THEA and 4X – the Feature
As THEA 2 makes a strategic move to the Nintendo Switch, we bring in our resident THEA eXpert to break down the series and eXamine what it means to be a 4X game in this Big Daddy Feature.
THEA: The Awakening and THEA 2: The Shattering
The THEA series of games are a unique combination of game styles. These include 4X, roguelike, RPG and survival. The first game failed two separate Kickstarter campaigns. They feature a combat system that plays out as a card game and has no character animations. They are designed and produced by a company whose corporate logo is a giant bug. And they are also some of my favorite games of all time. Read on to find out why.
Legendary game designer Sid Meier famously said that, “games are a series of interesting decisions”. Personally, I find myself drawn to strategy games because I believe that these types of games give me the most opportunities to make interesting decisions. This is why I play strategy games more than any other type of game, and prefer the genre unofficially known as “4X.” Sid Meier, of course, is known as the developer of the “Civilization” franchise, a franchise which popularized the 4X genre and established most of the tropes that are still used today. How many 4X games have I owned or played? Let’s just say “all of them.” So I hope readers will take me seriously when I say that these two games are the most addictive and memorable games of this genre that I have played in the past decade, and I highly recommend both.
THEA : The Awakening (TTA) and THEA 2 : The Shattering (TTS) were originally developed for PC by MuHa Games, a tiny five-person studio based in Poland. Despite their small size, their development process has been eXemplary and I wish more companies would act the way MuHa Games does. Their games are not rushed and release practically bug-free (I’ve never noticed a bug that I can remember). THEA and THEA 2 both came with added DLC that was free. And they have always responded to my emails. So MuHa Games is definitely a developer to support. With THEA, they have created a series of games based on Slavic mythology set in a post-apocalyptic world. You control a party who is trying to determine what happened to their world and how to restore it to its former glory.
What is 4X?
All games that bill themselves as 4X have these ideas as the central focus of their gameplay. For example, in a game of “Civilization”, you start with a tiny group of people and a settler. You eXpand your empire by establishing your first city and subsequent cities. You eXplore the surrounding terrain to determine how you can eXploit said terrain to your advantage. Finally you can focus on eXterminating your opponents through science, culture, or militaristic means. The combination of these four elements provides the core gameplay loop.
The THEA series of games, while technically considered 4X, also provide elements of deep storytelling and RPG elements. And this combination is incredibly entertaining. I would call these games “4X lite, with roguelike RPG elements”. Let me explain how these games fit this description, and how they check off each 4X element.
How 4X Plays into THEA
One of the problems that some players have noted with “traditional” 4X games is the implementation of the eXpansion mechanic. In most games, you are almost required to build as many cities or settlements as possible, “building wide”, in order to keep up with your opponents. Since each city generates research and production and money, etc. This leads to the idea of “city spam” and is off-putting to some players. Some players prefer to “build tall” where they only have a few cities to manage and they seek to maximize each settlement as much as possible. In THEA, the choice is easy : you don’t build cities at all. In TTA, you start with one city, and that’s all you will ever have. TTS allows you to build more than one city, but it’s so difficult that I never had more than two. (In TTS, you can also choose to be completely nomadic and never settle down. There are reasons to do that, but you’ll have to figure them out for yourself.) So how does one eXpand? Camping. But sending an unprepared search party into the world is a death sentence, so every eXpedition that your villagers undertake is inherently risky and requires planning.
In order for your villagers to survive and thrive, they must take advantage of every possible resource that is available to them. So frequently eXploiting the world they have discovered is the difference between life and death. Also, eXploitation leads to crafting, which is a blast as you try to concoct your next uber-weapon or piece of armor. You can even eXperiment with recipes.
This is the bread and butter of the Thea games, and MuHa games nails this aspect better than any other 4X game I’ve played. The THEA games have a deep storyline and your eXplorers will encounter many events on their journeys, and these events can only be eXperienced by eXploration. THEA encourages eXploration, but don’t overdo it early on.
This is the biggest difference between the THEA games and most 4X games, and requires the most eXplanation. There are no opposing factions in THEA, just you and the world you live in. In other 4X games, there are prescribed victory conditions, where you are trying to be the most technologically advanced or the biggest, baddest military around. Since there are no opponents, the eXtermination dynamic has completely changed. Now you are just trying to survive. MuHa definitely tried something different here, and it has paid off. This element is the most essential in the THEA games, and the way it has been done by MuHa is remarkable.
