Retro: Slay

By Alec Meer on April 20th, 2010 at 12:02 am.

Monday, train, Oxford. Tuesday, train, Waterloo. Wednesday, train, Brighton. Thursday? I don’t remember Thursday. Friday, train, Paris. Saturday, train, London. Sunday, train, Brighton. Repeat/mix/repeat/train train train. Small orange tickets everywhere. Map print-outs to places I’ve never been before, will never go to again. Long-distance job, long-distance relationship too, home is only the place where my bed happens to be. Glamorous? No, exhausting, hollowing. Yellow light on grey skin, slumped in a frayed, greasy fabric seat. No, I don’t want drinks or snacks. Yes, here is my ticket, the one I’ve showed you and your machines time and again, again, again. Bored/tired/bored. Too many papers, too many books, too many MP3s. Games. I need games. Games that use my mind, that focus, sharpen and obsess it.

Slay. Slay is perfect. I shall attempt to gather up the pieces of my travel-maddened brain and tell you about it.

Slay is an independent turn-based strategy game from 1994, created by one man (with help from his brother) in an age where indie development was a very different thing to today’s web-wide chest-beating and constant discovery. To stand out, you needed magazines and you needed coverdiscs.

My feelings about magazines – how I became a games journalist, both in terms of inspiration and experience – are complicated, to say the least. The limitations, the wordcounts, the slowness, the bloody boxouts… Oh, the great freedom of this internet of ours. We’re spoiled by it, we really are. Magazines, though – they were and are an item to own and treasure, to read every element of whether you were interested or not. With PC gaming magazines in the 90s, you also tried everything on the coverdisc, with a hunger impossible in this age of Flash games and free MMO trials. It was a collection of videogames, of entertainments to last you a month. No picking and choosing – you would try them all. Where else would you get that many games from?

As it is often said, a games journalist plays dramatically more videogames than most gamers. I wonder, though. I played so many games in the 90s, just an incredible amount – only their demos, perhaps, but the speed and enthusiasm with which I consumed them must surely outdo the number that pass through my hard drive now. Even professionally, I pick and choose. I ignore much. I didn’t used to do that – hell, I’d even play a football game if it was on the demo disc. I miss, I must admit, the days where I made the best of absolutely every miniscule gaming morsel I was offered. And so it was with Slay. I suspect I scowled at the MS Paint-like graphics, but I played it anyway. It was on the disc.

It was either PC Format or PC Zone. I don’t remember much. I didn’t remember it at all, in fact, until I happened to share one of those train journeys (oh God, the train journeys) with former Zone writer Richie Shoemaker, en route to see a French MMO. He passed his time playing something on his iPhone. I didn’t see it, but asked for a description. Hex-based, territory-seizing, stacking units, a port of an old PC game. It rang no bells, but I scribbled down its name, keen to check it later.

Home, somehow. Idle moment. Google. Download. Install. Run.

Oh.

Ah, nostalgia. That sucker-punch of sick familiarity, straight to the stomach. Never gets any milder, no matter how much I chide my own mawkishness. I don’t remember the where, the when or the how, but I’ve definitely played this before. The ghostly half-memory is fond. I proceed.

No sleep last night. Dreams of tiny men on tiny hexes, carving a green path through a pixel world. I played Slay for hours this weekend. On trains, on buses, on laptop, on iphone, in bed, on the toilet. Slay was my weekend. It took over my mind, and it took over my dreams. I have not, dared not play it today. Plus, I don’t have to catch any more trains until the weekend.

There is no weaker line in games journalism than “I was so addicted to GAME X that I didn’t notice/forgot about STANDARD ACTIVITY OR EVENT.” Sometimes, though, it’s necessary and important to state it. Games can do that total absorption in a way other mediums don’t, quite. It’s not addiction – it’s compulsion. It’s not worthless – it’s the mind engaged in sustained, complex athletics. It happens, it’s terrible and it’s wonderful and, oh, it’s videogames.

Slay. A world divided into hexagons. Hexagons produce money. Money produces peasants. Peasants seize hexagons. Peasants are combined with more peasants or soldiers to create better soldiers. Soldiers kill peasants. When a peasant – or soldier – is killed, the hex he’s on is seized.

The trick is in the linking. A handful of hexes can only sustain a couple of peasants – but grab enough territory to link it to another handful of hexes you own and you have yourself a large area. Enough to sustain a military presence, which in turn can defeat the enemy units and town which block your access to another handful of hexes you own. You spread like a virus, growing and shrinking, absorbing and cutting off. If the chain between areas is broken by an enemy seizing a key hex, you end up with two small handfuls of hexes again. Come the next turn, they’ll both be filled with the tiny graves of your starved units. Seize and protect, don’t think just one linking hexagon is enough. One soldier seizing it may mean the death of all your men. It then takes just one enemy peasant to seize a crucial unguarded hex, and your territory is split into two – neither half able to sustain a strong soldier. It can all be over so horrifyingly, thrillingly quickly.

