The Lamplighters League fixes my least-favorite part of turn-based strategy games

The Lamplighters League and the Tower at the End of the World
(Image credit: Paradox Interactive / Harebrained Schemes)

Harebrained Schemes, the devs behind Battletech and the Shadowrun Trilogy, showed off their new turn-based strategy game at GDC 2023: The Lamplighters League. I had the chance to play a brief demo at an ID@Xbox event in San Francisco, then sit down with Executive Producer Mitch Gitelman and Game Director Chris Rogers to discuss the game in-depth as they played a late-game stage.

The Lamplighters League gameplay will look familiar to fans of XCOM-style gameplay, but there are some distinct differences. You recruit "characters, not units," as Gitelman explained it, and it has unique card and stress mechanics that extra complexity to the gameplay. But the most exciting addition is its "real-time infiltration" system. 

As a fan of games like Gears Tactics, my least favorite aspect of any tactical mission is the moment after you defeat a wave of foes. Then you have to painstakingly drag one character after another across the map until enemies suddenly appear again and you're punished if units aren't in perfect cover.

In The Lamplighters League, the non-tactical moments remind me more of a third-person Dishonored. Your three-person crew can stealth-kill guards, blow up patrols with environmental effects, find loot and secret paths, and generally move like real characters instead of chess pieces. Then, once the battle starts on your own terms (or when you're caught), the gameplay switches to the strategic style that turn-based strategy fans love.

Map infiltration in The Lamplighters League

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive / Harebrained Schemes)

You start the game with three set characters and have seven more you can recruit over the course of the game, each with their own distinct abilities, weapons, and stories. Your 1930s squad of "scoundrels and misfits" gather at your base after every mission, where you'll find playable characters and non-playable supporting cast that add insights to the story. 

Gitelman said that while you can't "romance" your recruited squad, certain people will get closer over the course of the story, and dialogue will change based on who accompanied whom on missions. I don't think there will be any Fire Emblem-style relationship system or anything, but Gitelman also laughed and suggested things could get "raunchy" between some characters. 

Regardless, these aren't the disposable, randomized characters you recruit in most tactics games. In fact, if you decide to replay the 25-hour campaign, you can choose to start with any trio of the ten playable characters for a distinct experience. 

Character screen for Lateef in The Lamplighters League

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive / Harebrained Schemes)

So obviously you'll want to recruit every character as quickly as possible, right? Not necessarily! As you battle your main foe, the Banished Court, you'll have to deal with three factions, which Gitelman described as a proto-Nazi group, an eldritch horror society wielding monstrous forces, and a technofascist group using teleportation to maintain its power. 

If you spend too long recruiting allies or fighting just one faction, the others will grow too strong and will have the power to attack your home base. So you must balance when to face down certain foes and when to focus on growing your squad. 

Combat in The Lamplighters League

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive / Harebrained Schemes)

Every character I've seen falls into the usual turn-based strategy archetypes you'd expect: the bruiser, the rogue, the gunslinger, and so on. You'll level up your characters through their respective ability trees, and you can choose each mission's squad based on which ones you think will best compliment or combo attacks with one another.

One unique mechanic that intrigued me was the stress system: certain attacks and abilities will raise a foe's stress level until they're compelled to flee, leaving them totally vulnerable.

That's simple enough, but Gitelman said the cosmic horror faction actually becomes more powerful at higher stress levels. And your characters are also susceptible to stress-based attacks; if they're driven to flight, then they'll have a negative card buff assigned to them for the next three levels. You'll either have to let them recover at base or take them with the handicap and help them overcome their issues.

The Hairbrained Schemes team didn't say much about the card-based system in the game; in fact, I believe one of the first things they said about Lamplighters League, amusingly enough, was that it "isn’t a card game. Please tell people that.” So now you know! You can choose Marvel's Midnight Suns if you want cards as a more core mechanic.

Whatever Hairbrained Schemes' reasons for downplaying the card angle, it appears from the gameplay trailer that you can unlock and select modifying card skills for each character from your "Undrawn Hand," and that cards can have both positive and negative effects. 

Hideout conversation in The Lamplighters League

(Image credit: Paradox Interactive / Harebrained Schemes)

Beyond the gameplay mechanics, it's the alternate 1930s aesthetic and diverse cast that looks most intriguing to me. I love franchises like Wolfenstein that play with history and technology, and Lamplighters League looks to continue that tradition. Plus, you get characters with distinct personalities, backgrounds, and motivations — instead of a factory line of randomized soldiers you only care about because you've built up their XP all game.

Paradox Interactive, the parent division of Harebrained Schemes, really knocked it out of the park at GDC 2023 with both The Lamplighters League and Life by You, the Sims 4-challenging life simulator. Thanks to its partnership with Microsoft, Paradox will bring Lamplighters to Game Pass on Day One, though we don't know yet when in 2023 it'll ship. 

If The Lamplighters League looks intriguing, you can wishlist the game on SteamXbox, or Epic Games. It's one of Windows Central's most highly anticipated Xbox games, and based on my brief experience with it, it's certainly at the top of my personal list.

Michael L Hicks
Senior Editor, Android Central

Michael is the Senior Editor of VR and fitness tech at sister-site Android Central, but happily lends his help to the Windows Central team for games coverage.