Relevant links: Shandalar (requires Bittorrent), 2012 version, Manalink

If you’ve never played Magic, starting with Shadalar might be confusing. The Duels of the Planeswalkers series has better tutorials (though Shandalar’s tutorials are wonderfully campy), just pick whatever game from that series is current.

Additionally, a couple of important notes: by default, your upkeep phase is skipped and all non-mandatory upkeeps will automatically go unpaid unless you set the game to pause during your upkeep phase. Also, the minimum deck sizes are: 30 for Apprentice difficulty, 35 for Magician, and 40 for Sorcerer and Wizard. The game will not tell you these things, you need to know them.

Magic: The Gathering is a real-world collectible card game which came out in 1993 and made a huge impact on gamers at the time. It kicked off the massive popularity of collectible card games which continues even now (was it the first CCG? it might have been the first), and made an enormous amount of money. It seemed natural that a video game adaptation would follow, and so it did. Many adaptations in fact, but the first was simply titled “Magic: The Gathering” – the same as the physical card game. That got confusing really quickly and fans adopted their own name for the video game: “Shandalar”, named after the world in which it takes place.

Shandalar was released in 1997 and, it’s sad to say, is still the best video game based on Magic. It’s now more than twenty years later and there have been quite a few other efforts but they have all been either unable or unwilling to match what Microprose did back then. Some people might attribute this to the involvement of Sid Meier: though he doesn’t appear in the credits, Shandalar was the last project which he worked on at Microprose before leaving to start Firaxis. Apparently dropping multiplayer and adding the adventure game setting were both at his direction, and they were both good moves. Multiplayer was added to the game in a later expansion, but focusing on the single player allowed for card collection, that being a large portion of player motivation in CCGs, and also a more developed AI.

That said, with all due respect to Sid Meier, the fact that no further games have been able to measure up to Shandalar’s example seems less likely to be about ability than it is about will; my suspicion is that Wizards of the Coast (the company which publishes and owns the rights to Magic) simply isn’t interested in producing a video game which can stand on its own anymore. Subsequent games all seem to have one of two objectives: they serve as advertisements for the physical card game or, like so many other video game CCGs nowadays, the game is simply a storefront – a means to sell virtual cards. Both of these approaches avoid the misstep of putting players in the position of independence from Wizards and further purchasing.

So, with all of that said, does being the best Magic-based video game mean that Shandalar is any good in its own right? Well no, but it manages to be pretty good anyway, with a few caveats. The adventure portion of the game is very clearly tacked on: each city or village has exactly one NPC for you to talk to and they all draw from the same dialogue set. Outside of the towns it isn’t any more developed, you run from village to village while trying to dodge enemies and sometimes a random special location will pop up with a little bonus in the form of cards or currency or something. That’s about it. The only other significant feature is the dungeons, which are also very simple but have some neat play modifiers and little trivia mini games to make them more interesting. That’s where you get the best cards.

Speaking of getting cards, this is where the game shines. With the base game and the expansions, Shandalar has a total of 649 cards for you to collect and play with. That’s a huge number, thanks to its roots in the physical game, and a good few of these are the overpowered cards which any Magic player has heard of: Moxes, Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, etc. In other words, they’re desirable. It’s really fun to watch your card collection get more and more obscene, and your decks more and more degenerate, and the tacked-on adventure mode, with it’s simple villages and dungeons, serves as a fine medium for this. You’re not going to get drawn into the story (you’re engaged in an epic-but-uninteresting quest to save the world), but the desire to get cool stuff provides its own motivation and the fact that it takes a bit of work to get there gives you a sense of earning what you’ve gained.

The large quantity of cards gives Shandalar a good deal of replayability, as the cards that you acquire and the decks that you can make are going to be different from game to game. For a Magic veteran this can also be nice in forcing you to try different playstyles – someone who plays with lots of creatures in the physical game but who gets mostly direct damage cards in Shandalar will have to learn to adapt to the situation. (Also, you get to play with all those ante cards that no one ever uses.) However, this abundance of available cards and the randomness with which they’re acquired has it’s own drawback in that you’re unlikely to get all of the cards that you want. Building a themed deck, with many cards of a single type, is quite difficult.

