Chaos Reborn: Interview with Julian Gollop

Almost thirty years after it was first released, Chaos: The Battle of Wizards continues to entertain and enchant one of the most loyal fanbases in retro gaming. With a brand new reboot, Chaos Reborn, announced, we caught up with the game’s creator, Julian Gollop, to talk about both versions.

One of the great things about growing up in the UK is the uniqueness of our retro gaming scene. Where the rest of the world was dominated by home conversions of Atari and Activision games, gaming in the ’80s in Britain was a wild frontier where any idea, no matter how simple or bizarre, could form the basis for a game. And not in that new, hipster indie way where any old developer can decide to make a game about, say, a depressed cat that is, for example, allergic to floors, and call it (checks iPod for a random songtitle) ‘Ordinary People Do Fucked Up Things‘ and then fire it off into the internet on the off chance that Jim Sterling decides it’s better than pies.

Nope, back then any idea had a good chance of being realised as a proper retail game and the UK gaming scene was a giant bucket of hidden gems, cult classics, and unforgettable hits. Each genre was still finding its feet as developers wrestled with the hardware available. But if you could manage it, you could single-handedly put out a credible game, infused with your own personality and full of ideas unfettered by your publisher. So when Julian Gollop wanted to make a game based on an experimental board game he’d once created, all he needed was a ZX Spectrum.

Chaos, subtitled The Battle of Wizards, is an English classic. It combined simple, effective visuals with easy-to-understand rules to create a turn-based strategy game that was all too easy to get into but could maintain a fanbase throughout the 8, 16, 32 and however many bits we’re up to right now generations. The premise was simple and elegant. You and up to seven other wizards (controllable by human or AI players as you see fit) were randomly allocated spell cards that give your wizard equipment and powers as well as allowing you to summon creatures that act as your army. Each unit type had different skills and movement stats and each combination of them meant that no two games were ever alike.

The game’s popularity is evident when you look at how many times it has been remade by fans. Every bit of equipment capable of running unlicensed software generally has a version of the game available on it. People still want to play the game. It was, after all, rated fifth in the official Speccy Top 100 by readers of Your Sinclair magazine. However, it wasn’t always that way. Despite the game’s enduring popularity, many of us actually missed out when the game was first released and were exposed to it by Your Sinclair when they popped it on their covertape.

“Chaos was on the Your Sinclair covertape twice which is where most people came across it. It certainly wasn’t that well-known when it was published by Games Workshop,” the veteran coder explains.

Yep, that shop on the high street that no-one you know goes in, Games Workshop, had, as Julian explains, “a bizarre idea that they could just sell their own computer games in their shops. They didn’t use any distributors, they didn’t go through any retail channels and consequently they didn’t sell any games.

A second commercial release via Firebird (British Telecom’s own software label) helped a little but the covertapes really got the game out there even if that didn’t translate to any actual money. It did however help promote Laser Squad, the spiritual sequel to Rebelstar and precursor to Julian’s popular X-Com titles.

These days Julian is a free agent, having moved to Bulgaria to work at Ubisoft Sofia on handheld titles such as the 3DS launch title Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation for the Vita, Julian took paternity leave which gave him the time to start planning the first Chaos game since the game’s one and only sequel Lords of Chaos which came out in 1990.

Despite X-Com being his defining title and having worked on some huge franchises since, Julian’s online presence is visually represented by graphical assets from Chaos (if you can call a 16×16 pixel gooey blob an asset). So it is fair to say Chaos is the title he is most fond of?

“Fondest is absolutely the right word. Proudest? No, because it wasn’t that well-programmed,” he confesses. “It comes down to a few reasons. It was this really effective multiplayer game for up to eight people, or you can play against AI. Plus it had this arena feel to it; it was like a brawl that was quick enough that you could play several games of it and didn’t feel terrible if you lost, and you felt very good when you won.”

Chaos‘ strength comes from the fact that no two games were alike, thanks to the randomly allocated spell cards that provided your attack and defence option. One game might see you with an army of creatures from lions, bears and crocodiles to dragons, wraiths and vampires or you might just have a few horses but a nice line in magical swords and armour.

Chaos Reborn concept art for the Giant

“Each game was different and interesting and if you lost you felt it was down to bad luck but if you won it was thanks to superb strategic skill. You always want players to feel that because everybody walks away feeling good,” he explains. “You have randomness on one hand and decisions you make that shift probabilities in your favour and that’s why Chaos works and is why I want to get that feeling back for Reborn and maybe exploit it a bit more. So there will be even more random elements and even more stuff to do as well.”

With just eight colours (or fifteen if you include ‘BRIGHT’ variations) and just a few hundred pixels to play with, Chaos‘ vivid visuals were born out of necessity but made the most of what was available and with just 48k of memory to play with, the gameplay and AI had to be as efficiently programmed as possible within what seems like impossible limits these days. This added to the game’s charm but Julian isn’t concerned that a leap to a modern platform will detract from that.

