How to Play Cinco Paus

First of all, why should you? Why should you learn how to play Michael Brough’s new game Cinco Paus? After all, you’re busy, you have important things to do. This game looks weird and doesn’t seem to care whether you figure it out or not.

Ok, I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that. I know it’s not your fault, you don’t know any better. But let’s get this out of the way:

Reasons you should play Cinco Paus

Michael Brough is a certified genius. 868-HACK, Corrypt, Vesper.5, Imbroglio. Every game he makes is a fascinating journey into a dense thicket of game design ideas. They’re all worth spending time with and the best ones unfold under the light of your attention into the kind of transcendent experiences that make a life spent playing games worthwhile. He’s literally the best.

Nevertheless, the Michael Brough appreciation society is a small, exclusive club populated by a handful of game design insiders. This is not good for Michael, who in a just world would be rich and famous, but it is great for us. We get both the robust pleasures of playing amazing games and the thrill of being on the inside of a grand secret, members of an elite cabal, basking in the warm gaze of each other’s keen judgment and advanced taste. Remember the person you used to be before the preceding paragraph convinced you to play this game? That’s the kind of person we keep out of the Michael Brough fan club. As the club treasurer, my job is to expand our community just enough to keep the lights on without opening the door to a muddy avalanche of the drab-trousered hoi polloi, consider this your private invitation.

Now, onto the subject at hand:

How to Play Cinco Paus

1. Do I need to learn Portuguese? No. Don’t worry about the Portuguese. I know foreign languages are strange and scary, especially Portuguese which is, I believe, a mix of Cambodian and Turkish*. This game is about learning a language, but it’s not Portuguese, it’s the symbolic language of magical power icons that matter here. Trust me, you can ignore all the words, just like a regular videogame.

2. The Basics. Your goal is to get through 5 rooms. Along the way you pick up as much treasure as you can. You have the magic wands to help you do this. Each wand can be used once per room. To use a wand you drag it down to your little guy and point it in a direction that isn’t blocked by a wall. The wands shoot out beams that interact with the monsters and other game objects in various ways.

3. The Main Idea. At the beginning of every game the wands’ powers are randomly assigned, so you must discover what they do by using them. Important: powers are revealed only when they take effect. For example, let’s say a wand has the power of exploding when it hits a wall, if there aren’t any enemies nearby to get damaged then this power will not be revealed. Likewise, the multiplier effect makes copies of monsters and treasures it passes through, but if you shoot it down an empty hallway this power will remain hidden. As a result, the whole game is about how you use the wands to optimize the effects you know they have while gaining the most useful knowledge about the powers that are still hidden.

4. A Quick Game Design Digression. This main idea is incredibly clever. It’s a perfect example of how Michael works. He takes an idea that might be one note in a more complicated game (the tension between wand use and wand identification in a traditional rogue-like) and explores it thoroughly to discover its full potential. He wraps it in a structure where everything else is there to frame and support this main idea. Michael’s games are like conceptual microscopes revealing the teeming worlds hidden within the tiniest details of interactive systems. In this case, the universe we encounter is the one contained within the relationship between actions and information, each action we take in the game is both a statement and a question, the application of knowledge to affect the world and an experiment to discover something new. Once you start thinking about it, you can see this action/information dynamic in many games, for example in the bidding phase of Bridge, where every utterance is both an attempt to communicate information to your partner and a binding contract with concrete effects. There is something more than entertainment happening here, there is a kind of philosophical exploration of the operation of language, gesture, meaning, what linguistics maps out as the tangled connections between locution (what I say) illocution (what I mean) and perlocution (the concrete results of my speech act.) Things and ideas, its and bits, matter and mind, sometimes games are little windows into vast mysteries, if we are willing to look.

5. Level 1. Ok, but how to, you know, actually play. To begin with, just pay attention to what happens whenever you use a wand. Look for the effects on the board, and for the symbols that appear. This game is all about learning. Your first dozen games you are learning the symbols and their meanings, most of them are fairly intuitive and clear. If you ever get really baffled, just refer to this excellent list. After you have learned the symbols, every game becomes about learning the particular arrangement of powers and how to best use them. And of course in the long run what you are really learning is the emergent properties of the entire system, the extrapolated, combinatory meanings of the whole recursive apparatus, to learn how to learn how to learn how to learn.

