Impressions: Six Gun Saga

By Quintin Smith on June 22nd, 2011 at 4:59 pm.

From left to right: John, Alec, Quinns and Jim's great-grandparents

Indie development studio Cryptic Comet are, in some ways, the apple of RPS’s eye. Seeking a return to the good old days of PC turn-based strategy, they created both Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum, two of the best indie games of the last few years, and our write-up of a single Solium Infernum game is my favourite feature RPS has ever published.

Imagine my thrill, then, at hearing a few weeks ago that they’d made a beta version of their next game- a shorter, cheaper, dedicated single player project by the name of Six Gun Saga- available to all pre-order customers. I’ve personally overseen the deaths of some fifty cowpokes and greenhorns in this game of tough cowboys and tougher decisions, and have assembled some impressions after the jump.

But first, I need to tell you wot it is. As with all of Cryptic Comet head Vic Davis’ games, Six Gun Saga is such a unique and tutorial-free creation that trying to play to play without reading the manual is akin to trying to brew tea using cold water. However, rather than the sprawling eight hour games Cryptic Comet have put out in the past, Six Gun Saga is a kind of nerd solitaire- a game should take you about half an hour, a length of time that Vic says makes the game a “palette cleanser”.

In Six Gun Saga you play one of eight legends of the Old West (both fictional and real) ranging from Wyatt Earp to El Indio on a quest for that most timeless of Wild West status symbols: victory points.

Let’s mosey on over to a screenshot of a game in progress. You’re going to have to indulge me in all this Hollywood Western vernacular- when was the last time the PC got a Wild West game? And a man has needs.

Click for bigger!

Alright, the first thing I’m going to direct your attention to are the three cards in the centre right reading “Apache Raid”, “Indian Uprising” and “Shoot Up the Town”. These are the game’s current objectives. Your goal, and the goal of the one to three AI opponents you’ll be playing against, is to create posses (represented by the brightly-coloured blobs of wax) and travel them from your headquarters to a suitable objective card, whereupon they’ll start sucking the victory points from the objective and giving them to you.

Once each objective is completed it’s replaced with a new one and the posse that completed it is dropped back in the owner’s headquarters. Unless it’s a posse of native Americans, in which case they’re liable to get distracted by a bald eagle or something and go wandering off into the wilderness.

The heart of the game, then, is in building posses and sending them off to complete objectives, while trying to avoid stronger enemy posses and gun down the weaker ones when you have a chance.

How do you build posses? Well, I’m GLAD YOU ASKED. I’m not actually glad you asked. Explaining this game is going to take 800 words, I know it.

So, while building posses and claiming objectives is your goal, 90% of your turn will be taken up with fretting over your small hand of cards, seen at the bottom of the above image. As with all of Vic Davis’ games, Six Gun Saga is a game that fastens your attention in a vice by giving you very few resources and forcing you to make tough decisions every single turn and an incredibly difficult decision every five turns.

In short, and I’m paraphrasing this from something I wrote about Armageddon Empires some three years ago, they’re strategy games that demand the player thinks. Like, ceaselessly. These games lock your brain into a full nelson and press your face into problem after problem until you’re gasping for air. For anybody who enjoys strategy, there’s a sense of awe you come away with after playing Armageddon Empires or a multiplayer game of Solium Infernum- a feeling that this is what strategy can be. It is the furthest thing in the world from firing up a game of Civilization V and spending most of your turns on cerebral autopilot.

Where was I? Right, yes- your hand of cards. Let’s zoom in on one of them.

Here’s your average Dude, the gunfighters or townsfolk that you’ll be paying for out of your tiny (always tiny) fistful of dollars. There are also ambush and “deed” cards, but let’s stick with the dudes you can hire for the minute. Hiring a dude is a good thing to do, seeing as bigger posses (or more posses) will ultimately win the game. However, as well as hiring dudes (the topmost button on the right of the card), you’ll see that you have three other options.

The next button down lets you discard the card for its cash value. This is always a good option, as you never have enough money to buy all the cards you want to, let alone pay their upkeep.

The grey button beneath that lets you add the card to a posse, but not as a fighter- every card in Six Gun Saga also has a value taken from a regular 52 deck of playing cards. So, your Man With No Name card might also be a seven of clubs. Combat sees both sides getting a boost to their combat rating according to the best hand they can make from five randomly drawn poker cards, and additional cards you attach to your posses using the grey button act as hole cards that give them an edge in their next fight. Very useful.

