The Devil Is In The Details: Solium Infernum

As always, you can click on screenshots for larger versions.

It’s high time I wrote about Solium Infernum. Like many players, I purchased it back in 2010 after reading the epic (and epically entertaining) Gameboys From Hell report of a single Solium Infernum game over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. I started playing shortly thereafter and I never really stopped, not until recently. Solium Infernum is a turn-based play-by-email strategy game that casts the players as archfiends vying for control of Hell, taking heavy inspiration from Milton’s Paradise Lost in its aesthetic. It has simple graphics, no animation whatsoever, runs at a fixed, low-ish resolution, has an unintuitive user interface, and is absolutely fantastic.

It’s not just the aforementioned deficiencies which may turn some players away, however. The setting alone may offend those with certain beliefs — reading an epic poem set in Hell is one thing, but taking control of an archfiend and plotting foul deeds and devious schemes is another. And those who are not bothered by the subject matter may still dislike the idea of being complete and utter jerks to their friends. But if, like me, you relish the idea of being a complete jerk to your friends, preferably through complex, devious scheming that ends with you crushing everything they hold dear while they reel from your sudden betrayal, a look of shock frozen on their faces… well then. Solium Infernum is the game for you.

Honestly, it could only have been set in Hell. It’s perfect. Archfiends are expected to be evil, to scheme and betray one another constantly. More than that, they are expected to cling to some twisted sense of honor while doing so. An archfiend can’t simply build an army and crush his rival. This is Hell. There are rules. Solium Infernum creator Vic Davis, aka Cryptic Comet, was allegedly inspired by the complex politics in Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune. Like the great houses in Dune, archfiends in Solium Infernum are not free to make open war with one another. They must abide by the rules of the Infernal Conclave, and avenge specific grievances with a vendetta. Let’s say one archfiend has conquered a Place of Power, granting him extra prestige every turn for as long as it is under his control (prestige points act as victory points in the game). But his neighbor wants to take it. To do so, this neighbor must orchestrate a grievance. He might demand resources from the owner; if the owner refuses, the neighbor now has the right to claim a vendetta. This vendetta will have strict parameters, like the capture of one Place of Power within 3 turns. But if the original owner complies with the demand, there are no grounds to claim vendetta. So perhaps the neighbor instead hurls an insult at him before the Conclave. Now the owner is obliged to respond with a vendetta of his own, or risk losing prestige. But this would mean the owner, as the insulted party, would get to set the terms of the vendetta — if he opts for a military scuffle of some sort, then the neighbor may still have a chance to seize control of the Place of Power, but if he instead challenges the neighbor to a single combat of champions in the Arena, the neighbor is out of luck. Especially if the owner happens to have a powerful praetor to send to the Arena.

This all may sound complex, and it is, but it’s also one of the most brilliant bits of design in the game. In most strategy games, opposing players will build massive armies and have at each other, but in Solium Infernum military action is much harder to arrange and deploy, putting the emphasis instead on underhanded tactics. All those strict rules for vendettas that I mentioned? They can all be subverted in various dastardly ways. Archfiends can build up various infernal powers throughout a game, and then unleash them to turn the tide in their favor. Desctruction rituals focus on directly harming an opponent, allowing an archfiend to call blasts of hellfire down upon enemy legions or strip away any hellish artifacts or praetors the legions might have attached. Generally, however, they can only be employed when in a vendetta or other sanctioned military action. In times of peace, Deceit rituals can be far more effective. These let archfiends steal resources, praetors, or even entire legions from enemies, but they go far beyond mere thievery. Make it look like one of your legions is in three places at once, to confound an attacker. Sow confusion in an enemy’s ranks, preventing his legions from moving. Or better yet, take control of one of his legions and move it yourself. Best of all, these rituals can be cast at any time. Let’s say an opponent has his eye set on a powerful Place of Power. He doesn’t have the means to conquer it yet, but he’s claimed all the land around it so no one else can approach, and his legion is waiting nearby while he looks into buying some unholy relics to boost its power for the assault. How about a quick little Deceit ritual to grab control of that legion and force it to attack the Place of Power? With no relics to aid in the battle, the legion is destroyed, and your opponent loses a bunch of prestige for failing the assault. And he may never find out who screwed him over in secret. Delicious.

