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Hands On: Solium Infernum

I've been craving Solium Infernum all year. It's almost certainly going to be the last of the 2009 Unknown Pleasures to debut before the year wraps up. For those who weren't around back then, Solium Infernum is a turn-based wargame that places you as an aspirant to the throne of hell. And frankly, that's a perfect set-up for a game as I can think of. With late-Beta code, I've had a chance to prod around and see what I think.

What I think is that I want to prod around it some more. Much like Cryptic Comet's last game - the genuinely brilliant Armageddon Empires - this is a hard nut to crack. If you remember, it took me a third of a year to actually persist enough with Armageddon Empires for it to click. Even then, it took until after the end of the year for anyone else to have properly explore it - and Alec, my equal and opposite in 'orrible indie strategy - found it had worked its way into his heart. Jim never tried. And if John did, he'd have another one added to the list of games which made have made him cry.

Much like with Armageddon Empire, I've played a game, realised I didn't get anything, restarted, and learned a little more. In fact, I managed to pull of a victory on my second go on a fairly small map. And - unlike Armageddon Empires - I actually sat down to at least skim the manual, because the first experience of the game was so genuinely bewildering.

(I couldn't work out why I couldn't actually end the turn, as it said there was something I still had to respond to. Except I couldn't find it anywhere. Now, I realise that there's multiple tabs for end-of-turn responses, which stick on whichever one you were on last, which... oh, it doesn't matter. Suffice to say, while the UI seems slicker than Armageddon Empires, it's still going to be a serious barrier.)

It's lucky because the entrance is a little slicker, because Solium Infernum, while it's a wonderfully crafted universe with its own challenges, it doesn't play like any other strategy game I can think of. Despite appearances of screenshots, it's less like a wargame and more like a a particularly aggressive dinner party. So yes, your armies go marching out claiming hexes like any other game. So you see something you want? Well, you can't invade because you're not at war. Well, declare war? No. This is hell. Things are terribly polite here. You need an excuse, so you have to manufacture one. So, for example, you can make a demand of another player - resources, terrain or valuable equipment. If they refuse, you can be offended, and state a vendetta. Alternatively, just insult them in open council. If they stand up for themselves, it's vendetta time again.

But you see the problem. If they accept that - yes - indeed, they are a petty lapdog of heaven or actually hand over what you demanded, you're screwed. You get what you wanted, but you don't get to declare war. As long as they're willing to be your proverbial bitch, you can't touch them.

Of course, there's reasons why they won't do that. The more you give up, the bigger demands the opposition can make. It's easy to just give up a few spare souls to stop someone invading you when you're not ready. When they're asking for your throne of skulls that amps up your most powerful demon legion, it's a harder pill to swallow. Even insults hurt - because the main way of winning the game (And I'm not even going to go into the other ways of doing so) is gaining prestige. Whoever has the most at the end of the game wins. You accept an insult and you lose prestige, so pushing you further away from winning. And the person who's doing the insult or demanding is wagering prestige on you wimping out too.

In other words, it's a game which embraces the idea of an aristocratic - and a bureaucratic - hell, and spins it out in as many ways as it can think of. For example, you don't build armies, but purchase what's available from an infernal bazaar. So you're bidding against your opponents for units. And, much like Armageddon Empires, it's a game that's based on a strict limitation of actions. You only get to give two orders a turn, unless you've upgraded your archdemon a little. At a maximum, you can get six. Me? In the two games I've played, I've only ever got three - and that's because I purchased a special ability giving me an extra one. When "demand resources" - as in, get stuff which you can use to do stuff - counts as an action, you can imagine how much you have to calculate what needs to be prioritised. You gather resources. You move an army. And... no, that's it, this turn. If you want to use rituals, upgrade your archdemon, start a diplomatic drive or go shopping, you'll have to stop one of them this turn.

In other words, intense. When my second game was cooking towards its conclusion - which I won - things were hectic in terms of me working out ways to prevent all the demonic wrath descending on me. Where to move my forces? When's best to submit? How much can I get on my knees to Belial while still staying ahead of him? Fun, unique strategic stuff. Mechanising the diplomacy to such a degree is a terribly clever move.

My main reservation now - except for just getting into it - is that the game does seem to have a slow start, bubbling along for some time before things seem to grow nastily intense. I suspect it's because I simply don't understand what's going on, and there's many things which I should be considering which I ignored in favour of marching out and getting as much terrain as possible. And - most importantly - this is primarily designed as a Play-by-e-mail game, and I haven't faced off against another human (or five). I plan to do so soon, as it's got ridiculous numbers of ways to amusingly screw over your friends. Quinns not having enough iron will be the least of his problems.

But yeah - this is oddly atmospheric, unique stuff. I especially like how the world map loops, subtly enhancing the overworldly vibe of it. I was wrestling with what I thought was a terrible tactical position, with half my armies on the other side of the world to the enemy offensive and only a few troops needed when I realised that they were so far over there that we'd actually sandwiched the enemy between all my armies. Woo! I'll show you hell, demons.

Also, it features a picture of an enormously fat man. Go fattie!

Highly promising, in short. Keep an eye on its site , chew over Bill Harris' notes and I'll say more when I play more.

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Solium Infernum


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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.