This is the concluding part of a story about Slay, a strategy game first released in 1995. The first part explained the rules and how I came to take on the last level Rauk.
I installed Slay while at a motorway service station, a brief stop during an arduous drive home from a family holiday. The reasons for why this happened remain sketchy. I think I hoped to show the children a low-key mobile game that is addictive without having to turn to special effects or gem collecting meta-games. I explained I’d been sucked into Slay years ago. Here it is, I said while we shared low-nutrient motorway food, watch me play this game.
My wife had also played Slay before and she didn’t even wait before we’d finished eating to pull it off the Google Play shelf. My son then downloaded too. In the space of ten minutes I had managed to get most of the family hooked on Slay including myself.
Two months on, my wife is still playing daily. She is advancing through the levels in order. Between games, sometimes we talk.
My wife hasn’t taken on Rauk, but she’s heard me grumble about it. If you recall, I was on the verge of victory and it was pretty much a done deal. Next episode, Joel boasts about how he relished taking down the Rauk AI. And what he learnt about life and culture in general. Bonus points for a religious experience.
That is not what happened.
See, while I was excited I was also quite, quite terrified. I was fed up of moving little figures back and forth across the surface of Rauk; I needed release. Frightened that the same AI was cracking its knuckles to my North and my South, and knowing it wanted to link its territories, I decided I needed to punch South instead of just holding it back with a knight. I created a baron to do the dirty work.
I loved that first brutal move, when my baron ate one of AI’s delicious knights.
What I failed to realise was my territory was not earning enough to sustain a baron.
The territory bankrupted in turn 17 and immediately the AI territories went for my throat. I threw the phone into a wood chipper in disgust. And seeing as I had no idea how I had pulled this off in the first place, I was right back where I started.
I probably should have taken a break. This is not what happened.
Death in the Leaves
Maybe we should take a break, though, a detour through a verdant forest. Yes. I’m ready to talk about the trees.
Players will most commonly bankrupt an AI through bisection. If you can fire an army through the middle of an enemy territory, it divides in two and it’s highly likely – although not certain – that one of the two sides will hold expensive armies without enough income-generating hexes to carry them.
In the early game, you have to keep your eyes open not just for your bisection opportunities but your own bisection vulnerabilities because, trust me, the AI is all over that shit. If you’re playing a gentle level, you can recover from a few bisection mishaps. But when shit gets real, bisection attacks are often game-ending incidents. Tap the surrender button and start again.
In the twilight phase of a Slay match, bisection becomes an invaluable tool to cripple a monster AI that has vast territory at its disposal. But there is a serious downside to bisection bankruptcies.
A bankruptcy transmutes people into gravestones. Gravestones then become trees and trees only do one thing. They grow. A bisection bankruptcy will sometimes dump a shit-ton of trees right beside your territory and they will bleed across your border like a stealthy ninja army. Each hex infected with a tree is unable to produce coin. In short, if you don’t stop rewilding, nature will fucking end you. Perhaps there’s some awful climate change interpretation of this mechanic but unfortunately I hate the ninja trees as much as the AI and I haven’t got time for metaphors today.
If you find yourself faced with a choice of fighting trees or fighting the AI, it often means you’ve already lost. You may even be winning against the AI, but the tree clock is ticking. Death waits in the leaves. Trees tend to be a bit of a wildcard and sometimes you actually have to plan for them. In theory, you could use the forests against the AI – instead of taking over tree-infested hexes on the AI side, just leave them to grow because they’re not giving the AI coin anyway. But it’s a very blunt tool. I don’t think I’ve ever won a game through tree herding, but perhaps it helped slow the advance of an AI in some unmeasurable way.
Fortunately, the front lines see-saw so much in Rauk, you don’t tend to see many trees. But they will haunt you on other islands and some cursed variations will put you up against tree problems from the get-go.
The more I locked horns with Rauk, the better I got. More advanced tactics emerged.
I realised the AI was slapping a castle on the map because it was scared of me as I had knitted two territories together on turn one. I had a counterintuitive breakthrough to avoid joining the two territories on the first turn. By the second turn, the bastard AI had already expended its resources and wouldn’t be able to buy a castle – and then it was safe to get the gang back together. This was great news and I settled on an arrow arrangement of the two territories in the first turn. This didn’t get me closer to victory, but it strengthened my opening position.
I also learnt it was possible to choose which capital became the joint capital when you merged two territories and that is a choice you should not leave to random chance – either because the capital affords protection or you want the capital to be out of harm’s way. Also, those tiny “unsalvageable territories” that are impossible to save? They can sometimes be used in suicide missions to harass or distract a dominant AI. And if you stick a castle on them, they can be even more effective for launching guerilla operations.
I think the biggest lesson, though, was to ignore Slay’s constant whining that I hadn’t moved all my pieces. Because you really really don’t want to do that every turn, particularly during the early game. If you move all your pieces to shut Slay up, you are going to lose because you are failing at defence.
