Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
I’ve been obsessed with iOS/Android randomised tactical combat game Hoplite ever since Zack Johnson told me about it at IndieCade last month. You’re a Greek spearman descending the randomly generated levels of the underworld, and you have to deal with the steadily increasing demonic population you find there by moving carefully across a hex grid turn by turn, calculating each move to slash, stab or stomp them without letting them get a hit in.
Each level has a shrine that grants a choice of upgrades, letting you incrementally design a perfect build of complimentary abilities until depth 16, at which point they run out completely and you just see how far you can get with what you’ve built.
As the difficulty ramps up from there, the way your chosen abilities play off each other to let you overcome the endlessly increasing challenge becomes elegant, then balletic, then sublime. These calculated chains of sweeps, leaps and thrusts let you dance through a minefield with precision and grace, felling everything around you. It’s hard to fully explain how neat, clever and satisfying it feels – so I made a GIF.
If you’re interested in what’s actually going on here, I’ll go through it frame by frame.
First move. The purple wizards and green archers can shoot along any straight row of hexes (six directions), so I can’t go up (wizard on the right) or down (archer on the left). I head up-right, to get as close as I can without taking damage.
JC, a bomb! The red guys throw these, and they blow up next turn, hitting everything adjacent. This could be a tough spot: every adjacent square gets me hit by something next turn, and I certainly can’t stay where I am. But that’s what your upgrades are for – in this case, Shielding Bash.
Bash lets you knock anything away from you, including bombs, and in this case that lets me neatly blow up these two footmen. But it’s the Shielding Bash upgrade that really saves me here: every time I Bash, I’m invulnerable until my next turn. That protects me from the wizard above.
I’m missing a screenshot after this (I fudged it a bit in the GIF) but I manage to kill the closest wizard without taking damage, leading to this:
JC, a bomb! My shield bash is still on cooldown so I can’t bat it back at the red guys, but they’re low priority anyway – often they actually help. I’m much more interested in getting rid of these wizards.
I can’t Lunge at them directly, because the archer on the left would shoot me in the back, so I Leap right next to them. Leap costs a chunk of your slow-recharging energy, but I’ve also upgraded it to stun everyone near where I land, so it’s worth it to get close and stun the closest wizard.
The wizard I didn’t stun moved down, and another bomb rolls in. If I stay where I am, I’ll get hit by a wizard, an archer and a bomb – crazy damage. But I’m here to kill these wizards, and I can do it rather neatly.
As you move from one tile to another, you Slash any enemy who’s adjacent to both. In this case I Leap over their heads, letting me kill them both in one move, and stunning the red guy nearby.
Moving upward here would Slash the red guy and Lunge the archer, but I notice the archer in the middle would hit me. I don’t, however, notice the archer in the upper left.
Stupid mistake. I kill the red guy and stun the closest archer, but get hit by the one I forgot about across the river. Past level 16, though, it’s OK to take 1 point of damage on a level: the golden fleece you find there heals you by that much each time you descend.
JC, a bomb! Not hard to decide what to do here.
I Bash the bomb at the archer and two red guys, killing all three and protecting me from the top archer because of that shielding perk.
This is not as easy as it looks: you can’t attack an adjacent enemy by moving directly into their square, so no conventional moves are safe here. But as it happens, that last bomb bash was my third killing move in a row, and I have a killstreak perk. There are several to choose from, and I’ve picked the one that recharges your energy, returns your spear, and resets your cooldowns. That means Shielding Bash is ready to go, even though I only just used it.
The blackness is basically a wall, so Bashing someone into it crushes them instantly. It also shields me of course, so the archer across the river can’t hurt me again.
Easy move – leaping towards the archer lets me land into a Lunge, killing him with my spear.
This one’s trickier: if I Slash this guy by going up, the soldier on the right can stab me. If I Slash him by going down-left, killing him exposes me to the archer. I kind of want to kill him but stay where I am.
I guess I could throw my spear? It’s counter-intuitive at close range, and it’ll leave my spear in the archer’s line of fire, but! I’ve just done two consecutive killing moves, so as long as I kill something this’ll be my third, and my cooldowns, energy and spear will be returned.
I throw my spear into his face at point blank range, and it teleports right back into my hand. I love this game.
