The Wager is an interesting beast. Somewhere between the classic Sid Meier’s Colonization and the odd Strange Adventures In Infinite Space, it manages to merge the two into a Frankenstein monster that somehow works. And it works very well. So well, in fact, that it’s taken a spot alongside Desktop Dungeons as a coffee break game of choice. Nothing quite like relaxing with a little betting, after all. Or exploration. Or both!
The Wager pits you against dastardly Sir Lester Marwood in a sporting competition of exploration. You and he must discover all sorts of new islands and make money from their discovery. The person who has the most money at the end of the year shall be declared the winner. It’s a charming little story that makes itself known in the correspondence that is sent every month. When you are doing well, Lester finds trivial stuff to complain about, taunting you ineffectually. When you are doing poorly, he starts to make more biting criticisms, such as talking about finding parts of crewmen you have lost on the open seas. It’s vaguely unsettling, but in an interesting and engaging way rather than one which disconnects the player from the game. There’s also events you can encounter on certain islands, but those are less about the writing and more about the mechanical impact.
Presentation-wise, The Wager has a distinct, yet simple charm about it. The pixel art is smooth and colorful, with more emphasis placed on readability than detail. The music is cheerful, but does start to grate after a little while. Thankfully, there’s an option to turn it off if it strikes your fancy. There’s not much in the way of sound effects, so there’s nothing to comment on there. Overall, the aesthetic is very conducive towards playing really quickly and efficiently. This isn’t a game about getting caught up in the environment, but rather taking risks and getting greatly rewarded in the process.
The basic mechanics are quite simple to grasp: move your boat to an island, spend time exploring it, sell the map to colonists for a profit. You have one year to explore as many islands as possible and sell the maps for cash. Each island can have all sorts of extra attributes that increase its value, but not all of them do, so you must manage your time carefully to try and pick out the most lucrative islands to explore. It’s quite difficult on normal, but even when you lose it feels like you’re progressing. The more you learn, the closer you get to shoving that smug bastard Lester’s words down his throat. It’s the same formula that Strange Adventures in Infinite Space used, and the game definitely benefits by using it.
Your exploration is further complicated by three necessary resources: crewmen, health, and supplies. You obviously can’t helm a boat with no men, you need to eat on the open seas, and disease is always a concern on long voyages. Crewman can only be lost through events, and the longer you keep them as crew, the stronger they get. Supplies are used over time, but you can replenish them through various methods, from finding water to buying it off of newly-colonized islands. Disease increases over time, with a higher rating increasing the chance that one of your crew members will get sick. Making it back to the original dock will instantly max you out, but takes a considerable amount of time, which reduces the amount of time spent on island exploration. Thankfully, there are various upgrades at the dock to spend your hard-earned cash on, so it’s usually not a waste to restock there.
Events and items spruce up the game even further by providing a little randomization. Events can occur on an island or at sea, but the island events are far more preferable, as they often contain options to avoid losing anything. Ocean events almost always eat up time and resources like crazy. For example, one island event might consist of giving a chieftan something shiny, which results in you getting an extra crewman. Conversely, a typical sea event involves an extremely turbulent area of ocean or a whirlpool, both of which can result in dead crewmen and tons of wasted time. Events also give items or allies, which can either be used for other events or sold to the dock. For example, you might get a skeletal crewmember after an encounter with a ghost ship, which lets you send him through a trapped corridor without any worries of him dying. Generally, it’s best to simply hang on to all items instead and sell them around the middle of December.
The general feel is that of a fast, furious, and potentially frustrating break game. The Wager is not a game you play over and over in rapid succession, unless it’s to learn what events tie to what items. Rather, it’s fun to play in bursts. A snack game that can ease you off of another game into other activities. A game to play when you don’t really feel like paying attention to the game you play. Just don’t be surprised to lose a lot until you understand just what elements help you out and which hurt you. I still haven’t won a game on Hard, even after hours of play. Thanks to the short session time, though, the frustration is minimal.
Despite being so entertaining and challenging, The Wager has a number of irritating problems. You can’t ever revisit an old, uncolonized isle to take advantage of an event. The aforementioned well event is a good case: you can’t go into the well without a rope, but it’s unlikely you will find a rope before you find the well. Colonized islands will never become proper docks, even after several months of existence, forcing you to go all the way to the bottom of the map every time you need to unload cargo. The benefit to having more hardened, experienced crewmembers isn’t particularly noticeable. You can’t click on unexplored areas, but must rather click on the edge of the map. The minor flaws are definitely annoying, but they don’t make it a bad game. Just one with flaws.
I greatly enjoy The Wager, and playing it to calm down after a particularly stressful or exciting session has become force of habit. The strong design, simple presentation, and overall polished nature make it an excellent freeware title, and the lack of more long-term content paradoxically gives it far more replay value than one might expect. It’s addicting, not in a way that makes you want to grind, but in a way that makes you want to explore the world even more. You can download The Wager from the developer’s site.