Yet, despite all this, there remained no killer tactic reveal when it came to Rauk. It was still the same fundamental problem all the time. During the early game, as I expanded in one direction, an AI would nibble my rear, so I spent turn upon turn running to stand still, stuck chasing my tail. A typical session of Rauk felt like a bloody exercise in postponing defeat rather than a bloody grind to victory. More roguelike than strategy game.
And I was a Monte Carlo player, taking a random trajectory every match but always ending up before a brick wall. Rauk was not a game. It was a prison.
Prison Within A Prison
An hour and a half after I stole defeat from the jaws of victory, I conquered Rauk.
It didn’t really feel like a victory more like winning the lottery and claiming your lottery “skills” were responsible. The exhausting Rauk campaign came to an end with a whimper. I just rolled the dice enough times until I ended up with a midgame I could mount a winning campaign from.
It didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for Slay and I continued to play. I continue to play.
Was Rauk the only chaos level like this? No. It was not. “Must” was similar but somewhat worse as it gives you a lot more territories to set up, making for an acutely laborious Groundhog Day. In “Mipi”, I spent most of the match fighting from a weak position and every single turn was desperate edge-of-seat stuff. “Nouss” was a replay of Rauk, a snug island where your fledgling settlements are squeezed into a fine paste.
I was still learning. Tiresome though it was, I acquired a habit of counting hexes in small enemy territories, checking for the likelihood of bankruptcy when launching a risky attack that would leave me exposed to reprisal.
I also noticed that its sometimes better to cultivate rather than eliminate an AI; they may be the only thing slowing the approach of a bigger AI threat further away. Along similar lines, AI castles are just as useful protecting you from a formidable AI on the other side. If you spend effort taking down AI castles too early, you’re asking for trouble.
Another counterintuitive strategy that I’ve used just a couple of times is to sacrifice high-value pieces. If you push a knight out on a limb, the AI will take the bait and cut it off – but why would you do this? Instead of suffering from bloated expenses, you can start over developing a large army of peasants, perhaps the most deadly weapon at your disposal in the end game because they can swamp a large AI. The problem is you’ve usually got your cash tied up in knights to break through castles and thick enemy lines. It’s a very fine line though because losing a single knight means sacrificing 30 coins of investment plus the other AI might think you’re getting hammered and get a few knives in. You have to be confident it will serve the greater good.
Another sacrificial play is to concede hexes if it allows you a more manageable front line. Geography is king. It’s better to have the hard walls of a coastline about you than dormant, weak AI territories which are just itching to erupt. Remember, they love the scent of blood. They may not defeat you but they will tie up your resources.
Having learnt so much more, I thought, “Maybe I can do Rauk properly, now? Maybe I’ve learnt enough brilliant strategy to conquer it with smarts.”
The Wrong Question
A few days ago, I fired up Rauk again, to see what I was capable of.
I was capable of failure.
And more failure.
I’ve not managed to take down Rauk a second time. The early game feels just the same. Constant vulnerability, no room to move, no ability to bed in structure without surrendering progress to the AI. Am I now convinced that some of the levels are just chaos engines and there’s nothing you can do except roll the dice or take note of what happens and course correct at appropriate turns?
I quit Mosaic (Corey Hardt & sunil, 2022) because my scores were topping out around 100 but seeing the 200 at top of the leaderboard, I had to wonder if those were rare scores or some players had just figured out smarter strategies. When I played Loopy Wizard (Venbruk, 2022) I was initially building up better scores with every game but, eventually, those scores became a ceiling. Was I a victim of procedural generation serving up harsh levels or was I just not that good?
It’s that fear, you know. Fear that your training is unfinished. Maybe there’s further to travel, you mistook a stopover for the destination. It’s this fear that makes game abandonment so difficult. That what you see as intractable difficulty is just dumb play.
A few weeks ago, I read on the Slay forums that someone pretty much knew what the AI was going to do all the time. And I wondered: is that where I am now? Or is that where I could be? All that post did was stir up doubt.
How can I be scientifically sure that Rauk’s chaos cannot be understood nor managed? Maybe it all makes sense to the right player who plays a better game, whose peasant movements are decisive, confident.
Rauk had never been a battle over the nature of Slay. It was, and had always been, about me.
Footnote (added 13 June)
- There are four difficulty levels – the lower levels are just too easy for me, so I’m playing against the toughest AI level. However, the game can accommodate if you want to enjoy a less stressful Slay.
- This is something I wasn’t sure about originally but Slay is entirely deterministic. If you perform the exact same moves, the AI will rattle out the same responses as last time. This is why you can learn the AI responses from game to game and why I talk of “mathematical chaos” which is complexity that emerges from a few simple rules. Levels like Rauk seem highly sensitive to small movements while other levels are stable and perturbations in your choices don’t ultimately impact the shape of a game’s future.