Monday, December 30, 2013

Game 128: Lords of Chaos (1990)


Lords of Chaos is a strategy/RPG hybrid that must have been torture to play as a multi-player strategy game. The basic problem, if you don't mind my getting into the details right at the outset, is that the turns are too short. Each character has a maximum of 40 "action points" per round, and with these points, he can do only a few things, like:

  • Open a door and walk six steps down a road
  • Attack an enemy three times
  • Open a cabinet and pick up two or three items

No sooner has your turn begun than it's over. If you're unlucky enough to do something accidental, like try to walk into a door before it's opened, or walk the wrong way, you can easily waste half your turn with absolutely nothing to show for it. The average turn takes about 30-45 seconds to complete, after which you have to end it and wait for your opponents to complete their turns. This isn't so bad when playing a single character against the computer, but I can't imagine what it was like with other human players. You'd have to have a TV show going in the background, at the very least.

The opening area of the first scenario. I've just searched a chest and found an axe. It'll take most of the next round to walk up to the axe and pick it up.

The game's back story relates how a once-peaceful world, ruled by Arch Mages, was shattered into pieces by a mysterious buildup of magic. Now, the universe consists of tiny chaotic worldlets occupied by various mages--the titular Lords of Chaos--battling each other for the magic power necessary to journey through portals from world to world. Each game scenario lasts a determined number of turns, after which a portal appears for a limited time. The main goal is to survive long enough to escape through the portal; a secondary goal is to amass as many "victory points" as possible in the meantime. Victory points are earned through slaying enemies and collecting treasures, and the player who enters the portal with the most victory points is declared the winner of the scenario.

The game comes with three scenarios, and the publisher released another two on mail-order disk. In scenarios 1, 2, and 4, up to four players can compete; scenarios 3 and 5 are designed specifically for a single player. The manual notes that "the one-player game is designed to be treated as a role-playing game with the ability to develop your wizard character as you progress through the scenarios." When you finish a scenario, the number of "victory points" you've earned converts to experience points, and you can spend these to increase attributes and spells.
 
Assigning experience points to attributes.
 
The process begins by creating a wizard and spending the initial 600 experience points on seven attributes--mana, action points, stamina, constitution, combat, defense, and magic resistance--and a selection of 45 spells, 25 of which are summoning spells. The manual gives precious few hints as to what spells and attributes to choose. The spells seemed like a bargain until I realized belatedly that you have to buy them multiple times if you want to cast them more than once per scenario. Spending 20 points on "summon skeleton" lets me summon exactly one skeleton. If I want to summon five, I need to spend 100 points. Some of the spells are potions which require finding the right reagents in the game and then taking the time to mix.

Selecting from the game's summoning spells. Gryphons are useful because you can fly around on them.

If you play a scenario with just one wizard, the game creates and controls a single opponent. There are also "independent creatures" that roam the scenario and serve as experience fodder for any player. The interesting thing about the game is that even though all players have identical goals, it isn't really necessary to try to kill the other wizards. You get more points if you do, but you can get plenty of victory points--and win the scenario--without ever engaging the enemy.
 
Chestyrre approaches a house to the south but stops to pick up an apple. The panel to the right shows the various actions possible in a round.
 
In each game turn, the character has a variety of actions, including casting spells (in the air or at the ground), throwing weapons, reading scrolls, mounting summoned beasts, picking up and dropping items, and eating food. Each movement expends action points and, as I said, these go pretty fast. Fortunately, every summoned creature gets its own action points each round, so summoning several creatures is a good way to draw out a turn.

Melee combat is a tactic-less affair of clicking on the enemy. It's spells that really make the combat tactics and overall map strategy, and I've only had a chance to explore a few. There are potions that buff attributes (strength, speed) or provide defense (protection, invisibility); spells to shape the landscape and both damage and slow enemies (magic fire, tangle vine, flood); spells to help with navigation and exploration (magic eye, teleport), and of course standard offensive spells like magic bolt and magic lightning.

