Solium Infernum is a new turn based strategy game from Vic Davis of Cryptic Comet, the brain behind the excellent Armageddon Empires. When I say new, I mean it in the sense that, trust me, you haven’t played a strategy game quite like this before.
Satan has vanished leaving the throne to Hell empty. It is your ambition, as one of the many Princes, Dukes and general denizens of underworld, to take the throne for yourself. To do this you will have to lie, cheat, steal, deceive and bully your opponents until you have enough Prestige to impress the all-powerful Infernal Conclave.
Here’s the rub: Hell has it’s own rules, it’s own morbid beaurocracy and a general code of conduct to which all demons of the underworld are expected to adhere. You can’t just declare war on an Archfiend who’s in your way and invade their lands without a good and proper excuse. So it’s a game of goading your foes, making demands you know they can’t meet and then using their refusal to comply as an excuse enough to declare a Vendetta.
It’s not quite as simple as that though, nothing ever is in Solium Infernum. There’s always another layer of strategy to be considered. It’s hard to ever truly know what another player is up to and there are many ways for your enemy to take your declaration of Vendetta and turn it against you, making you look foolish in front of the Infernal Conclave and losing you Prestige. This makes every encounter with your enemy a tense and fascinating exchange.
Much of the tension stems from the fact that you can only give two orders each turn. An order includes bidding on a Legion in the Infernal Bazaar, creating a Combat Card to buff a Legion, moving a Legion on the game board, casting a Ritual or even collecting resources from your minions. Being restricted in this way gives rise to an endless amount of internal debate. I need more resources to bid on a powerful Relic in the Infernal Bazaar, but I need to move my Darkwing Legion to take a place of power before Beelzebub nabs it for himself. I’m also concerned that another Archfiend is becoming a little too rich for my liking and I want to play an Event card to raise the minimum cost of all items in the Infernal Bazaar, discouraging a spending spree that might see his Military become unstoppable. Alternatively I could bully a weaker Archfiend, taking his resources and gaining Prestige at the same time. There’s so much that needs to be done, and I have to choose. Making the wrong decision can prove costly.
This is especially true in Multiplayer. You can play Solium with friends (who won’t be friends for long), by email. It’s a bit of a faff to get it working, particularly for the host who has to amalgamate all of the player’s files at the end of each turn, but if you get past that irritation there’s a superb multiplayer experience to be had. The AI works perfectly well, but isn’t a patch on a human opponent, especially one you think you know. There are many ways to gain Prestige, many ways to win the throne to Hell. Human opponents are innately more devious and unpredictable, able to use the game’s systems to create an emotional response. Having a more powerful human Archfiend demand that you hand over resources will make you angry. Knowing that you aren’t powerful enough to risk a Vendetta with that person and having to hand over those resources, that’s humiliating. But then that just makes your eventual revenge all the sweeter. Add some humans to the mix and it all gets that bit more intense. It gets personal.
All this complexity can mean that, to begin with, Solium is a confusing and slightly overwhelming game. This is the first time in many years that I’ve had to read a game manual. That pdf file tucked away in the game files is absolutely essential reading and it should be more easily accessible for new players. Even with the manual a basic tutorial or pop up help tips to introduce the player to each screen would go a long way to easing any initial frustration. It’s a testament to Solium’s originality that it needs to teach you so many new concepts, but it could definitely help the player out a little more from the get go.
Once you’ve got to grip with the mechanics Solium feels distinctly like a board game, albeit one that would have too many bits and pieces to really work as a physical product. There’s something pleasingly tactile about shuffling your resource cards around and moving your Legion tokens across the game board. There’s some great artwork, too, remeniscent of images you’d see adorning a deck of cards from Wizards of the Coast. After a while though you’ll be so focused on your grand strategy that you’ll barely notice the interface but for the essential number values that denote the effectiveness of a Legion or the competence of a Relic. It’s one of those games that will suck you in and have you falling for the age old ‘just one more turn’ schtick.
If Machiavelli were alive today, he would tell you to play Solium Infernum. As he’s probably conning Lucifer out of his throne as we speak, it’s left to me to deliver a verdict. I’ve given three vials of Ichor and a pillar of Flame to the Infernal Reviewing Machine of The Reticule and it’s still chewing quite happily on what’s left of my soul. It hath decreed, by the black fires of eternal damnation, that Solium Infernum is devilishly good.