Wot I Think: Qvadriga

By Adam Smith on March 13th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

Turn-based games are the best games. With that fact established, let us acknowledge how unfortunate it is that so many turn-based games focus on a small set of activities, mostly involving military squads, or rapidly expanding kingdoms and galactic federations. Conquest and combat. Qvadriga is different. It is, as far as I know, the first turn-based game about chariot racing in the circuses of the Roman Empire. By breaking a complex and unusual scenario down into a series of tense decisions can Qvadriga find the game at the heart of The Games?

I love the smell of horse meat in the morning. Smells like victory. But the first time I killed a gee-gee, I felt terrible. It was an accident. I’d ordered my chariot to ram an opponent who was hurtling down the outside lane, just to my right, but I hadn’t expected the horses to be a legitimate target. My vehicle was a sturdy construction, built with the finest materials a Mercurial merchant’s denari can buy. Though all chariots have a team of four horses and a single driver, my machine was a raging juggernaut in comparison to the flimsy balsa-basket rattling alongside.

Desperate to pass, he flayed his horses, blood and foam forming a pink mist in the air around them. The timing of my ‘crash’ order was perfect though and before his speedster could overtake, my chariot slid to the right, our wheels crunching together. He took a huge amount of damage and lost a great deal of speed. Suddenly, my cumbersome combat vehicle was overtaking his sleek little buggy. Mission accomplished. Or so I thought.

My auriga (driver) thought otherwise. He had his orders – to crush anything to the right of his chariot – and while the opposition driver was receding from view, the frenzied and brutalised horses were still attached to the splintering wreck. They strained to drag it forward, toward the finish line, or to escape from the harness, and were perfectly placed to receive the second crunching blow from my tenacious charioteer.

SPLAT.

A whinny is heard and a blotchy red blossom is all I can see from my managerial birds-eye perspective. When the dust clears, a horse can be seen lying in the dirt. It is curled into a foetal position. The crowd are going wild, but with delight rather than the fury of PETA the apoplectic. There’s horse-meat being ground into the arena floor but there’s no scandal to go along with it. Not this time. This bloody act is the stuff that champions are made of.

Examining that moment of equine elimination and the events that led up to it demonstrates every fine detail of a Qvadriga race. Let’s break it down.

Turns in Qvadriga resemble Frozen Synapse or, more closely, Ace Patrol. Orders are given and then everybody acts at the same time. However, the wait between moves is a few seconds, representing the speed of the chariots and the difficulty of reacting quickly to changed circumstances. This means a bad decision can commit a chariot to a suicidal or futile mode of action. For a while, this is distracting, making the player seem like an interested observer rather than the controlling force, but after surviving a few events, the precisions and predictions required by the system become sources of tension and pride.

Within a race, the interface is a miniature masterpiece, efficient and clear. Symbols appear alongside at the left, right and centre of the player’s chariot and their position explains which lane they are directed toward. So acceleration, breaking, defense and control commands are in the centre, while attacks and lane changes are on the right and left. There are only a handful of possible actions at any one time and after a few races, their uses are obvious.

There were eight chariots in the race that turned me from horse whisperer to horse wrecker, and despite a lack of pace, I’d managed to bully my way into the lead. As the idiot to my right tried to overtake, he had two options and he went for the risky one – speed. The alternative would have been to defend himself and his horses, fending off my attacks whether they came in the form of an intentional collision or a crack of the whip. Of course, I may have opted for speed myself, taking the whip to my own horses (still makes me wince, when blood bursts from them as they run), which would have made any defensive act on the AI’s part a wasted move.

The AI is left with what seems like a simple binary choice but it’s a product of the actions of every rider during the earlier stages. The beginning of a race is a bit like one of those fairground attractions, in which toy camels or horses shudder along a track whenever a ball is thrown into a hole. Click accelerate and sometimes the ball lands in the hole but sometimes the horses don’t seem to react at all. The computer is rolling imaginary dice, no doubt, but the stats of each rider, horse and chariot are being tested against those rolls. Even when every team starts side by side, the early running isn’t quite as unpredictable as it seems.

