Indie development studio Cryptic Comet are, in some ways, the apple of RPS's eye. Seeking a return to the good old days of PC turn-based strategy, they created both Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum, two of the best indie games of the last few years, and our write-up of a single Solium Infernum game is my favourite feature RPS has ever published.
Imagine my thrill, then, at hearing a few weeks ago that they'd made a beta version of their next game- a shorter, cheaper, dedicated single player project by the name of Six Gun Saga- available to all pre-order customers. I've personally overseen the deaths of some fifty cowpokes and greenhorns in this game of tough cowboys and tougher decisions, and have assembled some impressions after the jump.
But first, I need to tell you wot it is. As with all of Cryptic Comet head Vic Davis' games, Six Gun Saga is such a unique and tutorial-free creation that trying to play to play without reading the manual is akin to trying to brew tea using cold water. However, rather than the sprawling eight hour games Cryptic Comet have put out in the past, Six Gun Saga is a kind of nerd solitaire- a game should take you about half an hour, a length of time that Vic says makes the game a "palette cleanser".
In Six Gun Saga you play one of eight legends of the Old West (both fictional and real) ranging from Wyatt Earp to El Indio on a quest for that most timeless of Wild West status symbols: victory points.
Let's mosey on over to a screenshot of a game in progress. You're going to have to indulge me in all this Hollywood Western vernacular- when was the last time the PC got a Wild West game? And a man has needs.
Click for bigger!
Alright, the first thing I'm going to direct your attention to are the three cards in the centre right reading "Apache Raid", "Indian Uprising" and "Shoot Up the Town". These are the game's current objectives. Your goal, and the goal of the one to three AI opponents you'll be playing against, is to create posses (represented by the brightly-coloured blobs of wax) and travel them from your headquarters to a suitable objective card, whereupon they'll start sucking the victory points from the objective and giving them to you.
Once each objective is completed it's replaced with a new one and the posse that completed it is dropped back in the owner's headquarters. Unless it's a posse of native Americans, in which case they're liable to get distracted by a bald eagle or something and go wandering off into the wilderness.
The heart of the game, then, is in building posses and sending them off to complete objectives, while trying to avoid stronger enemy posses and gun down the weaker ones when you have a chance.
How do you build posses? Well, I'm GLAD YOU ASKED. I'm not actually glad you asked. Explaining this game is going to take 800 words, I know it.
So, while building posses and claiming objectives is your goal, 90% of your turn will be taken up with fretting over your small hand of cards, seen at the bottom of the above image. As with all of Vic Davis' games, Six Gun Saga is a game that fastens your attention in a vice by giving you very few resources and forcing you to make tough decisions every single turn and an incredibly difficult decision every five turns.
In short, and I'm paraphrasing this from something I wrote about Armageddon Empires some three years ago, they're strategy games that demand the player thinks. Like, ceaselessly. These games lock your brain into a full nelson and press your face into problem after problem until you're gasping for air. For anybody who enjoys strategy, there's a sense of awe you come away with after playing Armageddon Empires or a multiplayer game of Solium Infernum- a feeling that this is what strategy can be. It is the furthest thing in the world from firing up a game of Civilization V and spending most of your turns on cerebral autopilot.
Where was I? Right, yes- your hand of cards. Let's zoom in on one of them.
Here's your average Dude, the gunfighters or townsfolk that you'll be paying for out of your tiny (always tiny) fistful of dollars. There are also ambush and "deed" cards, but let's stick with the dudes you can hire for the minute. Hiring a dude is a good thing to do, seeing as bigger posses (or more posses) will ultimately win the game. However, as well as hiring dudes (the topmost button on the right of the card), you'll see that you have three other options.
The next button down lets you discard the card for its cash value. This is always a good option, as you never have enough money to buy all the cards you want to, let alone pay their upkeep.
The grey button beneath that lets you add the card to a posse, but not as a fighter- every card in Six Gun Saga also has a value taken from a regular 52 deck of playing cards. So, your Man With No Name card might also be a seven of clubs. Combat sees both sides getting a boost to their combat rating according to the best hand they can make from five randomly drawn poker cards, and additional cards you attach to your posses using the grey button act as hole cards that give them an edge in their next fight. Very useful.
