I have always been fascinated by games of war. I think its the ease in which my mind is able to sync with the way a war game works; in a war without the mess of Clausewitz's political object, a war without worry of the consquences, the mind is free to zip along unadultered lines of strategy and tactics with a childish joy in its heart. The heart of the mind, I mean; the rest of it might still be freaking the fuck out.
To me, there is no other game of war as deep, as raw, or as unrelenting as Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, known to its fans simply as "Crawl." Crawl is a "roguelike," a sub-genre of turn-based strategy games defined by both their lack of any kind of save feature, and by their unpredictable environements, often molded with the help of that notoriously cruel and anthropomorphic roguelike mistress, The Random Number Generator (RNG). Crawl is a single-player affair, and as such, the "war" here is an asymmetrical conflict between The Player, on a quest for the mysterious Orb of Zot, and the Dungeon itself, which guards it as its soul -- a sort of man vs wild affair, albiet perhaps without as much drinking of one's own poorly-filtered urine. (although, I have to admit, perhaps just as much cockroach-eating for sustenance.) Yet still, as long as the war machines keep churning, a war it remains.
Players start by picking a species for their character -- a sort of bias for how your game will develop. Each species has different aptitudes for different modes of the combat. Elves, for example, are great at casting all kinds of magic spells, while Orcses and Trolls are best at beating stuff up with just grit, muscle, and iron. Species are also differentiated by their various intrinsic abilities; Spriggans, for example, are known for moving very fast and eating very little, while Merfolk can automatically turn into a kind of half-fish in the water, greatly increasing their mobility. Latte Liberals plugging in from Starbucks will be pleased to learn that "Humans" are considered all-around average at everything in Crawl, and thus represent no bias at all. (and with no advantages either, an almost-certain early death.) Players are then asked to choose a character class. Character class in Crawl is not as much of a determining factor in how your game progresses as is species; class is more like a "background," really, an initial condiiton that only determines your starting skills and equipment. In Crawl Colloquial, your character's species and class is called your "combo", and where you go from there is up to you. If The Player is inclined, and has the skill to do so, they can shape their character however they choose. But keep in mind that victory is entirely dependent on the player's skill and resourcefulness, a wasting time will get you nowhere -- Crawl is as renowned for its finely honed balance and fairness as it is for its brutality.
The aesthetics of most roguelikes are derived (stolen) from the type of high-fantasy stylings of J.R.R Tolkein and friends, and, on the surface level, Crawl is no exception. The Player must cut through hordes of Orcs and Elves, Dragons and Trolls, and all manner of fantastical fauna -- even the occaisonal Human or two! -- on their journey for the Orb. However, unlike its more high-falutin colleagues, A.D.O.M. and Nethack, Crawl does not really have a scripted fantasy narrative. You might even suspect, on your first turn of a quest that has neither backdrop nor motivation, that Crawl does not have any kind of narrative structure at all... that, perhaps, the developers, being tired, as so many gamers are, of the taste and feel of the Real World, decided to enchew that kind of nicety all together... But then, as you play, you might begin to notice a few peculiarities... Like the other adventurers, just like you, scurrying about the Dungeon... some alive, some dead, but all with such strange things to say... You may then notice that the monsters themselves are not so different from those adventurers, nor yourself, either, and that any offensive or defensive technique, and everything in between, available to them is in some way available to you, too... and vice-viersa. And finally that, when you eventually die -- or perhaps even ascend! -- and all progress on your quest has ceased, that even though your most powerful spells and skills are no longer at your fingertips, and that every mighty artefact you once posessed has been lost forever, and your God has forgotten your name, and that the layout and structure of the various floors you once saw and lived in will never be seen again, that somehow... you still remember. and know. The Dungeon itself. And you know that you will somehow be drawn back down in to it again... Yes, Dungeon Crawl most certainly has a narrative, just one a bit more subtle, and a little less linear, than most gamers are ordinarily accustomed to.