The final and most important mode is the sub-game where you use your deck to play against the numerous NPCs which you encounter. It’s a faithful reproduction of Magic: The Gathering, which is no small feat given how complicated Magic can be. It’s also a reminder that translating from a physical game to a computerized one doesn’t always streamline the experience. A single turn in Magic has a lot of phases and breaks to allow for different actions,  and in the physical game most of these are just skipped by mutual understanding between the players. The computer shares none of this understanding, and the way that this is implemented in Shandalar involves lots of pausing for confirmation: “Do you want to do something now? No.” “How about now? No.” “Now?” etc. There are many of these pauses, but it does allow you to set your own breaks to handle tasks at different points during the turn cycle and skip most of the rest. The remaining pauses can be quickly cycled through with a tap of the space bar. It’s more complicated than would be ideal, but it functions effectively and is probably as smooth an operation as a person could hope for. To do better you’d need to have some sort of Magic-like card game designed specifically to be played on a computer (something like… Etherlords).

To contrast: the most recent game in the Duels of the Plainswalkers series (another line of games based on Magic) handles this by putting a timer on each phase of your turn. Instead of asking whether you’d like to take an action, you’re expected to pause the game whenever you’d like respond to something which your opponent has done. Inaction, or acting too slowly, is interpreted as acceptance. This simplifies things for new players, and drawing in new players is really the whole point of that series (it makes no bones about recruiting people into the physical game), and has the additional virtue of being analogous to what you’d experience if you were playing the physical game with another person – they cast a spell and you’re expected to say something if you want to counter it or make some other response. The difference being that if you’re playing the physical game you’re not sitting there watching a progress bar fill up over and over and over again as you wait for the timer to complete. Rather than quickly skipping through lots of confirmations, as in Shandalar, in Duels of the Plainswalkers you wait for lots of progress bars to fill up… It’s a pain in the butt.

So Shandalar is a faithful reproduction of another game… Is that one any good? Well this isn’t intended to be a discussion of Magic, but quickly:

Magic is the granddaddy of CCGs and isn’t quite as well implemented as a few of its successors, but it’s certainly the product of a sincere effort at crafting a quality game and it has none of the stink of being a copycat cash-in. Some of the really oddball cards don’t make it into Shandalar (Shahrazad, Chaos Orb…) thanks to the difficulty / impossibility of implementing them in a video game, but most cards from the early sets are present and function exactly as they should. If you’ve never played Magic before then you might struggle some, but if you have a basic understanding of the rules then Shadalar is a fine way to get acquainted with Magic and what it is that other people have been doing while you weren’t looking. The AI that you play against is nothing spectacular, it does some really bizarre things sometimes, but it’s perfectly serviceable. Some consideration needs to be made for just how difficult it is to make an AI for a game like this one which incorporates so very many variables – the Shandalar AI is better than average for CCGs.

So: how are you going to play this game, published back in 1997? Though you’d expect to see it somewhere like Good Old Games, it’s not available for purchase there or anywhere. Even if you managed to track down an old boxed copy you’d probably have some trouble getting it to run without issue on a modern computer. Fortunately for you, a group of fans on a CCG forum have been playing it for all this time. Mostly they’ve been maintaining it for the sake of multiplayer duels (mediated by a related but separate program called Manalink), but there is a fan-supported version of Shandalar which runs on current computers… current Windows computers anyway. I’ve made some effort getting this to work in Linux using WINE and have had no success, if someone else out there can manage that I’d love to hear about it.

Even better: a few years ago one of the developers on that forum found a way to get new cards to work with the old game – the many many Magic cards which have been added to the game through its various expansions over the more than twenty years since its initial release. This means that the playable cards in Shandalar went from 649 to almost ten thousand. … Until that effort was killed by forum drama and those patches were removed. Oh well.

