I love Julian Gollop. If you’re not familiar with him, he’s best known as the brain behind the original X-Com: UFO Defense. It’s one of my favorite games, so yeah, I love him a bit for creating the X-Com series, not to mention his influence on the subsequent reboots. But X-Com isn’t all that Mr. Gollop has given us. During his 30+ year career, he has developed quite a few games including X-Com: Apocalypse and Laser Squad Nemesis. I blew a lot of time playing LSN multiplayer over PBEM (play-by-email) when it was a thriving game. His latest game is Chaos Reborn, a reboot of the 1985 classic Chaos: The Battle of Wizards. Chaos Reborn is further affirmation, in my humble view, that Julian Gollop is still a bit of a genius. Shall we?
“An hour’s history of two minds is well told in a game of chess.” – Capablanca
Chaos Reborn is a bit like a chess game. Instead of kings on the board there are wizards. And there’s not really a board, just a pretty slice of hex-based terrain of varying elevations. Instead of rooks and bishops and powerful queens, there are summoned creatures and spells made manifest by the wizards, themselves. No gentlemanly checkmate here – you straight up have to destroy the opposing wizard. Or wizards, as the case may be, because you are not limited to 1v1 but can play up to 3v3. And if you’re feeling froggy, hop in for Free-For-All. Good times!
Each game starts with the wizards, alone, on opposite corners of the map. The maps are small enough for quick, concentrated play but just large enough to offer multiple strategic approaches. The maps are also colorful and interesting, which is true of the graphics across the board. Each unit or animation is full of character and diverges from the fantasy norm, with a focus on interesting design with just a twist of whimsy. These aren’t your dad’s Dwarfs and Pegasi!
Play is turn-based, and each turn a wizard can move, attack, and cast a spell. Spells take the form of cards and have a range of effects, like summoning creatures or making a magical attack. There are many types of spells, not just creatures and attacks. For instance, you can summon a Magic Wood which grants bonuses to nearby units. Or you can create a Fountain of Life which will resurrect fallen creatures up to three times.
All in all, there are 80+ spells offering up a wide array of tactical options. There are only nine cards (spells) displayed at a time, though, with the remaining cards hidden in a draw pile. A tenth card, Disbelieve, is always visible, but more on this one later..
As turns progress, players control their summoned creatures and cast their damaging spells in an effort to destroy the enemy wizard. You might assume, given their magical prowess, that it would be hard to kill a wizard in Chaos Reborn – but it’s not. They’re made of paper and drop faster than a drunk gnome. A lucky shot from the lowest summoned minion can quickly destroy any wizard’s nefarious plans. But you do have ways of buffing your wizard’s initial weaknesses. He (or she) can summon swords to buff his attack, shields to increase his defense, and can also ride certain summoned creatures. If the wizard takes a hit while mounted, he’ll lose the mount instead of his life.
“Chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people.” – Nigel Short
Fair warning, Chaos Reborn doesn’t give a crap about you or your feelings. The original game mode is very reliant on RNG – which has caused no shortage of frustration among some players. As a result, the original, RNG-reliant gameplay is contained in the aptly titled “Chaos Mode.” Opposite is the recently added Law Mode, which is like a more “fair” version of the original game. Law Mode culls back the variability by reducing the RNG. It can be interesting and fun in its own way, more reliant on hit point pools and longer slogs.
That said, Chaos Mode is the way that Chaos Reborn was really meant to be played. Any spell has a base chance to succeed. That big Sapphire Dragon spell you’ve been saving up for the coup de grace? It just dissipated into a smattering of wasted mana – sucks to be you! Every attack is RNG-based as well, and factors like distance from the target and relative elevation are also taken into account. Thankfully, the RNG doesn’t sneak up on you. It’s prominently displayed, but it will still punch you in the face. That’s how the RNG rolls…
But you do have a couple game mechanics at your disposal to help improve your chances.
First, cards come in three flavors: Chaos, Neutral, and Law. Chaos cards are (gasp!) evil in nature, Neutral cards are mostly just plain Jane animals with no obvious universal-leaning toward evil or good. Law cards are the good guys. Playing a Chaos or Law card adjusts a global meter toward that direction. If the meter is displaying 8% Chaos, then your chance for a successful Chaos spell is increased by 8%. There are also cards whose sole purpose is to shift the meter toward Law or Chaos. Overall, this mechanic can lead to tough decisions based on which cards you’ve drawn and which way your opponent is steering the meter.
