Conflicks: Revolutionary Space Battles rests on two conceits. One provides the setting: the powers of early-modern Europe have gained access to an ovum-derived unobtanium, and now do battle among the stars in egg-powered gothic starships while peasants and chickens toil and suffer. The second is mechanical: you catapult your ships and aim your cannon by ‘flicking’ them at your enemy’s ships in a sort of space-billiards. These conceits encase a game of real-time strategy that is snappy, absurd, and mostly effective.
The first conceit shines in the single-player campaign, which was an unexpected pleasure. While the missions don’t entirely stray from the gimmicky, extended tutorialesques usual to the genre, the writing came as a pleasant surprise. This is a game about space chickens which handles its characters with a sympathy, its plot with a deft touch, and its historical inspirations with an understanding and sensitivity that po-faced period fictions rarely manage. Conflicks is by turns monstrous and farcical, satirical and joyful, in a way that is much better suited to the grotesque, tragi-comic chronicles of early-modern European history than the hammy period theme parks found in games like Assassin’s Creed. Make no mistake: this is a game about magic eggs and moons made from cheese, but it (usually) manages to tread the fine line between random absurdity and bland sitcom.
It’s also surprisingly dark. The whole mood of the game is suitably baroque: ships clank and rumble; the soundtrack chimes and moans and peels; citadel-ships lope into the void festooned with pennants and arabesques. In a set of metaphors deeply fitting to both the setting and the genre, the map of the void is patterned after Europe, and its various heroes begin as murderous buffoons in the service of cruel imperial powers. The plot is silly, but also has a fairytale grimness that lends it weight, and the desire to see it through has kept me playing the campaign even when it falters, as it does badly in the almost-brilliant fourth act.
The game’s central mechanic – the ‘flicking’ of ships and shot – is more than a gimmick, and when it works, it doesn’t so much work as manufacture. Because everything happens in real-time, you can’t afford perfection. You need to weigh, quickly, the risk of missing against the need for haste. It’s a bit like playing pool without turns – hesitate, and you may not be able to take a shot at all.
Combined with cooldown timers, the cost of moving and taking special actions is an inspired mechanic that rewards economy of effort rather than micromanagement. It’s often better to build a new ship, or make a move with a small fleet, rather than try to gather all your units together into an easily-launched mass. The importance of the game’s kinetic combat and special moves plays into this: a good play with a single ship can completely change the outcome of a battle, which means that combat is often a see-sawing chaos of extended skirmishing rather than the usual RTS spectacle of huge forces stoically butting heads.
This unpredictability also means that sudden reversals are possible. While building the biggest chicken coop does grant significant advantages, conquered planets and their sucking gravity wells are also death traps for anyone nearby. Ramming enemy ships into their own planets’ gravity wells is a viable tactic, while navigating around a planet in order to defend it is often a delicate procedure.
Glorious chaos sometimes degenerates into exasperating scrabble, however. Launching your fleets never feels quite as slick as it might, and when you’re faced with managing whole armadas, as is often the case in the larger scenarios, the gimmick starts to feel like a chore. Playing Conflicks, I often found myself wishing for a bit more automation, and perhaps a touchscreen.
Multiplayer was rather thinly populated, which is sadly routine for a small strategy game like this, but makes Conflicks difficult to recommend for the sake of playing with others. The maps are a bit samey, but good silly fun, and I’m sure the die-hard conflickers, if they exist, must be enjoying themselves.
Something I always find striking about recent game development is the bifurcation between mindlessly conservative, ossified products of generic tradition, and novel mechanical mutations that never quite catch on. Supreme Commander clones and the always-already-undead Starcraft continue to shamble on, while you never hear people talk about creeper-world-a-likes or AI-war-em-ups. Conflicks is not a great game, but it is a good one, and it’s different enough to warrant attention. Tragically, like so many rebellions, this one seems to have slipped into the void.