The original Chaos was a game that sucked up huge amounts of my childhood. I probably should’ve been busy smoking or taking my first steps towards cultivating some kind of marketable skills, but instead I was summoning wraiths and manticores thanks to a Your Sinclair cover-tape freebie. The same magazine had also given away Rebelstar, another Julian Gollop creation, but I preferred the fantasy overtones of the Games Workshop published battle of wizards.
That’s a bit of nostalgia-tinged introduction, but Chaos is a game which I’ve always felt should have plenty of contemporary appeal. In either single or multiplayer it can be tense, fraught affair, with up to eight AI or human wizards crammed into a single screen play area. Each wizard gets a turn in sequence and can use it to cast a single spell and move his units around. The restrictive arena forces each wizard into close proximity, putting a lot of tactical weight on which spell to cast and how best to utilise the limited space.
It’s turn-based, competitive and pretty fast paced.
With Chaos Reborn, Gollop is hoping to bring the game back with an expanded single player mode, updated graphics (lovely though the Spectrum sprites were, the tiny Orc always bothered me) and, most importantly, full online capabilities. This whole internet thing has kicked off in the time since Chaos’ 1985 release, which means there’s now a simple way to expand everybody’s player pool beyond “that guy down the road you know who kind of likes the game.” Offline (hotseat) mode will still be present, but with online options you’ll have the chance to put opponents off by posting obscenities in a chat window instead of just peaking at their spellcasting options like a scoundrel.
The inevitable Chaos Reborn Kickstarter has a couple of weeks left to run and (at the time of writing) is short by $70,000 USD of the $180,000 USD being asked for. For Kickstarters to succeed, they tend to need a bit of push towards the end of their run, which is probably why media publications are now being given access to an early, playable build of the game.
I’m not complaining. It meant I was able to spend an enjoyable portion of an afternoon playing a couple of rounds against IncGamers’ Tim McDonald. This build has just the multiplayer portion of the game (2-4 player competitive matches and a 2v2 mode,) so our respective blue and red mages did battle on the ethereal steppes until only one remained.
With this being a work in progress, some (maybe even all, who knows) of the graphics and animations are placeholders. This version was also running in a browser, whereas the final release is intended to be a standalone client. To the delight of both Tim and myself, one of the prominent sound effects was straight out of Gollop’s original UFO: Enemy Unknown (better known now as X-Com.) I’ve also grown quite attached to the way my summoned elephants seemed to skip daintily down from the higher levels of terrain. It’ll be a shame to see that go.
Yep, terrain. Chaos veterans may have raised a quizzical eyebrow at that. The original game took place in a dark, unending void. Which is a romanticised way of saying it was a ZX Spectrum game and the background was just a flat black. In the matches I played against Tim, the maps were procedurally generated and had three layers to them. High ground, mid-ground and lower ground. Our opening encounter took place in a sort of canyon, with geological layers on both sides.
This adds a little extra tactical dimension to the game, as summoned creatures or obstacles can be used to block pathways up to a protected spot (where a wizard can hang around in relative safety) and terrain can block line of sight in certain spellcasting situations. Crucially, the arena still feels cramped and claustrophobic. Even in a one on one fight, there isn’t much room for error in your maneuvers. Positioning is important and the turn time limit (in this build, 1-3 minutes in length) adds gentle pressure to your thought processes.
A few of the spells from spiritual sequel Lords of Chaos have made it in to Chaos Reborn too. The aforementioned elephants (which, marvellously, can be ridden by your wizard) are one of those spells, and so too is tangled vine; a purely defensive barrier which Tim and I both used to frustrate one another’s plans.
Aside from those additions and tweaks, Chaos Reborn is behaving and feeling a great deal like the original. Thoughtful, but relatively quick-paced competitive turn-based strategy. Bluff and deception in the form of creatures that can be cast as real (with a percentage failure chance) or an illusion (instant success but vulnerable to the “disbelieve” spell,) and subtle changes to spellcasting chances as the universe grows more ‘chaotic’ or ‘lawful’ depending on what prior spells have been invoked.
As with the original, chance and circumstance can play a heavy role. In my second match against Tim, fortunes swung both ways as he killed off my early elephant surge like some demented ivory poacher in a Steven Seagal film and dug himself out of a rut of unsuccessful spellcasting with an alarming gooey blob and some dependable sentient shadow woods. Only a fluke casting of a genuine red dragon prevented the match playing out to a twenty turn stalemate conclusion. It almost made it there anyway, thanks my dragon’s initial inability to beat up purple trees.
It’s worth noting that whatever connection code the game was using seemed to be working well, though as our games identified themselves as numbers 32-33 the relevant server probably isn’t exactly being overloaded right now. Tim de-synced at one point, but refreshing the browser window put him right back in the match.
That Chaos Reborn feels very close to the original Chaos is no bad thing, especially as “Chaos, but with decent online options” is something that’s been high on fans’ wish lists for quite some time now. I’m predisposed towards it thanks to my history with the series, but Tim professed to be having a decent time too (when I wasn’t summoning a giant spider near his face.) There have been unofficial alternatives put out there over the years, but this one has the evident care and attention to detail from the game’s original creator.
There’s a wonderful simplicity to the process of playing Chaos Reborn and a real drive to think on your feet when your spellcasting luck is ebbing away. In this era of popular resurgence for turn-based games, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to bring Chaos back to the public’s attention.