This is all the maths you need:

Peasant strength 1, upkeep 2
Spearman strength 2, upkeep 6
Knight strength 3, upkeep 18
Baron strength 4, upkeep 64

You can make a Baron, the game’s strongest unit, so, so easily – 4 peasants don’t cost much at all. But creating a patch of 64 linked hexes to keep him fed… well, that’s not easy. Not with five other factions trying to turn that patch of 64 into several much smaller patches. Slay is quick and vicious – one wrong move, most especially buying Knight or Baron when you don’t have the infrastructure to support them, and your viral spread across the centre of the land evaporates into small, useless chunks.

The trees conspire against you too. Cut off a town from any hexes belonging to its faction and it’ll collapse into woodland. Leave a grave standing too long and flora will grow. Leave the coastline unattended and palms will flourish. If a tree appears on a hex, that hex will earn no money. That tree will also spread to a neighbouring hex come the next turn. The trees must be stopped.

There is strange and desperate strategy in this. So often, your inclination will be to send your powerful Knight – the equivalent of three peasants, and able to take down forts as well as town and soldiers – to seize a well-defended hex, possibly one that will achieve that beautiful linkage. A little south of him, though, are a couple of trees. Just two little tree. Leave ‘em alone, and next turn it’ll be three trees. One more turn and it’ll be five. If that Knight is the only unit in this patch of hexes, you’ll only be able to chop down one tree in said turn. That won’t stop them. They’ll spread and spread, until they’ve covered so much territory that the Knight can’t be supported. The trees will kill him. The proliferation of this silent, static vegetation is terrifying. You have to kill all the trees. If a unit’s choice of actions for a turn is between killing an enemy or chopping down the tree, chop down the damn tree if you want to live.

Slay is so simple, so clever, and so brutal. ‘Slay’ seems, from afar, a ridiculous name for this nearly unanimated, beyond basic-looking thing. Yet it’s the only appropriate name for a game where even the trees are trying to murder you.

There’s a free demo of Slay here, which contains the first level, but to unlock the lot (plus multiplayer and a level editor) you’ll need to pay the openly ludicrous price of $20. Given the better-looking, better-of-interface (though entirely multiplayer-free) iPhone/Pad version is currently $1.99/£1.19, that’s crazy. Hopefully creator Sean O’Connor will drop the price of the splendid Windows original before too long. Oh, and there’s also a free Lite version for iPhone, if you want to try it out that way.

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57 Comments »

  1. Tater Po says:

    My god! Slay! I played a shareware version of it to death years ago! Got it on some Galaxy of Games shareware CD.

    There’s a very similar game called Wodan that does the same thing…and is free… http://spielkultur.org/wdp.html

  2. Quasar says:

    THANKYOU!

    I’ve been trying to remember the name of this blasted game for ages!

    I remember playing this in the computer rooms at school. Y’know, when work was supposed to be going on. Being turn based, it meant I could sneak in a few turns whenever the teacher’s back was turned. Not sure how it got onto the machines in the first place, but I’m glad it did.

    You have my gratitude.

    • Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

      Thank you thank you thank you.
      Ive beentrying to remember this game for years. It was avalible on my schools computers, the perfect game to have in the backround.

      I knew the gameplay, not the name. I had to try and play the much inferior dice wars to get jist a small taste of this.

      But 20 quid? Im never going to pay that. Thats the price i paid for Bioshock…

  3. PleasingFungus says:

    “Leave a grave standing too long and fauna will grow.”

    Flora, surely? (Though given the tags on this post, you can be forgiven.)

    Anyway, just picked it up for the iPhone. Thanks!

  4. Stu says:

    $20 is an insane price for the one game, but $30 for Slay and those other perennial cover CD favourites Mother of All Battles, Conquest, Critical Mass, Firefight etc? NOW you’re talking.

  5. Johnny Ridden says:

    Huh, I was censored? Are we not using the H-word now?

    • RPS says:

      Correct process: 1) read article 2) leave comment.
      Incorrect process: 1) don’t bother to read article 2) leave rude comment.

    • Johnny Ridden says:

      Fair enough. It’s your prerogative to delete my comments, after all.

      Having now read the rest of the article, I have to say that the game sounds very interesting. But I still don’t like the leading paragraph.

    • Rich says:

      H-word? …Hampshire?
      That is a bad word.

      As for the leading paragraph, I feel Alec’s pain. Travelling on Her Majesty’s Finest Rail Network and the channel tunnel can really take it out of you.

  6. Frank says:

    About time you mentioned this. I think it’s 54 for the baron ( =18×3), not 64. Also, if you don’t like the default graphics, you can switch to another skin like Mafia, complete with gunshots.

