zis: So very close to perfect

I had never played the KDE game “Konquest” before seeing zis, but I installed Konquest and tried a few games, in hopes of enjoying zis all the more.


zis is so very, very close to a perfect console game, that I’m tempted to grade on a curve, and give it a better score. Alas, there are a few points that will need resolution, before I can offer a trophy. 😦

zis — and Konquest really, since zis mimics the graphical game in an ASCII environment — plays as an interstellar conquest game, with planets designated by letters. Each turn, a planet can dispatch ships to attack or reinforce other planets, and given there is enough weight and enough luck in the attack, it will change color to show its allegiance.

Beyond that, there’s only a smidgen of strategy, and if you know the rules of some Risk-like games, you have the general idea. There is a time-delay factor involved, since it will take some turns to move ships between planets, but otherwise, the Risk paradigm is the underlying idea.

zis makes some allowances to the original game, just on the basis of the medium. Whereas Konquest’s graphical display showed a planet’s letter and ship stock in one square, you’ll need to press “p” to get the same information from zis. This isn’t a fault, just a necessity of working in a text-cell environment.

Press “s” to send ships to destination planets, and “d” to see the distance between two points, and the time it will take to get there. Pressing “t” hands over ships to another player, “b” builds fortifications on a planet, and “a” will issue a standing order — “autosend” — to dispatch ships indefinitely to a target.

zis represents a small measure of strategy and planning, since both a planet’s population and its defenses will come to bear in combat situations. There are also some primitive provisions for morale, which is based on a planet’s siege status, which will affect production, which will affect ship output, which in turn seems it can influence a ship’s kill ratio, and combat effectiveness.

But this is where the difficulties start. The kill ratio is described as a predetermined constant in the onboard help, but the help.html file shows combat calculations that suggest it might change in some circumstances. Some examples are available, but the exact relationship isn’t clear. That affects my strategy, since I might build my fleet on a planet with a high kill ratio, but launch it from elsewhere.

Adding to that is a small language difficulty, where some grammar and spelling issues detract from the overall experience. Fixing things like “I’ts” and “intelegnce” would help polish the final product.

Game setup is also a little vague. There appears to be a small segment of a loop — asking if a player is a computer — that prompts too early, before the name is ever given. I started one or two games against the computer and found that the roles were reversed from what I had intended, because of the confusion over the prompts.

It’s also possible to start a game with zero planets, zero players — or even more comical, zero planets and zero players. πŸ˜• You can also enter letters where number values are needed, and get scrambled screen displays as a result, but no reprompting. Some error trapping is needed here.

Furthermore, the status window at the bottom of the screen is sometimes cluttered with leftover messages, and it’s not clear who moved or when — particularly after the popup end-of-turn report.

Neither Konquest nor zis offers any animation, which seems like an oversight on behalf of all parties. A small indicator moving between planets would be more than enough to keep me satisfied. zis also masks input, which I see as another holdover from the graphical version. I believe this is because zis is intended for hotseat multiplayer games, and you don’t want your little sister knowing how many ships you’re sending to conquer her planet.

It does suggest the need for more error trapping though, since you can’t see what you’re typing, and can’t tell if zis took your keystroke, and don’t know if you need to fix an error.

zis also wants at least an 81×25 terminal to work, which is strange, since 80×24 seems to be the gold standard. The game locks at that smaller size though.

I should mention that zis is (supposedly) prepared to run games with as many as 64 players, and with as many as 72 planets on a map. Keep in mind though, that zis doesn’t care if your map is 18×18 or 240×240. That means unless you set the size of the map, your terminal is what determines the planet density.

One final point: By default, zis seems to only play a square map with considerable extra space on the right in a normal, horizontal terminal display. This makes me wonder if maybe a planet chart or a round-by-round report could have been used there.

zis ran fine for me in Arch Linux from the source tarball, once I had installed … emacs, of all things. O_o I don’t see zis in Debian, but it will probably work … if you have emacs installed. O_o

All in all, zis is a good game, but not a top-tier contender. It’s faithful to the original Konquest, and plays well — most likely for that reason. The game looks fantastic, and the attention to lesser animation effects is nothing short of excellent.

Unfortunately, there are still some smaller gameplay issues that need attention. 😐