How could it not? I have never before nor since played a game as terrifying as crawl, one that could make my body so instantly break into a cold sweat, my eyes trembling and my adam's apple sinking to my spine, and leave me so utterly exhausted from sitting in a comfy chair in a quiet room.
In any war, war machines are created by the War, to be consumed by the War -- not by the individual participants. War is much too messy to be cleanly divided between one side and the other. Reza Negarestani describes the multiplicity of these war machines of a War the "Fog of War" in his great book Cyclonopedia, and in many ways the Fog of War's uncertain and probabilistic nature really is as a sort thick pea soup (or in his case, a cloud of dust) hanging in the air, obscuring vision to most details yet still being aetherial enough to let through the contours between the ground and its surface underneath... A "game" of war facilitates only the detachment of a political object from the War and deadens the impact of the consequences on its participants. The "game" does not contain the War. Rather, the War itself is embodied within and through its participants; in this case, The Dungeon and The Player. (Note that one should take care not to confuse the mechanics of crawl (the game) with The Dungeon itself -- it would be the same as confusing Starcraft, for all its finely honed and delicately interconnecting systems, with its incredibly stupid computer-player A.I. that any idiot could defeat 1 vs 7) Thus, Crawl takes place as much within one's mind as it does in the computer. What seperates theglow, the winner at the end of last weeks Annual August Dungeon Crawl Tournament, 2011 that managed to win an astounding 15 games in 14 days (each victory averaged around 10 hours of playtime) of mostly impossible combos, or mikee, who won 11 games in a row in the tournament, dropping the 12th on the verge of victory only due to it being a desperate speed-run gambit (which would have netted major bonus points) to unseat the glow from his untouchable first-place spot, from the other 1400 players in the tournament is the way that they are able control the flow of the game within their own minds in order to outplay the chaos of anything that The Dungeon was able to throw at them. That means creating momentum when possible, breaking it instantly when necessary, holding all contingencies within awareness, and seeing, as a chess player would, many moves into the future. It means being able to see the contours of the whole dungeon at once, and being able to navigate through it non-linearly when clearing floor-by-floor will result in an inevitable doom. And it means understanding that there are other consequences from over-relying on a powerful spell or ability, like, say, the AoE confusion spell, Mephetic Cloud, than can be measured in just raw experience points.
Game as embodied consciousness may sound like a strange concept, but only because we have become so accustomed to letting computers do everything in a game for us. I do not think it would sound so strange, going back to the previous example, to a player of Chess. To convince him, after watching him agonize for a whole fucking hour before making a single move, that his agony lay not in in the sheet of cardboard in front of him. And so too it is with that terror you feel, as that out-of-depth Dragon has you cornered with 5hp remaining, your teleport still several turns away from kicking-in. It is the shock of an implosion of many war machines of your War, as the contradictions between them finally seized together at once like a tectonic fault. One spawned by your misread of the situation when the dragon first entered your line of sight, one spawned by your decision to re-specialize in Fire Magic, thousands of turns ago, one spawned by using up your wand of cold to eliminate a band of death yaks in the bottom of the Lair, one spawned when you unfortunately happened to identify speed potions by quaffing on D:2 instead of through the scroll that identify potions of slowing on D:3. It is the realization that whatever the reason you are about to die, it is entirely your fault; that somehow, if you had played differently somewhere, in some other way, that you might still be alive, and the game that you had invested so many hours into, after so many failed attempts, might still be going. And I know that it stings bitterly when you don't understand why, but trust me - it stings so much more when you do.
