Saturday, August 06, 2011

Six Gun Saga Review

Six Gun Saga, developed and published by Cryptic Comet.
The Good: Many varied actions and choices for each card, poker-based combat fits theme well, quick games, several victory conditions
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, no tutorial to explain complex rules, uninformative interface, some balance issues exacerbated by chance, inconsistent AI
What say you? This single-player card game requires study, wrestling with the interface, and an acceptance of luck: 4/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

The Old West, a classic setting for movies, has been largely ignored by computer games. Instead, we enjoy shooting (virtually, I hope) Nazis in World War II, or casting spells in a mythical setting, or shooting terrorists (who are possibly also Nazis) in present day. Save for one notable recent non-PC game that, for that reason, shall remain nameless, the Old West in untapped territory ripe for expansion (possibly using railroads). Enter Six Gun Saga, a side project by Solium Infernum developer Cryptic Comet. This, like all of their titles, is a card-based game where you must accrue victory points without getting shot in the face.

Six Gun Saga is visually similar to and real-world card game, as the graphics consist of the cards themselves and the game board where the cards are played. The cards, like previous Cryptic Comet efforts, are a treat, featuring nice art that certainly contributes to the theme of the game. They also contain informative descriptions of special attributes and alternative actions that can be performed. Unfortunately, the interface as a whole is terrible. First, there are no tool-tips: all information is displayed in the same area to the left, so the information for the currently-selected item is removed when another item is placed under the mouse cursor. However, if a posse is selected, you cannot mouse-over anything else to see its properties (like, say, the combat value of the enemy posse you might attack): a questionable restriction. The posses themselves are represented on the game board by simple monochrome circles, giving no indication on relative strength unless you select them. Currently selected items are highlighted in a very subtle manner (a slightly brighter yellow outline, the same color as the cards themselves). The game also doesn't explain why you can't do certain things: if I have five cash, why can't I hire an outlaw that costs one cash? The interface certainly doesn’t help newcomers scale the learning difficulties presented by the game. The sound design is forgettable: the period-appropriate cowboy music is a nice touch, but there are hardly any effects (just selecting things) to make battles come alive. Overall, Six Gun Saga gets by with rudimentary graphics and a limited interface.

Six Gun Saga is a card game for two to four players where your posses attempt to accumulate the most victory points by being placed on story cards and eliminating enemy units. The game can also end when a predefined turn limit is reached or a specific number of units are killed. You can adjust all of these settings, in addition to starting cash, before the game begins. Six Gun Saga provides no difficulty settings to make the game more challenging. More significantly, it lacks multiplayer: there is no hotseat mode, no LAN play, no online play, nothing. For a card game that is inherently multiplayer, this is a major limitation.

There are four card types in Six Gun Saga. You’ll start out by choosing a boss (or have the game randomly choose one for you): he determines the number of cards you draw per turn, the maximum hand size, the maximum number of posses, the size of your bunkhouse, and any special restrictions (like the lawman can’t hire outlaws). Some of these limitations are more noteworthy than others, and can alter your overall strategy somewhat. “Dudes” are your units, organized into groups called “posses”: they have an initial cost, per-turn upkeep (which must be balanced before each turn), gunfight value, health, leadership ability (how many people can be in their posse), victory point value if killed, and subtype that determines which action cards their posse can enter. Townsfolk also come with a special ability that can provide an income bonus, bonuses for owning specific buildings, and drawing more cards per turn to offset their lack of combat value. “Deeds” are buildings that, like townsfolk, provide additional income or a special ability. “Ambushes” can be placed on enemy staging areas as a one-time attack against posses; these discourage sending out single-unit posses. Finally, story cards award significant victory points, but require a specific subtype in a posse to enter first.