But it’s at the first turn that the tactical battle begins. Effectively, races are divided into two equally important portions – straights and turns. Straights are used to position the chariot in a chosen lane, which often involves overtaking or otherwise dealing with opponents who are blocking that lane. Inside lanes are faster but undesirable because chariots are unsteady. Not just unsteady, actually. Once they hit a bend they’re about as stable as W.C Fields on a pair of stilts in a bouncy castle.

Because of their tendency to topple and the fragility of horse-flesh, it’s rare for every chariot to finish a race. By the third lap, every turn is likely to have the hazardous remnants of fallen competitors scattered across its width. Hit a turn at speed and an indicator appears at the side of the screen indicating the chance that control will be lost.

Because there’s no way to interrupt a movement phase once an order is given, the few seconds of watching a rider take on an ill-judged turn can be agony. Green means the chariot might veer one lane toward the outside, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but red means a wheel might buckle slightly or the entire vehicle might overturn, leaving a pile of wreckage and a driver hanging onto his horses’ reigns for dear life.

When a vehicle is destroyed, the rider is dragged along at the rear, with odd but satisfying cartoon stars spinning around his head. While stunned, he is strapped to the reigns and may perish before he has a chance to recover and unfasten himself, but even after he clears his head, the player can instruct him to endure rather than running to the safety of the trackside.

Telling a rider to hang on is usually a way to preserve his life, by waiting for a gap so he can run like Frogger between chariots rather than being squished beneath them. But, sometimes with a sick smile and more often with a condiment spread across my fingernails, I’ve also ordered riders to cling on while they’re scraping and bouncing along the ground – if they’re on the final lap and the finish is within reach, they might just cross the line before becoming a crimson stain.

The normal difficulty setting allows a driver to be ‘saved’ (resurrected really) but during an epic level campaign, dead is dead.Tactics vary depending on the skill of the auriga, and the qualities of his chariot and horses. Further complications arise in campaign mode, as a random event alters the course of the race. The course might have debris from a previous race scattered across it, making certain lanes more dangerous to occupy, or the officials in charge may have banned whips for one night only.

Here’s something that you can’t say about many racing games, turn-based or otherwise – in Qvadriga, you won’t always be trying to win first place. Depending on the strength of your stable, the power and number of your rivals, and any special conditions in place, it can be wiser to aim for a finish, in any position, rather than battling for the top spot. As long as the rider survives and the chariot crosses the line on the final lap, the owner takes some cash home. Changing tactics and objectives on the fly is an important part of the job, which is the mark of a simple but solid strategic layer.

Of course, those considerations only matter in campaign mode, during which the game ends if there isn’t enough cash remaining to maintain the team. The player can have up to four chariots, with horses and riders of varying ability and strength, and there are many arenas in which to compete, scattered across the Roman Empire. Travelling costs money but some regions carry a bigger purse, or supply robust chariots and special breeds of horse. Sadly, the interface during management is spare but unhelpful, with extra clicks needed to check information such as the number of entrants in a race when preparing a chariot. The shops are a clutter of symbols – functional once understood but initially arcane.

The aim is to reach Rome and win in the grandest race, all the while rising up leaderboards. I didn’t understand the strategy of the game’s management side at first but I do now. It’s about developing an individual auriga rather than an entire team – the rest are there to prop up the best – and also, brilliantly, entering races that the best riders in the world are taking part in so that you can try to maim or murder them. The road to the top is quite literally littered with the mangled remains of former champions.

Despite all the roads I’ve clogged with corpses, I haven’t found the one that leads to Rome yet. I really need a better sat-nav. I’m a little bit in love with Qvadriga though. Turn-based combat racing is a rare enough treat that I’d probably recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest even if the game weren’t so solidly constructed. Despite the quality of the race experience, the overall package does seem a little barebones at first, but the campaign is tough and variable, and the AI is smart without being entirely predictable. I crave multiplayer though, in any form.

