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Comfort Games

November 17th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 32 Comments · Me, RPGs

Life has a way of throwing more things at you than you can really handle. I’m sort of in that situation right now. When I need to take my mind off things and relax with tea/wine/beer, I go to my comfort games – games that require very little real thinking but remain engaging.

A comfort game, for me, is not the same as a casual game. Casual games like Bejeweled or Peggle are great ways to pass the time, but can hypnotize you into a sort of zone where you unplug from the world. For me, comfort does require a sense of flow, but also a sense that you are remaining in the here and now.

My comfort game is a roguelike, Dungeon Crawl. I’ve played Nethack and the original Rogue and Dwarf Fortress and Ancient Domains of Mystery and Angband and a hundred other roguelikes but I always go back to DC.

I could tell you that it is because there are so many classes and races, but to be honest I don’t play Spriggans or halflings or Kenkus. I rarely play mages. (I like dwarf paladins – better armor and start knowing what a healing potion looks like. Very valuable information.) I could tell you that it is because there are fewer random deaths – items are more likely to help than hurt, sinks won’t murder you – and therefore you are the cause of your own misfortune, but the truth is I do stupid things anyway, like zap a weak kobold with a random wand that polymorphs it into a steam dragon. And it can be cruel enough to put a centaur on dungeon level 2. Hate those guys.

The truth is that I play it because there is so little to actually do. Nethack has tricks you need to memorize to get far. ADOM has a plot and time limit and corruption to watch. Dungeon Crawl is really just about finding awesome loot and killing monsters. As a roguelike, there is no save, so you are regularly starting from scratch. I’ve never ever come close to winning the game, certainly not as close as I have in Nethack.

A comfort game needs to be familiar, but has to be able to surprise you. DC’s artifacts are sometimes very surprising; the time I found an artifact ring on the third level that gave me +10 to damage was sweet and awesome. Then I got killed by poison. Or that great suit of crystal plate with poison resistance. Then I starved to death because I mutated into a vegetarian.

As someone who writes almost exclusively about strategy games, it might seem a bit surprising that my comfort game isn’t Field of Glory or Bronze or Colonization. It’s a graphically primitive, punishingly difficult game that forces you to begin again whenever you fail.

I contain multitudes.


32 Comments so far ↓

  • PleasingFungus

    I like the idea, not only that mutation can turn you into a vegetarian, but that it’s required.

    Though I suppose that’s probably meant to refer to you losing the physical ability to digest meat.


  • J.P. Grant

    I think it’s perfectly natural that your comfort game is a roguelike. We often crave the safety of routine when feeling overwhelmed, and RPG loot-fests fill that niche nicely.

    Games like Titan Quest and Torchlight tend to be my go-tos when I’m in a similar state of mind. The mechanics are quite simple, but there’s enough variety to keep your mind engaged on the endless progression of loot and levels rather than on whatever’s troubling you.

    What’s interesting about this kind of game is that you don’t sit down for a session with the expectation of achieving victory. If you die, just give it another shot and soon you’ll be back into the flow of progression. That takes a lot of pressure off.

    On a personal level, I do hope things settle down for you soon. At least enough to explain what the hell the phrase “mutated into a vegetarian” means.

  • Troy


    Your character can mutate, getting stronger/weaker, learning new skills, etc. Vegetarian creatures can eat meat, but get much less nutrition from them. If you don’t find bread or fruit or honey, you will starve that much faster. Meat eaters can at least scavenge food from corpses.

  • Quinten

    My comfort game would be Mount and Blade, sort of for the opposite reason most people like roguelikes. In M&B you cannot die. Ever. Ever. M&B has you constantly leveling, always getting better, richer, tougher. You may have an army wiped, but your character will one day escape the enemies pow camp, and you can start building back up.
    There is something amazing about just picking it up, and killing guys while on horseback. I play it on easy and just enjoy slicing guys up. You might like the Warband expansion (standalone) Troy, because it has a good mix of strategy, action, and rpg elements.

  • Jenn

    My comfort games are often Rhythm Tengoku and Heaven, but, uh, we all know how well that works for you. My favourite part was you telling me beforehand how you would have tossed it out a window had it been able to open ;)

  • Troy

    Quinten: M&B is one of those games I should like, but have never really been able to appreciate. Could be the first person thing, though I love all the political stuff that Warband added.

    Jenn: Damned bus windows…You promised to show me how to beat the RH remix. I am holding you to that.

  • J.P. Grant

    Troy, let me get this straight: This is a game in which your character is subject to random mutations governing his/her dietary restrictions; in which cannibalism is apparently normative behavior; and in which the silliest chance encounter or errant action can result in permadeath. And this is a game you play to RELAX.

    Multitudes indeed, my friend.

  • Troy

    And it’s not as mean as Nethack.

    The mutations are random, yes, but for them to happen you really need to drink a potion of mutation. And you can cure them with an antidote. Most bad things can be undone.

    Yes, there is cannibalism. Though some corpses are also poisonous. Or contaminated.

  • Michael A.

    Back when I studied, my comfort game was Wolfenstein 3D. Nothing like some mindless digital violence to make you forget your troubles.

