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  • Ric Crossman

4.1.9 Shout "Allamaraine!" And Sit Down

Updated: May 7, 2022

Move Along Home


LIQUID ASSETS, INTESTINAL BLOCKAGES, A SURFEIT OF SCATHES

The game of Chula.

QUINT: GAMES, my friends. Don’t you just wish you were in them? Not just looming over them, squinting downward like a near-sighted giant, but actually inside them, surrounded on all side by game. Game in all directions. GAME UNTO VERY INFINITY.


That’s the horizon I hunger for! And so does Lieutenant Mathli. Right, Mathli? RIGHT, MATHLEE?


MATHLI: Quint, you’re not allowed to shout at me anymore! Doctor Bashir says I’m suffering from bad-ears!


QUINT: ALL BAJORANS HAVE BAD EARS. Now pass me the alpha-currant nectar and let’s begin the review.


MATHLI: You don’t even like alpha-currant nectar! You said it smelled like a fart with depression!


QUINT: IRRELEVANT. I must have it, Matthews! It’s priceless! *Gulping noises* Pricelessness is coating my throat. PRICELESSNESS IS SWELLING MY BELLY. *Gulping noises*


MATHLI: But you said-

QUINT: *Gulping noises*


MATHLI: You said that drink would be my wages for the year.


QUINT: Yech! That stuff tastes like unchewed tube grubs and socialism. With drinks this bad, it’s no wonder the Wadi need so many games to keep them occupied.


MATHLI: And we have one of those games before us this very star-second, Quint! today we’ll be checking out Chula, the hot new property that’s erupted from the Celestial Temple like a rules comet.


QUINT: You know what I've just realised?


MATHLI: No!


QUINT: Comets are made from ice, yeah?


MATHLI: Yes.


QUINT: And this comet is based on board games, yeah?


MATHLI: OK...


QUINT: So we could hack up that game and make it into... DICE CUBES.


MATHLI: ...Am I allowed to quit?


QUINT: NOT EVEN IF YOU DIE.


MATHLI:...


QUINT:...


MATHLI: ...AND SO, we couldn’t be more excited to bring you this exclusive review of the first known Gamma Quadrant game to reach our comfy quarter of the galaxy.


QUINT: Or less excited by the actual game.


MATHLI: A tad harsh there, Mr Quint? My friends in the Fed keep telling me this is a fascinating glimpse into a unique and rich culture.


QUINT: That’s PRECISELY what you say about a game that you can’t actually enjoy. It’s like cooking someone a meal and them complimenting the cutlery: you know they’re only doing that because they couldn’t find anything nice to say about the food.


MATHLI: But Quint! Chula is a revelation! Thinking so far out of the box, the box doesn’t really feel like visiting the thinking much anymore because they have to change shuttles at Betazed! An envelope pushed so far, it’s snapped and embarked on a spree of revenge killings! We’ve played board games. We’ve played holosuite games. Occasionally we’ve played board games inside holosuites, because something is very wrong with you, and you insist shuffling cards is easier when they’re made of photon.


QUINT: They are LITERALLY the most light cards imaginable.


MATHLI: Chula is something new and different. It utilises holotech, which makes it useful for clearing up late at night when you’re wobbly from all that alpha-currant nectar. But it isn’t actually in a holosuite, but instead linked to one. One player sits at the board, directing his fellows like an antisocial auteur. The other players huddle inside the holodeck, seeking to defeat riddles sent their way by their board-bound comrade. What else in our cardboardesque hobby can claim to do similar?


QUINT: Yes, Chula is revolutionary. The problem is, revolutionary ideas are like, well, revolutions. Almost all of them fail, and the few that look like they’re working soon fall apart. Because a revolution means a whole lot of newness, and pretty much everything that’s genuinely new gets outpaced by the refinements that come later.


A game in which you control a holodeck from the board should be a licence to press latinum. And it will be, a few months or years from now, as other designers take the misshapen crumbly lump that is Chula and shake it through their cerebral sieves. But right now, all we’ve got is a game with one big idea, and an engine assembled from pipe-cleaners and bad cheese being used to try and keep that big idea running.


It’s like those twentieth-century hu-mon coders who worked out how to use an electronic controller to move pixels on a monitor. Probably the biggest gaming breakthrough achieved by their species since they gave up tossing knuckle-bones. And what did these bright-eyed trailblazers do with this unprecedented leap in leisure technology? They created Pong.


MATHLI: Hey! I participated in a revolution that drove our hatred oppressors off our world! Also I’ve downloaded Pong onto my padd.


QUINT: And do you enjoy playing it?


MATHLI: ….Yes.


QUINT: UNIRONICALLY?


MATHLI: …Damn.