Finally, every card in the game will have a randomly assigned Action, which can do anything from burning down an opponent’s bank to giving a prize gunfighter on the table tuberculosis. You laugh, but these things will happen to you. Possibly both on the same turn. The blue button lets you discard a card to receive its action. Sometimes useless, sometimes invaluable. But even if the action’s useless there’s still that temptation to hold onto the card, in case it becomes invaluable next turn.

As you can imagine, with an entire hand of cards at your disposal, the decision of which to keep, which to cash in, which to use and what to use (and how to use it) will typically have you performing whatever tic it is you do when tangling with some multi-pronged dilemma. I tap my front teeth with the nail of my index finger. Feel free to share your own in the comments.

Anyway, that’s basically Six Gun Saga. You can also drop Ambush cards in your opponents’ territory as murderous speed-bumps for their Posses and play Deed cards that’ll give you a bank or saloon or a share in the state-owned prison for a few turns before the structure inevitably catches fire. Goddamn Deed cards.

Even more so than usual Six Gun Saga looks dreary in screens, so let me do what I can to explain the appeal with an example of play.

It’s half way through a game. The bad guys – your guys – lead by hated outlaw Dirty Dave Rudabaugh are level pegging for victory points with the posses of Boss Snead, legendary gambler.

As your turn starts you notice that Snead’s biggest posse, the one with the gatling gun, has just moved onto the Bank Robbery objective card. Those sons’a bitches! That was, as usual, the card you were planning to attack. As you’re considering your options, you have a realisation that fills you up with dread like cheap whiskey filling a greasy shot glass. You own the bank. The Bank Robbery objective’s special trait is that if your posse claims it and someone else has the bank, that someone loses $10- or enough to buy three quality gunmen in Six Gun Saga’s world.

You begin scheming. What are your options? Clearly you have to dislodge Snead’s posse, but how? Ohmigosh! You’ve just noticed that the two unemployed cowhands that you’ve been holding in your hand since forever both have 7 as their poker values. First things first, you attach them both to your biggest posse, giving that posse a pocket pair in their next gunfight- a huge boost. You play another card for it’s robbery action, nicking some dollars away from Boss Snead’s stash, thus limiting his ability to use his gatling gun’s special “ammo” ability. Finally, you hire Thomas Ketchum and slot him into that big posse of yours, too. Your men’s upkeep now outstrips your paltry income, but whatever. You’ll worry about that next turn.

With a couple of clicks you dispatch you get your mighty posse to hit the road… and walk them straight into someone’s ambush card. Mexican Banditos have waylaid you, and since this is your posse’s next fight, they’ll use up that pocket 7, too. You’re looking at the monitor as if it just spat at you. Boss Snead’s outwitted you again.

So far, I quite like Six Gun Saga. It’s too unique for me not to like it, really, and it absolutely confirms Vic Davis’ knack for coming up with strange breeds of strategy that you’ve never seen before in your life.

But each time I’ve played a game of it, I’ve yet to feel much of a desire to return. Reading Vic’s blog, he gives the impression that this game was something of a nightmare to piece together, and also took him far longer than he was expecting. It sounds like he was (understandably) expecting a smaller, solitaire-like game to be less work than his previous sprawling strategy games, but I can’t help but imagine that outside of the AI, it’d be harder. More than anything, playing Six Gun Saga I felt like I was playing a strategy game on the scale of his previous titles but with the world map and some extra features removed.

I’m also not sure that the Wild West theme is as conduscive to Cryptic Comet’s trademark seductive art as the post-apocalyptic and Hellish universes of his previous games; that art brought the cards to life, and when you combined two or more of those cards in a fight it was like somebody kickstarting your imagination. The art in Six Gun Saga isn’t any less or more impressive, it’s simply that every drawing is of a man with some facial hair.

Precisely how much Six Gun Saga will change when it’s officially released on June 30th is anybody’s guess, though we’ll be bringing you wot we think in full at a later date. Until then, anyone who’s in the mood for some early access to an imaginative solo card game of eyewateringly brutal shootouts and plenty of tense plays can get their hands on Six Gun Saga by paying a sum of $12 over on the game’s official site. Big Cryptic Comet fans should swoop in early, as that price will be increasing to $15 after the game’s released.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a sunset to ride off into. And some tuberculosis to catch.

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39 Comments »

  1. razgon says:

    I know what you did just right before now…

  2. LazerBeast says:

    Very interested. The interview on Three Moves Ahead had piqued my interest, this just cements it. I see a purchase in the future.

