PBEM Forever: Solium Infernum
Continuing from last time, PBEM Forever is a series about the best play-by-email games that aren’t merely digital board games. Although today’s entry is remarkably close to a board game in its own right…
Here at least
we shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
—Satan, Paradise Lost
Solium Infernum is about ruling hell as a prince of darkness, or at least the ambition to. This isn’t the wailing, crimson hell of most Christian imagery; this is the tragic hell, the romantic hell, the hell that’s as much about freedom from God as it is about freedom of avarice. Upon the ashen plain there are houses wherein dwell demons of repute, and strange Boschian gardens of torture and revelry, and the occasional river that wends over the horizon and back upon itself. If the terrain seems infinite, that’s because it returns in every direction, more a doughnut than a sphere. For eons uncountable this realm has been ruled by a singular figure. But Lucifer, the Son of the Morning, he who broke the chains of the Oppressor and led his host into the gray beneath, has disappeared. Someone must rule in his stead. Maybe that someone could be you?
If nothing else, Solium Infernum is a masterclass of setting. From the moment you create your demon, imbued with form (blubberous, sinister, awkwardly sexy) and ability (good at archery, skilled at telling other people to work harder, too obese to rush anywhere), to the moment you open the infernal bazaar and gaze upon the misshapen praetors, legions, and relics you’ll occasionally bid on to get a hoof up on your rivals, everything in that washed-out landscape is riddled with place. The occasional bridges are choke-points. The open prairies are opportunities for support or flanking. That gold-rimed palace is the Conclave, where demons meet to vote upon the ascendancy of Satan’s heirs. And, incidentally, one of the ways you can win, whether by earning the Conclave’s acclaim or conquering it outright.
It’s also basically a board game, albeit a board with a whole lot of calculations and random outputs and hidden information humming under the hood. Oddly, it would probably function better as a board game than a video game, given the natural limitations and streamlining necessities of the form. But, like Lilith jumping Adam’s bones before Eve got her turn, I’m getting ahead of myself.
With so much going on, the easiest way to describe Solium Infernum is through the tales it generates. Once, I was a martial demon, high enough in the feudal system of infernal rankings that certain of my foes were required to tip their horns to me in public, but not so high that I could get away with thumbing my nostrils at my betters. Over time, and as sites of power were claimed and infernal cantons were merrily seized for the upcoming census (which is always, by law, gerrymandered), this imbalance led to a number of interlocking allegiances. Rather than merely invading an opponent, nearly all diplomacy — including most acts of hostility — must be first vetted by the Conclave. Gifts, demands, even insults must be examined for suitability of station. So it goes: you choose to demand some resources from so-and-so, the Conclave approves your demand, and the missive is delivered. How much of your prestige this costs depends on the gap in your noble ranking.
But while this is terribly formal (and a bear to learn the first time you play), it’s also a perfect fit for the play-by-email format. Had it been incarnated in cardboard, Solium Infernum might have been a negotiation game. Instead, its unique position makes it something even more intriguing — a game about wrestling with hellish bureaucracy as much as it is a game about wrestling with your demonic peers. It’s about the petty imps who must stamp their seal of approval on the merest gesture in another lordling’s direction, even when that gesture is a knife to the throat.
Take war, for example. In the aforementioned game, I desperately wanted to invade one of my rivals. But one does not merely invade another demon’s realm. You first require justification in the eyes of the Conclave. Yet my spleen overflowed when my demands for resources were returned as wagons of brimstone and shrieking souls, my insults as meek acknowledgements of my superiority. Those souls and those agreements were pleasant enough, but, dammit, I wanted pretext.
The solution was deliciously bitter. I spent my rival’s gifts on learning new tricks, then raided his vault. Gone were all his resource cards, making my next demand impossible to meet. I set the terms of our feud: I would defeat him in single combat. Not me, obviously; one of my praetors. Sadly, since my rival’s praetor had recently gone missing under mysterious circumstances (tee hee), he was a no-show in the arena. Some portion of my rival’s prestige was mine. Better yet, we were one step closer to blood feud.
It’s easy to see the difficulty in transposing Solium Infernum to the table. Combat and the bazaar and nearly everything else could be streamlined, but direct conversation isn’t nearly alienating enough. In fact, while most longer PBEM games are best played in a separate email chain for the sake of trash talk and haggling, Solium Infernum is one of the few games I prefer with a blackout on out-of-game communication. When the only words you’re hearing out of your friends are sullen demands, issued fifth-hand from servant to bureaucrat to servant, you’re no longer playing against Taylor; you’re dickering with a leopard-headed bodybuilder in a speedo. Bonus points for the momentary misfiring of neurons when you see your friend in person and they ask how you’re liking the game.
Meanwhile, other elements could have benefited from the limitations of having to fit into an actual box with actual rules. Gathered resources show up on cards, sometimes singly and sometimes in clusters, and can be consolidated onto other cards. This is a cool idea for a few reasons. Foremost, you can only ever spend eight cards at a time. Higher-cost rituals, combat cards, offerings in the bazaar, or dark magics that empower your demon all require heaps of resources, and therefore force you to periodically waste one of your precious actions on consolidation. But this is also a huge risk. Rival demons might raid your vault and pick through your cards. These are as tidy or messy as you’ve left them, which is both a nice tactile touch and utterly infuriating to actually deal with. Hoarding powerful cards means someone might snatch the very same nine soul / four ichor / three darkness card you’ve been saving for later. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t entirely remediate the annoyance of having to sort through forty of your own resource cards for that spare brimstone you’ve misplaced.
Still, despite its messiness, Solium Infernum effortlessly kicks up experiences that aren’t easily replicated. That one play, for instance, unfolded one twist after another. Upon beating my rival into submission, I made him my blood vassal, entitling me to half of his prestige and his undying loyalty. Guess which was more meaningful. Together we raised hell across, um, hell. The other contenders for Lucifer’s chair withered in the face of our combined march. And, in the end, the Conclave cast its votes for—
Except I still lost. You see, my blood vassal, my rival, had been plotting since before the beginning of the game. All the way back when he designed his avatar, he picked a particular trait from a long list of possibilities. Power Behind the Throne. Cost: 15 out of 30 total points. That’s an enormous investment. But it meant that if he joined somebody as a blood vassal — if he could convince somebody he wasn’t a threat, but not so much of a non-threat as to make him suspicious — and if he could propel his new liege lord to victory… well, then he would win instead.
Here’s the best part: Solium Infernum is packed with little moments like that. If you suspect somebody is going to run away with the game, take the Kingmaker trait. If a weaker demon is about to run away with the Conclave’s adulation, why not invade the place and see how they like the lower circles? If somebody does precisely that, maybe join an unholy crusade to return law and order to hell. Or invite an angelic host to raise trouble. Or steal all of your rival’s best stuff from their vault. It’s petty. It’s underhanded. It’s crass. And who cares? To rule is worth ambition. Even if you’ve got to stomach some clunk to get there.