None the less, the original version is still available as well as an updated version with new enemy decks and a number of other tweaks. Though the added cards were fun to play with, and I’m sorry to see that effort gone, the game arguably works better in its classic form since the AI knows how to deal with the old cards much better than with the new ones and their new abilities. Manalink still has the new cards.

I hope you’ll give Shandalar a try, it is easily one of the best collectable card games that I’ve played. And watch the tutorial videos! They are a masterpiece of camp.

lakeview cabin“Survival Horror” is an odd label, given the games that it describes. Not that it’s inaccurate, there’s certainly survival and horror going on, but it was originally applied to Resident Evil, which is basically a weird puzzle game. “In order to open the next door, you must find a specific piece of music to fit into this player piano…” It’s something which I would not be surprised to see in Day of the Tentacle, and yet there it is. Just with more zombies.

I’m not bringing this up for any particular reason. Lakeview Cabin is lovely. It’s not large, but it’s comfortable. It’s certainly relaxing, hanging out on this little island in a placid, peaceful lake. The birds are singing, time is passing. Just… nice.

Incidentally, this is by the same developer who did On the Edge of Earth: 5000 and there’s also a commercial sequel, sorta. I’m not sure if it’s really a sequel, but that’s what he’s calling it: Lakeview Cabin: Collection

doeoDoeo is a game in English, based on a Japanese game called Moai no Su (click on the top option on the start screen in order to play). Try them both and you’ll see that they’re extremely similar, basically the same game with different dressing. This isn’t a coincidence of course, the Doeo dev has an explanation here, but it basically boils down to the fact that Moai no Su was a Japanese game in Japanese and popular in Japan but pretty well unknown among English speakers. So he made an English version.

So what sort of game are they? Well there used to be a genre sometimes called “arena shooters” back when light guns were common. That’s the closest analogue I can think of. Basically a bunch of things pop up and you “shoot them” (touch them) with your mouse. That’s it. In this case it’s the presentation which makes it work.

cyclomaniacs 2Cyclomaniacs 2 is stunt biking game in the same style as Bike Or Die or… others. I don’t know if the genre has a label yet, let’s call them MHIMWS – My Head Is My Weak Spot.

The basic premise is a sidescrolling racing game where your primary control is the rotation of your character. You also influence acceleration and braking, and there’s a marginal jump ability, but brakes are hardly used and the jumping is really just to catch a little more air at the right times. Rotation effects how you land, the stunts that you do both on the ground and in the air, and whether and when you die. In other words, it’s a game that’s almost all about rotating in the right way at the right time – this is what makes it a MHIMWS, and not just a sidescrolling racer.

It’s an amazingly full game for what it is, with a slew of interesting levels and minigames and varied challenges. Far from being all about speed, there are some wildly different tracks and boss levels as well as a few lobby games totally unrelated to anything else. The large and wacky cast of unlockable racers play very differently from one another and the game has enough substance to it to let you experiment with all of them – this is impressive in its own right, there are a lot of racers.

Cyclomaniacs 2 is the game which first convinced me that Flash games were just as viable as those for any other platform. Something which was, after all, not always the case: Flash was originally just a means of making your website look pretty. Interactivity was limited, and certainly not up to what would be needed for something like this. There are few Flash games on its scale, and we’re now past the heyday of Flash gaming, so barring Phoenotopia 2 (fingers crossed) I’m not expecting any more to come.

Still, I’m grateful to have this one. It’s just as much fun now as it was at release, and there’s a sequel for anyone who can’t get enough of it.

Absorbed is a fast paced, side-scrolling, level based platformer in which you have a gun which can suck in, and then shoot out, just about anything. You’re likely to be reminded of the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, and that could have been an inspiration but the Absorbed gun, like the game that it’s in, operates much faster.

