It's about picking your fights.
In September I met my girlfriend's dad. Let's call him Kevin (because that's his name). When I told Kevin I was a games journalist he did that look, the one where the mouth opens, the face folds and a spoken "Oh" rides a motorcycle across this chasm that's sprung up between you. Kevin offered the only thing he could say on the subject, which was that some of these "violent games" he'd read about "were getting a bit out of line", then offered the name of one of the offending titles - Modern Warcraft 2.
It was a bit like coming over for dinner and being offered the lone, hardened turd to be found in an otherwise bare cupboard. (Although in Kevin's defence, I'm not sure there's a gamer alive today who wouldn't slap down £40 immediately to play Modern Warcraft 2. Blizzard should probably hire him as a project manager.)
Stumbling across rich caches of ignorance like this is traditionally the games journalist's time to shine, and it's true that at that moment I could have said anything to try and polish this image of games in Kevin's mind. The thing is, I didn't. I just agreed with him while peering into my drink. Yep, games are morally corrupt. I apologise on behalf of games and us greasy individuals who play them. Is there any more wine?
It wasn't about cowardice, even though Kevin looked big enough to treat my head like so much pizza dough. This was about how the more you love something, the more you hate it. Everything I'd played for five months prior to this September had seemed frustratingly derivative, games so desperate to recoup the terrifying investment of cash they represented that mingled in with the sound effects you could almost hear the producers dry-heaving in the company toilets.
This September, I was tired. And you know what? Arguing that games are a fascinating, brilliant medium is exhausting when the games industry itself doesn't seem to be on your side. Sometimes you run out of juice, and the fight's not worth it any more. Sometimes the time comes to unclench your fists, close your eyes and admit that yes, games suck. Yes, they are toys for children. Yes, they're too violent. Yes, if we're talking ways to efficiently waste both time and money they're up there with foxhunting and divorce.
But sometimes a game comes along that gets you perspective. Solium Infernum, then, is the beautiful game that's letting me spend my Christmas break looking forward to everything we've got coming in 2010. And it's a game about picking your fights.
In case it slipped past you [cough - Ed], Solium Infernum is a play-by-email indie strategy game set in Hell, which came out this November. Between two and six players each control a powerful Archfiend, and the lot of you are squabbling over who's going to be voted the next Prince of Darkness. You win the game either by having the best reputation (the most Prestige points) at the end of the game, or by claiming the throne by force (marching an army over to the impossibly well-protected city of Pandemonium, capturing it and then holding it for five turns).
In a year where almost everything felt predictable, Solium Infernum kicked my knees out from under me. It's not just that it's unlike anything I've ever played, it's that in a year where every other game had me wishing I could skip their 60-second tutorials, this game took my past experience with strategy games and threw it, like a pro basketball player, into a bin eighty feet away.
After 20 hours of play there were still complexities I hadn't grasped, and if that sounds like a flaw then remember the three things all the gamers on the face of the Earth have in common: we once had no idea how to play videogames; we learned; and we learned because we wanted to. This is a game that says: sod being easy to learn and hard to master, because learning is part of the fun too.
Here's an example of what Solium does differently: if you want to go to war with another player you need permission from Hell's powers-that-be, the Infernal Conclave, and to get permission for bloodshed from the Infernal Conclave you need an excuse to be upset. As a result, almost every turn in Solium sees players demanding things from one another or hurling insults around with the purpose of either offending one another or elbowing opponents into a position where they might offend you.
Insults and demands can be really profitable if their target doesn't let things escalate, turning this mockery of diplomacy into a beautiful web of bluffs, threats and traps. Somebody demands resources from you and you have to look at their territory, borders, forces and powers to try to figure out whether you could take them, or more accurately whether you could afford to. This picking of fights could be the most important part of the game.
As a final twist, when you do go to war you have to set your own objectives and then choose how many prestige points you'll wager on your victory. The objective you pick is hidden from your opponent, but depending on how you play they might guess what you're after and move to counter it as the time limit for your private war ticks down.
This is design that's layered like a delicious lasagne. Similar to how solving puzzles in Braid last year first made you grin because you'd been so clever, then you'd grin again as you realised how clever the game had been, Solium Infernum's design is a tricky thing that keeps making you smile as you grasp subtlety after subtlety.
Another example of this is how rather than each player taking turns, you all fill up limited Order 'slots' which get executed simultaneously. So if during a turn I retreat my army in order slot two and you attack in order slot one, you'll get your battle. But if I equip my army with an artefact in order slot one, you might not get the battle you were hoping for.
Going to war in the late game when everybody's working with four or more order slots creates an awesome dance of second-guessing and double-backing your way to victory where the mass of tricks and powers available to everyone means nothing goes how you expect.
I knew I loved Solium Infernum during one difficult turn, when I found myself sat cross-legged on the sofa at midnight, alternating glances between hexes and demons on my laptop and the pencil and paper in my hands. My ugly grand strategy had developed so many twists and fail-safes that I could no longer contain it in my meat brain and I was scribbling my plots down in the real world. Mad plots. "Don't FALL FOR SCROFULA'S TRICKS" and "MUST CALL INFERNAL MONSOONS" and "hide the tongue of the liar in your vault, the THIEVES are sniffing around".
Solium Infernum is the game of 2009 that let me learn again, and it's so full of ideas and so lovingly put together that it helps achieve a level of optimism about this industry that you simply can't keep up. So you pick your fights, and you pick your games. And I pick this one.