“The charm comes from the basic core mechanics,” he explains. “It works in a very similar way. The combat works on a kill or be killed basis, there are no hitpoints. Summoning creatures also works in the same way as before.”

One thing that will be getting an upgrade is the battlefield itself. The action in the original Chaos played out on a plain black background. In the imagination of young players in the ’80s this was described as either scorched Earth or the Planes of Limbo but was ultimately just a product of Julian’s decision to avoid any graphics that didn’t serve an actual purpose. Chaos Reborn promises to up the ante when it comes to the environments.

Chaos Reborn concept art for the Goblin

“I had, and still have, a very functional approach when it comes to graphics in games. Graphics are all well and good but ideally they should mean something as well. The arena was empty because it had no effect on the game,” he explains. “You’d create the terrain with your spells, like a blank canvas, with walls, fire and blobs.”

Chaos Reborn however will look to add functional gameplay elements. “We’re looking at how to factor in more random elements while also bringing in more factors for the player to consider. So, for example, we’ll have different heights for the terrain as well as rivers that impassable and these arenas will be procedurely generated.”

Chaos Reborn concept art for the Dwarf

“There are now three levels of terrain which create cliffs and valleys which makes things more interesting, tactically. You may want to try to hold the higher ground with ranged attacks, for example,” he reveals. “You can also use objects in the world as cover and some creatures gain bonuses from being in certain environment. The main feature though is that as the world shifts from chaos to law and back, the terrain elements will change to reflect that and that will strengthen certain units that prefer that terrain.”

The use of illusions was a key part of the gameplay. Sure, you may be blessed with a powerful golden dragon in your deck of spells but it came with a 20% chance of actually working. Fail and your turn is wasted and your spell disappears. Or you could cast an illusion which was guaranteed to cast and had all the abilities of its real counterpart but was vulnerable to any opponent’s ‘Disbelieve’ spell. To make things worse, that spell could be reused as many times as you like and everybody had it. Eek!

Also returning are the mounts and the dreaded undead creatures. In Chaos, only an undead creature could harm another undead creature. So if you’ve got a stone giant tearing up your opponent’s defence, even a weak undead creature such a ghost would be immune to him, and worse, any engaged units would be locked to each other until one of them was beaten.

One big change is that now it’s not just a battle to the death. “In regular arena battles finding gold will increase your victory points,” he reveals. “In Chaos there was a turn limit and at the end it would be a draw. We are keeping the turn limit but now an unfinished battle will be decided by victory points which are earned with gold or by completing micro-challenges in the match. What’s interesting is that if a player kills an enemy wizard, they’ll go ahead on victory points which changes the dynamic of the match so that players behind of points will have to go on the offensive in order to win where as players ahead on points will probably have to defend. That immediately makes for more interesting decisions.” It is clear that strong, strategic gameplay is Julian’s priority for Chaos Reborn.

While the original game supported up to eight players, Chaos Reborn is currently a four player game (although Julian has been testing the game with a six-player mode). However, there will now be team matches too, which will allow for PVP and co-op play against humans and AI in any combination. “You’ll have all those options, absolutely. If you’re really into the multiplayer thing there will be leaderboards, leagues and competitions.”

While the original Chaos had fairly rudimentary, but effective, AI routines, this sequel will look to improve on that. Julian is still working on it but reveals that the AI is getting a big upgrade. “In the original game you could take advantage of how the AI worked. In most cases, the AI would take on the wizard who posed the most threat so you could hold off on casting too many spells so that the AI would take out bigger threats first. I certainly wasn’t an expert in programming AI back then and I only had two or three K to do all the AI in.”

He agrees that is absolutely insane.

Most of the original creatures are set to return albeit with new abilities and characteristics. “The Vampire gains power every time he kills a, non-illusionary, creature. He starts of not so strong but becomes very powerful and is now maybe the best creature apart from the dragons,” he tells us. He also has new additions such as a giant spider who can trap enemies in a web. We’ll look forward to flinging one of those in our enemies’ faces.

Where Chaos was completely based around arena battles, this sequel is looking to add much more choice with a classic Chaos style mode, as well as a variation that levels the playing field for all the players. “I’ve put in what I call Symmetrical Mode where all the players get the same random set of fifteen spells and then have to discard five of them which makes you think about your strategy. You won’t know exactly what ten spells the other players have kept, he explains.

Even better, the ‘Realms of Chaos’ mode adds a large RPG-esque campaign which sees you attempting to improve your status through the lowly ranks of Lord and King all the way up to Demigod and God status by entering procedurally generated realms, finding loot, battling random mobs and eventually taking on that realm’s king. “The king, however, will get more powerful the longer you are in the realm as well as increasing the state of law in the realm,” he warns. He also plans to have a co-op option for this mode too.