It’s a game that deserves to be a success and perhaps it will be if people are willing to wander from the great forum of Steam. I wonder if it would gain more attention if it were based around a violent future sport, which it effectively is apart from the contrary chronology. Listen close and it’s almost possible to hear the vendors in the crowd shouting, ‘Quail eggs! Quail eggs!‘ And when the difficulty is set high and every turn is timed, every race is a potential font of glory and dismay.

Qvadriga is a fine game and a strong proof of Turnopia’s approach. Built on easily understood mechanics, the game involves a dissection of a complex activity and then reconstruction as a process of distinct phases and actions. A few decisions and interlocked mechanics become a convincing recreation. Gladiators next? Or perhaps early motorsports and an eventual turn-based history of vehicular competition.

Qvadriga is available now, as is a demo.

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44 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    SuddenSight says:

    Sorry, but sometimes I wish the writers on this website knew a little bit more beyond simply computer games.

    There are so many turn-based racing games that use chariots as a theme that there is an entire list here:
    http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/32453/chariot-racing

    This is the first computer-first game of it’s kind that I know of, however.

    • Adam Smith says:

      I should have been more specific. Haven’t actually played any of those but I did spend a good half hour yesterday evening talking to a friend who knows far more about boardgames than I do, and he immediately recognised some of Qvadriga’s mechanics when I started waffling on about it.

      Any on that list that you’d recommend?

      • sonambulo says:

        Not the first for PC either, by almost 30 years. I remember renting this one on 5 1/4″ floppy disk from a local computer store. http://www.homeoftheunderdogs.net/game.php?id=218

      • Premium User Badge

        SuddenSight says:

        Circus Maximus is definitely the best known among chariot racing games, and has many similar concepts. Ave Caesar is also reasonably well liked.

        Expanding beyond chariots specifically, I enjoy Formula D quite a bit (though crushing your opponent isn’t really a viable strategy in that game). Formula E is another newer racing game that came out through Kickstarter and is well reviewed.

      • x. says:

        I’d like to recommend Ave Caesar. Stupidly simple, quick and excellent (party!) game. Most importantly it gives you many chances to be an asshole. My girlfriend got it in her teens because she liked ponies. Little did she know that it was actually a really neat cutthroat chariot sim.

        And you’ll be better off playing Formule Dé’s excellent java version hotseat on a pc, that way you don’t have to count 28 space moves through a corner and so on. The java version will do all that stuff that slows the real boardgame to a crawl. Too bad that the frenchies closed their servers, so you’re kinda limited to hotseat instead of proper online modes.

      • Saarlaender39 says:

        Personally, I recommend “Ave Caesar”.
        I absolutely love that one – so simple, you can play it even with the kids – it’s great!

        • Scurra says:

          Just be sure to try to get the original edition of Ave Caesar. The reprint is perfectly fine, but they’ve completely screwed up the tracks so there is pretty much no actual tension in the game at all any more – in the original, forcing someone to go around the outside more than twice meant they were very unlikely to finish the race at all; in the reprint you’re likely to have cards to spare at the end. (My preferred fix in the absence of an original board is to take away a #4 card from each player at the start. And even that isn’t really quite enough.) Oh, and you have to play the #666 variant rule for real schadenfreude (basically, in the game a racer in the lead isn’t allowed to play a #6. But if they end up with nothing but three 6s in their hand when it’s their turn, their horse is deemed to have died from over-exertion and they are out of the race. Which is never less than amusing when it happens to someone else.

      • sinister agent says:

        I should have been more specific.

        No you shouldn’t. This is a site about videogames, not all of creation. By all means, mention some board games (or films, or books, or themed restaurants) that might be relevant, but nobody can be expected to know about everything, and there’s no reason anyone should be obligated to study board games just because they write about video games.

  2. Jorum says:

    Been playing this for a few days and lots of fun. I thought it might get old quickly but the campaign mode and exploring different tactics has reasonable amount of depth.