For starters, eXtermination does not necessarily mean killing everything. Each character in your party has different attributes, such as your standards like attack or defense skill. But they have other skills such as healing or hexing. This is because not all of the events in THEA involve clashes of sword and shield. Sometimes you will be asked to outwit your opponent and need a character with high intelligence. You might have a big bad lad who wields a two-handed hammer strong enough to mash opponents’ skulls into a pulp, but if he’s as dumb as a brick it won’t help you outwit someone. Conversely, if you take a brilliant medic into a battle against an Ogre Chieftain, it won’t end well. So you are forced to balance your party as much as possible because THEA does not always allow you to choose which characters you fight with. That’s right, THEA uses the beloved RNG. A LOT! You need to be thinking ahead and that’s where the decision-making comes in. Do I risk sending out a party full of eggheads who can’t defend, or hope that my warriors can bash everything into oblivion? THEA does give you some choice in this regard, because many of the battles you face are determined by the decisions that you make when presented with choices. Yes, choices matter a lot in these games. So, if you are wandering around with a group of sword-wielding warriors, maybe you can pick a more aggressive choice when presented with the opportunity.
RPG elements are rampant in THEA as well. Because there are no opposing factions (TTS does add neutral factions but they’re not trying to win) your eXperience with these games will depend on which choices you make and which characters you are using. This is another area where THEA shines, and another big way in which it is different from most 4X games. THEA markets itself as a roguelike game, and that of course means permadeath. In these games, if you lose one of your villagers, they cannot be replaced. TTA does not allow “scum saving”,( TTS does) so protecting your villagers is of supreme importance. It creates a heightened sense of tension when you realize that any wrong choice could result in the untimely demise of one of your beloved villagers. This is also because villagers cannot be created through normal means and that means that everyone is precious for your burgeoning society. You can’t just go to your city and produce another villager like in other 4X games, so if your big bad lad gets in over his head and gets bludgeoned by a dragon, you can’t just make another big bad lad. I have been crushed to see some of my best characters meet their doom, as they were irreplaceable, and so was their top-end Moonstone hammer which they had crafted themselves. Your party ONLY gets bigger through events that happen in the course of the game, which creates an incentive to eXplore, but it must be done wisely.
Some eXtra Thoughts
The final crucial way these games are different from other games on the market is the way they handle combat. I’ve mentioned before that there are a variety of challenges that your characters will face, but they are all resolved the same way: through a card game. Learning the card combat system is essential to progress in this game, and if you don’t think a card game sounds like your cup of tea, then this game may not be for you. But hear me out. At the very beginning of this review I mentioned that the development team is based in Poland. The original founders came from a company called CD Projekt Red, which you might remember as a company that produced the excellent Witcher games. (They’re also behind Cyberpunk 2077 but that’s a different story). The Witcher 3 had a card game known as Gwent, which was so popular that it was eventually produced as a standalone product. As you might have already guessed, the man responsible for the Gwent card game was one of the founders of MuHa games, so he’s demonstrated an ability to create card games that are highly entertaining. The card games are, of course, different in TTA and TTS, but both games feature a lot of combat so you’d best learn how to play these games. The AI certainly knows how to play and rarely makes mistakes.
That brings me to my final observations. These games are not easy and are not meant to be easy. But they reward you for losing. No matter what happens in the course of the game, you can eXpect to receive eXperience points and bonuses which you can apply in various ways. These are not binary games, where you either win outright or lose outright. Winning is, of course, preferred, but you will be rewarded if you fail. And fail you will. The world of THEA is not nice, and given its setting, it’s not supposed to be nice. This is not a game designed for casual players. Nor is it a game for a younger audience. The world of THEA is a dark world, and the writing, music, and artwork fit the theme and are eXcellent. But they are also meant for adults. For example, in TTA you are presented with a quest in which you can fight a demon or sacrifice children from your party to spare the fight. In TTS, if you have a woman in your party, you can be approached by a bandit who pretends to rape you (you can choose to flirt with him instead if you prefer). There is a demoness whose character portrait features her topless. So, not really a game for the younger crowd.
Time to eXit
THEA is not perfect. Even the developers have said they believed the research process was too grindy. And since you don’t have the ability to spam multiple cities, your starting location is paramount. I have started a game only to immediately quit and start a new one because I knew that my starting location lacked vital resources. But these games are eXcellent and I was ecstatic to see them come to the Switch. I should add that they are also cheap. You can get each game for around $25, and some games charge that much for DLC. There are no other games like these on the market and I hope that enough people can purchase these types of games to encourage developers to try new things. MuHa Games is one of my favorite developers and I look forward to seeing more from them. I wholly recommend purchasing both titles.
You may like these games if:
- You want a different take on a 4X game
- You like a strong storyline
- You don’t mind losing
- You like having fun
You may not like these game if:
- You want guaranteed wins every time you play
- Card games seem boring to you
- You despise the RNGods
- You don’t like creative developers