By Kieron Gillen on January 13th, 2010 at 2:44 pm.
Solium Infernum is a political wargame set in hell. Quinns and I and assorted friends started playing late last year. The game is now finished, and none of the friends survived. By which I mean, we all hate each other now.
This is how it happened.
Okay – for those who haven’t been following the coverage, here’s a brief intro to Solium Infernum. You all play demons aspiring to the throne of hell, as Satan’s buggered off. The person with the most prestige at the end of the game – determined semi-randomly – will get the throne. You win prestige by conquering, keeping important places and generally playing political games with one another. The key thing is the level of politeness – you can’t just declare war if you want to stay part of the demon aristocracy. You have to manufacture an excuse. For example, if you make a demand of someone, and they refuse, you can claim vendetta against them – which means a small war, with you wagering prestige that you’ll be able to achieve stuff.
There’s a lot to the game – a key motif of the following adventure will be players missing a crucial rule, with hilarious consequences – but thats’ the basics. We’ll explain the key points as we continue.
The game starts before the game. You each get to design your demon aristo, with an eye on your tactics. And the majority of everyone else’s choices in character design start being hid from all others…
Turn 1: Kieron
I know I’m making a mistake, and I’m hoping I’ll recover.
So far, I’ve only played martial-styled demons, who march out forces and crush their foes. This time, I’ve created a more deceit-based general. I have only the barest idea of how to play one of these chaps. I spend my points gaining Deceit, Prophecy and – as almost everyone does a bit – Charisma, with the remainder dropped into becoming a Prince. They’re one of the top dogs in the court, meaning I can bully people a whole lot easier. And in the game! There’s a lot of “And in the game!” style humour with Solium Infernum, it seems. “Aha! I own the enormous vagina-shaped gate!” “And in the game!”. You must understand, I’m using humour in a typically loose sense.
The problem is, all this is done in a half-minute before the game started. I wanted to read around and consider some of the other options. I don’t really know how to play a Deciet fiend. I’m going to basically fly by the seats of my demonic pants. Of course, this is a far from ideal way to play a complicated strategy game.
Turn 1: Quinns
Oh, shit. Everybody’s going to hate me.
Here was the plan: Build an archfiend centred around Deceit, the statistic which lets you conduct rituals that bribe or steal away enemy officers and artifacts, as well as weaken or move their legions (Solium’s name for armies). To this end I took the Prince of Lies perk, increasing the success change of my Deceit rituals, and for my objective I took Envy, meaning I’d get a fat prestige bonus at the end of the game if I’d stolen enough.
My thinking (which didn’t involve a great deal of thought, I’ll admit) was that I’d keep a low profile throughout the game, steadily spending resources to increase my Deceit, until finally I’d steal my neighbours defenses out from under them and conquer their holdings with their very own armies. I figured I’d get through this game as a horrible, sneaky bastard. It didn’t occur to me that in Solium Infernum, “Horrible, sneaky bastard” is each player’s job description.
But it barely matters. Here’s what I saw as our game loaded: A map which rendered what was already a crap plan wholly redundant.
See the girl, with the wings and boobs? That piece represents my starting Legion, the Chosen of Quinns. Their stats are determined randomly, but because I chose to spend points during character creation on being a Prince of Hell (the highest rank) and because I got lucky, their stats are great.
Now, see the Escher-style gazebo just beneath them? That’s The Pillars of Malebolge, a Place of Power. Also note the tower three hexes above them. That’s The Citadel of Wrath, another place of power. There are at least a dozen ways of taking prestige from your opponents in Solium, but holding Places of Power is what produces prestige in the first place. Now, these are two solid Places of Power that both produce +2 prestige each turn, and thanks to that powerful starting legion I’ll be able to conquer them both.
But it wasn’t meant to be like this. I wanted to sit back and brood, to be the dark horse. Taking those Places of Power is going to accelerate me into the lead and make me an obvious target.
That said, I really don’t have a choice. Taking the lead early might be dumb, but not taking advantage of this luck would be dumber. My hands are tied.
Turn 7 – Quinns
I wonder if everyone hates me yet.
I’m certainly not the dark horse I was planning to be. Right now I am a fat, angry horse, braying and spitting at anyone who gets close. Not only did I conquer both Places of Power, levelling up my Chosen and making them marginally more powerful in the process, but I also received an Event card which let me promote them (again) to the Order of the Black Ring. Right now they’re… well, they’re preposterous.
The Order of the Black Ring gives them a boost to all three of their combat skills: ranged, melee and infernal, as well as some extra hp. Right now they have ranged 8, melee 14, infernal 3 and 17hp. Allow me to grant you some perspective: those stats mean that not only could they knock down the door of any Place of Power on the map, they could happily steamroll over any other legion in the game.
But aggression is really not in my head right now. Out of the six of us Archfiends I have the most prestige, two of the better Places of Power and the most powerful Legion around. If my peers are looking to screw someone over, I’m an obvious choice. Worse, I have Southern and Northern borders to defend and my Legion can’t be in two places at once. Right now the best thing I can do is sit on this prestige I’m earning and try and scrape together the resources to buy a second Legion at the bazaar to protect the South. Once that’s done I’ll have a leg to stand on. Or kick people with.