Second, there is a reservoir of mana at your disposal. You can tap into this reservoir when playing a card and use it to improve your chances to successfully cast the spell. The mana pool is often small, but there are a few ways to increase it: kills grant you mana, as does visiting mana sprites on the map. You can also burn cards to gain mana but the mana granted by each successive card is limited, leading to diminishing returns. There is only so much mana you can pour into boosting a spell, but even a 10% boost can be the difference between failure and success.
“It’s always better to sacrifice the opponent’s man.” – Tartakower
Another nifty gameplay wrinkle is the option to cast an illusion instead of summoning a real creature. Illusions are cast at a 100% probability and look, move, and kill just like a real summoned unit. So, if your opponent drops the aforementioned Sapphire Dragon on his first turn, he’s either One-With-The-RNG or that dragon isn’t real.
As mentioned above, wizards always have the Disbelieve card at their disposal. Unfortunately, you can only cast one spell a turn, and if you cast Disbelieve on a real creature, you just wasted your spell for that turn. If you’re successful, though, the creature is destroyed and you can still cast another spell, even another Disbelieve if you feel like there’s an army of illusions coming for you. And there just might be! The tension built upon the illusion mechanic cannot be understated – bluffing your friends (err, foes) is always fun.
Chaos Reborn has a number of gameplay formats for single- and multiplayer gaming. Offline Battles let you set up games with hot seat humans and/or AI – and the AI is quite good, by the way. The single player campaign offers a story-based set of missions on various campaign maps.
Online play offers basic multiplayer matches, including asynchronous play and the ability to level-up and upgrade your chosen wizard. You accrue forge crystals and gold through dueling (1v1) and regular matches, which you can use to buy and forge new items. There are also league seasons, which are ranked ladders with the potential to earn more gold and medals.
On top of this there are online campaigns called Realms of Chaos, which take place on a larger strategic map. Your task is to destroy the local ruling wizard, but when you first appear you’re too weak and poor to stand a chance against him. As you travel across the map you’ll visit various helpful locations, like towns and wizard towers, which offer mercenaries, new spells and equipment to increase your power. You’ll also have to fight against other wizards along the way, on procedurally generated terrain. Winning grants you experience. If you perish you can buy your way back into the realm, but only if you have the gold. An interesting twist on the online realm battles is the ability to include other online players in your campaign. They’ll be nabbed from their current realm and brought into your game, either as an enemy wizard or an ally. I gotta admit, that is kinda awesome.
And if all of this goodness seems a bit overwhelming? Well, the tutorial is outstanding. It’s one of the most thorough and enjoyable tutorials I’ve seen in years.
I’ve only scratched the surface of many of the formats. While I doubt I’ll ever be much of a league player, I really enjoy the thrill of every single match, be it against the AI or humans. I’m a big fan of the asynchronous play, having played lots of PBEM over the years, but I’ve had a hard time finding people who stick with matches. That can be a problem with PBEM in general, though. If you can rope your friends into playing matches with you, that can be ideal. Still, the community does seem rather small.
“Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy.” – Tarrasch
Still, the focus is ever on the match itself, and that’s where Chaos Reborn shines. Turn to turn, every decision is weighty. Do you take the slim chance to summon that powerful creature? Do you cast Disbelieve in the hopes you’re right about that fake Paladin? Maybe you might want to grow some trees in the middle of the field to block the enemy wizard’s path to that mana sprite? But more than anything you need that Hydra! Your opponent is edging the meter toward Chaos, so should you cast Chaos creatures of your own or fight his Chaos with Law because you have still that Sapphire Dragon waiting? And all of this happens in just a single turn. As in chess, there are no throwaway decisions. Every good, smart, or savvy move leads you toward victory. And every bad, ill-conceived, or risky gamble might be your last.
TL;DR: Chaos Reborn is a fine strategy game, easily playable in short bursts. The mechanics are complex, refined, and cut both ways. Yet often it’s the subtlety that gets you. Winning a game is the culmination of every decision made along the way, but losing can be the result of that one stupid step too far that you took on your last turn. Watching your wizard explode in rays of mana that criss-cross the entire screen is a sad thing indeed, and worse… It was all your fault…
You Might Like This Game If:
- RNG is your friend.
- You enjoy card games.
- You like a finely balanced game of fantasy chess.
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- RNG makes you cry.
- You think chess is something for boring old people.
- Waiting for PBEM turns ain’t your thang.
Chris bought his own copy of this game and has played 15+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4790 CPU (3.60GHz), 12GB RAM, nVidia 4GB GTX 745.