Gollop Returns: X-COM Creator’s Chaos Reborn, Played

By Alec Meer on March 17th, 2014 at 8:01 am.

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.

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47 Comments »

  1. Harlander says:

    Oooh, I love me some Chaos.

    A decent internet multiplayer remake was something I’ve long hoped for, but I also hope they put some kind of hot-seat mode in this. When you can get everyone together, all bickering, it was sublime.

  2. Themadcow says:

    Backed the $50 tier. Chaos was one of the defining games of my youth and one of the few games from the mid 80′s that still stands the test of time due to it’s sublime mechanics and ‘anyone can understand / few can master’ multiplayer. This campaign deserves to succeed because this man defined turn based tactical gaming just as much as Sid Meier (imo).

    Chaos, Rebelstar Raiders, Laser Squad, XCom, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars… this man knows how to make great games.

  3. Caiman says:

    My favourite game of all time gets the remake treatment, and there’s a Kickstarter? This could be expensive. Very expensive.

  4. Mungrul says:

    I’m slightly pensive about backing any more Kickstarters; I’ve got a whole swathe of games brewing over there at the moment. But I’m tempted by this, I must say.
    My experience with the original was brief as I didn’t own it; but a friend did. It was wonderfully simple and I remember the Illusion mechanic fondly.

    But my personal love for Gollop’s games comes from the best £1.99 I ever spent: Rebelstar.
    Side one of the tape was single player, side two, 2-player.
    I spent hours playing this wonderful game with its single scenario and dustbin-like robots. I know there’s at least one other poster here that shares my love for this game, Leeder Krenon, who takes his name and avatar from the game.

    It introduced to me the concepts of opportunity fire (later becoming overwatch), line-of-sight, percentage chance-to-hit and emergent gameplay (although I didn’t have a name for it back then).
    I see it as being the true genesis of so many games I love from the excellent Speccy version of Laser Squad and its magnificent exploding CRTs, to the superb and criminally unsuccessful Valkyria Chronicles (now there’s a game that needs to break away from platform exclusivity!).
    It’s also one of the reasons Fallout would become one of my favourite games ever, as it instilled in me a hearty respect for all things turn-based.

    I think if Gollop ever got his hands on the WH40K license, I could die a happy man.

    • Themadcow says:

      Indeed, he’d have been perfect for WH40k. Personally I’m another big fan of Rebelstar (particularly 2) and it’s funny you should mention Valkyria Chronicles as Gollop has gone on record before saying that it’s very much a game he’d like to have made.

      Shame that licensing is more restrictive than the good old £1.99 tape days, as Rebelstar 2 was unashamedly a rip-off of Aliens right down to the character names and still remains the best ‘Alien’ game ever made.

      • Mungrul says:

        Yeah, I was aware of his comments regarding VC. For my mind, I actually prefer the system used in that than the one used in the new XCOM. It’s much more dynamic, and I love how everyone’s always on overwatch without the need to spend command points on it. It makes for heroic dashes through enemy fire or lucky shots saving the day and stopping that Imp blowing the gate with a grenade.

  5. MerseyMal says:

    Absolutely loved this game and used to play it at my friends’ office in their lunch hour, during a long period of unemployment.

    My favourite thing was using the Raise Dead spell on a Gryphon or Dragon as you could mount your wizard on it and be invulnerable to attacks from all of the non-undead minions of your enemies.

    • Themadcow says:

      …and dismounting your Wizard meant he was classed as undead. One of many useful bugs, like doing a Justice / Dark Power on a creature standing on top of a more powerful dead creature meant that the dead one would come back to life (similar with Gooey Blobs), or if engaged to combat pressing ‘I’ then a direction key would sometimes disengage you by attacking an empty square.

      On the downside… Turmoil :(

      • Stardreamer says:

        Turmoil.

        Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Wait….yes? Should I…? Actually NO. But then again maybe….

        So dangerous but so. much. fun. Because it was so rare everyone playing got really excited when it appeared. It could royally screw you over like no other spell or option in the game…but if you were struggling it could actually help, moving monsters and wizards away from you, or bringing magic trees closer, or taking your meagre cluster of fire and creating with it a fullscreen inferno that in five turns would utterly burn the world…

        • Eleven says:

          You just had to cast Turmoil, even if you lost because of it. It was worth it to get a WTF reaction out of anybody who didn’t know the spell existed!

          This Kickstarter was the easiest decision to back. Anyone can make a casual strategy game, but but few can balance game mechanics just so like Julian Gollop.