Actually, I’m playing through the developer’s other games on Kongregate now and speed seems to be emphasized in most of them – very quick and short levels. It’s nice. It’s satisfying to blow through ten levels in five minutes, especially when each one involves lots of fast things happening quickly. Feels like you’re really getting things done.

absorbedControl in Absorbed is responsive, as it needs to be, with a couple of caveats: You can’t shoot if there isn’t room for the projectile to appear in front of you, in other words there needs to be some space between you and your target. This will get you killed at least once. A second thing is that levels are all set up on a grid, everything is super linear, except for your projectiles – they are effected by gravity and they curve as they travel. But not very much. They almost shoot in a straight line, and just about every design element suggests that straight lines are the good and proper way for things to move, but your projectiles don’t quite do that. It’s a minor thing but it makes aiming difficult in some cases. I think it’s an interesting point how much the visual design can impact your expectation of movement.

Neither of these are deal breakers. On the positive side of things, there’s not a lot of bullshit here – almost no backtracking to re-use old projectiles, and neither do you have to be very conservative with what you shoot. This, and the fact that you can bypass a lot of puzzles by abusing your own fragile body, makes for a pretty easy game, and a quick run through, but as I said: speed seems to be a theme with this developer and that’s an asset. Going back and earning all the stars offers some additional challenge if you find it too easy the first time. (You earn stars by avoiding death, none of that annoying collection business.)

The developer’s name is Danil Zhuravlev. Like I said, I’m playing what I can find of his now and some of his games are more original than others, but they all show some care put into them. I don’t know why I haven’t heard of this guy before.

Relevant links: ADOM

ADOM title screenOf all the games I have ever played, I’ve devoted the greatest amount of time to Ancient Domains of Mystery. It’s not where I started with roguelikes, I started with Nethack and loved it, but I moved on to ADOM eventually and wound up staying there for a very long time. Like Nethack, ADOM is one of the “core” roguelikes – when talking about the genre it’s one of those games which will definitely come up, it is older and larger and frankly better than most others and it’s one that most every roguelike fan has at least tried at some point. I’d hate to suggest that it’s better than Nethack, they’re both wonderful, but once I tried it I found ADOM to be more captivating and when I try to break down the reasons why I come up with two things:

First, ADOM moves faster. Like all roguelikes, Nethack and ADOM are about slow advancement and being careful, but while the objective in Nethack is to get down to dungeon level thirty, in ADOM you’ll go through 100+ dungeon levels across multiple dungeons as you work through the game. A game which takes very roughly the same amount of time to complete.

Loot works similarly – as you play you’ll pick up a good amount of stuff and a lot of the more tempting things you can try out without much danger. Cursed items are pretty uncommon and there are only a few pieces of equipment with special negative effects, so equipment acquisition is fast and straightforward. In Nethack, every item that you’re considering putting on has to be carefully analyzed. This is fun in its way, being careful about everything is part of the roguelike mindset, but it’s slow and that pacing isn’t always what I want. It can give a greater sense of progression to move a little faster.

Second, ADOM is less complicated. ADOM doesn’t have nearly the level of object interactivity that Nethack has. Nothing does. While this is a very strong point in Nethack’s favor, it imparts a degree of impenetrability. There’s an enormous amount to learn and remember about Nethack and that can be a bit of an obstacle, even after you’ve been playing it for a long time.

ADOM pit vipers by Lawrence BrothersGetting away from comparisons, ADOM has plenty of its own stuff going for it. For one thing there’s a world map, something atypical among roguelikes, and that map is static. Unlike the procedurally generated dungeon levels, the dungeons themselves are always in the same places and the towns, geographical features, and people are the same way. Static towns and static people inevitably means quests: you start out near the village of Terinyo, knowing that the area is suffering from the negative effects of chaos but not much else. That’s okay though, the hapless townspeople are delighted to ask a stranger to help with their with various menial assassinations and puppy rescuing chores, and they will quickly make you feel right at home.