Equipment is more important in the game. Your wizard’s clothing and gear add capabilities that go well beyond the scope of the original game, allowing for more spells and combinations of gear also the ability to radically affect the state of law and chaos and other factors in the battle, especially when you obtain sets. Anything from using powers that make your wizard undead, able to fly, and various other effects including making dead enemies drop gooey blobs – the original game’s most iconic spell and Julian’s favourite “the idea of it was completely absurd! Like a slow hand grenade.”

With all this focus on loot and equipment it’d be easy to take Chaos Reborn down the IAP route but Julian insists “it’s all in the game” and won’t be letting players pay their way to the top gear. “The game could work that way but in terms of my audience, they probably wouldn’t be interested in that free-to-play model so we don’t want to go that way.”

He chuckles as I tell him it was difficult to raise that question in case that’s what he had in mind but with the option of the game making it on to mobile formats after its upcoming release on PC, Mac and Linux, it’s a relief to know that Chaos Reborn won’t be looking to steal our extra pennies.

So, with all these ideas is Julian biting off more than he can chew by trying to put them all in the game? “If I’ve got a really great idea, the first thing I do is figure out how to implement it and I go through that process of evaluation right away and figure out the cost and benefit of putting it in,” he explains. “I know it sounds hugely ambitious but you have to bear in mind there aren’t a huge amount of assets when it comes to art and animations; it’s more about leveraging the elements you’ve got in the game to create interesting situations for the player continuously which is why I’m a great fan of procedurally generated content in games.”

Thankfully Julian has put together a small team to help with development and the visuals and is keen to allow them to express themselves, despite it being very much his baby. “They get to contribute ideas for sure, especially on the visual side. They’re a creative bunch and are doing very well. Visually the game will look amazing and will be very distinctive,” he cheerfully reveals. “The visuals still reference the original game. The creatures have a monochrome glowy look to them that so it looks quite striking.”

Are the new team old-school Chaos players? “Some of them had to be introduced to it for the first time so there are three old-school Chaos players and four who weren’t but were X-Com players.”

Of course, Chaos Reborn has a lot to live up to because the original still stands up so well. “It does,” he agrees. “Mainly because there really aren’t any other games like it. Lots of other games get bogged down with the numbers in a sort of war of attrition thing where you’ve got to eat away at your opponent’s hit points whereas Chaos is utterly brutal and immediate so I think it still has a fresh feel.”

“I used to get, reliably, five requests a year from people looking to remake it and there’s a Wiki page just for all the remakes that did get finished, not including the hundreds that didn’t,” he reveals. So he’s aware of the competition out there. “I hope Chaos Reborn will be pretty definitive as it takes what was good about the original and makes it bigger, smarter, more varied and more amazing. I think fans of the original Chaos will like it very much.”

Sadly there is no reappearance of the original Chaos planned. “I’m not even sure how to do that to be honest. You’re not the first person to ask,” he says. “I think it’s time to put it in the past and embrace the remake. It will look different but there will be enough in there that is familiar enough that you know it’s Chaos.”

So is there any chance of a castable Captain Krennon (the best character from Rebelstar II)? He laughs. “I’ll have to think about that. It would be interesting to put in some references to the other old games.”

Chaos Reborn currently exists only as a demo with much work left to do. He explains how development is going. “Slowly,” he reveals. “I started just over a year ago but of course I didn’t have any one to help so it’s been a year of recruiting people, a year of looking after children but we do have a playable prototype.”

We played and, unsurprisingly, lost a couple of matches against Julian but even this early prototype is playable enough to reassure us that the Chaos magic is still there. The changes to the gameplay are warranted and add an extra dimension when it comes to strategy while all the classic elements are in place. Purists will happily find themselves unirked. These are early days but the game seems to be heading in the right direction.

A Kickstarter is due to launch in March and is aiming to raise enough funds to have the team working on it full time. Thankfully, Julian’s overheads are a little lower now that he’s based in Bulgaria having decided to stay on since leaving Ubisoft Sofia and his initial focus is on the PC, Mac and Linux platfors with a view to possibly doing something later with the mobile platforms. An iPad version would be amazing and there’s hope when Julian reveals “I’ve got an iPad and I use it to play lots of turn-based games.”

Having worked on some huge franchises with Ubisoft, Julian is now a free-agent and looking to keep it that way. “My objective is to work on my own games as an independent developer. This is what I’m most interested in now.”

If it keeps one of the UK’s favourite coders working on things like this instead of Assassins Creed games, then that’s all good. You can follow Julian’s progress via his blog and Twitter. We’ll also post up the details when the Kickstarter is launched. Until then, why not head over to this nifty-as-fuck browser-based emulator and play the game that started it all. Gooey blobs at the ready, Gentlemen.

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