I want to reiterate here, and stress that for as deeply complex as Dungeon Crawl is -- even compared to other roguelikes! -- its balance is incredibly tight. The central shared philosophy that drives Crawl's design is that, to keep the game challenging and fun (i.e. to prevent boredom), any and all kinds of "no-brainers" present in the game must be eliminated. That is to say, no spell, weapon, or divine intervention should ever be so obviously powerful yet inexpensive to use as to render an aspect of the game irrelevant. And keeping with the symmetry of crawl's design, no enemy threat should be so horribly powerful at the depth it appears as to cause an unfair, unavoidable death. This is what is meant by "balance," and its ethos even goes so far as to mitigate the capriciousness of mistress RNG by mixing pieces of pre-designed floating "vaults" into with arbitrarily random floorplans. Standards for balance are kept high by the force of the Crawl community: there are at least a dozen *main* developers, hundreds more that submit patches, and countless others after that, debating changes to game mechanics at the official forums at The Tavern, other large forums like Something Awful (whose total sum of posts in its crawl threads over the years probably approaches a hundred thousand), and chat hubs like IRC.
And so, while even an experienced player may lose hundereds of games between victories, some top players have actually been able to "streak" multiple victories in a row thanks to Crawl's sense of balance. One player, elliptic, a few years ago, was somehow even able to streak an unbelievable 20 victories! Understanding balance is core to a player's strategic decision-making process. It is because of balance that no type of character, in the hands of a good player, is able to continue so staticly in its starting path as to ignore, without pause, an early-appearing high-tier item orthogonal to one's initial long-term plans, and because of balance that no strategy is able to dominate every stage of the game, against every type of threat. Poison specialists, for example, like the Venomancer, the Transmuter, and the Assassin, have an easier time in the early game and mid game, where most, but not all, enemies are weak to poison (excepting, notably. Ice Beasts, Black Mambas, Spiny Toads, and Hydrae), but start to peter out when high-level undead and demons become more prevelant. A Poison user must eventually evolve or die; a feat easier for the Transmuter than the Venomancer, for instance, as the former is likely to have a much lighter investment in Poison-type attacks than the latter, but then again flexibility is part and parcel of the Transmuter's strengths. The pressure is greater on the Venomancer to branch out into some alterative path, and thus one finding an early Book of Calling must seriously consider whether they should drastically switch their gears into the Summonings school of magic, facilitated via Summon Scorpions, despite the risk of never finding those rare high-end summoning books.
And so indeed, a strength of one character is not equivelent to a different strength of another. A pure damage build, either through melee or long-ranged destructive magiks, is not that the same as on that relies on stealthiness and trickery to defeat their foes, even if the same foes is defeated with similar resources spent. You can't have it all. A decision in one direction comes at the opportunity cost of moving towards a different direction, and to continue along mutliple directions equally comes at the opportunity cost of moving further along just one direction. War, as Clausewitz explained, is constituted in units of energy, and is thus mediated through a plane of logisitics on which your lines of tactics and strategy form. In other words, your logistic networks (how you are able to gather hitpoints, magic points, and consumable items) are what create tactical lines of flight and penetration: what enables you to survive the hit from that berzerking Stone Giant, or what enables you to billow the souls of the damned into the very shadows of The Dungeon itself, as a glass-blowing gaffer does with hot air and molten glass, spinning horrific, temporarily-tangible forms out of nothing. Likewise, strategic possibilities coalesce from the pea soup due to the constraints of your actual tactical choices. It is only through the workings of the machines of war that your victory becomes a reality. The most important lesson of Crawl is that not only do the means become the ends, but the means are the ends.
If you're into games of stategy and tactics, I can't recommend Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup highly enough. I've been playing it for years, and it still hasn't gotten old. In fact, every new version is better than ever, and the newest, 0.9, is definitely the best and most accessible yet. Try it in your browser for free, or even watch another person play, with the most excellent webtiles interface at https://tiles.crawl.develz.org/. (Firefox users may first need to set a browser setting to play and then be warned that a memory leak causes the game to hang every once in a while; a quick ctrl-F5 fixes the problem. On the other hand, it runs like a dream in Chrome.). Alternatively, download and play on your PC at http://crawl.develz.org/wordpress/downloads. The download features a bare-basic tutorial mode, so non-hardcore gamers might want to start there; otherwise, start up a Minotaur Berzerker or a Spriggan Venomancer and get ta' crawlin'!
Good luck, and remember to press "o" to win!