Finally, every card in the game will have a randomly assigned Action, which can do anything from burning down an opponent's bank to giving a prize gunfighter on the table tuberculosis. You laugh, but these things will happen to you. Possibly both on the same turn. The blue button lets you discard a card to receive its action. Sometimes useless, sometimes invaluable. But even if the action's useless there's still that temptation to hold onto the card, in case it becomes invaluable next turn.
As you can imagine, with an entire hand of cards at your disposal, the decision of which to keep, which to cash in, which to use and what to use (and how to use it) will typically have you performing whatever tic it is you do when tangling with some multi-pronged dilemma. I tap my front teeth with the nail of my index finger. Feel free to share your own in the comments.
Anyway, that's basically Six Gun Saga. You can also drop Ambush cards in your opponents' territory as murderous speed-bumps for their Posses and play Deed cards that'll give you a bank or saloon or a share in the state-owned prison for a few turns before the structure inevitably catches fire. Goddamn Deed cards.
Even more so than usual Six Gun Saga looks dreary in screens, so let me do what I can to explain the appeal with an example of play.
It's half way through a game. The bad guys - your guys - lead by hated outlaw Dirty Dave Rudabaugh are level pegging for victory points with the posses of Boss Snead, legendary gambler.
As your turn starts you notice that Snead's biggest posse, the one with the gatling gun, has just moved onto the Bank Robbery objective card. Those sons'a bitches! That was, as usual, the card you were planning to attack. As you're considering your options, you have a realisation that fills you up with dread like cheap whiskey filling a greasy shot glass. You own the bank. The Bank Robbery objective's special trait is that if your posse claims it and someone else has the bank, that someone loses $10- or enough to buy three quality gunmen in Six Gun Saga's world.
You begin scheming. What are your options? Clearly you have to dislodge Snead's posse, but how? Ohmigosh! You've just noticed that the two unemployed cowhands that you've been holding in your hand since forever both have 7 as their poker values. First things first, you attach them both to your biggest posse, giving that posse a pocket pair in their next gunfight- a huge boost. You play another card for it's robbery action, nicking some dollars away from Boss Snead's stash, thus limiting his ability to use his gatling gun's special "ammo" ability. Finally, you hire Thomas Ketchum and slot him into that big posse of yours, too. Your men's upkeep now outstrips your paltry income, but whatever. You'll worry about that next turn.
With a couple of clicks you dispatch you get your mighty posse to hit the road... and walk them straight into someone's ambush card. Mexican Banditos have waylaid you, and since this is your posse's next fight, they'll use up that pocket 7, too. You're looking at the monitor as if it just spat at you. Boss Snead's outwitted you again.
So far, I quite like Six Gun Saga. It's too unique for me not to like it, really, and it absolutely confirms Vic Davis' knack for coming up with strange breeds of strategy that you've never seen before in your life.
But each time I've played a game of it, I've yet to feel much of a desire to return. Reading Vic's blog, he gives the impression that this game was something of a nightmare to piece together, and also took him far longer than he was expecting. It sounds like he was (understandably) expecting a smaller, solitaire-like game to be less work than his previous sprawling strategy games, but I can't help but imagine that outside of the AI, it'd be harder. More than anything, playing Six Gun Saga I felt like I was playing a strategy game on the scale of his previous titles but with the world map and some extra features removed.
I'm also not sure that the Wild West theme is as conduscive to Cryptic Comet's trademark seductive art as the post-apocalyptic and Hellish universes of his previous games; that art brought the cards to life, and when you combined two or more of those cards in a fight it was like somebody kickstarting your imagination. The art in Six Gun Saga isn't any less or more impressive, it's simply that every drawing is of a man with some facial hair.
Precisely how much Six Gun Saga will change when it's officially released on June 30th is anybody's guess, though we'll be bringing you wot we think in full at a later date. Until then, anyone who's in the mood for some early access to an imaginative solo card game of eyewateringly brutal shootouts and plenty of tense plays can get their hands on Six Gun Saga by paying a sum of $12 over on the game's official site. Big Cryptic Comet fans should swoop in early, as that price will be increasing to $15 after the game's released.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a sunset to ride off into. And some tuberculosis to catch.