And there’s so much more: rituals for spying on others, rituals to help defend oneself from all manner of interference, even rituals to rearrange archfiends’ territory. And I haven’t even mentioned the Event cards, which can really shake things up. There are so many potential strategies in the game, and they all interplay perfectly. The choices begin before the game even starts, as each player builds his or her archfiend, spending a limited pool of points in certain areas. Boosting an archfiend’s starting stats will give access to better rituals sooner, and will also guarantee a powerful starting legion, which is important when initially claiming territory and conquering neutral Places of Power. But one may also wish to start with a high Infernal Rank, which gives a boost to diplomatic actions and will let the archfiend bully others with huge demands, making vendettas that much easier to arrange. Or perhaps it’s worth looking into one of the many perks, which provide interesting bonuses. These range from simple things, like boosts to legions’ prowess based on an archfiend’s personal stats, to some really sneaky ones. For example, there’s a rule in the game that allows a powerful archfiend to take a weaker archfiend as a blood vassal, combining their holdings in a bid to take the Infernal Throne together. Usually this happens when one player is losing badly, and two others are in a dead heat. If one of the leaders can take the losing player on as a vassal, it’s a huge advantage. That is, unless the vassal happened to pick the Power Behind the Throne perk during archfiend creation. This perk is simple: if you are a blood vassal and your blood lord wins the game through prestige, you win instead. Yes, you read that right. You can play the game with the specific strategy to get taken on as a blood vassal, and use that to win the game. Sound too risky? How about the Kingmaker perk, which is even simpler: at the start of the game, you pick another player. If they win the game through prestige, you win instead.

Perks, then, make the game really interesting, but one mustn’t forget to spend a few points on one’s Charisma stat during archfiend creation, or one won’t have enough resources to get anything done. In another brilliant bit of design, resources in Solium Infernum are not tied to one’s holdings in Hell. There are no mines or farms to control. Instead, one simply issues an order to one’s minions to bring tribute. This makes a huge difference in the game. No longer does rapid expansion and military conquest guarantee riches; in fact, the opposite is true, because it means an archfiend has been spending his orders on troop movements instead of asking for money. Here, the benefit of expansion is an early prestige lead, as controlling Places of Power and a large portion of the Hellish plains provide a regular source of prestige. But that other archfiend, who hasn’t moved his legions at all and made no attempt to expand? He’s very, very frightening. Because he’s probably filling his coffers and spending his resources on building up his own stats and powers and purchasing unholy artifacts and relics. And soon he’ll unleash that power on his unsuspecting enemies.

It sounds like there are lots of rules and strategies to come to grips with, and there are. Solium Infernum has a steep learning curve, although playing against AI opponents can help one learn the ropes. The true joy, however, lies in facing off against other people, who have much more capacity for deception and betrayal than a computer ever could. Still, despite all the rules to learn, one is rarely overwhelmed with choices on a given turn, due to the way orders are carried out. At the start of the game, each archfiend only has two order slots, which severely limits what can be accomplished. Need to expand your territory and get some money? Well, you can tell your legion to march and ask your minions for tribute, and that’s your whole turn. Did you also want to buy something from the Infernal Bazaar? Well, then you better cancel that marching order, or that tribute call. As the game goes on, archfiends can increase their number of order slots in a variety of ways, to a maximum of six. In the late game, even this will feel like too few, as players juggle military maneuvers, diplomatic actions, the casting of rituals, and ever more tribute calls to pay for it all. This strict rationing of action makes each turn feel manageable despite the huge possibilities for cunning and trickery.