From here, it’s easy: Slash up…
Leap to chase the archer…
And throw my spear across the river.
It’s a risky move in combat, because without your spear you can’t do the super useful Lunge attack, and it’s awkward to get it back. But for the final enemy on a level, it feels like such a cool finish. Despite being turn-based and cutesy, what’s happening Hoplite’s fights has a spectacular and relentless brutality to it.
Once more from the top:
More What Works And Why
Tyler Funk: When I saw the title for this post, my immediate thought was "That sounds like Hoplite!" which I had just downloaded the day before. I am glad to see that I was correct. It's a beautifully simplistic and brutal game, and it's my go to time waster.
Alex: This reminds me really strongly of Ending, another indie roguelike from a couple of years ago: http://robotacid.com... ...sh/ending/
Jussi Lepistö: I've been meaning to try Hoplite, and I might just have to download it after reading this post... Incidentally, this is really close to a game design / prototype I had about a year ago, except I had squares instead of hexes and couldn't really make it fun. Hexes seem to be a much better fit for these mechanics.
Jason L: Well, not historically! Most roguelikes and derivatives use squares. It gives freer movement and deadlier surrounding, not to mention that it's possible to render in ASCII and easy with rectangular raster sprites.
If you're trying things out (which you should, Hoplite's as good as everyone says) and you're on iOS, why not also give 868-HACK a spin? It's essentially a photographic negative of this - managing hordes of melee enemies at range and collecting resources from the terrain. Its unpolished, free jam game predecessor 86856527 remains one of my favourite quick solitaire fixes.
Jason L: I put Hoplite on my mom's tablet because she loves 86856527 as well. A couple days ago I learned that she'd tried Hoplite but said it was too hard and didn't make any sense. This is an odd thing to hear from a person who broke through 86856527's barrier to entry! A bit of questioning established that she'd been bashing her head against the scripting and mechanical restrictions of the tutorial, and a moment's thought reveals that no, she's probably never played a tutorial before. Hmm!
Jason L: Sigh, tried to link to things again. Request spam review here and on the BAFTA post, sorry.
Jason L: Or not. The sequence of events when this occurs: Post comment. Posts appear. Check back - in this case on another machine that's never visited this site outside a private window, so it's not a cache issue - post both here and at BAFTA are gone. Post once more, both posts retroactively appear.
I thought it might be a matter of posts with links not closing, but when I posted here, both showed up immediately. I guess it's showing, then binning, and then unbinning all posts for a given name either upon receipt of a definitively good comment or perhaps an overall quality rating rising above some threshold.
Tom Francis: May be cache my end rather than yours, I use a thing to reduce load on the database. Don't quite understand the phenomena produced, but anyhow I didn't see either comment on the live site, but found them in my moderation queue and approved them now.
CdrJameson: This is great, but I'm suffering a lot of fat finger deaths.
Possibly better on a tablet.
Damon Smith: This game was near perfect for me. I don't understand why we don't see more of these games on IOS/Android. Any similar recommendations?
Saul Alexander: I got into this on a long car trip at Easter, where I was sitting in the back seat next to my sleeping baby daughter. I love these kinds of simple-yet-complex tactical mechanics, and I got a good few hours fun out of it.
My problem with it is that there is no goal beyond Depth 16. I reached Depth 16 on my very first try, and then got the fleece on something like my fourth. I was hoping for another mission at that point, but when there was nothing, I just couldn't bring myself to play it again. I rarely play phone games, and I rarely play endless games at all. This felt like it could have been an exception - if it had just given me another macguffin to pursue, I might have been hooked. But without a clear goal my motivation to continue just drained away, which was a shame.
Jason L: Yeah, at that point you have to start caring about score which is rare for me. You could also intentionally turn it into a tragic tale of hubris, advancing ever on for the sheer glory of it - a thing I do sometimes to get around my indifference to any but a truly excellent points system.
John K: After depth 16 there are a few achievements which are actually interesting challenges - win taking no damage, win using no shrines, don't kill bombers/wizards, get to depth 27, etc. - that have been keeping my attention.
Dan P: After reading about this here and giving it a spin I still play it on my way to and from work everyday, many of my friends are doing the same too, it's an absolutely brilliant game.