By ahoodedfigure 1 Comments
When I haven't been playing Darklands or writing essays of varying levels of clarity, I've pretty much been playing all three of Cryptic Comet's releases. I helped playtest one of the games, but I found each of the games different enough that there really hasn't been any replacement when I want to just sit down for a little while and play a game to its conclusion. They all fall under the strategy game umbrella, but there tends to be so much chaos in these games that they feel much more tactical. It's not so much about memorizing development charts or anything, despite all the scary numbers and dry-looking UI that kept me from trying Armageddon Empires for... years I think, the games tend to be light on the rules for specific events. The depth comes in putting all the simple rules together, then dealing with problems while things are flying at you from all directions. It's sort of the difference between games like Doom, where the emphasis is on running and gunning, and more incremental, event-based shooters that have come since. Cryptic Comet games have enough random events that it becomes more about you experiencing the system and getting surprises and cool combinations of abilities that help you pull off a win, and they always have good art and music, as well as doing whatever theme they're setting up justice, both in general atmosphere and gameplay. They're not for everybody, but I enjoy them long after fancier games have faded from my memory.
The games are for sale from the Cryptic Comet website. The prices aren't like you'll see at Steam (unless you get roped into one of those massive bundles); they're a bit more on the hobby side of the pricing divide. These games definitely don't copy anything that's out there, though, which is damned inspiring. I'll talk briefly about each of the games, if you're curious.
Armageddon Empires was the first, and in some ways it's the one I enjoy the most relative to my time investment. In it you take control of forces that survived a global apocalypse, each with different types of forces that develop in different ways and have a whole set of possibilities that, while not mutually exclusive from the others, tend to make them play out in different ways. The game treats this fragmented, post-apocalyptic scramble for resources and allies mechanically with a collectible card game style mechanic where you have a deck of cards that represent troops, bases, leaders, scientists and doomsday devices. Each card requires a certain amount of resources to play. You get these resources at the start of every turn, and can find more as you explore the randomized map to set up resource gathering equipment, as well as finding hidden caches and resource generating buildings. Thing is, at the start of every turn, you also have to roll to see which side in the conflict goes first for the round, and you can modify that chance by spending resources. The more you spend the more likely you are to get a ton more action points and a jump on your ruthless AI opponent (especially useful when you've finally figured out where they are and are looking to strike), but you'll have fewer resources to spend on new cards and to fuel some existing cards' abilities.
The total of all this is exploration, resource management, and strategic gambles. In the generous demo you get 30 turns before it shuts down, but I usually manage to plow through the game in that amount of time and it doesn't feel so much like a limit. The demo has two of the four factions, and I tend to play the humans; the machines are harder for me to do right. I get some satisfaction out of getting an army mobilized and sufficiently strong to blast through whatever the enemy has built up over so many turns, and usually the randomness tends to flatten out enough that I'm able to impose some order on the random draws and random terrain. Makes for a good, relatively short game.
The next was Solium Infernum. In it each player is an arch fiend vying for the throne of Hell after Lucifer abandoned it. The games can be long, and unlike with the demo of Armageddon Empires there is no set time limit to completion. There are conclave tokens which are randomly drawn which give you an idea how close you are to the end, but there can be several turns where a token isn't drawn, and this feeling of uncertainty bleeds through to just about everything. The chaos in this game, appropriate for Hell, is ramped up quite a bit. You gather resources through demanding it from your subjects, but the tribute they can give you varies from turn to turn. While sometimes this can mean you don't have enough resources to follow through on your plans, it also forces you, like in Armageddeon Empires, to react tactically to situations that the game hands you.