6. Level 1 is deadly. I should mention that the first room, with its weak enemies and blank wands is the one that is most likely to destroy you. Ignorance kills. Once you have a sense of the tools you are working with, you can pull off amazing feats of virtuosic execution, but in Level 1 you are a bumbling idiot. If you get lucky and manage to take out all the enemies with a few wands left make sure to maximize the information you learn about them – shoot down to see if they have a heal, or right to see if they have a charge attack (makes your next basic attack deadly) or if you’re feeling greedy shoot into a pillar (one free-standing wall) or a closet (3-sided nook) to see if you can make treasure.

7. Don’t be afraid to run. This game is about survival, not killing. The point is to get the treasure and get out, and sometimes the point is just to get out. Your first question when entering a room should be “how can I get to the exit?” Then ask “can I get some treasure?” and “what can I learn?” Some of the best runs are the ones where you escape room 1 with a single point of health and then manage to claw your way through 4 rooms of escalating danger, grabbing whatever loot you can as you gingerly thread a narrow path to safety.

8. The chase frog. If you clear a level, then after 10 or 15 turns a frog will appear, and then again every 10 or 15 turns after that. This keeps the pressure on, but can sometimes be used as a resource. Always have a plan for how you’re going to deal with the chase frog.

9. Fun Fact. Michael’s middle initial is Z and it stands for “Zugzwang”. A recurring theme in many of his games is the subtle syncopation of turn-based movement. Parity, being in or out of sync with an enemy, can be the difference between life and death. Cinco Paus is the best exploration yet of this dynamic. You will encounter many situations that are interesting little movement puzzles on their own, even before considering the wand power dimension.

10. Slow Down. One thing to pay attention to is the frequency and importance of the decisions you make. Every turn is a puzzle with many potential solutions, the longer you think the more possibilities you will discover, and finding the best moves is both inherently rewarding and necessary to long-term mastery. This is one of those games you can’t play when you’re drunk, you need all your faculties. Games like this are probably the only reason I can still walk.

11. Gamble Gamble. Cinco Paus is a love-song to output randomness and a brilliant demonstration of the aesthetic potential of carefully-organized uncertainty. Strategy and randomness is a strange and volatile (ha!) mix. Everything that applies to Poker or Hearthstone applies here – you are playing to maximize your expected value, looking for statistical edges, you need to use deduction to narrow down the range of universes you could be in and then act to optimize your outcomes across that range. Don’t tilt.

12. The Map and the Territory. A useful tip you might not notice is that several of the wand powers affect other wands, for example the one with the “?” icon that reveals a hidden power or the one that looks like a head with an “x” that deletes an existing power. In these cases the power that is affected is determined by where you are standing in the room. There are 5 wands with 5 powers each, and the rooms are 5×5 grids. If you are standing in the upper left square the power you reveal or delete will be the top power of the first wand, and so on. Yeah, this is fucking amazing. Michael Brough, ladies and gentlemen.

13. Numerology. This won’t help you play but another cool thing to notice about the game is all the ways the number 5 appears. All of his games are like this, dense little knots of design choices some of which are arbitrary constraints and some of which are necessary consequences of those constraints. I think all game design is like this, but Michael’s work embraces and elevates this process with sublime clarity.

14. Is Game Art? All of Michaels game’s look weird, he is stubbornly proud of his idiosyncratic, eccentric visual style. Opinions vary about the wisdom of this approach, but I think it’s undeniable that Cinco Paus is full of lovely details and has a lot of visual appeal. The wand icon language has to do a lot of heavy lifting in this game and to my eyes it does so with precision and wit. The hand-drawn style he introduced with Imbroglio has evolved into a something refined and charming, it reminds me of the brilliant miniatures of MAD magazine’s Sergio Aragones. There’s no excuse for the terrible font though.

15. And Many More. There’s a lot more to this game – artifacts, secret rooms, streaks, monster powerups – but I’m going to leave you to discover these things on your own. Suffice to say all of these features demonstrate the vibrant imagination and seasoned instincts of a world-class game designer firing on all cylinders. This game requires a certain amount of attention and patience but the energy you give it will be repaid a thousandfold.

Good luck, have fun.