Solium Infernum is clearly inspired by board games, from the combat rules and simple dice rolls used for most calculations right down to having resources appear on cards that can be arranged manually in one’s vault (although the ability to auto-sort these by right-clicking, added in a patch, is invaluable). But it could never work as a true board game, because it relies too much on the computer as an indifferent calculator. The skulduggery and scheming in the game works because so much information is hidden. As each turn is processed, a turn log appears recounting the events that occurred last turn, but it only reports what is relevant to one’s own archfiend. If one’s legion entered combat, the result of that combat is reported, but it is not shown to the other players. The log may state that an opponent conquered a Place of Power, but not how said opponent achieved it. And if two opponents’ legions had a scrap, it’s not reported at all. Ditto for any secret rituals, boosting of stats, or countless other things one’s opponents might be doing. That means it always pays to keep a close eye on the map, noting any changes in anyone’s territory, and looking for any clues as to what one’s enemies may be up to. As I mentioned before, it’s the ones who don’t seem to be up to anything that are the most terrifying. They may be planning something… drastic.

You see, gaining prestige isn’t the only way to win. Prestige only matters as long as the Infernal Conclave is running things. But a particularly ambitious (or particularly desperate) archfiend may opt to defy the Conclave altogether. To do so means excommunication. For excommunicated archfiends, the rules no longer apply. They can attack anyone at will, and even strike at enemies’ personal strongholds, eliminating them from the game permanently. Technically, the only way for excommunicated archfiends to win is to conquer Pandemonium, the seat of the Infernal Conclave, and hold it (and their own stronghold) from the other archfiends for five turns. But they can also simply eliminate every other player’s stronghold, which is often easier to achieve (but does not provide an official victory, merely a permanently stalled game). Originally intended as a last-grasp, desperate tactic, excommunication is actually a very viable strategy, arguably easier than trying to win by prestige. It’s not without its risks, however, which were amplified in the free Rectification expansion: not only are excommunicated archfiends fair targets for all other archfiends, they can never serve as Regent (and therefore never act first on any turn), they may not purchase anything from the Infernal Bazaar, and, worst of all, their requests for tribute may fail. With these added risks, and with archfiends who prepare to defend against potential heretics, excommunication no longer feels like an overpowered tactic.

By now it’s obvious that I love the multifaceted strategy and design of Solium Infernum, but I should spend some time on its shortcomings, mentioned briefly at the beginning of this post. Credit is certainly due to Vic Davis for designing such an elegant game on his own, and I applaud that his effort was focused on the mechanics and strategies, which are what really matter. But it does mean that other aspects feel shortchanged. Sound effects are limited to simple button clicks and the occasional gong, and the music is a single, ominous piece that loops endlessly. It fits the tone of the game, but gets repetitive, and I muted it quickly. The game also runs at a fixed resolution of 1024×768 with no scaling options, which means it runs in a small window on today’s monitors (and, ironically, is too large for most netbooks, which led Vic Davis to release a netbook patch). Graphically, the game is a mixed bag: the dull grey landscape of Hell is suitably bleak but not particularly interesting, and it’s hard to tell whose borders are whose since all but one’s own are marked in black, distinguished only by small, easily confused symbols. But I like the twisted, demonic chess pieces that represent legions, and I really like the portrait art for archfiends, legions, praetors, artifacts and relics. They avoid cliched monstrous appearances in favor of odd, creepy and unsettling ones that fit the sinister setting perfectly. The accompanying flavor text is also great, evoking the ramblings of madmen who have tapped into evil powers beyond their understanding.

I can easily forgive resolution niggles, uneven graphics and uninteresting audio when the rest of the game is so intriguing, but I’m less inclined to pardon the interface design, which is clunky and confusing. There are many screens full of menus offering different ways to do things, but they all feel like they take too many clicks, and they’re inconsistent to boot. The orders screen theoretically lists all the types of orders that can be issued, but does not include rituals, which are accessed from their own screen. Viewing one’s archfiend, or that of one’s enemy, requires trawling through the diplomacy screen. Even simply paying for items is confusing at first, as one must manually move tribute cards into eight available slots. This is all confounded by some confusing gameplay rules, many of which are not discussed (or are simply incorrect) in the lengthy manual, as some significant rule changes were made in patches. Fortunately, there is a fan-made wiki page that acts as a good resource for looking up rules or other information (including the full patch history) but it still takes some time to learn the ropes.

