Analysis: How Solium Infernum Raises Hell

In this column, Quintin Smith looks at the innovative design ideas behind underworld PC strategy game and labor of love Solium Infernum, and explains why it's so good -- and thought provoking -- to reign in Hell.
[In this column, Quintin Smith looks at underworld PC strategy game and labor of love Solium Infernum, and explains why it's so good -- and thought provoking -- to reign in Hell.] Hell - now there's a setting for a video game. Hell lets a game's artists and writers run naked and wild and free, and in just-released indie strategy game Solium Infernum it also happens to tease out some hugely intelligent design ideas. I'm glad for that, because it balances out the damage done to my precious brain every time I see footage from Dante's Inferno. Man, that game. You take not only a nonviolent epic poem but the single most nightmarish and psychedelic setting known to Western civilization and you use it to make... a God of War clone? Are you kidding? By contrast, Solium Infernum is a turn-based, play-by-email creation, and it's my second favourite game this year. Good year for demons, I guess. Despite the hex map, Solium Infernum isn't quite a war game. It's all about prestige. The story of any game of Solium goes like this: Satan's missing, and the Infernal Conclave are meeting to appoint a new ruler of Hell in, oh, some 40 turns. It's an unknown number that changes every game. Each player (AI or human) controls an Archfiend of some reknown, and the Archfiend with the most Prestige points when the conclave meets at the end of the game is appointed the new ruler of Hell. Reputation is everything, making it a game of personality and public relations, back-room deals and threats. So, having to fight a war is useless and to be avoided. But winning a war, or being the Fiend with the balls to start one? Yeah, that might be worth your time. The principle way of getting Prestige is taking control of the places of power scattered randomly across the map. The Halls of Avarice, the Tree of Woe, the Gates of Hell and so on. March one of your legions over to it, successfully do battle with the demons inside and it's yours. Nice! But about 10 turns into a game all of these places will have been taken, which is, of course, when the lot of you start hungrily eyeing up your neighbours' places of power. But you can't (publicly) attack another player without the Infernal Conclave's OK. That's where diplomacy comes in, which in Sol Infernum comes down to either poking or stroking egos. Your options are: Demand something of another Archfiend, insult them, or send them a gift. If you make a demand and the other player doesn't hand it over, you lose prestige but then get the chance to start a short, Conclave-sponsored war known as a vendetta. Insult someone and you'll take prestige from them, unless they rebuke the insult by declaring a vendetta against you. As for gifts, if a player accepts a gift (usually resources of some kind) then they lose the ability to insult or make demands from the gift-giver for a while. But you can also humiliate any emissaries sent to you bear gifts, which acts like an insult. Tricky, tricky. But then, of course it's tricky. This is Hell. Nothing is simple, everything is skewed and maddening and all of it requires not just attention but thought. As a strategy game Solium Infernum's demand for actual brains shouldn't feel like a breath of fresh air, but it does. Hellish, choking, scalding hot, ash-filled fresh air. Resourceful With Resources Another example of Solium's tasty cruelty is how you acquire new Legions (armies), Praetors (champions), artifacts, relics or manuscripts. You can't just buy something, you have to check out a marketplace known as the Infernal Bazaar to see what's available, then place blind bids on what you want. There's only one of everything, but new stuff appears fairly regularly. Naturally this creates the subgame of trying to figure out what your opponents might bid on and second guessing them. And even the resources you're bidding with have a twist of their own; the four different types (souls, ichor, hellfire and darkness) are acquired randomly when you demand tribute from your minions, meaning you're almost always working with a deficit of at least one type. Demanding resources from another Archfiend is even worse because they'll actively be trying to give you what you don't need. There's no safe way to trade, either. Nothing's stopping you from entering discussions with another human-controlled Archfiend and agreeing to send each other things, but, well. That requires an amount of trust it's unwise to have in Hell. Worse still, resources are acquired and spent in 'card' form, so you don't just have four ichor, you might have a card worth three ichor and another card containing both one ichor and one hellfire. The ramifications of this are quiet and terrible. If you're playing a charismatic Archfiend you'll get valuable resource cards as tribute from your minions, which is great until your neighbour with his war-like Archfiend comes knocking on your door and demands four