Play in Process: Frozen Synapse

Each week in Play in Process, Richard Clark shares what he’s been playing and why it matters.

News flash: there are some games that I am really, really bad at. I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m not always totally dominating the leaderboards of every game I play like I do for Rat on a Skateboard. Some games are a real struggle. And sometimes the reasons for that are just a little too obvious.

Frozen Synapse (PC/Mac) is one such game. In its purest form, it’s a game where two sides of soldiers are trying to kill one another. On its face, it’s nothing unique, but the mechanics themselves are what really make the game something different. Frozen Synapse is about hope, expectation, and patience.

The way it works is this: you use your planning phase to determine where and how your soldiers will move, essentially by drawing lines for movement and aiming, as well as telling them when to slow down, speed up, etc. You orchestrate the soldiers so that in following your orders they will be best situated to catch the other team’s soldiers off guard and carry out the mission. You press space bar, and watch the soldiers carry out their orders to precision. One of my soldiers walks up to a window and takes out the enemy. Another soldier rounds a corner and shoots another enemy in the back. I am so proud.

Then I enter the Outcome phase: this is real life. This is when all of those plans I made are thwarted. I watch as my soldiers are gunned down, unable to anticipate that the soldiers they were going after were changing directions, taking cover, and popping out just in time to take me out. My game is over.

I hoped to win. I planned it all out. But I didn’t take the time to consider that the enemy hoped for the same thing, and that the enemy had a plan to make his own hopes a reality. I didn’t think to react to the future moves my enemy would carry out. I hoped a little too loud, telegraphing my intentions. I was naive, blind, thoughtless. I didn’t think that maybe, in the future, these neon red guys would have a better idea.

I am really, really bad at this game, and I think I know why.

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  • Ben Bartlett

    Interesting note here: My dad is a businessman, and he has mentioned before that one of the biggest problems he has with new college grads going into business is that they seem to have a very underdeveloped ability to put themselves in an opponent’s shoes. In other words, they can make plans, but are not good at imagining what their opponent will do in response, and crafting their initial approach accordingly.

    I would love to see more games that occupy this space in a meaningful way. It’s fun to play against high-tech opponents… the modern day Koopas, if you will. But there’s a very good reason that games like Chess and Poker are not only fun, but manage to go beyond amusement and become metaphors for real-world interactions

  • That seems like a really great idea for a list we need to make and put somewhere.

  • There are a lot of great turn-based tactical games out there, but its been a long time since there were any simultaneously-executed turn-based tacticals. How is the AI? Does the AI play out the same level in a variety of ways? I’m guessing the only way to get a ton of real good play is to go up against human opponents…

  • Actually, the single-player is pretty good. Not that I would know, but they do a lot of really clever, out-of-left-field type of stuff.

    Also, the multiplayer is really nicely integrated so you can have several games going on at once or play asynchronously or whatever.

  • Okay, so I watched this:

    I now want to play this game. When it’s no longer $25 of course…

  • Well, you do get 2 games for that price, so if you could find someone to split the cost, it’s really only $12 which is worth it by far.

  • Oh, that’s not so bad then.

  • Ben and I played a couple games last night – it was fun. And the ability to carry on a game throughout the week on your own time is pretty great.