I can't speak to all of the scenarios, but the first one, titled "The Many Coloured-Land," is quite small--maybe 50 x 50 squares--and it doubles back on itself when you reach the edges of the world. It consists of four houses (one for each potential wizard to start in), a treasure room, and a bunch of forest with apes, elephants, and other creatures. The treasure room has no outside entrance, so a key puzzle is to find a way to enter by flying over the walls, either with a flying creature or a "fly" potion. I guess if you didn't take any of these things during character creation, you're screwed. But just getting over the walls is only half the battle; you also have to find a selection of blue and gold keys scattered about the land so you can open the treasure chests.
 
The "world view" game map from late in the game. The portal has appeared on the road about one-third of the way from the western edge.
 
After a few false starts, I won the first scenario with a wizard named "Chestyrre" despite having spent far too many points on attributes and not nearly enough on spells. After exploring my starting house, I summoned a gryphon and got on his back, then summoned a skeleton to engage some elephants who were crowding the door to my house. It soon became clear that neither the skeleton nor the elephants were capable of damaging each other, so they just ended up in a standoff for the rest of the scenario.

Targeting a "lightning bolt" spell on a group of elephants. It's not going to do much damage, but fortunately my skeleton is there to block the doorway while I make my escape out the door to the south.

It also became clear that my enemy wizard, Torquemada, had not made the same mistake I did on the number of spells. My second skeleton (I was only capable of summoning two) met a veritable army of his allies on the road, including goblins, trolls, and vampires.

Poor skeleton won't be with us for much longer.

In between turns, the game tells you how many victory points you've achieved. I had just been dithering around killing independent creatures, so Torquemada was kicking my butt.
 
The portal appears at around Turn 18 and only stays for 10 turns.
 
As his forces converged on my location, the portal suddenly appeared on the road to my west. Figuring I was going to lose the scenario anyway, I hopped off my gryphon and jumped into the portal. Fortunately, the first wizard into the portal gets some extra victory points, so I won the scenario.

Torquemada didn't do the obvious thing and spend the next nine rounds collecting all the treasures with no opposition.
 
But the number of victory/experience points is pathetic--barely enough to get two more spells. Unfortunately, a wizard cannot play a scenario twice, so if I want to do better in the first one, I'll have to start over with a new character.
 
I'm playing the Amiga version of Lords from 1991, but it originally came out for the Amstrad CPC, the Commodore 64, and the ZX Spectrum in 1990. The graphics in the 1990 versions are considerably worse than the Amiga, and it appears that the early versions featured different maps (though the scenarios had the same names). I haven't sampled the sound from the early versions, but the Amiga sound is relatively good, if sparse. The game opens with a fantastically creepy bit of sci-fi music and a Zuul-ish voice whispering "lords . . . of . . . chaos."
 
A shot from the C64 version.
 
But the C64a and earlier versions featured something that the Amiga version doesn't: keyboard control (though of a limited sort). Every single action in the Amiga version must be performed with the mouse, and I just hate it. I find it far too easy to click on the wrong thing or in the wrong direction. There's also a weird mechanic for unselecting one character and selecting another, with the result that I often mean to, say, move my skeleton one square to the east by I accidentally send my gryphon zooming over to the skeleton from the other side of the map.
 
Lords of Chaos is the fifth game from British developer Julian Gollop who, with his brother Nick, would become famous in a few years for X-COM: UFO Defense. The game is considered a sequel to Chaos (1985), a strategy game in which up to six player-wizards battle for dominance. The earlier game featured many of the same spells as Lords but lacked the attributes and the ability to develop characters in between scenarios, both of which impart a more RPG feel. Gollop's other early games--Rebelstar (1986), Rebelstar II: Alien Encounter (1988), and Laser Squad (1988)--are all turn-based strategy games that likely imparted some lessons on the development of Lords of Chaos. In addition to X-COM, Gollop would later go on to design two other games that MobyGames lists as strategy/RPG hybrids: Magic & Mayhem (1998) and Rebelstar: Tactical Command (2005).
 
In February 2014, Gollop will join a growing list of early game designers now developing games independently as Kickstarter projects. In this case, he's remaking his first game, Chaos, with modern technology. You can read about it at his site.
 
