Crispy Gamer

Solium Infernum (PC)

Game journalists go on about games as art so often that we forget that they are also a science. Good game design is like astrophysics. You have a system with a lot of different moving parts, each of which has to contribute to a whole. Game mechanics are relative, too, because what works in one game system will undo or undermine another. Yes, there is artistry and even some alchemy, but every good game design is a universe unto itself. Change gravity and poof, things start going screwy.

If we begin to consider game designers as scientists, we should put aside some grant money for Vic Davis, the one-man band behind Cryptic Comet. His Armageddon Empires was 2007's best independent game. Solium Infernum is better, deeper and more rewarding than many mainstream strategy titles this year. With Solium Infernum, Davis establishes himself as one of the most creative and versatile designers in the indie arena. SI is nothing like Armageddon Empires and like nothing else you will play this year or next. It's a shame that few will play it at all.

To appreciate the remarkable things about Solium Infernum, you have to start with the setting. The game imagines a Hell where there is no ruler. You and your opponents are competing to become the new Satan. The easy way to make a game like this would be to build a conquest game with armies and a war in Hell. Create lots of demonic units and buildings made of fire and, voil?, instant game.

Solium Infernum
Though it is a hex-based map, it is not a wargame.

Davis did not take the easy way. Since you have to challenge God, you have to be a compelling figure. Therefore you accumulate Prestige, and military success is only one route to Prestige. You can embarrass your rivals by forcing them to submit to your demands. You can buy rare treasures for your vault that impress the Hellish parliament that chooses the leader at the end. You can undermine your enemies' Prestige through theft or dark rituals.

This is decidedly not a typical strategy game. Approaching it that way will lead to failure. Solium Infernum is constructed like a board game. Except for hex ownership, the map itself never changes. You have very few units in play, and resources and powers take the form of cards that you can attach to armies or buildings. Solium Infernum is not really about territorial control. The resources you gather to spend at the marketplace are tied not to the space you own, but to your avatar's Charisma rating and the cards that are in play. While the early game is the usual land rush to claim "places of power" that give nice bonuses, it soon becomes a matter of calculated gambles and incremental movement. Losing one or two hexes can be a big deal, not because of what they have but because it can take a lot to make that happen.

To continue the science metaphor, you will need to experiment and dissect things a bit. Every system has a counter and every counter has a special fail condition. There are so many moving parts that it's a wonder the machine doesn't spin out of control, tossing random demons into ditches along the highway to Hell. But after many turns of watching your resources come in, you will have your eureka moment -- the turn where you realize you are at the point where science becomes art; the turn where it all comes together. The turn where you realize that the interlocking parts and rigid structure are what make Solium Infernum so captivating.

Solium Infernum
Since online gaming is about insults anyway...

Take warfare, for example. You can't simply attack your enemy -- you need to manufacture a reason for war. You can either insult your rivals or make demands of them, both of which cost you Prestige. If your enemy rebuffs you, you can go to war, but it's a very formal war. The one who declares it sets the terms for victory, and these terms are hidden from the defender, making the game a series of small bets instead of one big payoff. There is a lot of secrecy, more than I usually want in a genre that prizes information. But this secrecy and deceit is not just perfect for the theme; it's integral to keeping everyone in the game. Trailing players can find ways to overcome a bad starting position with clever use of rituals, events and relics, or a well-crafted avatar. One attribute -- the Kingmaker -- allows you to win even if you lose, provided you back the right horse from the start.

For now, Solium Infernum has no tutorial, no FAQ, no walkthrough, and precious few rollover tooltips. The manual is first-rate, but geared toward the spelunker willing to dive for details, not the newcomer who just wants to take it out for a spin. There is a good chance some people will not figure the game out -- and even if they do, they might not like it. The lack of basic UI functions, like card sorting and clearer distinctions between enemy units, will lead a lot of people to give up when they mistake one turd-colored enemy legion for another. And Solium Infernum's emphasis on deception, advance planning and making do with a crap hand mean the artificial intelligence is often outmatched if it can't take a huge early lead.

So it's hard to play, brain-dead and sometimes frustrating in a bad way. What's not to love?

It turns out that Hell is not just other people; Hell requires them. Like last spring's Demigod, this is a game best played multiplayer. The scheming and deceit means that Solium Infernum only really comes alive and unveils its deepest mysteries with other people working against you. This is a board game with a fair amount of randomness built in, and the lackadaisical computer opponents can't keep up with true deviousness.

The way the rules interact puts much of the multiplayer action in the realm of game theory and amateur psychology. While still charming and worth a look as a single-player game, Solium Infernum's power is in not quite knowing which friend just screwed you over. Only careful examination of the map and unit positions can help you determine who is doing what, and they could be messing with your head. And, once again, there is a counter to all of this hidden gameplay, because the right ritual can expose your enemies' secret strengths.

Solium Infernum
It's important to invest in powering up your avatar.

The turns move very quickly, but the only multiplayer options are old-school play by email or hot-seat. How can I recommend what is, essentially, a complicated board game with no strong AI opponent purely for the pleasures of play by email? What makes Solium Infernum different from Matrix's Empires in Arms or any of the terrible computer versions of Diplomacy?

First, this is not a digital shadow of somebody else's rules. This is a wholly original game, and the only way to play Solium Infernum is to buy it. There are no Vassal or CyberBoard options here. Second, it is a wholly original world. Though the game is allegedly inspired by Milton's "Paradise Lost," the names and places and objects are mostly Davis' own creation, and the first-class art paints a Hell that is part Hieronymus Bosch and part Dungeons & Dragons. Third, very few other games give trailing players as much stake in sticking through to the end as Solium Infernum does. You want to see how it all turns out and then immediately start a new game.

Solium Infernum
Even the spartan board manages to evoke the theme.

Don't get me wrong. I am not praising originality for the sake of being different, nor am I on some Children's Crusade against clich? and derivative design. There is genuine inspiration in Solium Infernum that is worth the hard work it takes to appreciate it. Do I recommend that everyone buy this game? No. If this is the first you have heard of it, you should probably read some forum threads about it elsewhere and come back. Or maybe wait for an AI update and walkthrough. But if you are the type of gamer who enjoys uncovering things, the type who sees Dwarf Fortress as the landmark accomplishment it undoubtedly is, then you absolutely cannot miss Solium Infernum.

This is a game for people who see games as systems. It is for people who swear by Meier's Maxim that a game is a series of interesting decisions. It is for people who find science and math two of the most beautiful things in the world.

This review is based on version 1.02 of the game provided by the publisher.