QUINT: EXACTLY. Here’s the problem. Chula sounds brilliant as a package, but no-one actually gets to experience that package. Most of you get an already-unwrapped item that it turns out you had already, and one of you is forced to fiddle with the shreds of string and wrapping paper that were on their way to the bin. The two halves of Chula influence each other, but the half that you’re in is receiving input that’s totally incomprehensible; impossible to understand or predict. You might as well try to play cards on Tholia with a broken universal translator. You can’t understand anything anyone is saying, so it’s impossible to know how to win, or even what moves you’re allowed to make. Which, after you’ve been sold a unique opportunity for interactive play, comes as an unpleasant surprise. It’s like showing up for a round of strip poker only to find everyone will be playing blindfolded and in separate rooms.


This game sells itself as more than the sum of its aggressively modest parts, but actually it’s the exact opposite. Consider the chumpish fool who has to sit down at the board. It’s a pretty board, I suppose, but it’s also uninspiring, like a supermodel reading out tax returns. At best, this player is going to find Chula a mildly diverting betting game. They’ll face different levels of difficulty, multiple choices of what path to follow with each one sellotaped to an associated level of risk, and the ability to bet at each stage. It’s all very sensible, but it’s also all very dull.


There is, admittedly, something rather clever in the idea that whether or not your bets pay off depends not on chance, but the performance of your friends, making Chula a sort of push-someone-else’s-luck game. But when you get to the heart of it, the Chula board casts you in the role of a general directing a battle you can’t see, or even receive intel about beyond an increasingly depressing casualty rate. It’s your job to give your friends an entertaining challenge, and hopefully even steer them to victory, but Chula selfishly holds back all the actual information you’d need to do it well. Even when one of your team-mates is eliminated, you’re not told who it was, so you can’t even choose from your desperately limited options based on what you know about the strengths of whoever remains.


MATHLI: That’s not a bug, Quint. Or if it is, it’s one of the tasty bugs you keep trying to sneak past Odo because he’s banned them for eating people’s feet. That underlying confusion is an express ticket to post-game jollification.You can sit around the table and giggle at how badly wrong the player at the board got things, constantly flinging you at near-impossible strength challenges in the mistaken belief Trunkarms Terry must still be in the game, because there’s no way he was the idiot who went down on shap one. Every cooperative boardgame has an unofficial Petty Recrimination Phase, and Chula gives you plenty of ammunition for the bun-throwing.


QUINT: It’s true; I do enjoy a well-executed buck-pass. But a game that’s most fun after you’ve stopped playing it isn’t one I’d be able to recommend. And that’s in the best-case scenario, too, where there’s actually some tactical error you can insist your friend atones for. More often than not, the player at the board is losing pieces for reasons they can’t be expected to figure out, or even have any control over at all. Sometimes you have to blindly choose a player to eliminate because a dice roll took you to the wrong square. WHICH IS ANOTHER THING. The three most unforgivable gaming sins are random movement, unavoidable penalties, and player elimination. THIS COMBINES ALL THREE. How does that factor into your rose-tinted post-game gabpocalypse? “I aced every challenge the game threw at me but had to go home two hours early because someone rolled snake eyes upstairs”.


MATHLI: It’s less arbitrary than you’re making it sound. You can’t avoid the chance of landing on an elimination space once you commit to a path containing one, but that’s commitment is entirely at the controlling player’s discretion. You can complete the game without ever choosing a route littered with cardboard landmines. These constant decisions about when to play it safe and when to risk everything are what makes the game worth playing for whoever gets tied to the board.


QUINT: It’s still poor craftmanship, though. If you want to create a riskier path for players, then design tougher challenges. Don’t just throw someone away at random like a drunk in a morgue. And while we’re at, don’t make the easier routes require grinding through a seemingly endless sequence of aggressively dull tasks. That’s Chula’s problem in a wizened nutshell; it’s a game that makes you choose between dullness and defeat.


MATHLI: I’ll have to stop you there, Quint. Your wrongness is spreading, and I’m afraid it might be infectious. The puzzles in Chula are nowhere near as bad as you’re making out. While the solo player is the one with the job of choosing tasks – generally, yes, with no clue what they’re doing – it’s everyone else’s role to get through the mysterious itinerary of physical, mental and skill-based challenges their compatriot has arranged for them. And that’s where the fun lies. Ultimately, the player at the board is a facilitator. Unless they’re really into their betting strategies and Nash points – which some people are, and let's leave their yum un-yucked – they’re spending more time ensuring everyone else’s enjoyment than joining in themselves.


QUINT: Wow. Even when you’re defending this game you make it sound like a boot to the earlobe.


MATHLI: Well OK, that’s not Chula’s greatest feature. But a strong, quick game can survive a single duff role, so long as everyone is willing to take their turn as director during replays.


QUINT: No-one’s going to be replaying this holographic turkey, Lieutenant. And if they did, I’m not going to risk my sterling reputation as a host by starting games night by asking “Whose turn is it to not have fun this week?”. Let us hear no more about this ridiculous concept of reaching for Chula a second time. This game already haunts my nightmares, like unions or sick pay.


