Review: Varicella

(I have finally played this masterpiece. I cannot think of high enough praise, so this review will have to do. Varicella - Details (

Il Reggente

How Unseemly!

The King is dead! All hail the Ki… well, seeing that Prince Charles is a five-year-old nasty specimen of royalty who has barely outgrown his toddler nappies, that should be “All hail Primo Varicella, Regent of Piedmont!”
Once you’ve managed to outmaneuver your rivals to the Regency in the maze of backstabbery and treasonous wit that lies before you at this time, that is…

Several times during my earliest forays into Interactive Fiction, 20-odd years ago, I started playing Adam Cadre’s Varicella and quickly bounced off it. My expectations then were firmly geared towards long linear quest-adventures, and this game’s time-limit and simultaneous sub-puzzles stumped me. I never got much further than trying to kick one of the guards in the nads when he wouldn’t stand aside. (A swift death was my reward.)
In the past years, I have played and enjoyed a bunch of optimisation games, and delving into the historic vaults of IF had exposed me to many Cruel games with numerous try-die-repeat puzzles. With the added wisdom and experience so accumulated, I felt ready to once again tackle this highly acclaimed Classic of the Renaissance with an openness of mind and the patience to appreciate it on its own terms.

“Photopia has made more of a mark, I suppose, but Photopia is a short story; Varicella is a world. There are so many things to see and do…”
----Adam Cadre on Varicella ( → Varicella - Wikipedia)----

A very true assessment. What the author doesn’t mention is that no single playthrough will ever contain even half the content this world has to offer. Merely to gather the absolute minimum of information necessary to solve the game requires multiple focused playthroughs. Finding out about the other conversation topics, item descriptions, hidden nooks kept me happily engaged for a good while after I had solved the central puzzle.

Varicella is amazing.

Rise Of Primo Varicella; A Truthful Account Of Our Behind-the-Scenes Assistance To One Palace Minister In His Ruthless Ascent to Power

→ I. In Which We Acquaint Ourselves With The Pallazo del Piemonte:

As a first move, we slide our pocket watch into our breastpocket, we won’t be needing it anytime soon. Let death come as it wills. (In other words, do not pay notice to the advancing clock in the status bar.) In these first few visits to the Palace, our primary focus shall be on the basics of this imaginary world: the Map! Exits and entrances, locked doors and other puzzles, the locations of items to pick up and NPCs to chat up.
The Palace on each level is built according to an almost completely symmetrical floor plan. This arrangement will be most convenient later on, when time is of the essence. For now, we might as well draw our map and note and label the offices of our rivals for future reference.
Pairing the practical to the pleasant, our tour allows us to take in the halls, rooms, and corridors of the Palace, all described from Primo’s point of view.


Your Quarters

You may have been relegated to the top of this tower, but that hasn’t impeded you from imbuing your quarters with an excellence that not even a team of interior decorators flown in from Kyoto could achieve. Only someone with your finely-honed sensibilities could have taken this amount of space and kept it from seeming appallingly cramped. Though the panoramic windows to the north and west do their part in opening up the room, you still have to give most of the credit to yourself.

His attention to the smallest details of ornamentation reveals an inordinate fondness for luxury and style, this seeming to be his greatest priority in life, apart from his unquenchable thirst for power.

→ II. In Which The Gap Between Primo Varicella’s Knowledge And Our Own Is Bridged, And Our Shared Understanding Is Broadened:

Having lived here for years, Primo has been involved in the palatial scheming and plotting for a long time before we made our entrance. It’s essential for the player’s understanding of what’s going on to absorb all the information at hand to catch up with him.
Both the explicit asides in and the implicit hints at palatial power-dynamics between the lines of the room descriptions have already given us a view of the treacherous web of ambitons we’ll need to navigate. A good way to get more insight is Primo’s own record of his rivals and potential allies. (He has a nifty gizmo…)

This leads us straight to the next step: seeking out the other palace residents. Each and every one of them has their own flavour of wretchedness. Be it raw lust for power coupled with the guileful cunning needed to reach and hold a position in the Palace, the powerless misery of being a mere plaything in the machinations of the Court, or the distanced watchfulness of one awaiting the developments before choosing sides, all the players on this stage are deeply disturbing.
For at least one of them, the ordeals of life amidst these scheming villains have pushed her firmly beyond the reach of reason:

“i see a little varicella of a man,” Princess Charlotte replies. “scaramouche! scaramouche! will you do the grim fandango? i think you will!”

