Are videogames the Devil’s work? Sure, probably. But that Devil guy, he’s okay by us. In fact, all his cousins are getting their party on behind the most recent door of our seasonally festive advent-o-calendar. Assuming you’re standing at a crossroads, ready to make the deal, it’s time to follow the hand of the one true leader of the Autobots, and get down in the nine circles…
Kieron: Hello Quinns!
Quinns: Hi Archfiend Kieron!
Kieron: Ah yes – Archfiend Quinns of the pit of eternal salivations.
Quinns: Charmed. I can’t tell you how glad I am Solium Infernum came out this year. It’s genuinely the game that’s letting me look forward to 2010. I adore it.
Kieron: I’m crazy over it. It’s an odd companion piece to Blood Bowl in many ways for me. As in, a Board Game re-imagined for the PC. And it’s fun to see a game I loved from the announcement actually turn out to be exactly what I thought it’d be.
Quinns: I’d barely given it any thought for at least nine months, which only heightened my excitement when it did come out and I suddenly found myself playing something so different, so strange and complex.
Kieron: Totally. We probably should describe it. I mean, RPS has written about it… but not really enough.
Quinns: The complexity is the thing, I think. I love that after spending 15 hours with it you and I were still stumbling across new rules and starting to grasp subtleties. It feels like a game worthy of all the time you put in.
Kieron: Let me do the basics. Hell’s throne is vacant. Satan’s fucked off. The assorted aristocracy now are trying to decide who’ll be in charge. After a period of time – the length of the game – they’ll put whoever has the most prestige in charge. You win prestige by being the best demon. Winning wars, winning duels, insulting one another and owning the finest real-estate. The main twist is that it’s very polite. You don’t get to just start wars – you have to manipulate an excuse to doing so. In other words – it’s primarily a political game, but set in hell, so you get all kinda of fabulous awesomeness to control. In other words, fantastic concept, original ideas, brilliant execution. How can I not love it?
Quinns: If I was going to add one thing to that description it’d be that all that fabulous awesomeness you control, the beautiful armies and the praetors you choose to lead them, the rituals, relics, artifacts and manuscripts you amass, has to be chosen from incredibly carefully each turn. You have so few Orders before the end of each turn that strategy is always a factor. It plays like keyhole surgery at times. You might not have enough orders to equip your legion and send them into battle, but you might have the orders to pull them back until next turn.
Kieron: Much like Armageddon Empires, it’s totally a game of difficult choices with harsh, harsh limits. I mean, for the opening, you’re going with 2 turns a go. Move an army? Demand resources from your slaves? That’s you done. To even buy new stuff or cast rituals, you’re stopping one of them.
Quinns: Right. Possibly the biggest consequence of those orders, and something I love the game for, is even just 2 players ganging up on a third can be devastating, simply because they have more orders to work with. And that’s a feature that simultaneously balances any game and makes it suitably political.
Kieron: The other thing being there’s so many different ways to BE strong.
Quinns: Ah yes.
Kieron: We’re not even near understanding what builds for your Archfiend – and the whole of your forces – are feasible.
Quinns: Right. And I love that the build for your Archfiend, whichever stats and perks you pick, is hidden from everybody else. It means that as a game progresses you don’t learn that “Oh, my opponent Graszk has 3 Wrath, better steer clear of his Destruction rituals,” you just absorb this vibe that people who go up against him tend to disappear. Or if someone’s playing an Archfiend with masses of Charisma and tribute bonuses then you simply tend to notice he can always afford everything. It’s like how in Armageddon Empires you always applied personalities to the AI, just stepped up a gear.
Kieron: Yeah, absolutely.
Quinns: By the end of a 50 turn game your opponents have become real people through nothing but watching their moves.
Kieron: Real people you hate. Even the ones you’re allied with. Especially the ones you’re allied with.
Quinns: I hate my slave. Let’s talk about blood vassals!
Kieron: This is the political endgame, basically. You can’t win? You become someone’s bitch. A prison bitch in hell.
Quinns: Your jealousy is palpable.
Kieron: I couldn’t be your bitch because… oh, this is getting to the diaries. One thing about Solium – well, as good as it is now, I can see it growing to become even better. It’s the other thing which reminds me of Blood Bowl – the Board Game – in that it’s had this sort of living rule-book. There’s some aspects and rituals which I can totally see Vic tweaking in future releases. It’s a horrendously complicated game to balance… and that it’s as good as it is, is totally a testament to its joys. I mean, look at the AI situation – the game’s clear weakness. It’s definitely improved since release.
