In 2014, eXplorminate named Amplitude’s groundbreaking hit Endless Legend as our inaugural game of the year. Endless Legend’s innovation, artwork, musical score, and ability to make you play that “one more turn” (1MT) easily made it stand out from the other offerings last year. It also set a precedent that would be hard to follow. Could any game released in 2015 stand up to such a mighty giant as Endless Legend?
For much of the past 12 months, the staff at eXplorminate wasn’t sure. Early in the year, we had some terrific indie games come out such as Star Ruler 2, which innovated in so many ways. StarDrive 2 has sold over 50,000 copies on Steam since its quarter-one launch – not bad for a game developed by a one-man team. Then, as we moved into summertime, Stardock gave us a pair of outstanding games. First came Galactic Civilizations III which has easily become the best-selling new 4X game this year. GC3 was followed by Sorcerer King, which took 4X in an entirely new direction. All of them had reasons to be considered, but none of them grabbed the staff in the way that Endless Legend did (which only narrowly beat out Age of Wonders III that year, by the way).
It wasn’t until August that we got the first glimmer of our winner. We didn’t recognize it then. In fact, it’s hard to believe many people at all understood what was about to hit the 4X scene. In that hot summer month, Nate (aka Nasarog) scored an email Q&A session with a small indie developer. We do these all the time at eXplorminate. There wasn’t anything especially noteworthy about the studio. They were founded in 2010 and had a couple failed Kickstarters on their road to publication. It’s the kind of thing that we see all the time.
There was something in their answers to Nate’s Q&A, however, that must have caught our attention. In our September Preview for the game, we wrote it was “quickly becoming one of the more anticipated indie games of the coming 12 months, so you can count on us to give it the kind of coverage it deserves as the game develops.” That’s not an outright acknowledgement of how good this game would be, but at least it shows we were anticipating something special.
By October, though, we started to come to grips with what would eventually become our Game of the Year. In that month, MuHa Games provided us with advance copies of Thea: The Awakening prior to its Early Access. By the time we wrote our Official Preview for the new title, it was clear that we knew we were going to recommend it. Our first and second Let’s Play series for the game was viewed thousands of times. Thea’s Steam discussion board lit up with frantic posts wanting to know more. It was like the strategic gaming community began to wake up to the rising dawn of Thea – slowly at first, but steadily.
Thea had enormous hurdles to overcome in gaining recognition and customers. Many had grave doubts about the game including such Internet luminaries as SplatterCatGaming and even our very own reviewer. But those who were dubious of the game eventually came to understand what a gem it was.
So what is it that makes Thea so special? We’ll focus on three things: innovation, visual appeal, and that one-more-turn (1MT) addiction that we all crave in a game like this.
Like our 2014 GOTY winner, Thea tackles the conventions of the grand strategy/4X genre and works hard to move them in a different direction. First, it takes turn-based tactical combat and converts it into a card game. Thea is certainly not the first game to use cards as a resolution system, yet doing so was still an enormous risk. Time and time again, we have seen people say, “Card-based combat is a turn-off for me…” And time and time again, we have seen people try it in Thea and say that they have learned to appreciate its depth and complexity.
Second, Thea limits players to a single city. Again, this is a huge risk. Players, especially those of the 4X persuasion, generally like founding new cities. Once more, those who played the game recognized that having a single village provided a cohesive and unique gameplay experience. In both instances, the developers at MuHa Games took something that would normally be despised and made it into something enjoyable – a rare feat!
The artwork in Thea is also one of its shining qualities. Now, very few games can compete with the beauty and majesty of Endless Legend – including Thea. Yet, there is a unity to the look of MuHa’s game that draws the player into the world and immerses him or her into the setting. The dim pallette, the roiling fog of war, the visceral day/night cycle, the severe expressions of the characters’ faces – all reinforce the grimdark atmosphere of the game. Even the two-dimensional “paper dolls” that represent the various villagers evoke the sense that the player is a deity guiding mortals toward a sustaining existence. At no time does any of the artwork look out of place or at dissonance with the rest of the game. It is moody, gripping, and oddly engrossing.
Which brings us to the most important feature of Thea: it’s the kind of game that gets players to try things they don’t ordinarily enjoy and makes believers of them. As mentioned, it takes card-based combat and turns into into a robust and engaging system that challenges the mind while provoking the imagination. It limits you to one city, but makes you glad that you have a haven for your precious villagers. It provides a robust crafting system that could have fallen into the trap of micro-management hell, but instead is filled with recipes that bring delightfully unexpected results and much needed reinforcement.
Thea grabs players with its storylines and quests, then holds them tight as they walk through its brutal and vast mythology. The quests in this game are deep. They’ll compel you to make hard choices, such as sacrificing much needed tools and food to gain a potential new ally or to give up one of your villagers to gain the trust of an orc tribe. And just when you think you’ve seen the same quest for the 4th time, the 5th time opens up entirely new options because you just happened to have a character in the party with a high Curse skill. Quests have multiple hidden decision trees that change and morph according to the level and randomized skills of your villagers. MuHa has found a way to turn something that can be quite repetitive into something fresh and engaging. There is always something new to see and do in this game.
One thing about Thea that has been universally acknowledged is the fact that players lose… a lot. However, the game makes it fun to lose, which is such an elusive aspect of design, and something that heavily factors into a game’s consideration for our top yearly award. When you lose a game, you earn Knowledge Points (XP) for your deity. That XP helps you advance and earn new bonuses for future games. You never feel like your decisions in Thea are futile. Almost no matter what you do (short of quitting on the first turn), you will make progress. As a result, players are incentivized to continue playing even when things aren’t going well. That’s the very definition of One More Turn – when everything seems hopeless, you still continue to play. And one of the smartest aspect of the XP system is that you can’t see the rewards you earned with XP until you go to start a new game! That means that even after getting crushed by the AI, the first thing the player wants to do is click on the New Game button to see what they earned. Brilliant!
Finally, though this doesn’t count toward Game of the Year, we feel it is important to note that MuHa’s support for their game has been outstanding. There are only four members on the development staff, but they take hours out of their work week to answer questions and vet suggestions from the player base. If ever there was an indie company that engendered goodwill from the community, it has been MuHa. Thea is in such great shape today due in no small part to the symbiotic relationship the developers have created with their community.
Thea did not earn an eXemplary rating like our inaugural Game of the Year award winner, as it is perhaps a bit more flawed than Endless Legend. However, the game has accomplished the same levels of significance EL did in 2014: it innovated on the conventions of the genre, provided a visually stimulating atmosphere and compelled players to keep playing that “one more turn” the best strategy games are known for. Therefore, it is without hesitation or qualification that we name MuHa Game’s Thea: The Awakening as eXplorminate’s 2015 Game of the Year!