produces all your units and its workers harvest resources automatically. There's no unit cap, no worker management, and no complicated build orders to follow.

(Image credit: Uncapped Games)

It's streamlined to the point that it might seem like anathema to RTS veterans. Units build instantly once you spend your resources, and when you want to expand to increase your resource income, you push a single button to immediately drop another base at a predetermined location on the map. But it's a purposefully designed speed ramp angled to accelerate you towards what's most fun about RTS games: making a bunch of cool little guys, and coming up with a strategy for how best to smash them into someone else's.

"We want to reduce or remove as much of the tedious clicks that are required to even experience the game," Kim said in an interview I wrote about back in April. RTS design, Kim said, had become too preoccupied with arbitrary complexity, emphasizing execution skill ceilings that were alienating to the average player. Battle Aces is an intentional return to the core RTS fantasy of building an army of your favorite units and making strategic decisions about when to defend and when to expand and claim more ground. 

Decked out

When I played Battle Aces, I found that the deckbuilding facilitated that fantasy rather than feeling stapled on top of it. Between matches, you build a deck that determines which eight of the game's 50-ish units you'll be able to build. By choosing which units I'd have access to before a match starts, Battle Aces didn't just simplify the busywork of base and worker management but made it easier to identify how I wanted to play and iterate on new strategies.

If I fired up StarCraft and jumped into a competitive game, I wouldn't even know where to begin figuring out what went wrong when I inevitably get slaughtered. Did I do my buildings out of order? Was I too slow with building SCVs? Did I tech incorrectly? I'd need a graduate-level course in StarCraft esports to start making those calls. But if I've built a Battle Aces deck around the King Crab—a burly, armored robot crustacean with buzzsaw claws—my problems are easier to diagnose. If I'm struggling with enemy aircraft, maybe I swap out one of my other units for one of the anti-air options, like the teleporting robots with dual pistols who can warp to the side of my terrorized crabs.

A swarm of flying drones descends in Battle Aces.

(Image credit: Uncapped Games)

The result is RTS combat that feels fast and rewarding, and its snappy 10-minute matches are fun to watch unfold. Battle Aces' robot armies are colorful and charismatic, with a level of polish obviously rooted in the ex-Blizzard pedigree of Uncapped's artists. In my two days at the Tencent offices I was impressed by how deeply the Uncapped team was probing a concept that could so easily have felt like a gimmick.

Competitive spirit

While I was quickly impressed with the game, what really struck me was the reaction from the players at the event. I was surprised to be the only press person attending, especially once I realized I was surrounded by professional StarCraft titans like Indy, Clem, PartinG, and others. You know that Simpsons meme where Ralph Wiggum chuckles and says he's in danger? That was me.

Early in our first day with Battle Aces the competitive StarCraft players were skeptical in a way that felt like professional obligation. A common sentiment I heard was that they weren't gamers—they were StarCraft players. If it wasn't for David Kim, to whom they offered almost saintlike veneration, they wouldn't have paid the game any attention at all.

But by lunch on the first day they couldn't help themselves. It was a flurry of eagerly traded strategies, deck comps, proposed unit counters. I was in a shark tank, watching apex predators delight in the scent of blood: terrified, but fascinated. And thanks to Battle Aces putting strategy on terms I could actually contend with—well, I didn't beat any of them, but I held my own in a handful of skirmishes before being brutally dispatched.

The pros kept up their theorycrafting throughout the shuttle ride back to the hotel, and probably beyond. At the end of the second day, during an opt-in tournament, attendees were invested to the point of audibly cheering during big plays.

And it wasn't just the pros who were getting bought in. Also attending were variety streamers and competitive players from other genres. Over the course of two days, I watched as Dekkster—a CCG streamer and YouTuber—transformed from someone who'd never played an RTS before into someone who'd gained an intuitive proficiency to the point of dividing his forces on the fly for pushes on multiple fronts. It was wild to watch, and a strong case for Uncapped's effort at making a more approachable RTS that could still deliver on the kinds of the dramatic moments StarCraft is famous for.

Battle Aces is set to kick off a closed beta soon, and sign-ups are open now. 

Lincoln Carpenter

Lincoln spent his formative years in World of Warcraft, and hopes to someday recover from the experience. Having earned a Creative Writing degree by convincing professors to accept his papers about Dwarf Fortress, he leverages that expertise in his most important work: judging a video game’s lore purely on the quality of its proper nouns. With writing at Waypoint and Fanbyte, Lincoln started freelancing for PC Gamer in Fall of 2021, and will take any excuse to insist that games are storytelling toolkits—whether we’re shaping those stories for ourselves, or sharing them with others. Or to gush about Monster Hunter.