resource cards. Unlike everyone else, you don't have the option of handing over some useless crap to placate him. The cards you're holding would fund an army. And just wait until the Archfiends with high prophecy ratings mange to read your charisma stat, because then they'll come calling too, licking their lips with tongues like whips. Which is the main reason Solium's such a good game for scheming. Whether your demon's vocation is war, amassing resources, stealing, bribing, arena battles, knowledge, artifacts or whatever else you choose to develop, it's all hidden from everybody else. So you watch your opponents, you bite your nails, you wonder about their stats and tricks and secret objectives and doubly secret alliances. You start plotting because you know everyone else must be. Eventually you'll start questioning your own friends, doubting your own cards. It's great. You start to go a little mad, down there in the dark. The second reason the lot of you start scheming like Disney villains is because your Prestige points are right there next to your name, so any high-risers naturally become the targets of invasions, insults and theft. Winning is something to be done on tip-toes. It's fascinating and deeply psychological, and it makes you remember what strategy actually is. The Benefit Of Restriction All the strategy games on the shelves these days, everything from Company of Heroes to Supreme Commander to the Total War games, they're all guilty of demanding play which is either too fast, too large-scale or has too many variables, all of which weaken the role of strategy and hand more power over to the speed of your mouse-clicks or your knowledge of the game. Solium Infernum, like Cryptic Comet's Armageddon Empires before it, is the opposite. It's enormously restrictive. Not only are you constantly battling a huge dearth of resources, but you only get very few 'orders' every turn. Two in the early game, perhaps as many as four in the late game. Want to move a unit? That's an order. Want to give a gift to another player? That's an order. Want to bid on something at the bazaar? That's an order, and sorry buster, don't you know you ain't got any orders left? It's time to sit back and see if any of the other players chose to screw you over this turn. Being restricted in how much you can do is not a bad thing, not in a game with as much color as this. It simply makes every choice agonizing, and, hey, that's what strategy is supposed to be in the first place! Sorry, had you forgotten? Equal Opportunity Destroyer More than any game I've played in years, Solium Infernum nails the sensation of staring at a screen and losing yourself in the cold glory of a difficult decision. It doesn't matter if you're winning or you're better at the game than everybody else. Because everyone has such a strict order limit, two players ganging up on you will almost always be able to outmaneuver you. Conversely, it doesn't matter how bad your position is, either. Thanks again to that order limit, everyone tends to harass the lead players instead of wasting time keeping the losers down, and one well-timed event card can tip the playing field utterly. The event cards are also slightly skewed towards helping the underdogs. The Beast Has Arrived means every player with a place of power gets an entire legion randomly gobbled up, for example. But before I put one hand on your back and steer you slightly aggressively to the page where you can buy Solium Infernum I should probably remind you that the only multiplayer it offers is play-by-email. That's where all the players take their turn and send their 'turn' file to a host, who processes your moves then sends you a master turn file back. But it's not really a problem. The joy in Solium Infernum is in mulling over decisions that are capable of making appearances in your head while you're cleaning, exercising, cooking dinner, having sex, attending an important job interview or performing open heart surgery. These are beautiful decisions, ones which shouldn't be rushed. Much better to have a game that drifts on for the better part of three weeks than to guiltily complete your turn as quickly as possible. Besides, slow games mean you all get to send covert emails to one another offering alliances, knowledge and services. And you get to scheme that much more. I guess I should also mention that the interface is awkward and there's no tutorial, so you'll need to read the manual. But since I've already mentioned the hexes and you're still reading, I'm thinking that won't matter to you. I'm also thinking that I like you. I bet we'd be friends if we ever met. I think you'd like me. You know what else I think you'd like? Solium Infernum. I think you should buy it. You can buy it right here. I'd lend you the cash, but I think I left my wallet in my other, uh, article. Probably quicker you just buy it yourself. [Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Every Game Ever. You can currently find him in the damp Irish city of Galway or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]

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