Chaos – The Battle of The Wizards:

8 bit heaven, arguably the greatest computer game ever made

Author: Julian Gollop
Publication: Games Workshop, 1984
Platforms: ZX Spectrum

Disclaimer: this w/u is a unrepentant nostalgia fest. Any time you waste in reading it is your own responsibility.

Historical Context:

In 1982, the ZX Spectrum was released by Sinclair Electronics, a strange looking beast with blue rubber keys and a whacking 48K of memory. This heralded the dawn of the home computer-programming age in Britain, and by 1984 a significant games industry had bootstrapped itself from semi-amateur status. Enter Games Workshop, Britain’s biggest fish in the closely-related RPG market, which wanted a slice of this emerging pie. In a flurry of publicity they released a series of computer games (almost all now lost in the mists of time), released one big effort (Eureka!, designed by company founder Ian Livingstone with a team of programmers, a game with a £25 000 prize for the first person to complete it; it sucked) under the Domark title, and then got into a real mess. The two companies split and Domark went on to become the creator of Tomb Raider and similar, while Games Workshop returned to what it did best; giving single, teenage, Iron Maiden T-shirt clad boys a way to feel wanted and creative.

Chaos was one of the short lived Games Workshop Games titles and caused very little impact upon release, internet rumour has it that it was only available on mail order (personally, I have never seen an original boxed edition). Its distinguishing characteristic was its author-designer, Julian Gollop, destined to be the driving force for many of the leading strategy games of the following twenty years (Lords Of Chaos, Laser Squad, UFO: Enemy Unknown, X-COM Apocalypse). Chaos was a slow burner, and only made major waves when released as a covertape (1990) by Your Sinclair, a magazine known to have a circulation of 80 000 per month; its success was proved when, in The Spectrum's twilight years, it was covertaped again (1993), the only game to recieve this status.


It’s pretty clear that on any superficial level, Chaos isn’t very good. It’s a Spectrum only game; and I thank Sir Clive for this planning when he built the platform, it’s restricted to two colours per character square. This unites with an 8 colour palette; giving the graphics a blocky, semi-monochrome appearance. Further, it’s a one-man programming job, and clearly never went through serious testing; the code is a wasteland of bugs. I don’t know why, but Julian seemed to love pink and yellow. Later games, (R-Type and Cybernoid), would show that a decent graphic designer could make the Spectrum palette look pretty good. Chaos, however, looks like a 3 year old that has just been unleashed on his first box of Crayola.

It’s in the game design that Chaos is untouchable. Fundamentally it's a board game that took advantage of the dynamic scope computers introduced, allowing changing pieces. Based on an empty 10 by 15 board, you could place 2 to 8 human or computer-controlled wizards. A wizard in Chaos is the same as the king in Chess; a weak, easily defeated, low-mobility piece that is the target of the game. Rounds consist of two turns; an opportunity to cast “Spells” followed by a chance to move pieces.

The spells, and planning their use, is the guts of the game. Each player is initially given a random selection (from a range of between 50 and 100), with each spell having an associated, checkable, probability of success. The skill lies in judging these probabilities and planning the use of them. The target is to develop an army and, when fully equipped, to attack the other players on the board, with the resulting tacit alliances and battles this unleashes.

The early Eighties were the height of the Role Playing boom, and this game came from the Games Workshop stable. It took on much of the context of Dungeons and Dragons; yet I see this game more akin to the standardised warfare games such as Chess and Go. While the battles involve standard role playing parameters (Attack, Defence, Magic Resistance, etc), Chaos was more than the sum of these parts, with a Go-like emphasis on tactics and a fractal growth.

Fundamental to Chaos is the ability to alter casting probabilities. Spells are categorised as Chaos, Law or Neutral. This links to the board which also has a changing Chaos/Law score, the casting of spells in these groups cause this status to change; as the board's Chaos score increases, the probability attached to Chaos spells increases, and the inverse for Law. Further, all creature spells can be set to be Illusions, which are guaranteed to work, on the qualifier that they can be destroyed by the Disbelieve spell, which every wizard has an infinite supply of; a risky manoeuvre but one that can seriously pay off.

The Spells

Spells in Chaos break up into groups ('though I’ve just made these up): Creatures, Board Manipulation, Wizard Alteration, Direct effect and Landscape.

The game is equipped with a huge range of creatures; these are defined by the standard variables one would expect from an RPG: strong, weak, flying, ridable. The creatures were diverse; Dragons, Gorillas, Hydra and Zombies, all are available for a casting probability and a turn.

The other main group are Landscape spells, adding dynamic complexity to the board. The landscape spells result in different setting for each tournament. Fires can rage across the board, castles can materialise beside your wizard, and walls can emerge from the Earth. These act like pawns in chess, giving each game its own flavour.

The rest of the spells are aimed at altering the game, Wizards can gain shields, magic bolts can demolish your foes, creatures can be stolen in their moment of triumph, the dead rise again.

Playing the Game

This was the first “beer and pretzels” computer game in the UK (1 year before Bomberman); friends would converge on each others house with pizza and gorge on 5 hour Chaos festivals; crocodiles, giants, lions and wraiths raging upon each other; alliances, betrayals and accidents in epic wars of attrition.

The game is bug ridden, but once the player becomes well acquainted with these they almost become an asset; each bug is systematic and repeatable. The result is that these just add more dimensions to game play: riding an undead horse leaves your Wizard undead, destroying your own creature upon the corpse of a more powerful one will bring that creature to life under your control.

The AI isn’t bad either, they possess multiple levels. True, these increase the wizards physical stats rather than intelligence, but still provides variation in difficulty. The AI is relatively predictable; however, an idiot with a hand grenade can still kill you, and seven idiots with a fistful of grenades usually prove a real challenge. Real fun occurs when you pit 4 humans against 4 computers. It is common that one of the humans will betray another, only to find themselves receiving a computer attack.

The game has an emergent quality, due to the freedom of rules, whereby after about 10 rounds, a unique board will develope. This leaves almost limitless scope. Further, with fixed casting probabilities, and Chaos and Law values to alter them, there is little “luck”, just the opportunity to play the percentages. The only random component is the initial hand of spells, and even then it is possible to play a poor hand and win.

Personal History:

I was 6 when this came out, and I got my hands on a copy at 8. It wasn’t an original, so i learnt with no manual. Immediately I was hooked, and I played Chaos pretty much continually, til the Spectrum Age ended. My close friends and I were raised by it, feeling our way with no understanding of statistics. This game devoured more hours of my life than sleep for a while.

The years bring a constant dribble of ports, proving I’m not the only obsessive out here. Checking Google, I find people have even written fan fiction! The best port was for the Atari ST, although, like most ports, it changed the probabilities and stripped out the bugs, leaving Chaos less balanced. Over the years there were sequels; Lords of Chaos was superb, but fundamentally different, Magic and Mayhem was abysmal: Chaos was not meant to be real time. Chaos remains the most playable because it is still, fundamentally, a board game.

However, even without nostalgia it is clear that this is extremely well designed, holding up as the best of the 8 bit era. I've been playing it in research for this node, and even friends I introduced to it recently enjoy it. Download an emulator, load a virtual tape in the spirit of Retro Gaming, you won't regret it. And if the desire comes upon you to produce another port, please do it properly, one day this game will re-emerge… And I am waiting for it.

I am a child of the eighties, and I am not ashamed!

And now, due to the wonders of java, I give you, Chaos on the web!