Unknown Pleasures 2009: Solium Infernum

By Kieron Gillen on January 19th, 2009 at 4:23 pm.

Armageddon Empires was our favourite turn-based strategy game of 2007. That Cryptic Comet’s next project is a political wargame set in hell is enough to get us to say things like “We’re hoping that Solium Infernum will be the greatest use of extraneous latin in a videogame since Deus Ex” with a straight face. We talk to Vic Davis about putting the Demons in Democracy and reveal the first in-game shots…

RPS: Top level: How are you explaining Sol Infernum to people? The concept’s easy to grasp – dukes of hell warring over its throne – but actually what does that mean? What are people getting up to?

Vic Davis: My sales pitch is that it’s like playing a grand strategy board game on the computer. I took a look at what some of my favorite board games in the genre provided and I wanted to evoke a similar feeling on the digital board. That meant setting up a system where you had shifting alliances and opportunities to bully, back stab, or just lay low and snipe away at the leader until it was time to make your move. There are a lot of pitfalls from a design stand point to be avoided… run away leaders, kingmakers, ganging up on the leader and multi-player solitaire syndromes so I had to navigate a design minefield of a sort.

The short of it is that you get 2 to 6 actions per turn to build a Great House in Hell and garner as many Prestige Points as you can along the way. As the game is played “Conclave Tokens” are drawn randomly and when a predetermined amount has been drawn the Infernal Conclave convenes in the Capital City of Hell known as Pandemonium and the new ruler is chosen. All players total up their public and secret Prestige Points and the player with the highest total wins. The player with the second highest is selected as Lieutenant. Of course what would Hell be without some special rules so there are some unique ways to manipulate all this to your advantage at the end of the game.

RPS: Armageddon Empires was a classic single player approach. Sol Infernum, while includes single player opponents, is more slanted towards the multiplayer experience. How has it changed your thinking? How big were the technical hurdles?


Vic Davis: The key design point that I had to implement was a simultaneous turn resolution. Each player queues up a group of orders and then submits them to the host player usually via email (although hot seat is available as well). The host then places all the turn orders into a folder and processes the turn. The results are sent back to the players and the cycle then repeats. I like this approach a lot because there is a “trepidation” factor as you wait to see what the results of your orders will be. Even in a single player game you hit the next turn button with the anticipation that despite your well thought out plans, something unexpected is going to happen because your opponent was plotting away as well.

One thing that mars a lot of games like this is that the late game gets bogged down with a tremendous amount of micromanagement and the game goes on for months or years. In many cases the game just dies as the players lose interest or real life intervenes. I took a few hints from some of the classic mechanics that you see in board games to address this. You get a limited number of orders per turn which cuts down on micro management and the Conclave Token system limits the length of the game. Combined they act to create a quick paced game of limited duration that focuses the players actions into a tight decision space. Simple decisions can yield complex interactions though. My design mantra was “simple but elegant.”

RPS: What kind of research have you done for the game? Have you been picking apart your Dante or is it all just cheerily made up? What influences do you have on the hell of Sol Infernum?

Vic Davis: Research? You mean beyond the normal dissolute, amoral life that I lead now? No seriously, I did a fair amount of research. The primary inspiration for the game is a phrase I loved the moment I read it in Milton’s Paradise Lost when I was in high school:

To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

But I cast my net in a wide area for inspiration. You’ll find places in the game like The Wood of the Suicides from Dante’s Inferno or the Pit of Tartarus from Greek Mythology. Some of the legions that you command will remind you of demons that you might see in a painting by Giotto or Hieronymus Bosch. My wife is an Art Historian so I had a lot of her books to look at as well as the fact that I’ve seen most of the art first hand while getting a personal guided tour.

The Hell that I have imagined for players is a fantasy vision of Hell that draws on my own invention as well as multiple cultural resources including even some pop culture references. I’ve been really careful though not to spoil the mood.

RPS: I admit, I’ve been somewhat surprised when seeing it discussed that some people immediately just switch off on the concept on moral reasons. It’s probably naivety on my part coming from pretty-much-secular Britain, but were you surprised by it?

Vic Davis: I did have in the back of my mind a fear that it would drive some prospective customers away just because of the subject matter. I can also understand that at face value the concept might not appeal to everybody. When I play computer role playing games or even table top games, I don’t typically choose to be evil or a ruthless assassin… my ascendancy to the leadership of The Dark Brotherhood in Oblivion notwithstanding. I’m usually more like Snake Plissken… your classic anti-hero. This ironically is how Milton portrays Lucifer in many respects.