    It also has a nice push-your-luck feel. Do I risk cutting that corner and a lethal flip to get a clear run down the straight or play safe? Is it better to go defensive against that guy who might ram me or just accelerate past him before he gets the chance?

    Also pretty brutal even on normal difficulty. Trying to push to win every race will get your team wiped out and just finishing in reasonable condition is a valid objective sometimes.

  3. Premium User Badge

    AngelTear says:

    Strangely, while I’m used to violence in games, especially against people, reading about the violence and death of those horses for the sole purpose of winning a race affected me more than I thought it would (more than the death of the riders, even).

    • Jorum says:

      Yeah this game is not happy place for horses. A recent race I had ended up with 7 dead horses after the first turn.

    • mr.black says:

      That’s okay, that means you’re human!
      No, wait, is that right?

    • Kefren says:

      I thought that too. Some games may sound good, but I have a problem with elements of it which mean I just can’t get into the character, and therefore the game. Some games like Papers, Please force you into roles, and can be doing it for interesting purposes. But whipping horses would be enough to put me off playing, even though I could appreciate the game mechanics. There are so many games to play that anything I can find to rule out yet another unnecessary purchase makes me happy!

    • jonahcutter says:

      Yes but after committing the violence and death, you get all socially stigmatized if you eat the humans…

      Not so much if you eat the horses!

      • Sleepymatt says:

        You get slightly less stigmatised if Malcolm Walker told you it it was beef…. aside from the mild stigma of shopping at Iceland.

  4. Ergates_Antius says:

    entering races that the best riders in the world are taking part in so that you can try to main or murder them
    maim

  5. DigitalMonk says:

    Darkwind (http://www.dark-wind.com/) is an excellent turn-based post-apocalyptic car racing and combat game, intrinsically multiplayer. Free to play as long as you like, but if you want to really develop a team and go out into the larger world you need to subscribe — but at $20 for THREE months, that really shouldn’t stop anyone.

    You issue commands for one second of game time, and when everyone has done so (or the turn timer runs out — more later) the game runs a full physics-modeled engine for that one second of game time. The turn timer is generous at its default setting, and can be shortened or lengthened if all human players agree. It is really only present so that one person having to get up to deal with a phone call doesn’t stop the game for everybody else.

    While turn based, most of the time you are issuing commands every 10-15 seconds, which is enough time to not feel frantic or to miss a turn, but fast enough for me to feel the pull in my seat as I power drift around a curve, or the jolt in my chair when I slam into another car. It really is a quite amazing game.

    • wodin says:

      Darkwind has the best mechanic for driving I’ve seen..really want to see a proper single player version. I’ve always thought if you add a Z axis you could make an amazing WW1 Airwarfare tactics game

  6. edwardoka says:

    Looks fantastic. Will buy as soon as I’m able to.

    If the developers are reading this – any chance of a Linux or Steam version?

    • mplia says:

      The developers should really make this fantastic game available on both steam & the linux platform. Although the demo runs fine on wine, i’ll not spend 20$ because of this lack of native linux support.

  7. wodin says:

    Would love to see Car Wars made into a PC game playing out something like this but lots of upgrades and stats and what not.

  8. Premium User Badge

    X_kot says:

    Thanks for this, Adam – sounds compelling. I noticed on their site that the game also features a real-time setting; did you try that out? Is it better than real-time Blood Bowl a la Cyanide?

  9. jonahcutter says:

    “Turn-based games are the best games.”

    From the website:

    “Dual game system: paused turn-based gameplay (static) or continuous real time action (dynamic). Play which you like.”

    Even with Adam’s apparent turn-based bias likely to color the response, I am curious as to how well both modes function.

    • Adam Smith says:

      Both work really well – the dynamic mode is still separated into phases but commands for the next ‘turn’ have to be entered before the previous is complete. So it’s a sort of timed turn-based hybrid, but with the pieces always in motion.

