In considering the genius of the online game Quadradius, I’ve had to set aside a few things. First, aesthetics: The interface looks like a half-painted cardboard set for a high school sci-fi musical. But the other thing I’ve had to set aside is time. Because this game has neatly absorbed a great deal of my time—a clue that there’s some subtle genius in there.
The aesthetics of Quadradius aren’t in line with my own, but that’s exactly what helps me recognize how well it’s designed. Because the game’s strength is not in how it looks, it’s in how it plays. As the editor of Kill Screen said—quoted recently in the New York Times—“flying a jet is a lot more interesting than just riding in a jet.” What’s beautiful and clever about Quadradius is how it unfolds in your head, against a live opponent, over the course of a game.
So the first thing to do is play it. A full game, now.
If you’re back and reading this, it’s likely that you just got shut down by a 12-year-old. If you won, it might be because you were especially lucky, and that wouldn’t be uncommon. There’s much more luck in Quadradius than we’ve grown accustomed to in video games. To generalize broadly, contemporary video games are built on the premise of skill, of slowly advancing levels, grinding crop rotation, honing reflexes, learning the map. And to be sure, Quadradius is a game you can get good at, like chess or poker. But with chess pieces and playing cards with secret powers that end the game in an explosive thunderstorm.
Quadradius takes tabletop games as a point of departure. It simulates a tabletop game, but no tabletop game that could ever be played on an actual table.
The board itself changes by the actions of the players. Over time, the board is burnt with acid, bombed to pieces and crisscrossed with trenches. Some pieces become teleporters, others might become kamikazes that take out a whole row.
By bringing the procedural and random complexity of video games to the simple coherence of tabletop play, Quadradius stakes out some strange new territory. It’s territory in which you might get your ass kicked by a kid, but you'll probably do better next time. Which is a good reason to play another round.
Also, most free games you see online are in some way derivative. When something like Farmville succeeds, there are a dozen like it. As Angry Birds take off, more and more birds arrive, angrier every time. But Quadradius is a mutant, a hybrid, and thus without offspring.
Which is fine. Like chess, poker or tennis—and unlike television, movies or books—the value of a well-designed game increases with repetition. Apropos, I’m off to play again. Look for me there, I'm “spiro_agnew,” and with a little luck, I’ll kick your ass.