Primo, with all his cynical scheming, is not by far the worst of the lot.

Gaining access to the personal quarters of the other palace inhabitants confronts us with the first few obstacles. Easy and straightforward as they may be, they provide the necessary first steps towards the much more intricate cogs and wheels we’ll need to set in motion. Careful navigation of the conversations and attentive investigation of their rooms will reveal secrets and weaknesses to be exploited later on. The items available in the private rooms point us toward potential ways to eliminate our rivals.

→ III. In Which Fragments Of The Scheme Are Discovered And Executed:

The accessible rooms and halls of the Palazzo di Piemonte fully investigated, the other denizens interrogated in as far as they would let us, important-seeming items in our inventory, the mind reeling with possible scenarios… It’s time to finally act upon the hunches and what-ifs that were triggered by our exploration.

Each of Primo’s rivals has their own puzzle-chain, their own sequence of steps toward their elimination. Because life in the Palace moves along at its own pace, and our adversaries are busily deploying their own sets of perfidious tactics, many of our actions are time-dependent.
A number of obstacles require intimate knowledge about the other residents gained in previous conversations to goad them in our desired direction. Other hurdles are of a more physical or technical nature, where we manipulate nature instead of people.
The main objective here is to find the way to take out each of Primo’s rivals separately, without worrying yet about the others during one particular tour.

→ IV. In Which I Piece Together Primo’s Plan:

Alas! I failed at this final task. I had figured out the movements and weaknesses of Primo’s rivals, and for each of them I found a way to exploit this knowledge against them. The distinct sequences for eliminating each of the other power-hungry wolves were clear to me, without even once peeking behind the curtains.


Speaking of peeking behind curtains, we’re treated to a nice reference to the Bard if we do precisely that:

The tapestry is flush against the wall, with nothing behind it but cool marble. You were expecting Polonius?
----Adam Cadre, Varicella----
“What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?
Help, ho!”
POLONIUS (behind the arras)
“What ho! Help!”
“How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead.”
----He kills Polonius by thrusting a rapier
through the arras.----
----William Shakespeare, Hamlet----


Despite repeated attempts, I never succeeded at ordering the moves in these discrete seqences into an effective interlocking whole. After getting rid of the majority of opponents, there always remained at least one foe that I had not dealt with soon enough.
It’s not enough to execute the separate sub-schemes one after the other, no matter in which order. Primo needs to think many moves ahead and slide the distinct plans together to have a chance of defeating the large-scale puzzle. Acquiring items and solving preparatory puzzles for a later adversary must be taken care of while still dealing with the present opponent, so that the whole of the masterplan is as time-efficient as possible.
When I felt utterly defeated and finally looked at a step-by-step walkthrough, the ultimate all-encompassing sequence of moves presented itself as a magnificent complex web, dealing with every circumstance and threat in an interwoven simultaneous master scheme.

Following the walkthrough and seeing events unroll showed me a vision of an inescapable, interlocking, overarching solution which has an almost mathematical beauty.

→ V. In Which Primo Varicella Prevails:

At the end of this horrible tale, Primo stands atop a heap of corpses, rewarded with the Regency of Piedmont. With the child Prince Charles under his protection and authority, his dream of power is fulfilled.

“Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends,
to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may
gain empire, but not glory. Still, if the courage of Primo Varicella in
entering into and extricating himself from dangers be considered,
together with his greatness of mind in enduring and overcoming
hardships, it cannot be seen why he should be esteemed less than the
most notable captain.”

Nicoló Macchiavelli, Il Principe; Chapter VIII: Of Those Who By Their Crimes Come To Be Princes.
(“Agathocles” changed to “Primo Varicella”)

The short epilogue concludes the story of Regent Primo Varicella in a fitting manner. It left me staring unseeing into the distance, pondering the fate of my luxury-loving, power-lusting companion whom I, contrary to my wishes, had grown somewhat fond of.

Varicella is among the very best IF has to offer. Magnificent.