Anyway, morality in games is a topic for somebody’s dissertation but I’m not really approaching that here. The Hell of Solium Infernum could be replaced with Feudal Europe or the Warring States of China. I’m was trained as a national security analyst in a previous life so my lens focuses on balances of power, dynamics of anarchic systems and whether Mammon is trying to corner the ichor market in the Infernal Bazaar.

RPS: With Armageddon Empires the character portraits were enormously effective in terms of creating atmosphere for the game. You’ve taken a similar route with Solium Infernum. What’s your thinking behind this?

Vic Davis: Absolutely, and I’ve teamed up again with a talented group of artists to bring a very powerful visualization of Hell to players. I wanted to project a combination of old gothic and high fantasy ala Brom and Vallejo. The colors of the interface are rich bronzes like polished versions of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. My sister Katie Davis did the lion’s share of the UI work. The game board concept is built upon a textured grey manuscript look. I wanted the game map to be simple and elegant so that information could be quickly divined from it. Ben Sones did an amazing and meticulous job illustrating the land marks of Hell from the dark turgid waters of the River Styx to the bottomless chasms that dot the landscape to the Places of Power that the competing Archfiends must capture and control. Finally, Matt Bradbury returns for a tour de force performance as grand digital painter and breathes life into the legions, praetors, unholy relics and infernal artifacts that you will encounter in the game. It’s really brilliant stuff.

RPS: What are you looking forward to in 2009? What do you think the big PC trends will be?

Vic Davis: Losing some weight, winning the lottery, Martin to finish his book…. Oh you probably mean games? Well, 2008 was an amazing year for PC gaming and I’m still catching up on my back log. I do have my eye on Dawn of War II despite my love hate relationship with real time strategy games. Total War: Empires looks promising. I’m an old age of sail grognard….at one time I could draw out pretty good schematics for Trafalgar and The Nile from memory. And I bought a bottle of Nelson’s blood at Gibraltar in the tourist shop. I’m also looking forward to Elemental: War of Magic from Stardock. What turn based strategy fan isn’t?

Trends? Digital Distribution and Games as a Service are what the gurus say and I tend to concur. I’m going to continue my grand experiment as a niche filling indie and see if several long tails stacked on top of each other can earn me a living. I’m betting that I can get my development times down by reusing all my design patterns, AI techniques etc. and combine that with a growing base of players who know that I exist and expect to come back for more turn based strategy games that are low on flash but high on brain exercising content. After Solium Infernum I have an idea for an “adventure strategy” game that I have been laying the ground work for. I just wish after I designed the things that they built themselves. Despite some interpretations of cosmology that say there is a universe out there where that happens, I don’t think this one is it. Oh well. Coffee break is over. Back on my head.

Sol Infernum will hopefully be out in Summer.

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33 Comments »

  1. Therlun says:

    Go Vic!

  2. Ian says:

    Given how much I enjoyed Armageddon Empires I haven’t been keeping up with this nearly as much as I should.

    Sounds fun though, and I look forward to further (p)review stuffs.

  3. thefanciestofpants says:

    Got a sulfurous, flaming eye on this one. Can’t wait.

  4. Katsumoto (jvgp100) says:

    I’m already sold on the artwork alone, but I have such a backlog that I still haven’t bought Armageddon Empires. I will get on it as soon as I have the time, though.

    I am also in complete agreement with “One thing that mars a lot of games like this is that the late game gets bogged down with a tremendous amount of micromanagement and the game goes on for months or years. In many cases the game just dies as the players lose interest…” – I think i’ve only ever actually finished one game of online Civ 4, no matter how much everyone was enjoying it.

  5. Heliocentric says:

    This could be a more accurate political game than the political machine would ever dare. I still need to try the gedon demo.

  6. Hypocee says:

    I still need to try the gedon demo.

    YES. You DO!

  7. Pags says:

    I look forward to Cryptic Comet’s vision of hell much more than I do EA Redwood Shore’s.

  8. Filipe says:

    I’m always up for epic boardgames without all those pesky pieces.

  9. Grandstone says:

    My only worry about his decision to limit the number of orders you can give per turn is that it’ll lead to the opposite problem of what he’s trying to avoid. Analysis paralysis is a damn effective game killer.

  10. Quirk says:

    The atmosphere should rock. Armageddon Empires had a great atmosphere.

    I’m much more concerned with game balance issues frankly. Armageddon Empires had bucketloads of them, some of which I’ve discussed before, and while these don’t matter so much when the AI is so spectacularly inept that you can handicap yourself hugely and still coast to victory much of the time, they matter a great deal in a multiplayer environment. On the bright side, though, once you’ve got a working multiplayer environment you can play-test things to death and work out what needs toning down and what needs buffing. I hope that process is currently under way, and he’s got as many people play-testing it as he can.

