“Hell is other people.” Trapped together in a small room, the central characters of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘No Exit’ gradually learn that being watched, observed, and scrtunised by others is a special kind of nightmarish punishment. When writing about videogames, it’s not often you get to reference French philosophy or the pains of psychological pressure, but enter Solium Infernum, a new strategy game, set in Hell, where manipulation and deviousness are much more dangerous than guns. With influences including Doom, Civilization, and Dark Souls, Solium Infernum pits you against human players (though single-player is still available) as you contend for the infernal throne – Lucifer has vanished in mysterious circumstances, and a new ruler of Hell must be chosen. It all started back in 2009.
“The original version of Solium Infernum was developed by the enigmatic Vic Davis of Cryptic Comet,” League of Geeks co-founder, and (the new) Solium Infernum’s creative director, Ty Carey, explains. “It was an incredible achievement for an indie solo dev, with no prior experience in the game industry, who was experimenting within the ‘digital board game’ space. It was never released on Steam, only being sold through Vic’s website. It was clunky in terms of appearance and interface, but hidden in there was a diamond in the rough.
“Solium Infernum did strike home, though, with a core group whose love of board games, indie strategy games, and bizarre hell-things seemed perfectly triangulated,” Carey continues. “This was an experience I really wanted to share with the world. So, I kind of… stalked Vic, a little, sending yearly emails asking him what was up with the licence. When we had a team available looking for their next job, we pounced.”
Playing as one of eight ‘Archfiends,’ each with their own exclusive units and abilities, there are multiple routes to becoming Hell’s infernal ruler. Open warfare is an option, but diplomacy, subterfuge, and political wrangling are Solium Infernum’s most-powerful weapons.
In our original preview, we saw how the tide of an entire game could be turned in just eight moves – and without a single combat encounter. Imagine yourself as Machiavelli, or, to use a more contemporary reference, Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. The strongest Solium Infernum players will remain in the shadows, pulling all the strings without anyone else realising.
“Solium Infernum isn’t focused on base-building or straightforward conquest,” Carey says, “but more so around heavy political rivalry and scheming machinations, where information and secrets are actually very powerful, and using diplomatic ‘moves’ to make rivals vulnerable is how to move forward.
“The game allows you to get into your opponent’s heads, trying to out-think and outmanoeuvre them. This is because all players enter their orders simultaneously, meaning you have to be able to predict your rival’s plans. It’s a serious mind-game with high stakes. The question is, how dastardly can you get?”
If you capture the capital city of Hell, Pandaemonium, and hold it for enough turns, you win. But there’s another, more-involved system underscoring Solium Infernum, whereby you can gradually earn the admiration of the bureaucratic Conclave, and be anointed leader owing to how devious and manipulative you are.
Each player has a ‘Prestige’ meter, reflecting how well regarded they are amongst Hell’s governmental elite. Push it high enough, by holding particular areas of importance on the map, or scoring political points in front of your rivals, and the infernal house of representatives will select you for Lucifer’s throne. Suffer humiliation or fail to predict your rivals’ underhanded schemes, however, and your Prestige will take a hefty knock.
Let’s say you’re competing against two other Archfiends. You can offer yourself as the vassal to one of them, effectively forming a pact and becoming part of their inner circle. In front of Hell’s parliament, you could then criticise or insult the other player, forcing them to either accept your humiliation and lose Prestige, or answer your disrespect with a declaration of war.
Providing they take the bait, you’ve successfully turned the other two Archfiends against one another. As they waste turns scrapping over nothing, you strengthen your army and push onto Pandaemonium.
“The core of Solium Infernum was always a diabolical, psychological, high-stakes game you played against your rivals,” Carey explains. “It’s something that many games try to accommodate, but often seem to miss the mark regarding the types of intrigues that can occur, or how the social dynamic works. There are a lot of board games out there that offer interesting social dynamics, or scheming and bluffing mechanics, but strategy videogames tend not to look into these spaces.
“The original Solium Infernum was great at creating a social powder-keg pressure cooker, and we wanted to capture this and even find ways to emphasise it. Success for us looks like people conspiring in the backgrounds of their games, both in and out of it, in terms of social engineering.
“This also suits the setting of Hell,” Carey says. “As opposed to the chaos of fire and brimstone, Hell really is being stuck in, and navigating, the red tape of bureaucracy. There’s something evocative about having to present your grievances before the parliament of Hell, or cleverly insult your rivals in front of the Conclave. The tensest politics seems to be carried out on a knife’s edge, waiting to spill into violence.”
But of course, all-out war is still an option. Each Archfiend has a personal legion, totally loyal to them. You can also purchase new units from Solium Infernum’s bazaar, essentially an auction house where each Archfiend bids for the allegiance of different demonic factions.
“There are lots of hellish units in there,” Carey says, “with different balance stats (some may be better at ranged attacks than melee or sorcery, for example) and game-changing perk. They’re offered through the auction house somewhat randomly, meaning each game you’re going to see, and have to deal with, very different legions.”
Solium Infernum also features a persistent, ‘wrapping map.’ True to the classical vision of Hell, where the rules of physics and reality no longer apply, the world of Solium Infernum is almost like a small sphere – if an enemy is mounting legions to your east, scroll far enough, and the same legion will be to your west. There’s nowhere to put your back against the wall, no opportunity to fortify yourself in one, unassailable position. Hell is other people. In Solium Infernum, your enemies constantly surround you.
“Playing Solium Infernum has been described as ‘losing yourself in the cold glory of a difficult decision,” Carey says. “We call it The Strategy Game from Hell, or sometimes, jokingly, the ‘Dark Souls of strategy,’ because it puts you in a really tight and harrowing position. The screws really tighten around you – we’re in Hell, after all.”
Though single-player is available, the crux of Solium Infernum is its slow-burn, asynchronous PvP. Each player can input their turn, then leave the game and wait for their rivals. No-one knows what anyone else is scheming until the turn is complete – log on, make your move, then log back in the next day to see what everyone else has done, and decide how to react.
Like a long-form game of postal chess, as well as letting time-poor players enjoy sprawling games of strategy, it enhances Solium Infernum’s focus on planning, deviousness, and political machination.
“There’s not many games that offer asynchronous long-form play as an experience,” Carey explains. “We coined the phrase ‘scheme in your sleep’, meaning that the game would stay with you after you closed it – you’d be thinking about your next moves, and your opponent’s plans, lying in bed awake at night.
“It also gives you the opportunity to take short turns regularly in the game, which is great if you don’t have the time to session play over multiple hours, though you can still do that, too. You’ll get an alert that your turn is ready, and then log in and take your turn, which may only take a few minutes if you’ve already thought ahead about your plans.”
Although there is no release date for Solium Infernum, 2023 will see the launch of the game’s technical demo, which League of Geeks hopes will provide live feedback from would-be players. You can get involved via the Solium Infernum Discord. League of Geeks is also positing regular dev logs over on Steam, where you can already add Solium Infernum to your wishlist.
“There’s something special about Solium Infernum that you risk undoing when you pull it apart and reassemble it, even with the best intentions,” Carey says. “We’re looking for the most obvious forms of friction, confusion, or complexity, and seeing if there’s a smoother method – looking through a modern design lens, utilising an additional decade of game theory that has passed since the original Solium was released.
“The new Solium Infernum will have its own unique feel. It will be different, but that’s okay. And not knowing exactly what that feeling is going to be is actually exciting.”
If you’re looking forward to Solium Infernum, in the meantime, check out some of the other greatest 4X games. You might also want to try some fantastic RTS games, or maybe the very best grand strategy games on PC.