Cards start out in your hand (dealt after each turn), and there are four things you can do with them initially. You can buy the card, which adds dudes to your bunkhouse (who can then be added to posses), activates deeds, or places ambushes. You can attach the poker card listed on the item to an existing posse, to (hopefully) produce a better hand in the poker combat part of the game. Each card also has one of seventy actions listed on it that can be applied if certain conditions are fulfilled; these include things that affect victory points, upkeep, and skill levels, such as “if you have at least one posse containing a gambler that has occupied a story card for at least one turn then select an opponent and
take a random deed card from their holdings.” And if you don’t need it, you can cash a card in for a specified value (a good option for offsetting dude upkeep).

Posses, which cost three money to form, start out in your boss’s card and then pass through a staging area (where ambushes are placed) on the way to entering a story card the following turn. This is where the majority of victory points are earned, but story cards can only be entered by a specific dude type (lawmen, outlaws, gambler, military, et cetera); this makes you focus on specific dude types based on what story cards are currently on the table. When two posses meet in the same story card, a gunfight ensues. The game uses a Texas hold ‘em poker game to add value to existing gunfighting ratings; this means the superior posse won’t always win (though they usually will), especially if specific poker cards have been introduced. Overall, it’s balanced well, giving a semi-random bonus to keep combat a bit unpredictable. Plus, it’s a neat way to handle combat, and certainly fits the theme of the game well. After combat, hits are assigned to enemy units manually, so you can take out the units worth the most victory points.

Six Gun Saga features great card variety and varied special abilities, which means strategy will be slightly different each time. The combination of your boss, the cards you get, and the story objectives on the table will determine which cards you’ll keep, which ones you’ll cash, and which abilities you’ll use. Six Gun Saga depends on more luck than I’d like to see, like getting specific cards at the right time (I was Wyatt Earp, which means you can't recruit outlaws, so, of course, I drew almost all outlaws for the entire game). Additionally, one action (which are free to place) can really screw you, especially ones that result in the loss of expensive cards or a significant boost in upkeep for a particular unit. Either of these actions occurring in the beginning of a match results in a lot of early quitting. I think the more powerful actions should cost some amount of cash (or some other kind of limit), as there aren’t any repercussions for their use. While the actions allow for the trailing players to catch up, they are still annoying and poorly balanced. The AI doesn’t provide a good enough competitor: while they are good at pestering you with actions and then attacking vulnerable units immediately after, they also engage in battles where they are clearly outnumbered. The AI also likes to occasionally sit and do nothing, giving the human the opportunity to extend their lead. The computer simply can’t keep up with a competent human player, and I was able to easily double the computer’s victory points on a consistent basis after three or four “practice” games.

Six Gun Saga is an interesting idea for a card game that suffers from a couple of shortcomings. I do applaud the variety of cards available in the game: while you will encounter the same items in multiple games, the different attributes lead to varied strategies. You can choose to reap cards for their special abilities, cash them in to balance your upkeep, use them to form posses, stock up on deeds to provide bonuses, or accentuate existing posses with bonuses during combat. Striking a balance between all of these actions while accumulating the victory points earned from the missions at the center of the table is an appealing dynamic. The poker gunfights add just a pinch of luck to vary the combat values just enough to make confrontations in objectives unpredictable. Overall, however, Six Gun Saga relies on a significant amount of luck: getting the right (or wrong) cards at the right (or wrong) time determines the winner more often than solid strategy. If there are victory locations only for outlaws and you don't have any, the other players will reap the early benefits of getting to the story cards first. Plus, when you get the precious outlaw, you can bet that the AI will use an overpowered free ability to render that dude useless. Generally, the lackluster AI simply cannot keep up with a decent human player: once the basic rules are learned, victory is usually assured (unless they keep eliminating your best units with cheap abilities). Because Six Gun Saga lacks multiplayer modes of any kind, this is a problem that significantly affects longevity. The final nail in the coffin on Boot Hill (or whatever cowboy analogy you'd like to use) is the horrendous interface, which makes Six Gun Saga generally inaccessible to newcomers. In the end, the reliance on luck and overpowered abilities, uncompetitive AI, lack of multiplayer, and poor interface makes Six Gun Saga destined to hang for its crimes instead of riding into the sunset.