  11. Pishtaco says:

    Isn’t the name still “Solium Infernum”? That’s what the developer is calling it in this interview. (Besides, if it were “Sol”, then I think it would be “infernus”, masculine.)

  12. Oak says:

    Playing the AE demo was like trying to scale a 200-ft. brick wall. I felt like crying afterwards.

  13. Grandstone says:

    @Oak

    Now you can play some Dwarf Fortress!

  14. Steven Hutton says:

    I’m going to buy this game just to reward him for using “grognard”.

  15. egg says:

    Ok, something awkward just happenned. My boss was walking nearby as I was alt-tab’ing through my fave websites.

    The moment he stopped to talk to me, this image of a bare chasted angel appeared, much to my dismay.

  16. Ian says:

    @ Egg: Epic. :D

    This may have been addressed (like I said, I’ve not been following this one enough) but I’d like it if there were proper editing functionality in this one. I woulda loved to be able to create decks with images and factions and stuff for Armageddon Empires.

  17. Hypocee says:

    Oak: That sounds about right. Sorry, we on the inside are morally obligated to push it for you folks because it’ll make some few of you ‘feel the way we do’.

    I hope you used Bill Harris’ guide and went in willing to throw your first couple games away. If not, I hope someday you recover enough for another run at it.

    Faction etc. editing is extremely unlikely – Mr. Davis programs in Director and makes constant references in his devblog to ‘spaghetti code’ and hardcoded special cases in the AI. Heck, just the deckbuilder in AE is a feral, spitting little ball of hair. SI is moving away from UGC, and frankly that’s probably for the best.

  18. Skittles the Horking Pirate says:

    …Martin to finish his book…

    I immediately love this Vic forever. Between this and the whole paradise lost aesthetic for a turn-based strategy game, he’s quickly shot up my list of favorite people.

    Can’t wait to play the game. :D

  19. Ian says:

    If the Bill Harris guide is the one mentioned in the PCG review then yes, it’s essential.

    And I remember him saying even in SI that editing stuff would be unlikely, but I can dream. :)

  20. Leeks! says:

    I was hoping for a Sandman/Lucifer-ey take on Demonic Politics, but this doesn’t really look like it will meet my overly-specific standards. I’m sure it’ll be great besides, though.

  21. ACS says:

    Does anyone else remember Geoff Tuffli’s HellMUSH? Or any of its many successors?

  22. Severian says:

    Armageddon Empires was brilliant, easily the best turn-based game I’d played in years. I definitely *enjoyed* it more than Civ IV, and appreciated that I could actually finish a game in a lazy afternoon. I’m really looking forward to Vic’s new effort and suspect it will surpass his debut, given everything he’s learned in the development process. I hope the AI routines give me a hard time, as I just don’t know whether I’ll be playing this against other humanoids via email. Loving the art-style so far.

  23. Arathain says:

    The prospect of a WEGO-by-email system has me slavering. It worked astoundingly well in Laser Squad Nemesis.

    I wonder how communication with other players will work. This reminds me of Diplomacy, and negotiation is 90% of that game.

  24. Funky Badger says:

    Loved LSN, whatever did happen to it?

  25. malkav11 says:

    Love Armageddon Empires. Love the theme of this one. Not too sold on a multiplayer emphasis (especially PBEM) or limited actions combined with a limited game length, a mechanic I hate in board games.

  26. Somedude says:

    I really like your concept. Hopefully the interface is a bit more friendly this time around. :)

  27. Keith Nemitz says:

    “To Reign in Hell” is a fine fantasy novel by Steven Brust.

    Also, another interesting take on Dante is ‘Inferno’ by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell.

    Take a fun reading break until this game ships?

  28. MeestaNob! says:

    Checks frog for alt text – is disappointed.

  29. Dinger says:

    The big worry with MP is that there’s no way in Hell he get can get enough playtesting. But if the design’s good from the get-go, and he doesn’t mind vast revision, we might be playing this by the end of the year.

  30. Fraser says:

    Vic seems like a thoroughly nice, sensible guy. I sent him an email because the Mac version of Armageddon Empires ran slowly and he sent back a free download of the PC version and a note expressing his regret that the Mac version was a partially failed experiment. He was refreshingly honest about it, like a proper indie developer.

  31. spinks says:

    Oh this looks cool. Definitely interested now!

  32. Ashbery76 says:

    The map sure looks ugly.

  33. Hypocee says:

    The map is rubber and you’re glue.