  3. delusionsofnoir says:

    I’m really enjoying this.
    I’m concerned about the AI though as it doesn’t seem to be up to much scratch.
    I’m no tactical genius but to give you some idea of why I’m concerned about this, I was able to win my first game, after only a glance through the manual, and even then figuring out the majority of how to perform actions, (and when they could be performed) turn by turn.
    I’ve only lost one or two games since then in about 40 games, and those times I felt like it was me being particularly stupid with an all in strategy.

    I love the setting and the core mechanics, just wish this were multiplayer!

    • Jeremy says:

      I totally agree. The AI leaves so much to be desired… can you even imagine the depths of anger that some of the actions would cause? As it stands, I’ve lost 1 game so far, and it wasn’t even my first game.

    • Soon says:

      I just played my first game and only know how anything works because of the article, and then made some mistakes. And I won that 30 VP to 6 and 8. Still, maybe I was just lucky. It was very easy to create a posse with high gunfight skill and nobody could compete with it, and the poker hands became almost irrelevant.

      First thought would be how much of an advantage a money-earning card could give if you get it early on. It was tough at first selling off my cards and balancing that. But a bit of income removed that challenge. I’ll go for a longer game next, because deeds and such didn’t really come into play until the near the end.

    • Leandro says:

      Sad to hear that’s the case, since I had this same problem with Solium Infernum. It’s AI was too often content to be second best, allowing you to expand your lead without much of the aggression and ganking always found on multiplayer. Of course, SI was meant to be a multiplayer experience primarily, so it didn’t detract much from that amazing game.

      Hopefully Cryptic Comet will do something about it in this game, since it’s focused on single player. Looking forward to it, anyway!

    • Burc says:

      I’ve from multiple locations that the game only really kicks off with 3 or more players.

      1v1 matches are not really the games strongpoint.

    • delusionsofnoir says:

      I’ve tried with every combination I can think off to make sure I hadn’t just power gamed it.
      I’ve tried with every number of players and different VP and turn caps.
      I’ve also tried each class, the two times I’ve lost were with characters I was challenging myself playing (as I thought they were particularly weak looking: Gambler and Ambush chaps).

  4. Aerothorn says:

    I want to buy this just because John Turturro is a card.

  5. TillEulenspiegel says:

    A single-player-focused card game? Sign me up.

    Though you had me briefly hoping for a computer version of Aces & Eights. Which I still want. Even though I’m mostly indifferent to the Old West as a setting.

  6. fearghaill says:

    will typically have you performing whatever tic it is you do when tangling with some multi-pronged dilemma. I tap my front teeth with the nail of my index finger. Feel free to share your own in the comments.

    my tic is to run my fingers/hand slowly back trough my hair, coming to a rest on the back of my neck, which then squeeze a few times to try and work the tension out

    • westyfield says:

      Mine’s similar, but with both hands. People can tell when I’ve been struggling with a problem because my hair sticks up loads at the front and along the top.
      Also because of the shouting and swearing.

    • Inigo says:

      I poop a little.

      I’m very highly strung.

    • Jeremy says:

      I tend to put my hand over my mouth, then proceed to stroke my chin. It is very sinister.

    • K. says:

      +1 if you have a goatee,

      Full beard here. I like to twirl the moustache when thinking.

  7. Vexing Vision says:

    I’d kill for an Armageddon Empires board/trading card game.

    Give me multiplayer, or give me death!

    I love Cryptic Comet’s stuff and approach to design, but theme and mechanics described here don’t grab me at all.

  8. Mr Bismarck says:

    I am playing this and liking it a lot, although the AI isn’t quite tough enough and it’s crying out for multiplayer so that I can be a jerk to my friends. They miss me being a jerk, as we haven’t played Solium Infernum since the whole “being a jerk” incident.

    I do like that Vic’s games make you make decisions frequently and then makes you regret those decisions almost immediately.

    In related news, (AI) Dirty Dave Rudabaugh can eat a bag of dicks. In real life he was shot, beheaded and then his head was carried about on a stick. I am heartily in favour of this end.

  9. Teddy Leach says:

    Bring out the gimp, dude.

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      Pretty sure Jeff Bridges was never in a fetish porn, but thanks for the incredibly weird mental image.

      He was in the remake of True Grit, however.

  10. Abundant_Suede says:

    Without wanting to step on any single player enthusiast’s toes (I’m a firm believer in the dedicated SP strategy game), this just does happen to be precisely the kind of game I’d very much like to play against my friends. I’m not feeling it as a SPgame.

  11. screeg says:

    I have purchased and played this game and it has my endorsement. There are still a few kinks to work out but it’s definitely a winner.