Perhaps the biggest downside, however, comes in finding opponents. Solium Infernum is a play-by-email game, which means each player mulls over each turn, makes their choices and submits their orders, and then sends their turn file to the host player for processing. The host then crunches the turn, everyone’s orders are executed by the impartial computer at the appropriate times, and a new turn is generated, which the host sends out to all the players. There are no automatic Steam-like updates. There is no central server to process turns, like there is for other “simultaneous turn-based” games like Frozen Synapse. Players must find specific files on their computers and send them to one another each turn, which is definitely not the most user-friendly system. Most games I’ve played used a shared Dropbox folder to help sort turns, but players still needed to keep in regular email communication to make sure everyone was submitting their turns regularly. And games of Solium Infernum are slow and long. A fast-moving game might have a new turn appearing every day or two, while a slower one may only have one or two turns a week. When games can last 50+ turns, Solium Infernum easily becomes a several-month endeavor, which is a long time to hold every player’s interest and keep everyone punctual.

But here’s the thing: the slow pace really fits Solium Infernum well. The tide of a game can often turn on a single, well-executed vendetta, which can take weeks of real time to set up and is all the more satisfying for it. It may only take 5-15 minutes to decide what to do and submit a turn, but Solium Infernum doesn’t stop there. Players will concoct secret alliances and schemes via email in between turns, or hurl accusations about who stole their favorite praetor. When you can get a good group of players together for a game, there really isn’t anything else like it. I attempted to get my friends to play, but that didn’t last long; fortunately, I still have access to the wonderful world of the internet, and if Solium Infernum doesn’t utilize it to its fullest, I sure can. Since I discovered Solium Infernum through posts at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I turned first to their Solium Infernum forum to find opponents. There’s also a Rock, Paper, Shotgun Steam Group dedicated to Solium Infernum, and of course the Cryptic Comet forums are a great place to find people to play with. Soon, I was engaging in epic power struggles with players spanning three continents, and having an absolute blast.

As is eloquently shown in the Gameboys From Hell report that first got me interested in the game, Solium Infernum is great at generating stories of cunning deceptions and deft politicking, and I’d like to conclude with a couple of my own. If my ramblings so far have not convinced you to play Solium Infernum, perhaps these stories will. I certainly hope so.

The first is the nail-biting ending of a game that started quite well for me. I’d built an archfiend with a perk that gave all my legions extra movement, letting me march around and claim territory and Places of Power early. I quickly built a large prestige lead this way, but as everyone’s borders were set, I needed to be sure I could defend my large holdings. My high prestige meant I was everyone’s first target. So I looked to the Infernal Bazaar to buy some extra legions. Most of these are fairly weak, requiring players to build them up by attaching artifacts or praetors, or by using rituals. But some legions are incredibly powerful right from the start. These usually require upkeep to be paid every turn, or they will return to the Bazaar. Luckily for me, that has just happened; an opponent hired the Gorgons for several turns, but stopped paying the upkeep and they’ve just gone back on the mnarket. I snap them up.

My neighbor to the north has decided it’s time to take me down a few pegs, so he demands some resources from me. I refuse. He claims vendetta on me, and at the same time purchases the Sons of Typhon, another hugely powerful legion of slow, lumbering giants. I hesitate, because I know that someone bought a powerful artifact that can teleport legions around. If my nothern neighbor has it, he could move his titans into striking distance of any target he wished. But I don’t think he has it, so I send my Gorgons north to do battle. They cut through his comparatively weak personal guard, but his Sons of Typhon are now within striking distance of my Gorgons, and they’ve been further strengthened by a praetor commander. I size up our respective combat stats and realize that a head-on confrontation will be a toss-up, literally coming down to the roll of the die. But my odds aren’t too bad, so I order my Gorgons to charge.