    I paid the $20. Deffo worth it: it’s portable! Shocked to see he’s selling for $2 on the iPhone; that must be some Apple price restriction.

    • El Stevo says:

      @Frank:

      I’m pretty sure the low prices of most iPhone apps is market driven. The most you can charge for an app is $999.99

  7. Nick says:

    Ah yes, I came upon this gem on a shareware disc back in the day as well. Ordered the full version. It was one of the few windows 3.11 games that wasn’t complete arse (Ski Free was another, of course) and I loved it.

    Disc came with some demos for Rats and Sum of All Fears which were both great (well, Sum was, Rats was amusing because of the sex sound effect the male and female rats made). I tried to play Slay again recently and was utterly terrible at it =(

  8. tiktaalik says:

    Slay was awesome. But not as good as Mother of All Battles.

  9. Cynic says:

    Oh Slay, how I love thee. I must’ve played the demo over a thousand times, but my father’s love for this game is unmatched. The full version of Slay must’ve been the first thing he bought online oh so long ago, and he STILL plays it.

    I can hear the “OOH” the little fellas make when you jump on them. Time to download the demo, I think.

  10. Hypocee says:

    Been mentioned vaguely, but I feel the need to re-reiterate – you can get a package of all O’Connor’s games for only $30, netting you not only Slay but excellent miniature masterpieces Critical Mass (the only predecessor I’m aware of to Steambirds, undoubtedly one of my top five games in total hours played) and Firefight and fun little experiment Footballosaurus as well as other less-notable pieces. It’s definitely the way to go.

    • MD says:

      To my shame I’ve only played the demo, but Football-o-saurus is amazing.

    • Hypocee says:

      It would be amazing if your players would keep marking the lead man in the endzone when you’re going to catch the ball carrier.

  11. Kelron says:

    I played this obsessively for a while after Tim Stone mentioned it in a post about some other hex-based game here. But the combination of tiny hexes and the colour set really hurts my eyes.

  12. The One and Only says:

    Slay is awesome. Slitherine did an “updated” version a while ago:
    http://www.slitherine.com/games/conquest_pc
    While the mechanics are expanded a little, it’s basically the same game. Unfortunately, the AI isn’t as good as in Slay.

  13. omicron says:

    I JUST found this on iTunes a few days ago (having balked at the price on PC a few years ago, and then having seen his new Tribes project (fiddly and hard to get the hang of, and a bit like Populous) on iTunes and followed the link.) This game is eating my life!

  14. blargy says:

    They also have mobile versions of most of their games if you have a win mobile 6.0 or above phone.

    I never figure out slay before reading this, might have to go back and play it.
    I usually just play conquest (risk clone) or The General (stratigo clone)
    conquest also has like over 400 customs maps you can play with , like at-at, space ships, states, individual countries etc.

  15. Vinraith says:

    This sounds like a fun little strategy title, it’s a pity the pricing is so unreasonable.

    Speaking of childhood strategy obsessions, I miss Empire: Deluxe.

  16. morte says:

    Been playing this for what feels like years on the iphone, it’s my most used app pretty much. But I no idea it had a history on the pc! The shame!

  17. eoin says:

    That linked territory counting for upkeep sounds very close to Dicewars. If you haven’t tried it, it’s fantastic, just google and say goodbye to the next few hours.

    • RogB says:

      theres a iphone clone of dicewars called ‘strategery’ (ugh) if anyone’s interested,

      http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/strategery/id298908505?mt=8

    • Hypocee says:

      I tried out Strategery and while it’s definitely patterned after Dicewars, there are crucial differences which make ‘clone’ a bit loose – most important are the tacking on of some attrition factor, mysterious higher population caps on some regions, and a different region counting mechanism. I’ve only played one medium game so far, and found that contra my expectations, the endgame was interminable. I thought the attrition mechanic would make the final collapse quicker, but it seemed to draw it out. I can’t say for certain, it may have been the fault of unusual terrain. It’s a good game, maybe great, but for good or ill it’s not Dicewars.

  18. Moorkh says:

    Funny I was just playing the demo – once again – last night. Never got around to buy it because of the absurd price, however.

  19. jon_hill987 says:

    Bah, why is everything for the iPhone these days. Symbian has far more phones out there and is an open platform yet nobody writes for it. Bloody Apple.

    • Grant Gould says:

      As someone who spent five years as a Symbian and J2ME developer — the reason nobody writes for these is that the tools and environment are more egregiously useless than mortal coders can comprehend. Write once, run nowhere.