Players are AI, but can also be hotseat players or PBEM players. The biggest lament I hear from people is that there's no online play, and yeah, that can slow multiplayer with other humans down. I'd bet 99% of my games have been just the single player, but they're still fun enough. This game doesn't emphasize exploration as much as AE, the wrap-around board where you move your legions to secure territory and places of power has completely open information from the start. The source of chaos comes from the archfiends themselves, since they can play event cards that require a legion to be donated to storm the gates of Heaven, or make you master of the bazaar, letting you gain resources when other players spend them in the bazaar, but you're forbidden from buying there until the event expires. A well-played event can often change the course of the game. The legions themselves level up sometimes when they survive battle, and their abilities can be modified through artifacts, and through praetors, leaders which you can also train to send to arena battles to solve disputes. Actually, if there's a mechanic I think is the most original when compared to other strategy games I've played it's diplomacy: since you can't fight everyone directly (even in Hell there are rules) you have to bitch slap other players through insults and demands, which are a really well balanced series of options that force players to think about the consequences.
There are a crazy amount of options too, like rituals that can lay waste to legions or bribe away enemies, multi-part scrolls that can enhance your abilities, tons of relics which can give you extra powers or rituals you can perform, many legions to choose from, all with this hellish, crazy artwork that references popular culture that manages to be both nightmare inducing and funny at the same time. It's probably the single most ambitious of the three current games, and as such takes the longest to learn. The tons of ways abilities and events can combine, too, often bring about some unexpected results, but that tends to happen when you do the board game equivalent of stuffing everything you can into a single box.
Six Gun Saga
The lightest and quickest of Cryptic Comet's games is Six Gun Saga, a game I first mentioned a while ago, set in a fictional town in the mythic old west in the United States. It's a single player card game where you are dealt from a shared deck different "dudes," which are historical and fictional characters with different levels of ability, deeds, which give you locations you can use to get money or leverage certain powers with. On each card, in addition to the stats of the character or the abilities of the place, are special abilities and cash values, as well as a playing card value if you attach it to an existing posse, which is useful in the game's seven card stud style combat. You usually never hire characters or build buildings. Instead you sometimes spend a card to murder one of your opponent's dudes, or to give one of yours more health or gunslinging ability. You can give a character permanent powers that let you draw more cards, hold more cards in your hand, or be able to move the posse they're in an extra space per turn. All of this is in pursuit of victory points, which you gain by occupying story cards with appropriate characters (a lawman will be needed to access the Hang 'em High card, while only Apaches can start an uprising), as well as killing members of rival posses.
The way the game plays out, you often feel like you're telling a little story, where a character might, despite his gout and getting ambushed while going to the outhouse, manages to rob the bank and cost the rival gang, who happens to own the back, much needed influence in the town. Too bad he fell off his horse and died on turn later... While the AI doesn't feel as strong here as it does in the prior games (especially Armageddon Empires), this storytelling angle always pleases me if I bother to exercise it. That, and the game's very fast to play and relatively inexpensive. The demo lets you play 15 turns against a few different opponents, while the full version has a different scenario (the Weird West) and many more bosses to choose from and play against.
Next up in development will be an investigation game where the player is trying to stop the world being swallowed up by horrors, a la Cthulhu. It looks like it'll have card challenges similar to the poker-style combat of Six Gun Saga (only using tarot cards, naturally), and have a bunch of nasty surprises to deal with, I'm guessing.
I don't think these games are perfect; each has their quirks, sometimes due to all the different variables crashing together. Sometimes the chaos will ruin you with no chance to recover, and sometimes you'll so dominate the AI opponents that your score will skyrocket. Par for the course when chaos is a big ingredient. Also, despite a lot of strategy games out now they're more single player focused, so with the exception of Solium Infernum it's always going to be you versus the AI, and even in Solium Infernum if you want to play multiplayer it's going to be by sending files over email or having friends around the same computer. But while they aren't as polished as big titles, they try things no one else seems to have done, and do them in very interesting ways. This is coming from someone who has played some of these games a lot.
Not sure when Occult Chronicles will come out, given that Cryptic Comet is basically one guy working in his spare time I won't hold my breath, but I'll probably play some of these games while I wait to see what's next.