(I’d kind of like to talk about Tales of Maj’Eyal here… Another time. I’ll just say that ToME also has a lot of the the things which I’ve mentioned so far, from the faster pacing to the mostly static world map and quests, but does all of these things to a larger degree. Too large. ADOM finds the sweet spot in between Nethack and ToME and really makes it work.)

There’s a reason I’m bringing this up now: after eight years working on it, ’94 to ’02, and then ten years of limbo, Thomas Biskup, creator of the game, ran a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012 with the goal of restarting development. Since then there have been quite a few additions, most notably graphics, music, and sound effects, and in 2014 a commercial version was announced, available through Steam. As of the time of this writing, that commercial version has just recently been finished and finally released. This seemed like the right time to talk about the game.

I mentioned graphics and audio: like many roguelikes, ADOM originally had no audio and basically no graphics (ASCII graphics). And again like many roguelikes, ADOM has now adopted a tile-based graphics package to please those people who can’t do without, this was part of what the crowdfunding paid for. Unlike most recent roguelikes though, ADOM had previously stuck to the rule of putting the entire dungeon level on a single screen. This is how Rogue did it, and how Nethack does it, but few other roguelikes nowadays are using this convention anymore and that’s a real loss. It’s a little difficult to recognize why this is though until you’ve played with both styles a fair amount for yourself. It’s partly about density of information – when I switch between tile and ASCII styles I can’t help but be impressed by how much more efficient the ASCII is, there’s an impressive amount that can be fit onto a single screen when you break it down to symbolism. It’s partly about setting boundaries –  containing the level allows for knowledgeable exploration, digging and searching for secret doors has some purpose since you have at least an idea of where you’re likely to find things. And it’s partly about being able to explore at all, some newer games rely on an auto explore feature (ADOM has one of these now too). The sad thing is that using the auto explore is a necessary part of playing some of these games, levels are just too big to do it manually and so you need the computer to do your exploring for you. It can even be dangerous to try and do your exploring for yourself, since the sight range of the character may exceed that of the player.

ADOM without tilesThere’s also an element of artistry. Like pixel art, it’s really impressive sometimes how much can be expressed within heavy limitations. On the left the player, a mist-elf mindcrafter named Gilt, is standing near the village of Terinyo. As in virtually every roguelike, the player is represented by an “@” and while it may not be immediately obvious that a brown “o” is a village, that’s something you pick up as you play, you can probably make out some geographical features without prior knowledge. There’s a river there, dividing the countryside, and it’s blue as you might expect a river to be. There are green fields near the river and forests a little further away. There’s Terinyo, and a road leading away from the village into a mountain pass – this is a valley after all, and we’re surrounded by mountains. You have perhaps noticed that there’s a second village there, in the forest with no roads leading to it. I’ll let you find out why that is for yourself.

ADOM with tilesI mention all this because the graphical version of ADOM has given up on this rule, it now has scrolling and the maps no longer fit on a single screen. On the left is exactly the same scene, but with tiles enabled. It’s obvious why this has happened, the tiles that it uses are large and square while the original ASCII characters are small and rectangular. Clearly there was a need for more space and I can’t fault Biskup for making this choice – the large tiles look nice, and there’s no way to fit that much detail into such a small space as the ASCII characters occupy. Really, this graphical version of ADOM does an admirable job with the tiles, the sounds, and especially the music. They’ve certainly put in the effort, and the money from the Indiegogo campaign seems to have been well spent.

Still, when I play the game I turn the graphics off and I would recommend that anyone else should do the same. But I leave the sound and music on, that’s appreciated, and even the ASCII version has had a few visual improvements, most notably health bars. Wow, those are great. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s wonderful to have a quick accessible representation of character health, both yours and that of enemies.

I’m just glad that the option to have everything on one screen still remains. As I said, there are very few games which stick to this convention anymore and I find that it’s really a big deal. Play with it some and see if you don’t agree.

So consider all that as the pitch: you should play ADOM.

