When starting the minuscule strategy and decision-making game 50 Years, the first thing I noticed is a simple, pristine menu framed by a lovely art style that fit perfectly with the small size of the game itself. The music faded in with the dainty plucking of strings. It was so nice that the first thing I did was check the options menu to see if I could turn it up. Instead, there’s merely an option to mute the music and sound entirely. When I left the options, the sounds jarringly halted and started over, as if it had forgotten where it was.
At the start a new game, you’re presented with a series of civilization choices. Having never played 50 Years before, you might be confused about what the description text is referencing, and it’s your best guess as to what’s a good starting faction. In this fashion, 50 Years resembles a roguelike, only without the metagame progression. The only thing that will improve over time is your understanding of some of the more nuanced mechanics.
As you start out in charge of your little village, you do not have the guidance of a tutorial. Thankfully, each run is short enough that the learning process isn’t a huge roadblock to your progress, and this structure encourages players to try the different races. My first playthrough I tried America, who is graced with a bonus amount of gold on every turn. Spending money is largely split between building structures, hiring peasants, and hiring soldiers. The buildings will allow greater choices of soldiers while increasing the yields of secondary resources like faith and wood, as well as increase the basic pool of individuals you can support with food.
For such a small and simple looking game, the amount of depth was surprising. 50 Years has well-balanced factions with different strengths based on different periods of time in the game. For example, Japan's ability to bless one random soldier with double strength is immense in the first half, but almost useless in the second half. On the tougher difficulties, you are kept in constant suspense. There is no classic technique of gathering momentum until you can just steamroll to the very end. You cannot build up an enormous army of peasants creating resources and assume a good economy will solve every problem. You cannot build the extremely tough units and rely on them to carry you to victory.
Every few turns, you’re attacked by a nebulous enemy. The army makeup of the enemy is semi-random, starting small and easy and slowly increasing in strength. This introduces a simple and effective conflict to the game: holding off waves and waves of enemies. Your soldiers heal automatically in between fights, but once one is dead, it’s gone from your roster forever and you must spend a precious resource to hire a new one.
After each fight, you are rewarded with faith to help spur the production of your empire. Faith is a secondary resource (like wood) that can be used to purchase a few religious units, but more importantly, reaching certain thresholds will allow you to expand your pantheons. Will your religion be based on the legends of heroic gold miners? Will you praise the exploits of your vast army? Or will you sign your soul over to the Chicken Devil?
The Chicken Devil is apparently a member of the pantheon you can follow, but at the same time, he’s a living individual that exists on the map to provide another interesting level of depth. Every turn, your scouts, which aren’t built or controlled by you, will explore more of the map screen. The first thing they always discover is the lair of the Chicken Devil, which you can make deals with to improve your fighting capabilities in exchange for your soul. Or you could prove your piety by banishing him and his zombie chicken army. Your scouts will continue further, discovering other small armies you can choose to fight in exchange for game-changing rewards and spells, such as a scroll that will shrink the enemy army.
Unfortunately, the spells are the only way you can influence battles other than hiring troops. You can hire a powerful tree spirit with immense amounts of health, but his placement in the army doesn’t seem to rely on rhyme or reason. Once you enter the fight, the tough tree spirit might be hiding in the very back, utterly useless as your ranged soldiers are slaughtered. If your army placement is just completely wrong, you may lose the battle, instantly ending the game. No final appeals to the Chicken Devil for him to save you from the single enemy peasant that managed to survive and pass your defeated army.
The painting of the village behind the basic UI is very pretty the first few times, but after every new building, I inspected it thoroughly for a change, assuming it was a depiction of my growing empire. This assumption was based on how the UI became squashed to the side after you recruit more than six troops as if proudly displaying the art. The battles are simply sprites of your troops jumping along the arena as if held by toddlers and bouncing in lieu of any attack animations. This wouldn’t be so bad if the battles weren’t the only part of 50 Years that isn’t just a menu and skillfully done art. Much of the game is based around these battles, and the appeal is lost when you see paper dolls grunting at each other in what you can only assume is an intense melee.
50 Years is the very epitome of a very, very rough diamond. Someone working for the developer actually knows what they are doing, but they are being dragged down by strange interface decisions and a bad translator. The art is fantastic, and the mechanics are smart and succinct. I could see this as an amazing mobile game one day. 50 Years does exactly what it says on the tin: presents you a “coffee break” strategy game with high replayability. However, this tin is busted, the expiration date is dubious, and you think you hear the clucking of satanic chickens within.
50 Years was previewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.