Instead, let’s go back to talking about the team solving puzzles. Because IT SUCKS TO BE IN THAT TEAM. Firstly, the design of the gaming complex is terrible. It’s just an infinite grid of bland, featureless corridors, broken up by the occasional bland featureless room, like a web of cold spaghetti held down by cold boiled potatoes. Then there’s the doors. SO MANY DOORS, nearly all of them are locked. It almost seems a deliberate reminder that the team has essentially no say in how they’re going to progress. It’s not like it’s hard to figure out the game is railroading you – even if technically the tracks are being laid directly in front of you as you move forward – but refusing to let you progress until you pick a door the game will let you open just rubs salt into an already well-seasoned wound.


MATHLI: That’s hardly unique to Chula. Plenty of video games are littered with doors nailed shut like a coffin in a coffin.


QUINT: That’s not a sensible comparison. Sprinkling a game environment with false doors to make that environment look convincing is perfectly reasonable, up to a point. You want your haunted starbase to look like an actual starbase. Adding locked doors to an environment with no real-world analogue doesn’t perform the same function. It’s like inventing a magical fantasy realm of talking fish and singing rainbows, and then chucking Rigellian flu in there. Nobody expected to see it, and it’s ruining everyone’s fun now that they have.


MATHLI: There’s another function to inaccessible areas in a video game, though. They let you know there’s much more to the game than you can find in your first go around. These barriers to passage are more like locked menu options than locked doors. So once you’re done with your first game and the resulting highly amusing debrief, you can-


QUINT: WE HAVE BEEN OVER THIS, MATHLI. This game has no replayability. At all. Zero. I would rather eat Chula than play it again. I would rather it be transported whole into my colon, requiring me to pass it undigested into my toilet, than reach for its dice again.


MATHLI: Have you – EW! – Have you had enough nectar. maybe? You're starting to sound delirious. Even if you take the longest route possible through the shaps, you’ll encounter a tiny fraction of all the possible challenges. I didn’t crunch the numbers during our playthrough, but at the bare minimum there are four different challenges on each shap ,over five shaps, that’s more than one thousand different combinations. Finding everything this game has to offer would take decades. What else could you possibly say that about? Chess? “Ooh, this knight is on a slightly different square than it was last week. It’s not even the same colour; it’s THE ONLY OTHER ONE.”


QUINT: You’re looking at this all wrong, my numerically-challenged friend. Clearly it falls upon my tired shoulders to show you the TRUE MATHS. A Chula challenge is like that hu-mon myth, the Humpty Dumpty - once it’s cracked, it stays cracked. If you make it to the final shap on your first try –fairly likely, given the game’s lack of challenge – then less than a quarter of those thousand-plus combinations you’re waving around will be free of repetition. And if somehow you manage an entirely new second game? You’re now down to just thirty-two paths in that thousand that won’t require facing a puzzle you already know how to beat.


MATHLI: Yeah, but the avoidance of repetition is basically why we invented expansions. I’m sure the Wadi will be savvy enough to serve up a few.


QUINT: Relying on expansions to fix a game is just committing to the sunk cost fallacy before you’ve even handed over your latinum. And in the meantime, it would be nice if the board and the series of holodeck programmes I’ve exchanged my hard-earned profits for were the sort that encouraged repeat business. Chula doesn’t qualify. Not even just because of the lack of variation, either. The puzzles Chula offers are terrible, combining obvious solutions with physical discomfort for any player who fails to figure them out immediately. It’s like doing up your boots with the laces on fire – it’s only the pain that makes it anything but trivial. You could have a million of these mini-games to choose from each time you fire up the Chula board, but if they’re all rubbish, what’s the point?


MATHLI: This is quite the savaging you’re delivering this week, Quint. Is there anything about Chula that didn’t dial your grumpiness to maximum?


QUINT: The pieces are pretty, I’ll admit, and pleasingly chunky too. There’s a nice weight to them as you’re moving your team around the board. You can see how big and satisfying they are if we compare them with an ordinary Reference Kaferian Apple.

The playing pieces on a Chula board, as compared to a poorly-photoshopped fictional fruit

QUINT: Thanks, Reference Kaferian Apple!


MATHLI: Any other positive comments? QUINT: No.


MATHLI: Time to wrap this up, then. It’s not going to surprise anyone where we stand on this one. Chula is a brave and important step forward in the modern games industry. It’s also a fascinating look at a brand-new culture that’s certain to be offering up fascinating innovations in our hobby for years to come.

QUINT: But as an actual gaming experience, it’s painfully tedious for one player and tedious and painful for all the others. You can recreate the Chula experience almost perfectly by finding a boring corridor and walking up and down it in pairs, alternately trying to solve a two-piece jigsaw and punching each other in the face. If that doesn’t sound like your idea of a fun time, then I recommend waiting for someone to reverse-engineer this into something playable.


Right. That’s it for another game. Phew! That one got quite scathing. I DID SO MANY SCATHES! I need a drink. Mathli, how about you?


MATHLI: *Gulping noises*


QUINT: That’s coming out of your wages.


Ordering

4. Move Along Home

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