They win! But only barely… they’re left with only a single health point left. Worse, someone (possibly my opponent?) has just played an Event card that immediately ends all vendettas. During the scuffle some of our border territory changed hands, and the Gorgons have found themselves in a hex that belongs to me but is not connected to the rest of my territory. And with the vendetta over, the Gorgons can’t march through my opponent’s land. They’re stuck, far from my personal stronghold, and unable to defend my holdings or even heal themselves (legions only heal when next to a friendly stronghold or Place of Power). Fortunately, my northern neighbor’s strength is broken, and my only serious threat lies to the east, where we share a very small border that I’m defending well. I have time to extract the Gorgons from their predicament.

It takes many turns. The Event that ended the vendetta also prohibits most diplomatic actions for a while, so I have to wait for that to expire. Then I have to hurl an insult at my northern neighbor, and hope he simply lets it slide. He does. This gives me the right to make an assertion of weakness against him, which gives me a chance to steal a border hex. I select the hex and move my Gorgons into it. As long as they can defend that hex for three turns, it will transfer to me, and the Gorgons will now have a free path to march back into my territory. This works, and I send the Gorgons to defend my eastern border. The archfiend to the east is starting to worry me.

As if on cue, my eastern neighbor suddenly springs into action. He hurls a destruction ritual at Pandemonium, in open defiance of the Infernal Conclave, resulting in his excommunication. At the same time, he moves his legions into position to attack the other archfiends. But he doesn’t come for me from the east, like I expected. You see, the map in Solium Infernum wraps around on itself in all directions. But since I have a different, much weaker archfiend to the west, I haven’t been worrying about it. But my eastern neighbor has a legion that can fly, and he simply flies it over my western neighbor’s territory, landing in my western plains, in position to strike at my stronghold. And my Gorgons are all the way to the east, unable to get back in time. With horror, I realize that my enemy will be able to strike first, destroying my stronghold without me having a chance to do anything about it. I’m about to be eliminated from the game.

After poring over the map, I realize that while my Gorgons won’t be able to save my stronghold, they may just be able to strike at his. If I’m going down, he’s coming with me. The only problem is that he’s surrounded his stronghold with legions. None of them are a match for my Gorgons, but they can slow my Gorgons down, preventing them from being able to strike in time. I see only one option: I need to hurl destruction rituals at his weakest legion, aiming to destroy it, leaving a hole in the blockade. Then, with my final order slot, I’ll send the Gorgons through to eliminate him. This plan is risky, however… his legion has a chance to resist the destruction rituals, and even if they hit, the damage is highly variable. I’ll need to get some lucky die rolls in order to succeed. But I don’t see any other option. I submit the turn and wait for my opponents to do the same.

In this particular game I was acting as host, so once the turns are in it’s up to me to process them. So I’m the first to see the result: only one of my three destruction rituals hit, damaging but not killing his legion. So when my Gorgons move in, they’re stopped by his legion, and don’t manage to reach his stronghold. I’m dead, and he’s still in the running.

Except… well, I know it all came down to a die roll. I haven’t sent the turns out to anyone yet. No one would know if I simply processed it again, hoping for a better result. It would be a suitably devious thing to do. I seriously consider it for a moment. But then I conclude that the evil trickery should stay in the game; in real life I strive to be a nicer person than that. I send the turn out to everyone. But I am curious. So, just as a test, I try re-processing to see what might have happened. This time, the dice roll in my favor. My enemy and I eliminate each other on the same turn. And actually, he also eliminates another player at the same time. Three of the six contestants for Hell’s throne are banished to the Abyss at the same time, leaving a vast, empty map behind. Oh, what could have been.

OK, this post is really long now, but I have to tell one more story, from a different game. This game started out differently; I’d designed an archfiend based around Deceit powers, but I misplayed the early game, too often distracted by short-term goals instead of committing to a Deceit-focused strategy. As such, I’m underpowered as the game moves into its late stages, and another archfiend has taken a huge lead. He’s amassed a great empire with many Places of Power, and it’s too late when I notice that his legions are suspiciously powerful. I quickly realize that this archfiend has not one, but two perks that boost his legions’ stats based off of his own powers. With dismay I realize that this also applies to the garrisons of his Places of Power. There is no way I can hope to defeat any of his legions or take over any of his Places of Power, so it seems there’s not much to stop him from a runaway victory.

