Chaos Reborn is the next game from Julian Gollop, lead creator of the original X-COM: UFO Defense – the greatest videogame of all time. This is a remake of and sequel to Gollop’s earlier, magical duelling game Chaos: The Battle of Wizards. It It takes to Kickstarter today, but unlike other nostalgia-led projects, it’s been in active development for some time already. I played a prototype recently, and I have this to say about it.
In my head, for years, I’ve considered Julian Gollop, lead developer of X-COM: Enemy Unknown, Laser Squad, Chaos and more to be elusive, some Pynchon-esque auteur figure only accessible to a select few. As I join him to play his new game Chaos Reborn, which seeks $180,000 of crowdfunding in order to become a reality, I realise I simply haven’t tried. This is, rest assured, primarily an account of the game itself, but I do wish to note that it was both a much-overdue grounding and a real pleasure to find that the co-creator of my most beloved videogame is human, friendly and clearly enjoying making and playing games. Still, I bite my tongue and avoid X-COM questions or declarations of admiration, determined to be as professional as a disembodied voice swearing about murdered dwarves and failed dragon summons over Skype can be. Why? I think it’s how, albeit awkwardly, I want to show my respect for someone I feel deserves at least as much acclaim as Miyamoto, Spector, Newell, Levine, any of ‘em. This, today, now, is about Chaos Reborn. I want to show my respect.
This turn-based, duel-focused strategy game is a sequel to 1985 cult Spectrum classic Chaos: The Battle of Wizards. While it’s a very different prospect, if you squint, you can certainly see significant traces of Chaos in X-COM’s DNA. Indeed, it’s one of the progenitors of percentage-based combat, where attacking a foe is about taking a calculated risk based on the statistical chance of success rather than anything to do with reflex or timing.
There will be a singleplayer campaign, but what I play now is multiplayer, a three-way duel between myself, my stoic colleague Jim Rossignol, and Julian Gollop. We could have gone up to eight players, but that’s for another day. Each of us controls a wizard, and each of those wizards fully intends to be the last wizard standing. They will strive to do this through a combination of magic and bluffing.
Each player, each turn, can cast one spell, as well as moving their wizard and any creatures the wizard might have in play. The right spell at the right time can be devastating; thanks to everything having a percentage chance to succeed/fail (emphasis usually on the latter), the right spell at the right time can also mean ignoble defeat.
It was and is an impressively clean setup. While lore and characters could be draped over this, there’s an enduring elegance to ‘a bunch of wizards in an arena, trying to out-smart each other.’ I can’t help but project a little pre-Jackson Tolkien onto it, as my dim, pre-pubescent memories of playing the original fold into also playing the Spectrum version of the Hobbit at a similar time. Gandalf, then, was more cold teacher than cuddly McKellen. A wizard, then, was a calculating guy in a big hat, not a bon mot-spewing demigod.
A certain conception of what a fantasy world and what a wizard is was fixed for me back then, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever quite shake it. The posturing and the otherworldliness of the sort of wizards popular culture tends to give us today always rings a little hollow. A wizard, to me, means a certain starkness, a cold tactician. I suppose the same is true of, say, the difference between the soldiers-as-numbers ethos of X-COM versus the soldiers-as-personality ethos of so many of today’s action games. I organically hang a personality onto an X-COM (and XCOM) soldiers based on what they’ve done and what they’ve survived, on how hard-won the rise in their stats was, or how precious the new equipment I bestow upon them is.
Chaos/Chaos Reborn isn’t quite the same – though I’m keen to see how a certain character and skill persistence in the singleplayer mode plays out – but certainly I build/built a certain image of my wizard based on what he did rather than on anything the game ever told me (which was/is so far essentially nothing, and that’s exactly how I like it).
Whoever you may feel your wizard to be, he (I use ‘he’ casually, a reflection of my controlling the character rather than because I’ve seen any pronouns used anywhere in the game so far) does little in the way of direct combat. The meat on the battles’ bones is summoning creatures and using them as part meat-shield, part strike force, part impasse and part grand bluff. Calling a minion – be it dragon, dwarf, elf, murderous forest or a spew of blob things – has a percentage chance of success.
That percentage is affected by the current alignment of the battlefield – if most of the players have been casting chaos-orientated spells, future chaos-orientated spells have a raised chance of success. If everyone’s been casting Law spells and dragging the world towards the light, perhaps you’ll want to sit on your chaos summons until the alignment’s shifted more towards the dark, for fear of squandering them. As I did in my second face-off with Messrs Gollop and Rossignol, to the tune of three dragons. A dragon is basically going to cause merry hell on your behalf, so having three Summon Dragon cards assigned to me at the start of the game was an exciting prospect. Which I summarily squandered, each and every time.
(I still won).
(I still beat the creator of X-COM at his own game).
(But I’ll get to that).
What I should have done (or should I have, given I still won? Did I mention that? That I won?) is accept that no other bugger was dabbling in Chaos magic and so the time to cast a dragon or two would never arrive, at least in this match. I should have cast an Illusion instead. For any summon spell in your hand, you can avoid the whole percentage malarkey and opt for a guaranteed success Illusion version of your desired beastie instead. Illusions can even dole out and receive damage, so it goes beyond mere bluff and into bona fide army.
