They say it’s better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. Well, “they,” in this case, happens to be a guy who literally calls himself the Prince of Lies, so we may want to take that with a grain of salt. But from the time I’ve spent with Solium Infernum so far, I think he may be right. As a refreshed and reimagined update to a 2009 4X cult classic, it’s sort of like Civilization set in the bowels of Hades – but with a greater emphasis on politics and, of course, betrayal.
Where Civ puts us in the boots of figures like Teddy Roosevelt or Montezuma, Solium Infernum features a devilishly-rendered cast of archfiends, from the straightforwardly malevolent warlord Astaroth to a nightmarish Beelzebub monstrosity. Each of the models shows off a certain wicked imagination, which allows their personalities to really come across when you’re cutting deals or scheming against them. The dialogue lines are even recorded in Enochian, a language created by occultists under the pretense of being the spoken language of angels, which is a neat touch.
Solium Infernum Screenshots
Solium Infernum’s version of Hell isn’t the fire and brimstone you may be imagining, though. Heavily inspired by Jonathan Milton’s Paradise Lost, it’s a cold and ashen place run by an intractable bureaucracy that doesn’t so much reflect childhood nightmares, like being attacked by shadow monsters, but more adult ones, like having to deal with the DMV.
Not that it’s lacking at all in dark fantasy imagery, of course. The Places of Power you need to capture to secure victory each represent some kind of creative torment for sinners or equally disturbing point-of-interest. These amazing unit cards for each of the dozens of recruitable legions of Hell provide scintillating tidbits of lore, along with evocative, animated 2D art. The names are just fantastic, too. Sometimes the only solution to a problem is 10,000 Screaming Bastards.
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN…
A game of Solium Infernum starts you off with your citadel and a respawning, personal legion that’s a bit different for each Archfiend. Our boy Lucifer stepped out for some cigarettes and never came back, so the throne of Hell is empty and up to six human or AI players are looking to be the next to sit on it. This starts by maneuvering units around to capture hexes – called Cantons – as the first to touch each one adds it to their territory. More importantly, capturing Places of Power grants passive benefits and increases your Prestige score, which is tallied up at the end to see who gets to become Pandaemonium’s Next Top Devil.
Securing cantons early can be crucial because, somewhat unintuitively, this contest isn’t just a bloodsoaked free-for-all. Hell has a lot of rules you have to follow, and part of that means you can’t cross your rivals’ cantons or attack their units and Places of Power without a formal beef being declared. To do so, you have to either demand some tribute from another archfiend or send them an insult, wagering some of your own Prestige in the process. They can back down and give you what you want, or they can rise to the challenge. Feuds can be settled with a limited period of open warfare, in which the initiator must complete an objective like killing a certain number of legions or capturing a Place of Power. Or, both sides can nominate a Praetor – powerful recruitable hero characters – to duel instead.
Combat takes place in three phases: Ranged, Melee, and Infernal, with each unit having a different strength in each. The legion with the highest strength in each phase deals an amount of damage equal to the difference. Astaroth, for instance, excels in melee, but isn’t much good with magic. So I found it’s better to end the battle before the spells even start flying by stacking up melee damage, or else I’d be in for a world of hurt.
SCHEMES UPON SCHEMES
Solium Infernum isn’t a game won by bloodshed alone, though. There are also mechanics for spying on your enemies, changing the rules temporarily with rituals and event cards, framing other archfiends for your misdeeds, and even snatching victory at the last second by offering to become a vassal after choosing a “Power Behind the Throne” objective. Your Archfiend levels up in a variety of powers from Wrath, which benefits straightforward conquest, to Charisma, which allows you to manipulate the politics of Hell to favor you and spurn your enemies. Increasing your infernal Rank costs an increasing amount of Prestige, which runs the risk of falling behind, but is also the main permanent way of improving your economy, since cantons don’t actually pay you taxes or produce food. I mean, look. I don’t think anything is growing down there.
The devs assert that the best way to play is an asynchronous multiplayer mode with a turn timer that can be set from one day up to a full week, potentially creating games that last months. It even has Steam notifications for when your turn is up. The number of things you can do on a turn feel overwhelming at first, but as you have a limited number of orders, you’re really forced to think carefully about how to get the most out of your legions and pre-empt what your rivals are trying to do. An auction mechanic for buying new legions, artifacts, and praetors, along with Hell’s deliberately fiddly currency system that requires combining different tokens and never getting any change if you overpay, speak to the layers upon layers of bluffs and careful counterplay that are possible.
If you want to try your hand at sitting upon the Big Spooky Chair of Satan yourself, you’ll be able to fall from Heaven on February 14th.