  6. Kefren says:

    I loved Lords of Chaos, which hasn’t been mentioned here. Small worlds to roam, the ability to create crazy wizards (e.g. the risky one who was super fit and fast but could only summon dragons; the one whose only ability was max-powered blob spell; the one who specialised in making himself invisible and using invisible creatures). Local multiplayer was great. Chaos sounds like a simpler game (in Lords of Chaos you could go off and find ingredients to make potions with, so it felt more like a quest.) I still play Lords of Chaos and Laser Squad regularly on my Amiga emulator.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lords_of_Chaos_(video_game)

    • Harlander says:

      Lords of Chaos never seemed to get the feverish flurry of attempted remakes that Chaos did. Less well-known, I guess, and less good for pick-up-and-play multilpayer malarkey, I suppose?

      • Kefren says:

        Yes, it had more of a learning curve, so less good for pick-up-and-play, but great for an evening of really tense and fun wizard wars, especially if each player had their own character that had levelled up once or twice to create very different tactics.

      • Stardreamer says:

        It was a lot more complicated, I guess? The immediacy was gone, and some of the systems in the game were desperately unintuitive. Still a great game but not the legend that its parent was, not by a very long chalk.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      When Alec wondered about the single player aspect of this, I immediately thought of Lords of Chaos – surely a pretty good example of what it might be?

  7. GameCat says:

    There’s a Hulk with hat on first screen?

  8. Themadcow says:

    I think it would be a good more for Firaxis to come out in support of this game to help raise the profile, much as we’ve seen with Obsidian and inXile. After all, they’ve done pretty well off the XCom license without (as far as I know) any financial benefit to the creator of the series. Gollop came and did some interviews endorsing the new XCom (with Jake Solomon) so probably time to return the favour?

    *edit* I see things are already heading that way on Twitter thanks to Mr Meer? *edit*

  9. Dominare says:

    Alec, the fact your statement about the original UFO (it’ll always be Enemy Unknown to me) being the best game of all time is so unequivocal is why you can come to my birthday party.

    • Stardreamer says:

      For pick-up-and-play immediacy, Chaos beats X-COM out of the park. And yet it still has the capability to weave a different story every time you play it. For me, Chaos is the best game ever made.

  10. Bugamn says:

    Oh, this news sounds excelent!

    And if anyone wants to get a feel of it before backing, there’s at least one version for Android:
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=chaos.app

    • Stardreamer says:

      Best PC remake ever is Richard Phipp’s wondrous Chaos Groove (based on his earlier remake, Chaos Funk). Both of those games took their audio cues from the amazing, but deeply unofficial, Atari ST version of the game by Martin Brownlow, where Martin scavenged pop culture of the late 80s to include some amazingly fitting samples from the likes of Monty Python, Red Dwarf and, of course, Highlander:

      “There can be only one!” *wizard explodes

      Chaos Groove expands the sample range and brings it screaming into the 21st century. It also vastly expands the options available for game setup, and even adds a few new spells!

      The android game is a simple convert of the original Spectrum version. Same great game, none of the character, some issues with touch-screen control.

  11. AimHere says:

    Can’t pass up the opportunity to throw money at a Gollop. I’ve been doing it since the 1980s, and it’s getting too late to stop now!

    With all the talk of Chaos and XCom, I notice that nobody’s mentioned his (now sadly defunct) Laser Squad Nemesis yet. That would be the one point of reference which is closest to this project – in that it was an inherently online, tightly-focused, one-on-one turn-based game that provided me (and a bunch of other people) with years of fun. I’d stick it in my top ten games of all time even now, above even XCom and Chaos, and it shows that Gollop is definitely able to pull off this type of game.

  12. Stardreamer says:

    The big problem with disbelieve is that it has always been PvP only. Classically, In matches against the computer, the computer wizards simply spam any mid-to-late game creatures you create with it, rendering illusory creatures absolutely useless. I’m hoping the AI in this new game is more…human…in its approach.

    I’m also wondering if it isn’t also too powerful. Even though it’s not a full summoning, it still requires powerful magics to cast an illusion – particularly one capable of attacking other people! – but ‘disbelieve’ always pops it like a balloon? Perhaps if it took longer than one turn to get rid of an illusion, creating them might then become worth the bluff?

    • Themadcow says:

      What would make you want to disbelieve something again if you’d already tried and failed? Illusions could sometimes be overpowered in early game (first turn Green Dragon springs to mind – goodbye player 2 or 4…) but being unfair is one of the hallmarks of Gollop gaming, much like your squad getting blown to bits by a grenade before they get off the ramp in X-Com. Modern gamers often refer to such things as being bad game design, but then again I tend to refer to modern gamers as cry-babies.