      Given that the number of Symbian users who download apps is statistically indistinguishable from zero, it’s no surprise that developers tired of wasting time, money, and sanity fighting their APIs. Targeting those platforms killed my company, and I’m confident we weren’t the only ones.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      Hmm, fair enough. I guess I must be one of the negligible statistics then… What about Android, I was thinking of getting an HTC for my next phone, is that doomed as well? Because there is no way I am getting a closed system like the iPhone.

    • Jon says:

      Erm, there is a symbian version available as well (and has been for many years.)

    • jon_hill987 says:

      Where? I just had a look round the site and I see only Windows, WindowsCE and iPhone.

    • Sanns says:

      I forget the exact numbers, but I believe the comparison between the Android and iPhone application markets was something like $20 million USD/year versus $200 million USD/year. iPhone users were more likely to pay for applications, more willing to pay higher prices, and less likely to pirate applications than Android users. Even companies that release on both platforms say that the iPhone versions sell significantly better than the Android ones.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      @ Sanns: I guess that says that if someone can be persuaded to by an iPhone then they can be persuaded to buy anything…

  20. tome says:

    Great write-up! I will wait for a price drop with bated breath.

  21. Graham Goring says:

    Blimey! What a blast from the past! I used to play this at work on manky old Windows 3.1 machines. No idea there was an iPhone version – instantly bought! :)

  22. misterk says:

    I feel like you guys covered this in the past? There was something about conquest, and how it was a rip off of slay? Maybe i’m imagining it…

    Good article anyhow

  23. Colthor says:

    Haha, when school finally gave up their Apple habit and bought some Proper Computers for us to abuse, the Slay demo was one of the things we used to abuse them. A brilliant little game.

    If only the full version were cheaper…

    • Heliocentric says:

      A little perspective
      Gta4, men of war, aaaaaaaa, arma 2 and arma 1 gold on direct 2 drive for less than this game.

  24. Rich says:

    I’m sure the game is fantastic, but I just can’t bring myself to pay £20 for something that looks like that. I rarely pay that sort of money for new shiny looking games, let alone something that in all honesty should be played through a browser in this day and age.

    It’s not really just the graphics. This is just to abstract for me.

  25. Ninja says:

    When I was a wee lad I remember playing this game on some collaboration of games for windows 95 (iirc).

    It was a great deal of fun, but I couldn’t remember the name of it. I might have to pick it up on the ipod, assuming I get an ipod (I want one, but I don’t want to spend 200 dollars you see)

  26. Frenchkiss says:

    Sounds just like this game: .

    Just a bit older ;)

  27. Chaz says:

    [i]“I played so many games in the 90s, just an incredible amount – only their demos, perhaps, but the speed and enthusiasm with which I consumed them must surely outdo the number that pass through my hard drive now. Even professionally, I pick and choose. I ignore much. I didn’t used to do that.”[/i]

    I suspect the fact that you’re now about 20 years older than you were then has an lot to do with it. Perhaps you’re now more mature, older wiser, once you’ve tried so many different things you no longer feel the need to keep trying everything. Maybe your tastes have become more refined, you know what you like and what you don’t, enabling you to pick and choose what appeals to you most.

    Well that’s certainly how it is for me anyway. When I was in my late teens early 20′s I also used to try all the demos and “indie” games I found on my Amiga and PC cover disks. I used to play everything on just about every platform going, Amiga, PC, Nintendo, Playstation etc. Now I’m in my mid to late 30′s I struggle to find the time or the mental energy to play the games I do like, let alone a whole load of demos and indie titles.

    Games themselves have obviously changed a fair bit too. These days most games require a large dollup of concentration and a 1 – 2 hour investment of time per play. Gone are the days it seems where I could just fire up a game for a quick 30 minutes worth of entertainment to fill a gap in my day. Now I feel I have to schedual a time slot in my day just to fit some gaming in.

  28. Ginger Yellow says:

    I had no idea there was an iPhone port. Awesome. Thanks, Alec.

  29. Carra says:

    Ah, the time of magazines. I remember reading my favorite PC gaming magazine from the first to the last letter. A time where I still played those demos. And a time where the words of the mighty reviewers meant everything.

    These days I have a steam/gog catalog long enough to keep me playing for the rest of my life without getting bored. And one search in my metacritic bar gives me a dozen reviews for each game. We’re spoiled.

  30. Moorkh says:

    BTW, all Eve players will get this for free as a game-in-game once Walking in Stations hits. I doubt I will shell out beyond €5 before that.

    http://images.eurogamer.net/assets/articles//a/3/1/2/5/0/5/WiS_screen_22.jpg.jpg

  31. Oneironaut says:

    I just saw that Slay is available on the iPhone app store for free today.

  32. Dude says:

    I played this game a long time ago, only the demo, cause I was just a kid. I’ve been looking for this for weeks, FINALLY a google search brought me to this.

  33. GenBanks says:

    I just discovered Slay and am completely addicted… I must have played hours by now.