Turn 7 – Kieron
The opening ten turns of a Solium Infernum game are generally pretty slow. The demons expand across hell, getting terrain and – most importantly – positions of power. It doesn’t normally kick off. The key word there is normally. There’s a couple of events which push people to move quicker than I suspect they normally would.
(One player a turn gets an event card to play. Sometimes they’re useful. Often, they fuck everyone. Often equally.)
Firstly, someone decided to call a crusade against heaven in the first few turns. This means that everyone has to give up a unit to this madness or lose prestige (And remember prestige is what decides the victor). The problem with this early stage is almost everyone has one unit. Four demons – including me, don’t send one. Which leaves two demons to march forth. They’re probably going to die.
This is the first twist. One comes back dead. The other survives. And the survivor is Quinns head unit, who gets another health bonus. Quinns is also a prince, which means his unit is pretty brutal anyway. Now, it’s a 17-health-point monster, which the whole game is scared of. Quinns is doubly lucky, as he’s managed to grab two prime points of power, which means he gains 4 prestige points per turn. (At the same point, I’m gaining two). His powerful unit is one of the things which is stopping everyone immediately bullying him. He’s undoubtedly leading – though by the end of the first ten turns, Scrofula also has 4 a turn.
The second event…
Turn 9 – Quinns:
Are you KIDDING ME?! Somebody played an event. The Hellmouth has closed, which means Hell’s entering a dry spell, which means none of us are getting any more tribute from our minions, which means no more resources, which means I’m stuck with my one demonic Legion, which means if anything happens to it (and the Devil knows there are a thousand things which might happen to it) I’ll become a bloodied steak in a shark tank. Any of the other Archfiends would be able to insult me or makes demands, and if I did anything but simper they’d get the chance to waltz in and pluck these Places of Power from my talons.
I can’t sit tight and protect my borders with a single Legion anymore than you can make lemonade from clotted blood. I need more Legions, which mean I need more resources, which mean I need… to take them.
My super-Legion is currently stationed to the North. This turn I’ve sent envoys demanding four tribute cards (the most I can ask for) to Kieron and Speedo Demon, my two most powerful Northern neighbours. Let’s see how scared of me they are.
Fie. It’s worrying, this threatening business. What happens if either one of them have something up their sleeve? Or worse, what happens if they both receive my demands, have a private word, then unite against me? Damn it. Well, at least whatever happens I’ll get the chance to spill somebody’s blood.
Turn 10: Quinns
Kieron and Speedo Demon receive my demands this turn. It feels like time has stopped. Lucky for me Sponge made a demand of Scrofula this turn too, thus making me look less of an aggressive bastard.
The game informs me this is the last turn I have to adjust my Threat Levels for free. Threat Levels are a great mechanic- they’re the order in which you place your opponents that determines how expensive it is to target rituals at them. The game’s asking you “Who are you scared of? Who do you hate?”
I survey my borders. Who am I scared of? Who do I hate?
That’s Speedo Demon’s holdings due north of me, with the tentacle-looking playing piece. His legion’s weak, so I doubt he’d be dumb enough to rouse me from my indifference towards him. Next.
The double-headed snake playing piece to the East belongs to Sponge. He’ll be one to watch. His legion volunteered for a crusade against Heaven a few turns back and returned both in one piece and stronger. That said, he has no Places of Power and barely enough prestige to make any demands. Little danger there.
To the South-East you can see Kieron’s bird-man playing piece and his Tree of Woe, a slightly crap Place of Power. He might be one to watch, and I wouldn’t mind taking that tree. I advance him up a couple of threat levels.
I also have a couple of opponents to the South of my stronghold, but I’m not worrying about them just yet. They’re powerful, but currently making mischief in directions other than mine.
You know, whatever happens next turn it’s at least going to be fun. If Kieron and Speedo acquiesce to my demands, I’ll get spending money. If they don’t, I get to go to war and test my Legion’s badassitude. The game, I believe, starts here.
Turn 10: Kieron
My tree of woe is threatened by Quinns. I’m doing some double-think, suspecting that several people would stand up to their persecutors. They fold like Satan did against the big-Mike, alas, so I’m left in a vendetta situation against Quinns… and in the position where I can claim a vendetta against Bestias (Who, annoyingly, I thought would fold rather than risk an invasion).
So, going into the teens, I’m stuck with a war on two fronts. If I claim vendetta, I have to fight Sponge. I figure I actually have a chance of wiping out his two units… but then I realise they have combat cards. These are hidden bonuses. If Sponge has been smart, they’re anti-Missile abilities – my prime strength – which would mean he’d tear me apart. If Sponge had started a fight earlier, I was going to fall back, let him capture the tree, and then act as a buffer between Quinns and I. But…
Well, what I’m going to try and do is screw Quinns. Yes, his army will crush mine. Yes, the Vendetta he’ll claim will almost certainly be “Capture a place of power” from me. However, I don’t need to fight him to stop him do that within a Vendetta’s time-limit. This is where my Deciet abilities come into play. One ability allows me to lock down a unit for the rest of a turn. Assuming I can cast it before he moves, and that it actually penetrates his magical defences, he can’t move for that turn. Abstractly, with my available resources, I can keep it up for several turns. There’s several uses of “abstractly” there, you may note, but it’s better than fighting the invincible fucker.
Of course, at this moment Speed Demon decided to throw a demand at me. Excuse me! Busy here! Ah – waitforit – no rest for the wicked…