It’s often the case with games from the 70s and 80s that you had to be there at the time to appreciate how exciting they were to play. Some of us may have fond memories of something like Atari’s Battlezone, for example, but would a 12-year-old of 2014 respond to it with the same excitement as a youngster in 1980? Probably not.
Likewise a game like 3D Deathchase for the ZX Spectrum, a racing game that felt like a white-knuckle recreation of the speeder bike chase from Return Of The Jedi back in 1983 – would it illicit the same gasps of excitement from a player now as it did back then? We doubt it, even if it is a game we remember with cosy fondness.
But unlike so many games from that period, there’s something utterly timeless about the work of British designer Julian Gollop. Across a range of titles, which began in the early 1980s and took in such classics as Laser Squad, UFO: Enemy Unknown (also known as X-Com) and Magic And Mayhem, Gollop established his own brand of action strategy games, which, despite their measured pace, were every bit as exhilarating as something you’d have found in an amusement arcade at the time.
ZX Spectrum owners may have first encountered Gollop’s games in the middle part of the 80s (as we did), when the games Rebelstar and Rebelstar II appeared on the budget label, Silverbird. In each, you controlled a small platoon of soldiers, who carried out dangerous missions behind enemy lines; in the first, you infiltrated a base on the Moon and attempted to knock out a heavily-defended computer. In Rebelstar II, you had to storm an alien hive, take out its queen and make off with her eggs.
The Rebelstar series had actually begun in 1984, with a lesser-known game called Rebelstar Raiders – written in BASIC, it was like a prototype for the more advanced games to come. The Rebelstar premise evolved again for the more sophisticated turn-based title Laser Squad, which came out later in the decade (a PC port followed in 1992), and once again in X-Com, which updated those ideas to spectacular effect.
One of Julian Gollop’s most pure and elegant games appeared in 1985. Called Chaos: The Battle Of The Wizards, it began life as a card game before Gollop took its core concept – warring necromancers attacking each other with a range of exotic spells – and made it into a videogame.
At first glance, Chaos looks like nothing at all: just a handful of sprites on a black screen, cycling through minimal animations. It’s only as the rules of the game unfold that its true brilliance becomes apparent. When each game begins, players (up to eight of them) are given a randomly-generated list of spells. These can range from creatures they can ride, such as unicorns and horses, to animals that can be sent into combat against their rivals – these range from dire wolves to Manticores to dragons, and lions to club-waving giants. Then there are more exotic weapons such as fireballs and lightning bolts, or gooey blobs that slowly spread and creep across the screen as play continues.
Almost all these spells are one-time-only deals: once they’re cast, they’re gone. To make things even more tense, the more powerful spells in your book are more difficult to cast – and if a spell fails, you can be left without protection for one nail-biting turn while the rival wizards make their own moves.
There is, however, a means of making sure that a creature spell works every time: when prompted, you can create an illusory version of the creature instead. It’ll still have all the strength of the real thing, except with one potentially fatal drawback: if a rival wizard casts a Disbelieve spell on it, your precious green dragon will vanish in a puff of smoke.
Aside from all the tactics and elements of luck Chaos‘ simple framework introduces, this Illusion-Disbelieve mechanic adds a poker-like air to an already tense game. Is that player’s potentially deadly vampire an illusion, or did he get lucky and successfully cast a real one? Even decades later, we can still remember some of the Chaos games we had with friends:
Player one: There’s no way that vampire’s real. I’m casting Disbelieve on it…
Player two: It’s real. Honestly, it is.
Player one: You’re bluffing. I can tell from the look on your face. [Casts Disbelieve spell]
Player two: Suit yourself.
Player one: [face goes pale as the vampire shrugs off the Disbelieve spell, then promptly hits player one’s wizard and kills him] Crap.
It’s those kinds of moments that transform an otherwise interesting strategy game into an utterly gripping one. In the scenario above, player one lost, but it could so easily have gone the other way. Had the vampire been an illusion, player two would have been minus one of the deadly creatures in the game, minus a useful spell, while player one would have had an opportunity to win the game.
A single spell, move or decision could make the difference between victory and defeat, and this, coupled with the brisk pace of each game – which can, potentially, be over within a minute of two – is why Chaos was a classic in the 1980s, and a classic now. If you’ve any doubt as to how respected and fondly-remembered it is, look no further than the range of homebrew remakes that have emerged over the years. Even today, it’s one of a handful of Spectrum games we still load up and play from time to time.
How exciting, then, that Julian Gollop is returning to Chaos, almost 30 years after he first designed it. He’s turned to Kickstarter to introduce Chaos Reborn, which looks like the perfect amalgam of the original game’s addictive wizard-versus-wizard action and the single-player adventuring of Gollop’s 1990 sequel, Lords Of Chaos.
What’s so exciting about Chaos Reborn is that it could finally realise the untapped potential of the original. The turn-placed gameplay and the spells are the same, but there are now multiplayer and co-op modes, and the advent of a crazy new invention called the internet means we no longer have to have eight people all crowding around one screen to play it.
The most exciting thing about Chaos Reborn, though, is that for all its shinier graphics and additional modes, it’s still the same Chaos underneath. Like all of Gollop’s best works, Chaos has an appeal that transcends graphics and technology – underneath its fantasy veneer, it appeals to the same competitive human instincts as such ageless games as chess or, of course, poker.
A game that’s both addictive and strategically rich, Chaos deserves to be discovered by a new audience. With the financial support from its fans, a new generation of players could have the chance to enjoy this truly timeless game.