I don't really like Lords of Chaos, but I'll probably give it until the second scenario to make up my mind for sure, so I'll put out at least one more posting on it. Fortunately, win or lose, the scenarios aren't that long.

28 comments:

  1. I absolutely loved Lords of Chaos back then on the Commodore 64. Especially in multiplayer. As far as I remember the third scenario is the most RPG-like of the included three, and the only one to be single player only. It was always my least favourite one due to being single player only and quite puzzle-like on top of that. I suspect I might enjoy it more now at my older age, though. There was also an expansion that added two more scenarios but I didn't have it at the time and have never gotten around to trying it.

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    1. I certainly don't mind when my readers like games that I don't like, and I've gotten used to every game--no matter how mediocre I think it is--having a champion. But could you elaborate a little more on why you "loved it...especially in multiplayer?" Or at least refute some of the things I said? Weren't the short turns frustrating? Are there combat tactics that you liked that I'm just not seeing? Do you think it's a good RPG specifically, or just a good game?

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    2. (I haven't played this game, but commenting generally.)

      I don't understand why you think short turns would be frustrating. I'd expect it to be the opposite. If each player takes 5 minutes for each turn, then with four players you have to wait 15 minutes between each turn. That would be boring I think.

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    3. I didn't mean to come off as confrontational, apologies for that. Seeing this game here brought back some fond gaming memories is all. I had a lot of fun with the game back then experimenting with wizard builds and different spells and tactics. The AI opponent was never as interesting as playing against a friend so that's where the "especially multiplayer" part came from.

      As for a good RPG... I'm not sure if it really even qualifies as one. I would consider it a strategy game with RPG elements. I was and am geniunely interested in your thoughts on the game as an RPG though, especially since I remember the later scenarios to be more RPG-like. Since I never liked the third scenario too much I thought maybe you'd see something in it that I didn't at the time.

      To me it was always kind of "the sequel to Laser Squad" which I played a lot at that time and Lords of Chaos introduced a lot more to play with, including the chance to create my own character and army. In other words, a strategy game.

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    4. I loved this as a kid. I will admit the low action points could get annoying (worse when you were out of stamina too). The shorter turns would have actually helped offset this, except personally I found the portal always arrived sooner than I wanted. When creating your character, it sounds like you didn't pick enough minion spells, probably put too many points into wizard stats? Often you barely want to touch those. Buffing your wizard stats and using only nukes and potion spells is probably left for veterans ;)
      The game has fully destructible terrain which was quite a novelty for the time (still is tbh) flying was the sensible way but not the only way into that treasure building. I also liked the way the independant creatures did not always head straight into combat, but would often loiter suspiciously.

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  2. I can't speak for Anonymous but I also loved this as a kid, playing the Amiga version. I think that love comes down to a few things: (1) sense of atmosphere. I really liked playing around in this bleak, slightly scary world where everything was against you, (2) feeling of open-ness - all the different spells and monsters made it feel as though there were a number of different routes to accomplish your goals, unusual in a time of linear gaming (3) familiarity - I enjoyed the laser squad games when I was a few years younger and this felt like a nice update. I should point out that twelve-year-old me wasn't actually any *good* at the game but I always enjoyed playing it.

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  3. So what happened to Legends of Faerghail? Did you end up finishing it or giving it a GIMLET?

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    1. I wrote a GIMLET. It'll be published tomorrow.

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  4. Magic&Mayhem is basically a sprirtual succerssor to Lords of Chaos. It has a lot of the same mechanics but is real-time and has a detailed plot and more strategical elements (you need to conquer and hold mana sources to be able to cast spells). Totally loved that one.

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  5. I kinda expected Chet's opinion on this one. - He's blundered in with a narrow mindset that assumes it's a generic RPG title instead of a scenario-strategy and fallen flat on his face.

    The AP system is far less frustrating when you use the summoning spells to do the leg work :- Summon a mount to move you around, summon pack mules to gather up loot, etc. Play like a wizard, not a warrior. (unless you're a advanced player)

    You don't have to save your wizard after completing a scenario - You just reset, that's how the game works. Scenario games aren't about winning, because any idiot can do that, they're about how you win and by what margin. - Treat them like a giant puzzle and see how high you can score.

