For a long time, video games manuals were serious business. Especially for strategy games and RPGs on the PC, the manuals would often run to a hundred or more full-color pages in length. They explained in vivid and well-written detail the history of the game world and every facet of the gameplay system. There were pages upon pages of appendices explaining the statistics of every unit, faction, and terrain type. They were majestic, and I would spend an hour or more poring over each one before starting a game for the first time. Such was necessary, because tooltips had not become prevalent yet and games would not teach you how to play them as you go along, as they do now.
The current method may require less reading, but the Luddite part of me misses the simple act of turning the pages and having all of the relevant information about a game on my lap, when referring to it did not interrupt the game.
The folks at indie developer Cryptic Comet seem to feel the same way. So far, they have produced two turn-based strategy games and have a third on the way. All combine elements of 4X games, board games, and collectible trading card games like Magic to create nerdy, old-fashioned fun. "Nerdy, old-fashioned fun" could be translated as "labyrinthine, insanely complicated, boring" into non-gamer English.
Their manuals are built to match. They may be digitally distributed like the game, but they are as gloriously old-school as the games they accompany. You have to read them before you start playing either of the two released Cryptic Comet games. If you try not to, as I did, you will likely be unable to perform even the simplest in-game actions. This is not because these games have bad interfaces, but because those interfaces are built to display lots of information efficiently rather than guide new players through simple actions.
Once familiar with the manual—which will teach you what every button does and just how nasty each of your combat beasties is—the genius of those seemingly convoluted interfaces becomes apparent. There isn't really a better method to make games like this work. A skilled player needs a wealth of information to make thoughtful decisions consistently or they will lose.
Both of the current Cryptic Comet games are great fun for anyone who likes turn-based strategy, bet it board, video game, or card. Solium Infernum places the player in the role of a demon vying for control of Hell using minions, familiars, and deft demonic politiking. It plays very much like Master of Magic and other old 4X games.
Armageddon Empires charges players with leading one of four factions vying for control of a nuclear-war-ravaged earth, and is much more like a board or collectible card game on a computer. Both are fun, but I am more deeply hooked on Solium Infernum, which is SLIGHTLY easier to get the hang of than it's stablemate—and more like the 4X game I was hoping for when I heard about this company.
Solium Infernum, good as it might be, is not Angry Birds. It does not have mass appeal, and there is nothing cute about its demons or their nightmarish but lovingly crafted flavor text. It is, however, exactly what it's supposed to be. If you like games that make you think, where out-thinking your opponents and understanding the game system better than them is the key to success, check out the demos of both games and buy one.
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