Chaos Reborn is a fragile but precious relic from another time

, | Game reviews

I think Chaos Reborn might be broken. It told me my elf had a 90% chance to kill the other guy’s rat. So I took the shot and didn’t kill his rat. You can see the problem here, right? What kind of game makes a promise like that and then breaks it? I had a 90% chance. I was sure to hit. But I didn’t? Seriously? What are the odds?

After the jump, math has no place in games.

Because of math, I alternately love and hate Chaos Reborn. I just failed to cast my vampire, which I had carefully boosted to an 87% chance of success at great cost. It failed to cast. All that effort for nothing. I hate this game.

My goblin just killed a giant on higher ground. Before the giant could even throw its rock! The lowly goblin had only a 13% chance of success and he totally nailed it. I wish I could see my friend’s face when he takes his turn. I love this game.

This is the nature of Chaos Reborn, a simple but intricate game that understands the power of fewer more meaningful pieces under the regime of a ruthless random number generator. The math giveth and the math taketh away.

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The fewer but more meaningful pieces is a lesson almost no contemporary games know. Instead, developers have to confront the idiotic question of how many hours it will take to beat their game. God help the poor developer whose answer is anything less than 20. How many levels does it have? How big is it compared to Skyrim? How many different guns are there? How many cars are in the release? How many classes, spells, perks, skills, technologies, factions, units? Oh, and how replayable is it? Will it fill my every hour and meet my every need? Here we all are, poised breathlessly on the brink of the release of Fallout 4 and its hundreds of hours, its endless possibilities, its unbounded DLC, as much a delight to the publisher as it is to us. Is there any room for this modest game in which the only goal is to kill the other dude’s wizard and you’ll probably see all the units after six or seven matches?

What you won’t see after six or seven matches, and not even after six or seven hundred matches, is all the combinatorial possibilities. Chaos Reborn isn’t a game about a handful of pieces; it’s a game about their myriad interactions. How many games will you play before you appreciate how elephants can barge through the obstacles another wizard throws in your way? Before you get to cast the mega-spell Shortage of Dwarfs to surround yourself with an honor guard of the stubby little fellows only to be shot by an elf over their heads because they’re so short? Before you rain down justice on a gooey blob? Before you and the other wizard exchange fusillades of growth spells packing the board with various magical trees? Before you delve into the intricacies of 2v2 team games? Before you start to tinker around with the finer detail of the talismans and staff crafting? Before you start trying to get high scores in the realm campaigns? If you feel you’ve exhausted Chaos Reborn, you haven’t played it enough. How ironic.

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One advantage of Chaos Reborn’s fewer units and ruthless math is that it’s accessible. A) Because it’s easy to learn (I would be remiss if I didn’t add “difficult to master”; sometimes cliches are cliches because they’re true). Here is an all-too-rare game meticulously documented with a thorough in-game guide, comprehensive and interactive tutorials, and a set of chess puzzle challenges to teach you the finer points. B) It’s accessible because no one is going to out-grind you or out-level you or out-buy you or even out-learn you. Once you learn how to play (see point A), you’ll be on equal footing with someone who’s played a hundred games. You will each be using the same units and you will each manage the same risks and you will each have the same information and you will each be beneficiaries and victims of the same luck. Don’t be afraid to jump into random games. This isn’t Call of Duty, Starcraft II, or League of Legends. Chaos Reborn welcomes the barely initiated with open arms.

You’re not unlocking units, you’re not collecting cards, and you’re damn sure not buying them individually for real world money. Chaos Reborn has the utter disregard for profitability to be a complete game, from a time before grinding and unlockables and microtransactions, when an entire design was laid bare before you from the first moment you booted it up.

The pieces are simple but vividly and even a little weirdly drawn. There is no piece possibly redundant with any other piece. A single unit more feels like it would be one too many. An elf is as meaningful as a dwarf which is as meaningful as a goblin. A giant is a unique threat, and it doesn’t even obsolete a tiny eagle. The elephant, pegasus, and unicorn, all rideable mounts, are each unique for different reasons. Only the paladin gets to attack back on the other player’s turn. The undead are immune to most attacks, so even skeletons can be incredibly powerful in certain situations. Everything is special in certain situations.

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Certain situations. Chaos Reborn is always about certain situations. Playing a game is about jockeying for that certain situation as best you can. Alter the map with buildings or growths. Clutter it with cheap easy-to-cast units. Spend all your mana boosting the success rate of a powerful sapphire dragon. Or save it all for whatever mega-spell you’ve got. Do you wait to bring out your vampire in the hopes that the balance tips a few points more towards chaos spells? And just to add even more unpredictability, there are the illusions. If you want a 100% chance for your creature to appear, summon an illusion of that creature. It works just as well as the real thing. Provided your opponent doesn’t risk his turn disbelieving it. Illusions add an element of bluffing, of lying and hoping not to be found out, of second guessing where the iocane powder went. It adds a metagame as you play your friends several times over, something easy to do in a game this short, compact, and varied. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I almost always make my first few creatures illusions because I don’t want to lose a valuable early turn to a failed 80% spell. Besides, no one is going to disbelieve a basic eagle or goblin. Of course, now that you know that about me, I’m not going to do it so you’ll waste a valuable early turn disbelieving my real unit. If there’s one thing more confounding than random numbers, it’s the psychology of bluffing. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s?

By the way, I don’t mean to imply Chaos Reborn is only a multiplayer game. All this business about it being small and intricate is in reference to the actual moment-to-moment gameplay in the battles. You can check off a long list of features outside the battles: a ranking system, opportunities for customization, the chess puzzles I mentioned earlier, a single-player strategic campaign with an overland map and overland spells and cities to be conquered and enemy wizards lurking in the fog. The game built around the battles, the ways to play, are surprisingly abundant. Almost crowded. Earlier today, I couldn’t find out how to set up battles against the AI. I knew it was in there somewhere. Where did it go? Why isn’t it under Wizard Training or Quick Match? Oh, wait, it’s on the very first screen. There are lots of options in here.

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But some features are still missing. For a game that plays so well asynchronously, it does a terrible job of managing games. I have to type in all these numbers to join my friend’s game? Which of these current games is against which of my friends? Why can’t it hook into Steam better? Why can’t it take advantage better of the features Steam offers, especially since it can’t offer those features itself? Chaos Reborn doesn’t have any provision to let me know when it’s my turn. What kind of turn-based game running on its own online server can’t ping me with a simple email to let me know I’m up? Especially when that game is made by someone who should know better because he’s made games like this before?

Julian Gollop designed Chaos Reborn as an update of his 1985 game called Chaos, which partly explains why it feels like it has flown in from another era. It has. A successful Kickstarter campaign kickstarted the process and a team of Bulgarians saw it through to completion. Over ten years ago, Gollop crafted a similarly intricate jewel when he designed Laser Squad Nemesis, a primarily multiplayer game that drew its inspiration from his own X-Com. It’s worth noting Laser Squad Nemesis is officially dead. It was a casualty of its business model. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen to Chaos Reborn for the sin of being self-contained, complete, carefully balanced, gracefully spare, and without blatant hooks for DLC. In other words, a casualty of its business model. If there’s such a thing as “too small to fail”, it applies to this wonderful gem.

  • Chaos Reborn

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Fast paced wizard combat with the tactical positioning of chess and the bluffing / odds calculation of poker. WARNING - superb RNG management skills required! Or just have fun. Also featuring single-player Realm Quests with co-op vs AI and invading other players’ realms.
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