Just as I am considering sending an email to all the other players to propose a massive alliance against our common oppressor, said oppressor tires of waiting for the Conclave to pick him as ruler and simply conquers Pandemonium, resulting in his excommunication. He just has to hold it and his own stronghold for five turns, and he’ll win the game. Given his absurdly powerful legions, this won’t be a tall order. We’re in serious trouble. I better send that email after all; our only chance is if we all work together.

There’s only one archfiend with a legion that has any hope of conquering the usurper’s stronghold, so he has to be the one to attack — the rest of us will support him in any way we can. The usurper has legions defending his stronghold, and he has a combat card placed on it. Combat cards provide certain combat bonuses to legions or garrisons, but only the owner can see what those bonuses are. The card could provide huge health and combat bonuses, or it could provide absolutely nothing. Our attacker could take the stronghold out, but only if it doesn’t have any bonuses, and if he’s able to place his own combat cards on his attacking legion, and if the usurper’s legion marches out of the way for some reason. Those are a lot of ifs.

But eventually we realize that it’s actually possible. Barely. Several of us send resources to our attacker as gifts (another excellent game mechanic, by the way) to help him pay for the combat cards he’ll need. I cast a Prophecy ritual that lets me see what the combat card on the usurper’s stronghold does; it’s a doozy, so we’re absolutely going to have to remove it. We keep a careful eye on the turn order, because it changes every turn, and we’ll need precise timing to pull this off. The plan goes like this: I cast the Secret Manipulation ritual that lets me take control of an enemy legion and move it as if it were my own. If it works, it will let me march the usurper’s defending legion out of the way, leaving a clear path to his stronghold for our attacker. On the same turn, another archfiend casts a Destruction ritual that strips a target of all artifacts, relics, and combat cards. If successful, this will remove the combat card from the usurper’s stronghold, leaving it defenseless. Also on the same turn, our attacker will buff up his legion with a combat card, granting it the strength to defeat the stronghold’s garrison, and march it into position for the final assault. If all of these things work, we’ll be left with a clear path to the usurper’s stronghold, and the turn order aligns such that our attacker gets to act first. He’ll march in and crush the usurper before he has a chance to react.

When the next turn is processed, it almost looks like we pulled it off. I successfully manipulate the usurper’s legion, and march it out of the way. Our ally successfully strips the combat card off of the stronghold. And our attacker’s legion is in position, ready to strike. But wait… his legion doesn’t have a combat card attached! A miscommunication somewhere meant our attacker didn’t realize he had to attach it last turn. It will take two order slots to attach a combat card and then march for the kill, which means that the usurper has time to react. He can put a new combat card on his stronghold, or march his legion back into position, or any number of things. What he actually decides to do is move a different legion in to kill our attacker’s legion. That’s just as effective. It’s over, now. We throw as many rituals at the usurper as we can, out of spite, but in a scant few turns he’s claimed the throne.

The fact that I’m so excited to tell these stories, even though I lost in both cases, is a testament to how great Solium Infernum is. And there are so many more stories I could tell, of masterfully executed vendettas or cunning deceptions that no one ever realized were mine. There really isn’t any other game that can create experiences like this — truly epic struggles for power full of trickery, secret alliances and betrayals. Yes, it has some weak aspects, and it can be hard to find and maintain a reliable group of opponents, but it’s worth it. If Solium Infernum sounds like something you might like, you can purchase it directly from Cryptic Comet for $14.99 (down from the divisive $30 price tag it carried at lauch), and you’ll get the Rectification expansion pack for free. I encourage you to do so, and scour the forums I mentioned above to find opponents once you have a handle on the basics.

But if you’re still having trouble getting a group together, drop me a line. I’m always happy to host a game.

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3 Responses to The Devil Is In The Details: Solium Infernum

  1. Thank you for this! You make these pseudo-computerish-board games sound really interesting, will definitely try this out.

  2. Aaron Jean says:

    Wow. I didn’t understand much of that, but it sounds absolutely exhilarating. Great piece!

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