    Nowadays I don’t really have any games like that to turn to. Few modern games have the pure simplicity of a W3D.

  • Hell-Mikey

    Machiavelli is my comfort game. Exploration, a dim AI that can’t do much more than speedbump you, engage the relaxation. Watching the cargo graphics swap in and out of cog holds is hypnotic, especially for automated trade routes. A side goal like controlling the college of cardinals or burning the rest of Venice to the ground relieves the mundane experience of stacking ducats to the heavens.

  • Chris Floyd

    Zeus! (Or, when I’m a little burned out on that one, another of the Impressions city-builders.)

  • Quintmorrison

    Troy, you can switch first person off in M&B by pressing R. This turns it into a third person action game for the fighting parts. Also, there are romance and political elements in the expansion, which should appeal to you.

  • Patrick

    My comfort games are Altitude and IVAN. I’m almost happy to hear you use Crawl in the same way I do IVAN; it’s just engaging enough, for a Roguelike, to keep my brain going, while at the same time good for running on autopilot. It’s a shame IVAN is virtually impossible.

    Altitude is just a grand old modern multiplayer version of Sopwith.

  • Peter S

    I guess my “timekiller” and “comfort” games would be simple strategy games: Civilization, Sins of a Solar Empire, etc. Right now I’m feeling sick as a dog (the downside risk associated with travel….) and sure wish I could play some Civ 4! Comfort has its limits, though; I remember feeling so stressed/ill waiting to hear back from a job interview that I couldn’t play a single game.

    Also, hope things look up for you soon, Troy.

  • frags

    Gratuitous Space Battles! Easy to play, just watch ships fire freakin’ lasers!

  • Chris

    HoMM III, no question.

  • D506

    Crusader Kings is great for that, I find.

    Also, MMOs in general fill this role pretty well.

  • MalcolmM

    Way, way back in the 8 bit computer days, my comfort game was Mule, for the 8 bit Atari. One hour of instant stress relief. It helped me get through university, and I still play it to this day.

    My current comfort game is King’s Bounty Crossworlds. I’ve sunk well over 200 hours into the series acording to my Steam stats. The strategies you can use, the huge variety of troops, spells and skills are endlessly fascinating.

  • Dirk

    Like Peter S. Civ4 is my comfort game. Put it on Noble/Pangea/Large/Marathon, don’t do any city micromanagement, and just bang thru a game in two evenings. Good times…

  • Jorune

    Civ IV is my comfort game, but for weird reasons. The idea that you see history, some form of OUR history laid out before you, makes me realize that whatever issues/problems I have, are small in the face of things.

    But the weird reason is the audio. When I hear that opening world music, I feel connected to the world. And when I hear Lenoard Nimoy’s comforting voice quoting the next tech, it chills me out.


  • JonathanStrange

    Civ 4’s still my comfort game: I know the rules, know the game-flow, can play the game without having to feel like I’m going back to school – and those random maps with all that undiscovered country waiting for my scouts: who could resist seeing what’s on the other side of that mountain?

  • Tristanc

    And for me as well, it’s Civ 4 (though I have BTS installed so have the newer opening world music).

    Just a quick few turns, not worrying about whether I win or not, just the fun of playing the game. When the eras advance into Industrial, though, that’s where I tend to save it and continue that one some later date when I can play more seriously towards a victory goal. But for comfort time, the early game is great!

  • Joe

    Do games ever require real thinking? I’m not going to play a game if it’s going to be headache-inducing homework. I guess Chess can be tedious, which is why I don’t play it.

    Anyway, for easy breaks I like playing Dominions 3 or Solium Infernum against the AI. You can win with very little thought so long as you pick out a decent strategy before going into the game. And you can imagine you’re kicking demon ass or synergizing super armies at the same time.

  • Paul

    Lots of talk about this. Stone Soup is easily my favorite roguelike, so it’s always nice to see some chatter about it.

    That said, I always hate when my ghost kills me.

  • rsimmon

    Civilization 1, or at least it used to be. At one point when it felt like everything was going wrong with my life (simultaneously dropping out of grad school and being jilted by my long-distance girlfriend, but really no worse a crisis than what everyone goes through in their early twenties) I played obsessively on emperor, and never made it more than a few dozen turns in before getting destroyed. Despite knowing losing is inevitable, it helped mellow me out. Now I play more of the casual, flow-inducing games like Lumines, Peggle, Zuma, and Bejeweled (at least until I discovered Bejeweled Blitz was causing anxiety attacks) when I need to chill.

  • Andrew Doull

    Colour me surprised. Have you tried any roguelike variants? (Hint, hint…)

    I’d love to hear a Three Moves Ahead podcast on strategy in roguelikes. I’m sure John Harris would love to contribute.

  • Andrew Doull

    Ahem, that’s Angband variants…

  • Daniel Talsky

    Came here to mention Angband. Totally a comfort game for me and for many of the same reasons. Never tried DC but I suspect Angband is settled as my text-based-bored-with-nothing-else-to-do-but-logged-into-a-server game forever now. Probably will never beat it… it takes some intense practice and care I’m rarely willing to put in more than once or twice in a row.

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