Which sounds amazing. Why not cast Illusion every time? Well, that’s a viable tactic, but trouble is that any other player can cast Disbelieve on any creature – while all other spells are one-time deals, Disbelieve is always available, so long as you’re prepared to spend your turn casting it. Disbelieve is, in its quiet way, the king of all spells as, if the creature you choose to cast it upon truly is an illusion, it’s immediately removed from play. This is the best of all burns. Conversely, if the creature turns out to be a genuine summon, you’ve both wasted a turn and look like a paranoid prat. Or, to recap: Disbelieve Success = opponent hates you / Disbelieve Fail = opponent mocks you.
Meanwhile, you’re trying to shuffle your comparatively weak wizard to comparative safety as assorted creepy-crawlies and uncharacteristically murderous elves and dwarfs circle towards you, or, if you’ve been blessed with enough offensive spells, you’re actively hunting down and apparently poorer-equipped enemy. Chaos Reborn is highly boardgame-like, in that no-one can seen what spells/cards anyone else has in their hand . So, you build assumptions and best-guesses about what your rivals have based on how they’re playing – but they may very well be bluffing, a honeytrap of infirmity in order to casually smack you down once you’re within magic missile range.
That’s Chaos. I mean, that’s Chaos from afar, without your blood up, staring at your hand and thinking “OK I have three dragons, but there is no way any of those dragons is ever going to summon” or “yeah, that guy thinks he’s king of the hill with his gryphon and his dwarf and his skeleton, but at least one of those isn’t real and I’m going to prove it.” Or retreating your defenceless wizard up a small, hex-based mountain as the creator of X-COM and his small army of fantasy critters turns away from Rossignol’s smouldering corpse and doggedly pursues you – only to unexpectedly discover that your summoned spider, the only damn thing you successfully summoned in the match (and oh, how you’d griped about that), miraculously survives attack after attack. It acts as a stout, chitinous wall for long enough that the game hits the turn limit and, by god, you’ve won. It wasn’t epic and it wasn’t heroic – it’s the Alamo if the Mexicans suddenly got bored and went home. But you won, and it feels great.
It felt great. He was sweet and reflective about it. I’m not quite so sure I was.
That’s Chaos. I mean, that’s Chaos in principle, and Chaos Reborn in principle. In practice – well, the game I played is nothing like finished. That’s why it’s on Kickstarter. I have played an alpha, a prototype, whatever you prefer to call it – full of placeholder art, spell selection menus that could generously be called ‘functional’ and, delightfully but sadly not permanently, X-COM sound effects (the bleeps and bloops of Geoscape menus).
There’s something surprisingly evocative about the ghostly neon outlines of the current beasts and their static movement, but it does emphasise the sense that this is a boardgame made electronic. Or perhaps that it’s an old, abandoned branch of gaming, more defined by the technical possibilities of the time than wild flights of design fancy. UI and animation particularly have a long way to go if they’re to grab passing attention come release, but hopefully that doesn’t matter just yet, and most certianly it’s not yardstick to judge the game by. Even so, it’s far beyond the concept art of long list of promises that typify Kickstarted retromancy: this is a present and concrete game, not a hat held speculatively out for nostalgic cash.
Chaos Reborn is a creature of (I think) impeccable balance, and a game about psyching out opponents without ever departing from clear, pure rules. There’s (both potentially and historically) a wonderful array of entirely unpredictable outcomes to any of its 10-30 minute battles, but I do suspect it will feel too overtly mechanical for some. Personally, I find a focus on mechanics and balance, and the fact that so much of that stuff is already in place, to be refreshing when so many nostalgia-led Kickstarter projects have seemed to hinge around broad promises and maximum flashiness.
I don’t, I suppose, quite know what Chaos Reborn’s place in the world will be: it’s an uncommonly smart and careful multiplayer battle of discipline and bluff, but there are honking great question marks over the singleplayer campaign mode which is, perhaps, more of a draw for a mass audience. I know nothing yet about the singleplayer stuff, but frankly it is what I’m most excited about despite its theoretical departure from Chaos’ core.
The original X-COM remains, to me, a masterpiece of player-driven, impeccably ambient narrative and purpose, but quite honestly I’ve always wondered about the design: accident ratio there. As much as I enjoy throwing spiders at chums and cackling to myself about beating its developer at his own game (though I am quite sure he went easy on me), I burn to find out what the house of Gollop can do for a solo game after all these oddly quiet years. Cutscene-free and character-free, and all the more personal-feeling for it: oh, for that again. Questions for a much later day, alas.
What I can say is that Chaos Reborn, alpha or no, feels much more like the work of a smart young design-punk than something feeding on the sour blood of nostalgia. Wits and will, weirdness and inviolable rules. I’m sure the Chaos name will draw a certain crowd by itself, but ultimately the heritage felt oddly irrelevant to me – it played like a new game trying to be born, not an ancient game trying to stay alive.
By which, by all this, I mean: I’m excited about Chaos Reborn because it turns out to be a smart and interesting game even in this early, prototype form, and not simply because I have an unhealthy fixation with X-COM. By which I mean, I hope its Kickstarter succeeds.