  10. PoLLeNSKi says:

    I remember playing this in Alpha/Beta before the campaign mode was integrated and it was a fun couple of evenings working out the race mechanics at the time. I must pop along and send them some money for now reaching the finishing post and to try out the management side of things.

  11. Wit7y5 says:

    thats amazing… Start working at home with Google! Just work for few hours and have more time with friends and family. I earn up to $500 per week. It’s a great work at home opportunity. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out. Linked here http://CapitalPosts.com

  12. Premium User Badge

    Hypocee says:

    Haven’t gotten to my full version, sadly, but when I played the alpha the ‘steady chariot’ command was the One True God. Pip the inside lane and zoom away from all the horrible men.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Sunjumper says:

    I have started playing a normal campaing and one of my aurigas died. I’m not entierly sure how this is supposed to work but there was no option of treatment for the fallen auriga. ;_; Now I have to restart the campaign… if I wanted to lose them for ever I’d have chosen the epic version. Am I missing something here.

    Apart from that the game is great and the ‘steady chariot’ command has long since stopped to be a wonder that overcomes all problems.

    • Misha says:

      There is. But you have to choose it in race, you can’t wait until the manage screen. It pops up at the top of the screen when your auriga croaks, so you better have enough denarii saved up for it or he’s gone.

      Coincidentally, I love this game. I remember Circvs Maximvs and, moreover, the one thing I miss about the old board game days is having a chance to think before you made a decision. That’s why I never warmed to the RTS click fests that followed on computers. Scrolled too fast, clicked on the wrong unit, failed to remember the shortcut for “produce x unit” or “jump to base to place order”, “phone rang”, “mouse fell off the table?” Sorry you lose.

      Qvadriga hits just the right note, using the compromise that was never truly possible with board games, which was “I go, we go.” I can take my own sweet time picking my move, then beat myself over the head saying “of COURSE the damn computer would anticipate that” and not a damn thing I can do about it. Or “HA, he didn’t expect THAT!”

      One thing I’m not sure about, but I’m just on my first campaign, is how the difficulty seems to jump if you do “too well.” I’m still on my first pee-wee league circus where I’m trying desperately not to make too much of a fool of myself, but when I hit three victories, all of the opponents are driving Porsches manned by race car drivers made of steel compared to my struggling newbie team and there is no way I can upgrade my equipment because nothing better is ever available. To ME. They must have a direct line to some sort of secret import chariot-jacking outfit employing nothing but Ben Hurs while I’m still scouring the local homeless shelters looking for likelies to drive my baby chariots.

      Or maybe I just need to branch out to a different city, being too used to the old formula of “grinding until you’re too good for your current venue.” I don’t know.

      • Premium User Badge

        Sunjumper says:

        Oh. Many thanks for the tip! My aurigas will live!

        I have the same impression that once you get better suddenly everyone else is upgrading sneakily. There is also the possibility to go to other places when you have enough spare change left to buy better equipment and then go back to your home circus to get better there.

      • shimeril says:

        Bought this and am rather enjoying it. Lost an auriga very early in my first campaign and didn’t want to burn 500 denaris saving someone with no skills at all so I sold his team of horses and have been working on the other 2 aurigas instead. Means I have to skip a race occasionally as they haven’t recovered in time. I finally won a race and it will be interesting to see if I encounter the “porsche” effect too. Good fun though.

        • Premium User Badge

          Sunjumper says:

          If you give your aurigas the names of close friends of yours it hurts more (X-Com effect) and when the first to die is the one who went through some of the most brutal and horrible races surviving them against all odds, beating the competition that seemed overwhelming or winning after being draged by the horses for half a lap and who top it off had by then one skill and one endurance upgrade, then it becomes actually painful.

  14. giei says:

    I can’t stop playing it but I don’t know why :s

  15. Nats says:

    Its one of the only games that had me shouting at my computer screen and that is no mean feat so I heartily recommend it. I loved Circvs Maximvs the boardgame and this is that boardgame on the computer and its just as addictive. Sometimes the simple games are the best.