  12. Matzerath says:

    A really fun game! I’m very interested in what will be changed before the final release. There are some interface issues that really need to be addressed, and have been extensively discussed in the forums — as well as suggestions for improving the combat that Vic found very interesting. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but this open beta business can often be very disappointing, especially when the developers seem to be actively interested and responsive to suggestions, but in the end release their games with all the same problems intact, all possible improvements forgotten.
    I’m looking at you, Fate of the World.

  13. bowl of snakes says:

    at first glance I kind of like the look better than his other games, definitely checking this out and I cant wait to see what he does next.

  14. Daiv says:

    Hmm, that reminds me. I need to chain up everyone at RPS and force them to play Solium Infernum 24/7 and blog about it. I’ve been meaning to do that for over a year now and I just keep procrastinating about it.

  15. Temple says:

    Quinns said “As you can imagine, with an entire hand of cards at your disposal, the decision of which to keep, which to cash in, which to use and what to use (and how to use it)…”

    Shurely should be?
    “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
    Know when to fold ‘em
    Know when to walk away
    Know when to run”

    The theme was not initially drawing me in either, but the use of cards to bump up your poker hand is a good ‘un -I love cards that can be used so many different ways. Tempting.

  16. Alphabet says:

    Do any of you fine gamers know how good is Armageddon Empires’ AI? I love the idea, I love the complexity, I love the manual. And I adore post-apocalyptic settings. But if the AI sucks, I’ll be sad for my $24.99.

    • Quintin Smith says:

      It’ll give you a good fight, especially with multiple opponents. I remember that much.

    • Quirk says:

      Depends how keen a strategy gamer you are. There are some serious mechanic balance issues – I’ve spelled them out in detail in the past, but won’t spoiler you here – which make it trivial to construct a deck the AI has no real hope of beating. However, even if you nerf your deck extremely heavily, as long as you deploy your recon widely a little experience of the game should have you beating even multiple AIs with significant resource advantages. Solium Infernum is mechanically much better (though, again, hard to lose to AI in single-player).

    • Alphabet says:

      Thank you both. I will buy and play it then, and avoid maximin powergaming for a few playthroughs. It looks like the setting and mechanics alone will deliver a lot of pleasure. I am such a sucker for post-apocalypse.

  17. Vinraith says:

    Bought this one on release, both because it looked interesting and because supporting Vic pays long term dividends. I haven’t gotten around to actually playing it, but you’ve inspired me to fire it up.

    • Vinraith says:

      …and I’m glad I did. Spent a great deal of time last night playing this and enjoying the hell out of it.

  18. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    If only I had a credit card, gosh darn it.
    Though the AI issue sounds like it could be bad.

    • qrter says:

      There are other payment options – I used an international money transfer (through online banking). It took about a week to process, but at least it’s an option.

  19. K. says:

    I really like it so far. It fills my need for a quick SP match, and the music is great.

    But, yeah, there sure are some dominant strategies that the AI has trouble with.I’m being optimistic and claim they are mostly balancing issues.
    In any case, money well spent. Vic keeps pushing interesting strategy mechanics.

  20. Sinomatic says:

    The more I read the word ‘Posses’, the more silly it looks.

  21. Mechanicus_ says:

    I’m less interested in Six Gun Saga, but I’ve been procrastinating about buying Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum for a good few days.

    The setting and mechanics of AE look cool, and I have a bunch of friends who love boardgames (but rarely have the time/space to play them) for whom Solium Infernum would be ideal.

    Except the games still cost £20 each. That makes AE a hard sell if it has poor, fragile AI. And given Solium Infernum only shines in MP, that becomes cost per-player. A physical copy of something like Call of Cthulhu can be had for little more than that.

    Given the price he has set for Six Gun Saga even Vic Davis must recognise the problem; but if that’s the case he really should revisit the prices of his older titles.

    There’s just no way I can persuade my friends to collectively spend almost two hundred dollars to play Solium Infernum, and that makes me sad because the game looks great.

    • Janek says:

      @Mechanicus:

      From Vic’s blog, when SGS first came up for pre-order:

      “I’ve also made some price changes on my existing games. The website will be updated to show this next week but you can now purchase AE and SI for $24.99 each or both for $45.99. For SI if you purchase 4 or more in one order you will get $10 off each item so it comes out to $14.99 per item. If you have a group of people who want to play by email then this would be the way to go.”

      Haven’t actually tested whether the bulk-buying thing for SI works, but if it does $15 a pop is pretty awesome value.