Monday, train, Oxford. Tuesday, train, Waterloo. Wednesday, train, Brighton. Thursday? I don't remember Thursday. Friday, train, Paris. Saturday, train, London. Sunday, train, Brighton. Repeat/mix/repeat/train train train. Small orange tickets everywhere. Map print-outs to places I've never been before, will never go to again. Long-distance job, long-distance relationship too, home is only the place where my bed happens to be. Glamorous? No, exhausting, hollowing. Yellow light on grey skin, slumped in a frayed, greasy fabric seat. No, I don't want drinks or snacks. Yes, here is my ticket, the one I've showed you and your machines time and again, again, again. Bored/tired/bored. Too many papers, too many books, too many MP3s. Games. I need games. Games that use my mind, that focus, sharpen and obsess it.
Slay. Slay is perfect. I shall attempt to gather up the pieces of my travel-maddened brain and tell you about it.
Slay is an independent turn-based strategy game from 1994, created by one man (with help from his brother) in an age where indie development was a very different thing to today's web-wide chest-beating and constant discovery. To stand out, you needed magazines and you needed coverdiscs.
My feelings about magazines - how I became a games journalist, both in terms of inspiration and experience - are complicated, to say the least. The limitations, the wordcounts, the slowness, the bloody boxouts... Oh, the great freedom of this internet of ours. We're spoiled by it, we really are. Magazines, though - they were and are an item to own and treasure, to read every element of whether you were interested or not. With PC gaming magazines in the 90s, you also tried everything on the coverdisc, with a hunger impossible in this age of Flash games and free MMO trials. It was a collection of videogames, of entertainments to last you a month. No picking and choosing - you would try them all. Where else would you get that many games from?
As it is often said, a games journalist plays dramatically more videogames than most gamers. I wonder, though. I played so many games in the 90s, just an incredible amount - only their demos, perhaps, but the speed and enthusiasm with which I consumed them must surely outdo the number that pass through my hard drive now. Even professionally, I pick and choose. I ignore much. I didn't used to do that - hell, I'd even play a football game if it was on the demo disc. I miss, I must admit, the days where I made the best of absolutely every miniscule gaming morsel I was offered. And so it was with Slay. I suspect I scowled at the MS Paint-like graphics, but I played it anyway. It was on the disc.
It was either PC Format or PC Zone. I don't remember much. I didn't remember it at all, in fact, until I happened to share one of those train journeys (oh God, the train journeys) with former Zone writer Richie Shoemaker, en route to see a French MMO. He passed his time playing something on his iPhone. I didn't see it, but asked for a description. Hex-based, territory-seizing, stacking units, a port of an old PC game. It rang no bells, but I scribbled down its name, keen to check it later.
Home, somehow. Idle moment. Google. Download. Install. Run.
Ah, nostalgia. That sucker-punch of sick familiarity, straight to the stomach. Never gets any milder, no matter how much I chide my own mawkishness. I don't remember the where, the when or the how, but I've definitely played this before. The ghostly half-memory is fond. I proceed.
No sleep last night. Dreams of tiny men on tiny hexes, carving a green path through a pixel world. I played Slay for hours this weekend. On trains, on buses, on laptop, on iphone, in bed, on the toilet. Slay was my weekend. It took over my mind, and it took over my dreams. I have not, dared not play it today. Plus, I don't have to catch any more trains until the weekend.
There is no weaker line in games journalism than "I was so addicted to GAME X that I didn't notice/forgot about STANDARD ACTIVITY OR EVENT." Sometimes, though, it's necessary and important to state it. Games can do that total absorption in a way other mediums don't, quite. It's not addiction - it's compulsion. It's not worthless - it's the mind engaged in sustained, complex athletics. It happens, it's terrible and it's wonderful and, oh, it's videogames.
Slay. A world divided into hexagons. Hexagons produce money. Money produces peasants. Peasants seize hexagons. Peasants are combined with more peasants or soldiers to create better soldiers. Soldiers kill peasants. When a peasant - or soldier - is killed, the hex he's on is seized.
The trick is in the linking. A handful of hexes can only sustain a couple of peasants - but grab enough territory to link it to another handful of hexes you own and you have yourself a large area. Enough to sustain a military presence, which in turn can defeat the enemy units and town which block your access to another handful of hexes you own. You spread like a virus, growing and shrinking, absorbing and cutting off. If the chain between areas is broken by an enemy seizing a key hex, you end up with two small handfuls of hexes again. Come the next turn, they'll both be filled with the tiny graves of your starved units. Seize and protect, don't think just one linking hexagon is enough. One soldier seizing it may mean the death of all your men. It then takes just one enemy peasant to seize a crucial unguarded hex, and your territory is split into two - neither half able to sustain a strong soldier. It can all be over so horrifyingly, thrillingly quickly.
This is all the maths you need:
Peasant strength 1, upkeep 2
Spearman strength 2, upkeep 6
Knight strength 3, upkeep 18
Baron strength 4, upkeep 64
You can make a Baron, the game's strongest unit, so, so easily - 4 peasants don't cost much at all. But creating a patch of 64 linked hexes to keep him fed... well, that's not easy. Not with five other factions trying to turn that patch of 64 into several much smaller patches. Slay is quick and vicious - one wrong move, most especially buying Knight or Baron when you don't have the infrastructure to support them, and your viral spread across the centre of the land evaporates into small, useless chunks.
The trees conspire against you too. Cut off a town from any hexes belonging to its faction and it'll collapse into woodland. Leave a grave standing too long and flora will grow. Leave the coastline unattended and palms will flourish. If a tree appears on a hex, that hex will earn no money. That tree will also spread to a neighbouring hex come the next turn. The trees must be stopped.
There is strange and desperate strategy in this. So often, your inclination will be to send your powerful Knight - the equivalent of three peasants, and able to take down forts as well as town and soldiers - to seize a well-defended hex, possibly one that will achieve that beautiful linkage. A little south of him, though, are a couple of trees. Just two little tree. Leave 'em alone, and next turn it'll be three trees. One more turn and it'll be five. If that Knight is the only unit in this patch of hexes, you'll only be able to chop down one tree in said turn. That won't stop them. They'll spread and spread, until they've covered so much territory that the Knight can't be supported. The trees will kill him. The proliferation of this silent, static vegetation is terrifying. You have to kill all the trees. If a unit's choice of actions for a turn is between killing an enemy or chopping down the tree, chop down the damn tree if you want to live.
Slay is so simple, so clever, and so brutal. 'Slay' seems, from afar, a ridiculous name for this nearly unanimated, beyond basic-looking thing. Yet it's the only appropriate name for a game where even the trees are trying to murder you.
There's a free demo of Slay here, which contains the first level, but to unlock the lot (plus multiplayer and a level editor) you'll need to pay the openly ludicrous price of $20. Given the better-looking, better-of-interface (though entirely multiplayer-free) iPhone/Pad version is currently $1.99/£1.19, that's crazy. Hopefully creator Sean O'Connor will drop the price of the splendid Windows original before too long. Oh, and there's also a free Lite version for iPhone, if you want to try it out that way.