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Factorising 86856527

March 21st, 2013

Michael Brough’s 86856527 is my favourite of this year’s bumper crop of 7DRLs.  Admittedly I’ve not yet played all that many of the insane 147 successful games, but Brough’s brilliant byte-sized roguelike sets the bar rather high, and is very worthy of some close analysis.  If you haven’t played it yet, go do so, or at least watch UberHunter’s insightful Let’s Play video.

86856527 follows on in certain style from Michael’s streamlined 2012 7DRL Zaga-33. Aesthetically it’s very similar, and it is similarly on a much smaller playing field than most roguelikes. Even smaller than Zaga-33 in fact, and yet it has a lot more content packed in. The density of content within the 6×6 grid space is far far higher than I’ve seen in any other roguelike. For all its big icons and graphical charm this is a very complex game that is unforgiving to any who will not look deeply into its mechanics and systems.

86856527

You can see it all, but you have to look

You have 4 resources – health, siphons, credits and energy. Health is lost in battle, siphons are gathered and then used to draw out credits/energy from the map and abilities from the wall, and energy/credits are used to fund the use of those abilities. The siphoning of abilities from the walls summons enemies, which can damage your health and against which abilities are primarily used to defeat. It’s all beautifully weaved together. Complexity through interrelation.

I’ve seen both 86856527 and Mosaic referred to as having a board game feel to them. The big reason for this I think is the way in which they use the board itself, with grid squares counting as a resource and being a major part of the game. I’ve said many times on Roguelike Radio that I feel the map is too static in most roguelikes, that there’s too little interaction with the environment, and this was a big thing for me in designing Mosaic. 86856527 takes a very different route but achieves much of the same end effect. You care about every square, you analyse every grid.

This is reinforced by the enemies, which each have distinct differences. Individually they are not very interesting, but when combined in groups they can be trickily complex to defeat without taking damage. Terrain matters a great deal in how you can move around and how the enemies will move turn to turn. There is that lovely chess-like feel of always thinking a few turns ahead, considering the optimal options at each stage, and positioning, terrain, abilities and resources all tie in to those considerations.

And then there’s the score. Beating the game isn’t too hard if you play very carefully. But once you’ve done that suddenly score becomes an intensely important issue. The points come in discrete blocks that you have to spend resources and risk attacks to attain. They are sirens calling out to you, tempting you with higher positions on your high score table, yet frequently drowning you in a sea of enemies beyond your ability to survive. Riding the line between maximising score and retaining survival is thrilling and compelling, and the cause of many a YASD. The ease of replay and shortness of play sessions combine with this to make a very addictive experience. There is always the one more game to play. You’ll definitely beat that high score this time…

So what design lessons are there to learn from 86856527? Resources tied to terrain, individual enemy types, removal of numbers and density of content are all important. They are perhaps nothing new though, especially in the field of board games. Rather the novelty comes from their interrelation, the tightness with which they are wound together to form a solid core. No one element makes the game, and it is their fusion into a cohesive whole that makes this title really stand out. This is the real design lesson from Brough’s latest offering, that every piece of your game must bind together so tightly that the individual pieces can no longer be seen on their own. No single factor can be distinguished or removed without collapsing the whole.

Indeed, 86856527 cannot be so simply factorised. It is just too prime…

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