Now, assuming that you start playing right after reading this, chances are good that dealing with Terinyo and it’s surroundings are as far as you’re going to get for a while. The game is hard enough that progressing further will take some practice and a certain measure of luck, but those initial areas aren’t even half the map and as you continue on part of the fun is seeing just how much more there is to explore – another one of ADOM’s delights is all of the little nooks where it hides treasures, both literal and figurative. With that in mind: if you’re new to ADOM then try to avoid spoilers, at least for a while. Some other games are fairly robust to being spoiled, but you’re missing something if you go that route here. In fact ADOM is the only core roguelike which is not open source, meaning that even now, after a great deal of collaborative effort by the players, not everything about the game is known with certainty. Working out the details of {redacted} and {redacted} was a big thing back in the newsgroup days, and a lot of fun, and the only way you’re going to experience any part of that is by keeping yourself pure and wholesome.

That said, there’s no way you’re going to figure it all out on your own. Once you’ve been playing for a while and you’re just overflowing with questions which need to be answered, check out the mostly fairly kinda spoiler-free FAQ here. It does a great job of addressing those questions, though there’s no way to do that without some spoilers.

ADOM does have a tutorial now, that’s another new thing, but it throws a huge amount of keyboard shortcuts at you in rapid succession. I’m not sure how approachable this tutorial is. Fortunately, there’s also a new bar at the bottom of the screen reminding you of some basic commands (but it’s only there in graphical mode…). A few things to keep in mind:

  • Key commands are case sensitive, so “S”  = “shift+s”, and likewise pairings of characters are exactly what they look like: for “w?” type “w” first, then “?”.
  • Tap direction keys to walk, or use the walk command (press “w”, then a direction), do NOT hold down an arrow key to walk a long way in one direction. That’s a fast way to get killed.
  • You consume food much more quickly when on the world map. Just bear that in mind before you go wandering around forever.
  • ADOM is really made to be played with a keypad, you can move in eight directions using the keypad diagonals and scrolling through text uses + and – to page up and down and / and * to go line by line, all conveniently located on a standard keypad.
  • The manual is extensive and very informative but you don’t necessarily have to read it like a novel. It’s indexed to be used as a reference, and if you just turn to it from time to time then you’ll slowly gather everything that you need to know.

ADOM RPGCoverIllustrationThe tutorial will have you as a fighter, usually considered to be the simplest thing to start off with, but after you’re done with that I suggest a barbarian – a troll barbarian can bash it’s way through just about anything in the early game and heals quickly, the only trick is keeping yourself fed. If you want something with a little more finesse you could try an archer, my favorite combat-oriented class, just bear in mind that you’re never going to find enough arrows (or ammunition for your ranged weapon of choice) to be able to shoot everything, so you’re going to need to use a sword/axe/pokey stick as well.

While ADOM now has a commercial version, it’s been available as postcard-ware for the last twenty years. Basically free, but Biskup likes receiving postcards from different people who have enjoyed his game and he requested one from anyone who cared to send it. … I never sent him one. I feel a little guilty about this, but even more that it brings me to my one relatively minor gripe about the new version of the free game. The game now has an advertisement for the commercial version which you need to pass through every time you start it. The old request for a postcard politely turned itself off after it had served its purpose, not so with the new ad – there is no option to disable it. This is not my primary gripe though, I don’t begrudge Biskup charging for ADOM and the free version is the right place to mention the commercial one. Seeing the ad every time I start the game is annoying, but I can deal with it. My gripe is this: passing through the ad requires pressing a key, and that key is randomly chosen. In other words, it’s not merely an ad but it’s an ad which requires your attention.

It could be much worse, this takes a second at most, it’s not much of a burden to get into the game. As I said, a minor gripe. It’s one thing to show an ad though, it’s another thing to demand that people pay attention to it. Especially when it’s so easy to confirm that they’ve already seen it.

Still, a small blemish on a fantastic game which offers so much. As I said, I’ve spent more time with ADOM than with any other game I’ve played and relatively speaking I consider that time to be well spent (I have wasted most of my life). Try it.