Quinns: Here’s how Blood Vassals work: If you have less than half of another player’s prestige points and territory you can apply to become their Vassal. Your prestige gets immediately halved if they say yes, but the prestige total you end the game with gets added to theirs, you become free to move around one another’s territory, and while you lose access to all diplomacy options your Lord player’s wars becomes yours.
Kieron: So the whole endgame can be people pairing up.
Quinns: In theory.
Kieron: Talk about power behind the throne!
Quinns: Oh God. The terror.
Kieron: THE WORM TURNS! THE BITCH-MAKER BECOMES THE BITCH-EE!
Quinns: The Power Behind The Throne is a perk anyone can pick which takes up almost all of your character building points, but means if you end the game as a vassal and your lord wins, you win in place of your lord.
Kieron: I mean, how scary is that?
Quinns: And literally never stop laughing for the rest of your life.
Kieron: Which will be exactly be the time it takes for your blood Lord to get a bus, drive across the country and throttle you. Even worse, there’s King Maker. Where you pick a player, and if they win, you win.
Quinns: Which I find more interesting.
Kieron: Yeah. It’s interesting in that it screws that player – they can never win. UNLESS they simply crush you into the ground when they realise you’re doing it to them, and are that weak.
Quinns: Subtly manipulating the entire game from the get go. Watching for when they go to war, then stealing their opponent’s war machines and bribing away their praetors from the sidelines.
Kieron: Because it’s possible, when relationships get bad enough, to actually go to proper non-Vendetta war and wipe them out of the game.
Quinns: I knew this would happen. Instead of us talking about what this game means to us, it’s just become us giggling excitedly about the rules. Which is one of the reasons I know how much I love this game. I find myself explaining the rules to anyone who’ll listen.
Kieron: That’s the thing THIS IS A GAME.
Quinns: YES. GOD, yes.
Kieron: It’s about interesting novel mechanics and using them to fuck people over.
Quinns: And READING THE MANUAL.
Kieron: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE (AND DO NOT READ THE MANUAL). It makes no concessions to you. It’s just the way it is. If you go along, you’ll have an amazing time. If you don’t… well, it’s your loss, really. File next to Dwarf Fortress.
Quinns: The worst / best thing was in our game where you idly mentioned I didn’t fully understand a very important rule and refused to tell me what it was. I was breathing through my mouth with clenched teeth as I fired up the manual again.
Kieron: I wish I’d actually just lied better then. I could have just lied to you about the rules. And it’ll be just revenge for what I’ll refer to as THE BATTLE OF THE MANUAL INCIDENT
Quinns: I’ve enjoyed how, following that battle, you’ve contented yourself with keeping your armies back and flinging fireballs and obliteration rituals at my boys from the top of your stronghold.
Quinns: (You bastard.)
Kieron: There’s more than one way to skin a cat Especially in hell, where there’s rooms full of people skinning cats. And people.
Quinns: You know what my favourite moment playing Solium was? There was one turn late in our game where the entire game was balanced on the top of a pyramid, and I found myself writing down my plans and thoughts on physical paper with an actual pencil. I haven’t needed to use plant matter and carbon aids for years, but the game had gotten too complex. Or more accurately, my schemes had gotten too twisty. I had too many counter-moves planned, and I was trying to plot in the consequences of my actions after factoring in every way anyone might screw me over.
Kieron: There’s games which need you to upgrade your PC. It’s a pleasure to wrestle with one where the lacking hardware is the fleshy-grey thing between your ears.
Quinns: It’s what I wanted out of Supreme Commander, in some ways. Something so smart and huge I couldn’t help but be tested. God, I can’t wait until the inevitable expansions come along and make Solium even bigger. My three brains and eight mouths must be fed.
Kieron: How many angels can dance on the head of the pin and all that.
Quinns: Depends how tight you make their harnesses.
Kieron: TIGHT. And part of me loves that in this season of goodwill to all men, we’re playing a game based around hell. Oh – there’s a turn in your inbox, sir.
Quinns: Christ. Here we go again.
Kieron: Go to hell, Quinns.