Ludum Dare is a recurring game development competition in which participants are given 48 hours to make a game based around the competition’s theme. The results have been surprisingly good, with the strict time limit forcing developers to focus on a solid core design for their entries, making the competition quite popular among designers and players alike. After Ludum Dare 18, a secondary competition was added called the Jam, which allows for teams and has an extended time limit of 72 hours.
The Wager was an entry in the Ludum Dare 19 Jam, with the theme of “discovery” (see the winners here). Since then, developers Surprised Man have gone back to fix bugs and add some features, and the latest version 1.2.4 is available for free from their site. The game pits the player against the dastardly Sir Lester Marwood, with whom the player has made a wager: whoever can make the most money from their maritime explorations by the end of the year 1777, wins. The player sails north, Marwood sails south. It’s on.
The game that many players will think of when playing The Wager is FTL, even though The Wager came out first. At the time of its release, the closest reference point was Weird Worlds: Return To Infinite Space, a simple but fun game of galactic exploration. The Wager actually fits quite nicely between the two; although it’s set on the high seas rather than in space, exploring the various islands is much like traveling through the sector in Weird Worlds, and the random encounters and events are much like FTL’s. The main difference, of course, is that The Wager doesn’t have any combat, as such. Instead it’s all about finding islands and navigating the varied and strange situations that arise in your travels.
Islands are where you make your money. After the Shattering split the continents apart, land became a valuable commodity, and people will pay good money for the location of habitable islands. Fortunately these are easy to find, and you’ll soon know the locations of several. Once you’ve found an island, you can spend a few days exploring it, to see if there’s anything special ashore. Sometimes this is just a waste of time, but usually you’ll find something that increases the island’s value, like a vein of silver ore, or some livestock, or a beautiful beach. Or, you might find one of the game’s special events.
Like FTL, these events are presented in a text box, and provide the player with a few choices. Having the right equipment, special item, or suitable crewman is often the key to getting the best result, as in FTL. Unlike FTL, however, these events are usually hilarious. Once, one of my crewmen (who have fantastic randomized names like Silky Tim or Angry Steve) was being chased by an army of crustaceans that were attracted to his perfume. Because I had hired a ship’s doctor, I was able to ask his advice, which was simply “This is the worst case of crabs I have ever seen.” It didn’t help, it was just an extra joke I got to see because I had a doctor on board. The actual solution, of course, was to rub the poor sod with the foul-smelling herb I’d found several islands ago. What would have happened if I hadn’t had that herb? I don’t dare imagine.
These events are the highlight of the game, and they can happen while exploring an island or while at sea. If you’re properly prepared for these events, you can get some quite profitable outcomes, and I found this to be my main motivation. Don’t get me wrong; the basic gameplay loop of sailing and discovering islands until you run low on supplies, then heading back to port and selling your island’s locations for cash, is quite engaging in its simplicity. But rather than hoard my coin, I always spent it on upgrades to my ship that might help me escape a whirlpool, and kept all the strange trinkets I came across with the hope they might prove useful at some point. Of course, this is not always the best way to win the titular wager, as I was reminded periodically when a mean-looking carrier pigeon delivered a missive from my opponent. While I usually came out on top when playing on the easy setting, on normal Marwood usually won, and I’m sure he’s even tougher on hard. But I didn’t really mind; I was in it for the swashbuckling adventure.
Perhaps the best part about The Wager is that a game only takes about fifteen minutes, so it’s ideal for taking a short break from whatever unpleasant task you should be doing. Each game is randomized, of course, and there are even achievements to chase if you’re so inclined. The graphics are very simple, as is to be expected from a game made largely in 72 hours, but it’s got a tight design and smart writing that will keep you coming back. If I had to criticize anything, it would be that the game appears to have no female characters at all, which is a shame given that it’s not really accurate. I also encountered a strange bug that caused certain graphical elements to be misaligned. This was most noticeable in the mini-map, where the little green square that was supposed to show me which part of the map I was looking at was actually above and to the left of where it should have been. This made it tricky to figure out where my ship was on the map and could complicate navigation. Googling suggested that this is not a common problem, and it certainly wasn’t gamebreaking, so hopefully you’ll have no such trouble. [EDIT: Surprised Man were kind enough to respond to both of these complaints; see the comments below.]
If you feel like you could use a quick swashbuckle or two, head to Surprised Man’s website and grab The Wager for free. The high seas await!