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    1. Repeating scenarios, not winning, trying to achieve the highest "score" all sound like elements of potentially-good games, but not RPGs. So instead of "blundering in," why don't we say that I approached the game from the perspective of a CRPG Addict and found the game wanting in CRPG categories.

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  6. Ah, the mouse-only interface. I remember Amiga was *so proud* of their mouse, they decided that the keyboard was obsolete as a controller for foreground tasks.

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    1. You could read the keyboard on the Amiga just like with any computer - it was the developers who decided not to do so...

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  7. I had the ZX Spectrum version..
    My friends used to mock me because I used to play this with one friend for hours and hours...instead of going outside.
    Its pretty fun because of all the possibilities, having slime or fire spreading across the map, spells flying everywhere, creatures, mounts. A tiny bit like chess but actually fun.
    The original Chaos is fun for the same reasons, each game turns out quite differently.

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  8. The short turns are a life saver when each player has 7 creatures for example.

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    1. Yes, I conflated two things that should have been kept separate. The short duration of the turns is fine; what I find frustrating is the extremely limited number of actions that each character can perform in a single turn. This makes the game especially unforgiving to mistakes, like going right when you meant to go left, or clicking on something at the wrong time.

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    2. Once you get used to the game you dont really make mistakes,

      BTW have you ever played Chaos with other people? its great.

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    3. Rebelstar and Laser Squad are well worth playing just to see where this game is coming from too. They are great little strategy games.

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    4. I see why you are just blowing past this game as you are the CRPG addict and this really isn't an RPG. You seemed to enjoy that RPG-Strategy hybrid game(cant remember the name)

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    5. sword of aragon?

      -Oth-

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    6. Sword of Aragon was an RPG all along. It was just wearing strategy clothes.

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    7. I agree with Harland. It was an RPG with strategy elements rather than the other way around.

      But despite anything I said in my post, I'm not "blowing past" this one. You'll get another posting tomorrow detailing a replay of the first scenario, a completion of the second, and at least some of the third (I've hit a bit of a snag). I've got over six hours in the game already. I'm giving it a fair chance.

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  9. Rebelstar: Tactical Command was a pretty decent GBA game, though I remember getting stuck pretty early on. I play a good game of XCOM, but Rebelstar just sort of stumped me for no good reason.

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  10. I just loved the part about Gollop brothers. This is something very interesting about this blog - to see, without playing the games for x0 hours, how they evolve and to be able to place more recent games in their game-historical context. Thanks!

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  11. The game is considered a sequel to Chaos (1985), a strategy game in which up to six player-wizards battle for dominance.

    Eight, actually. :) The original Chaos is one of my favorite games *ever*, by the way. It plays a lot like a quicker, more action oriented version of Magic: the Gathering, but with a map.

    I have to agree with others here, as I don't think of Lords of Chaos as an RPG. Yes, there's some character customization and you can grow your character between scenarios, but if this is an RPG, then so is XCOM, which has exactly the same RPG elements as LoC.

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    1. By the way, please don't take any of this as criticism, much less as implying that you shouldn't have covered this game at all. One of the best parts of reading your blog, to me, is reading your impressions on games I played ages ago, and this was one of them (though I spent a lot more time with the original Chaos, but that one isn't RPG-ish *at all*).

      By the way, I completely agree with you about the short turns. It's weird that this game is like that, as it came after Laser Squad, which plays beautifully. My guess is that this one had less playtesting.

      By the way, Julian Gollop himself wrote about re-playing Lords of Chaos 22 years after he created it, and he agrees with you in several respects, including how slow the game plays.

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    2. Did I really start every paragraph with "by the way"? Ouch. :(

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    3. I figured you were going for some kind of gimmick.

      It's funny that you link to the article. I just finished a draft of my second (and last) posting on the game, and I commented on how many of my criticisms Gollop himself agrees with. Of course, he also says that "the RPG aspect works pretty well," so I don't know that we're fully on the same page.

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