Gemcraft: Dominant Strategies

OK, so I basically called Gemcraft boring in my last post. And yet I’m still playing it. “Boring” and “compelling” are not always contradictory qualities, but in this case I think it’s because Chasing Shadows is doing a better job than its predecessors of keeping things varied, and of keeping a sense of forward progression. It’s not just that the battles keep getting bigger or that numbers in general are going up (although that’s certainly a factor). It’s that the bigger numbers result in changes in the dominant strategy.

To explain what I mean, I’ll have to describe the details of the game a little more.

Gems come in nine colors, each with a different special ability: blue gems slow down enemies they hit, yellow gems have a chance of doing critical hits, purple gems reduce armor, and so forth. You can combine multiple colors in a single gem for something that does more damage and has all the special abilities of its components, but isn’t as good at them as the pure gems — unless one of the colors is black or white, which are special colors for enhancing other colors. Gems with a black component are called “bloodbound”: they become more powerful with the number of times they hit enemies. Gems with a white component are “poolbound”: they increase in power every time your mana pool levels up by hitting certain exponentially-increasing thresholds of accumulated mana. (In the original Gemcraft, you had to pay large amounts of mana to upgrade your pool. Here, the only cost is opportunity: if you want your pool to gain levels, you have to refrain from spending all that mana while it builds up. This, it turns out, is enough of a cost.)

There are a few things you can do with gems besides putting them in towers. You can drop them as bombs, but this struck me from the very start as a big waste, getting a little temporary damage out of something that could otherwise dish out damage continuously. You can use them to enrage waves, as I mentioned before, although in the early part of the game this struck me as even more counterproductive than exploding them. And you can put them in traps, an alternative to towers that requires monsters to walk over them (more or less). Traps don’t do nearly as much damage as towers, but they’re much more effective at the color abilities.

Now, not every color of gem is available on every level. Most of the early levels have only two or three colors. But you can unlock skills that let you upgrade the effectiveness of specific colors, and any color that’s upgraded will be made available everywhere. This is part of what lets strategies dominate.

The first really effective strategy I found was to fill the pathways with green gems in traps. Green gems are poison: in addition to their normal impact damage, they do damage over time that ignores armor. Putting them in traps not only made them more poisonous, it also solved the big problem with poison gems in towers: that they tend to target the same thing over and over until it dies, at which point the next thing hasn’t taken any poison damage at all. Traps all along a path spread the poison around among everything on that path for maximum efficiency.

After a while, though, this approach can’t keep up with the increasing hit points of the enemies as the number of waves per level keeps going up. I haven’t really analyzed this, but I’m pretty sure that the general monster stats increases exponentially with the wave number — the base of the exponent is close enough to 1 for it to be a long, slow exponential curve, but it’s exponential enough to eventually overwhelm any non-exponential strategy.

My current strategy is powered by orange/white combination gems. The power of orange is mana-leeching: every time an orange gem damages an enemy, it gives you a fixed amount of mana, which increases as you upgrade the gem. I had more or less given up on orange gems early on as wasteful — they’re the least damaging gem type, and they never seemed to make their own cost back at the lower levels. But once I had both orange and white available everywhere, I realized there’s a neat little feedback loop to be exploited. Leveling up your mana pool makes the orange/white gems more effective, which levels up your mana pool faster. Eventually you want to make some gems that specialize in damage rather than leeching, but by that point, you’ll have loads of mana to do it with. The exponential enemies do overwhelm eventually, but I can hold them off for well over a hundred waves this way.

In fact, this is the point where I had enough of a mana surplus that I started experimenting with the things I had earlier dismissed as wasteful, like gem bombs and enraging waves. And it turns out they can be quite effective, once you can afford them.

The big question is: Is this the final dominant strategy that will last me the rest of the game? Or will it fizzle out like the poison paths and force me to discover something new? And I don’t know the answer to that. There’s still an entire difficulty level I haven’t unlocked yet. Maybe when you last to wave 200, the bloodbound gems start being more effective than the poolbound ones.

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