The art of deception: Playing Chaos Reborn (against Julian Gollop himself)

Born out of Chaos.

Creatio ex nihilo.

Of all the game developers I’ve met in this gig, I don’t think any of them is half as nice as Julian Gollop. The creator of the original X-Com is the most down-to-earth, unassuming guy you’ve ever talked to. He has an aw-shucks chuckle that comes out when you tell him how great X-Com was, or how much you liked Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars.

Interesting then that Chaos Reborn, nice-guy Julian Gollop’s first independent game in almost 30 years, is a game about cold, cruel deception.

Watch out, Phil.

Zombies face off against a frost giant (remember — this is all placeholder alpha art).

Gollop and Phil Scuderi and I are several minutes into a three-player game of Chaos Reborn. This is an early alpha (the art is all place-holder) of the remake of Julian Gollop’s Chaos, a game first released in 1985. Phil, Julian and I are three wizards on a small hex board. The sole object of the game is to kill the other wizards and be the last one standing — it pre-dates DOOM’s coinage of the term by eight years, but Chaos is a deathmatch game, albeit a turn-based one. “The premise,” as Julian says, “is very simple.”

The tools you use in these wizardly duels are spells: “You’ve got a bunch of spells, all completely randomly selected from a given pool each game,” Gollop explains. “About half your spells are creature summoning spells, and every spell has a casting chance. If your spell fails, you lose it. You can, however, summon a creature as an illusion, and it will succeed every time. But every wizard has a disbelieve spell — if you disbelieve an illusionary creature, it vanishes.” But disbelieving costs you an action, just like casting a spell of your own would. Cast doubt upon a real creature, and you may be caught with your magical pants down.

Phil’s wizard has been backed into a corner and my wizard is approaching him, magic sword in hand, ready to put him off this mortal coil. When it’s Phil’s turn, he reaches into his wizardly bag of tricks for some desperate measure that can save him — and he finds one. He summons a vampire and drops the abomination right in front of me on the map.

“Here’s where things get really interesting,” Julian says. “Is that a real vampire?”

Wooly.

Concept art for a Chaos Reborn manticore.

In the world of Chaos Reborn, there are three magical alignments: chaos, order, and neutral. “Casting spells shifts the balance of the universe towards one extreme or the other,” Gollop explains, “so the more chaos spells that are cast during the game, the easier it gets to cast chaos spells in general.”

Vampires are, in a neutral universe, a fairly difficult cast — you’ve only got a 33% chance to successfully summon one by default. In our current game, the balance has pitched over towards law, making Phil’s timely conjuration very unlikely indeed.

“Don’t lie to me, Phil.” I try to sound… editorial. “Is that a real vampire?”

“Owen,” Phil insists, “I would not lie to you. I have never lied to you. Well. I haven’t lied to you in weeks.”

Quickly changing the subject, Phil directs an observation towards Julian. “The random assortment of spells and the incentive to specialise in either order or chaos — that reminds me of drafting Magic: The Gathering cards.”

“Funny you should say that,” Gollop says, summoning an eagle. “The mechanisms here are based on the original Chaos, but in Chaos Reborn there will be spells you can find in the game’s single-player adventure mode and you can use those to build your deck of spells for multiplayer. You’ll get a random hand of spells at the start of the game from your deck.”

“So there’s shades of collectible card games in here. But the original Chaos prefigures CCGs by years and years,” I say.

“It does, but Chaos is a board game at heart. The truly original Chaos is a game that I made with physical cards and a physical board just to play with my friends and my brother and sister.”

You can see Chaos’ cardboard roots in its simplicity: there’s no hit points, no data to keep track of that isn’t readily visible on the board itself. Each creature (and wizard) has an attack and defense rating that makes it more likely to successfully attack or more difficult to hit, but one hit means you’re dead. Because you can only make one move and one attack (or spell-cast) in your turn, Chaos Reborn moves quickly, and it’s easy to get through an entire match in ten minutes — an ideal commitment for a multiplayer game.

WQ Magazine presents

A fine selection of spells for the discerning wizard.

I consider the nature Phil’s vampire. Maybe I should stall for a bit of time. “Julian, of all your games, why did you pick Chaos to revisit?”

“I’ve always had a great affection for the game,” he says. “It’s the first game that I truly felt was something interesting. I had done Rebelstar Raiders before that, the game that was the first real antecedent to X-Com. But that was two player-only. Chaos was the first game I made that had an AI, and I was quite proud of it.”

The multiplayer is quick and delightfully cut-throat (we’ve already been through a couple of matches this morning) but Gollop has big plans for Chaos as a single-player game. “The AI opponents will be quite important. They’ll have their own individual spells and equipment and their own personalities: how cowardly or aggressive they are, how deceitful, how often they change their minds about a strategy. They’ll have dialogue, too.

“In the single-player realm mode there will be procedurally-generated realms and arenas, with pick-ups to find on the maps and random terrain. There will be spells that effect the terrain, raising volcanos or bringing floods, that sort of thing.”

“Are you close to done, do you think?” asks Phil.

“No, not really.” Julian demurs. “I’m thinking we’ll be done in 2014. Obviously the graphics haven’t been implemented yet. And I don’t think the game needs a deep, Tolkien-esque backstory but we’ll have some fiction, certainly. What I wanted to do was to have the realms populated by enemy AI wizards with their own stories, and if you kill a wizard in one realm you’ll see him again in another realm, and he’ll have a history of who’s killed him before and that kind of thing. I want to have collectible pages of books that tell the story of the realms.”

Phil’s vampire, I’ve decided, is an illusion. He’s a fine writer, but he lacks moral fibre, you see. I cast disbelieve. The vampire remains. “Damn.”

The Blob

Some spells can effect whole areas of a map, acting as area denial weapons or trapping players directly.

Phil cackles and falls upon me with the blood-sucker who — in an extraordinary bit of luck for me, misses his attack. Julian, whose summoned eagle I haven’t really spared a thought for in a few turns, has flown to the top of a nearby hill. This gives him — I’ve just remembered — a height bonus to his attack.

“What is it like, Julian,” I ask, “being an independent developer again?” Gollop made a number of designs in the early days of British computer game development before going in-house at Microprose where he made X-Com. Later, he moved on to Ubisoft in Bulgaria, whence he departed to start Gollop Games. “It must feel a bit like it did for you back in the 80s.”

“It does, you know?” Gollop laughs. “It’s very refreshing. I work on the projects that I want to do. I work with the people that I want to work with. It’s still a bit nerve-wracking — you need your project to be a success, as man cannot live on promises alone. But so far I’ve been enjoying it immensely.”

Gollop’s eagle swoops down on Phil and dispatches him handily — which solves my vampire problem. It also leaves me completely alone and rather afraid, as most of my creatures are on Phil’s end of the board.

“We’ve been talking with different publishers — three so far — and we’ve played this prototype with them,” Julian says. “Very good reactions so far, but it’s still very early days. I’m undecided about whether to go with a publisher or to do a Kickstarter. We’ll see what offers we get from publishers, and if we don’t like them, we’ll go with Kickstarter.”

All that’s left in my spell book are a couple of chaos direct damage spells. As we’re pushing towards the game’s turn limit, I won’t have the chance to make things more chaotic, and the best I can do is attempt to torch that pesky eagle — but the spell fizzles right out. Maybe I should have disbelieved it instead.

Julian’s eagle does a graceful 180 and puts me to the same fate that befell Phil. A message toasts up onto the screen. JULIAN WINS, it says.

“You’ve both caught on very quickly,” Julian says, agreeably. “I think you’ve done quite well.” He is such a nice guy.

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