As an unapologetic fan of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, I was a little disappointed - though not particularly surprised, I suppose - to hear that On Stranger Tides is apparently one of the weaker of the four films, and not worth rushing out to see for its opening this weekend. Still, seeing as the world does not appear to have ended, we all need something to do, so let me suggest that you discard one nautical adventure for another. This one won't take as long as seeing Johnny Depp yearn to be in a better film, and will cost you considerably less.
Originally submitted as an entry in Ludum Dare 19 (theme: discovery), The Wager is a randomly generated exercise in risk and reward, placing you on a Sid Meier's Pirates!-esque ocean map and challenging you to rip as much profit from it as possible in a limited timeframe. As per the title, your arch-nemesis Sir Lester Marwood has entered into a gentleman's wager with you: each of you has a year to explore as far as you can, hopefully bringing back holds full of loot and valuable information to sell. Whichever of you manages to bring back more than the other will get the spoils of both. The game is on. Set sail!
This island could hold plunder, or peril.... is it worth the time to explore it?
A bit similar to Strange Adventures in Infinite Space and other randomized, short-form map exploration games, The Wager populates its map with islands full of treasure and trouble for you to discover, and lets you choose where you'll invest your limited time. The actual core gameplay mechanic couldn't be simpler: when you come across a new island, you are given a prompt telling you how long it would take you to explore it. If you choose Yes, that number of days are counted off and you gain the benefits (and potential consequences) of your exploration. If you choose No, you keep sailing. Repeat until out of time.
Of course, that alone would quickly comprise a recipe for tedium even in a very short game, so a few other subtle choices and constraints are presented to keep you on your toes. A diminishing "supplies" meter and an increasing "disease" meter limit how long you can remain at sea without visiting a port. You can pay to upgrade your ship and mitigate these concerns, of course, but then that's money you won't have in the final scoring. Returning to your main port will also let you sell information about the islands you've visited, which will cause them to be colonized and turn into ports themselves which you can use on subsequent sailings. Whether you choose to spend your precious time and early earnings on investments in hopes of maximizing your future profits (or stockpile right from the start and hope for the best) will impact your bottom line... and at the end of the year, that's all that will matter.
Coal! Nice. Don't know about that offer, though....
There's no question that in large part The Wager gets by on quirky charm rather than deep gameplay, but it has a lot of that charm to spread around. Random events like the one depicted in the screenshot above throw some tricky wrenches into the works mid-game, and are fun to read even if they really boil down to a 50/50 chance of helping or hurting you. (Just wait until you meet Mr. Crackers, the Wonder Parrot.) The dastardly Sir Lester Marwood regularly sends you correspondence evaluating your progress, and his snide tone greatly increases the satisfaction of soundly thrashing him. Oh, and the music is great, perfectly fitting the "adventure on the high seas" theme and routinely calling the Monkey Island games to mind.
Considering that the game was originally developed in 72 hours (the limitation on all Ludum Dare entries - from their site you can download the LD version or an expanded one, which is the one I played), I'm really impressed with what Peter Silk and Kieran Walsh of Surprised Man put together here. It's straightforward, it's funny, it has 3 difficulty settings to pit yourself against, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. Bravo, gents. More like this, please.
The Wager is...
- charming and clever without being complicated.
- clearly inspired by games like Sid Meier's Pirates! and Monkey Island, which is worth a lot of points with me all by itself.
- not much more than a diversion, but a very pleasant one.
- the most piratey fun you can have this weekend for free.
Windows only, about 15MB. Pour yourself a glass of rum and take it for a spin.
"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Colony of Gamers. This piece also appears there. If you're done with this one and want more, feel free to browse the archives.