      • Grygus says:

        Pointing out that Pablo Picasso is breaking rules of perspective is correct, it’s just missing the point. Similarly, pointing out that a grenade on the ramp is bad game design is actually true! It just doesn’t happen to matter in this particular case, because it is entirely intentional.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      In the original Chaos, the use of illusions in the end-game is primarily one-shot devices. Yes. they’d dispel a creature quickly, but in many situations, you only need one turn. The “Get close enough and summon a Golden Dragon which kills them before they get a chance to dispell it” gambit, basically.

      This isn’t actually possible in Chaos Reborn, due to some of the changes, but still.

    • Archonsod says:

      It’s because the AI always had to use a spell, and once all the one-shot spells had been cast it’d simply spam disbelieve at anything and everything.

      Although another fun bug was that it could eventually make corpses explode if you hit them two or three times.

  13. jonfitt says:

    Very exciting.

    I hope it gets sufficient players to sustain it as a MP game. I worry that those of us now in the colonies where Chaos was presumably not played, will find it hard to get a game. RPS forum matchups?

    • manny says:

      I don’t like multiplayer. Most of the time I just get my ass kicked. Luckily they are using unity they buy the a.I middle ware available from xaitment and hire an a.I programmer to develop some gold a.i

      • Caiman says:

        Chaos was always the kind of game where even newcomers had a chance of winning, though. Admittedly, good players are more likely to win, but random card selection and attack outcomes mean that victory is never certain. I played this game with the whole family, and even my gran managed to pull off the rare win even though she played pretty badly; usually because all the good players went for each other’s throats, and she was left to mop up the survivors with a lucky Golden Dragon. Chaos is ideally suited for online multiplayer.

    • toxic avenger says:

      Please, don’t call it the colonies.

  14. Moraven says:

    Sounds very board gamey, which is a good thing.

  15. manny says:

    Sorry but the aesthetics are terrible I can’t play a game this ugly

  16. XhomeB says:

    The visuals are slightly off-putting… Sure, the environments are rather lovely, but those character/creature models stick out like a sore thumb. Their reasoning for opting for this style might make sense on paper, but it just looks weird and unnecessarily austere in-game. Not enough detail.

    • Themadcow says:

      It’s a throwback to the original 1985 graphics which were mostly single colour and at most 3 or 4 animation frames, and very much an intentional decision. He’s pointed out that a lot of the graphics at the moment are placeholders but I’m fairly certain that the minimalistic design of the creatures is here to stay.

      The original Chaos is as good now as it was 29 years ago partly because the simple graphics used do not detract from the gameplay. In fact, one of my chief concerns for this update was that overly detailed graphics and 3D terrain might take away from the purity of the strategic layer.

      • XhomeB says:

        That’s not a good argument. Should we also leave the music and sound effects “as they were”, lest they “detract the player from the purity of the strategic layer”? Why create a computer game at all then, Chaos Reborn should have been a board game all along.
        Sure, 3D visuals shouldn’t detract from the overall gameplay experience, but the purpose of graphics is to *enhance* the aformentioned experience. This thing looks… lifeless. I’m not asking for something super-detailed, just something that doesn’t look like a bunch of neon crystals fighting.

    • Juke says:

      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).

      Seems premature to judge the art style based on designs that are noted here and on the Kickstarter page as very much work-in-progress.

      • XhomeB says:

        The Kickstarter page explicitly states this is the style they’re going for. Like I said, they might have their reasons, but I don’t like it. It’s minimalistic to a fault.

    • Gankatron says:

      I can understand that you don’t like the stylized appearance of the mob, but that doesn’t make it a bad decision, just different.

      I think the virtual board game element is sleek and appealing, but I can see how it may break the 4th wall and decrease immersion.

  17. McGuit says:

    Loved me some Chaos back in the day!
    Heck, take it now…. throws money at screen.
    Had to back at the $50 level.
    Come on folks, get on board.

  18. slerbal says:

    Backed and frankly I don’t back Kickstarters, but Julian Gollop deserves every penny, and even if Chaos: Reborn never sees the light of day I still happily give him my vote of confidence as he has never let me down. I hope his Kickstarter makes it, having been involved in a very recent uber-successful Kickstarter I also hope it doesn’t drive him mad with constant refreshing.comment checking :D

  19. Gankatron says:

    Upon release, what financial model will be used? Will it be a one time purchase, will it have microtransactions, will it have a subscription, and/or any combination of these payment models?

    • Gankatron says:

      Julian Gollop’s answer to my original question (from their forums) – “Chaos Reborn will be a simple one-off purchase – no in-app purchases.”

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