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by Adam Cadre profile

Alternate History, Intrigue

Web Site

(based on 127 ratings)
10 reviews

About the Story

You are Primo Varicella, Palace Minister at the Palazzo del Piemonte. This title is unlikely to impress anyone. Piedmont is the laughingstock of the Carolingian League, and the Palace Ministry has devolved into little more than a glorified butlership: your duties include organizing banquets, overseeing the servants, and greeting visitors. It is safe to assume that the War Minister and the Coffers Minister lose little sleep over your presence in the King's Cabinet.

But Charles Martel was a Palace Minister, and he turned back the Moors at Tours lo these many years ago. His son Pepin was a Palace Minister, and he became King of the Franks. It is not unprecedented for Palace Ministers to make something of themselves. One might even say it is tradition. All you need is an opportunity.

That opportunity has arrived.

King Charles was not an old king. Indeed, he had a good fifty years left in him. But an assassin's bullet or a well-placed icepick can steal fifty years in less time than it takes to say the words. And a sudden illness? An illness such as the one King Charles contracted two days ago? Perhaps not as quick, but just as effective. For if this letter you've just received is correct, just such a disease has claimed the life of the King. This leaves the principality in the hands of his son, Prince Charles. Prince Charles is five years old. Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than yourself.

Of course, you shall scarcely be alone in seeking the position. The King's Cabinet is not a small body. And your fellow ministers will no doubt try all sorts of unseemly tactics in their quest for the throne. Some will try bribery. Others will employ treachery. A few may even resort to brute force. But would Primo Varicella stoop to using one of these methods? Perish the thought! You're better than that. You shall employ all three.

It will be an uphill struggle, to say the least. Of those soon to be clamoring for the regency, you are among the lowest in rank. But you are not without a number of advantages. The drama to unfold will play out in the palace -- your palace. Time is also on your side: at present, only you and the Queen know of the King's demise. And you've known of his illness for a couple of days now, days in which you've hatched a flawless plan. There should be little to stand in the way of your ascent to power so long as you put your plan into action immediately.

Or at least as soon as this manicure is finished. One must have one's priorities.

Game Details


Winner, Best Game; Nominee, Best Writing; Nominee, Best Story; Nominee, Best Puzzles; Winner, Best NPCs; Nominee - Princess Charlotte, Best Individual NPC; Winner - Miss Sierra, Best Individual NPC; Winner - Primo Varicella, Best Individual PC; Nominee, Best Use of Medium - 1999 XYZZY Awards

10th Place - Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time (2011 edition)

7th Place - Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time (2015 edition)

46th Place - Interactive Fiction Top 50 of All Time (2019 edition)

Honorable Mention - The Top Five IF Games (Adventure Gamers, 2002)

Editorial Reviews

Baf's Guide

Twisted, bleak, and filled with dark humor, Varicella is perhaps the most disturbing work of IF ever written--but it's also one of the best. You're the Palace Minister in an Italian court, the king has just died, the prince isn't yet ready to take power, and you have to cement your hold on power by bumping off your fellow aspirants to the throne. The PC is a fascinating character, a cross between Machiavelli and an interior decorator, and while the various NPCs aren't quite as interesting--most of them run the gamut from very evil to very very evil--unraveling the various palace intrigues makes for plenty of nasty fun. Varicella is not, however, meant to be solved in one try; there are so many things to do in so little time that saved games are unlikely to be useful (though it's not a major drawback, since the game lasts less than 100 moves). The writing is top-notch, the puzzles are ingenious, and the game's world is vividly conveyed, but it's the ending, which forces the player to take another look at everything that's come before, that makes this an instant classic. Unedifying, to be sure, but brilliant.

-- Duncan Stevens

Adventure Gamers
The game ends after a set number of moves, and that number is small enough to demand numerous replays in order to fully understand what is going on in this palace.
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Gaming Enthusiast
Great writing, lots of dark humour, the opportunity to be really nasty and above all, the ending makes Varicella a great, unparalleled experience. Itís one of the best interactive fictions ever created, hands down.
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Jay Is Games
In Varicella, an ingenious piece of alternative history interactive fiction created by Adam Cadre, you have the pleasure of abandoning your usual scruples to play one of the most delightfully nasty antiheroes that I've come across: the eponymous Primo Varicella, Palace Minister at the Palazzo del Piemonte.
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Reviews From Trotting Krips

This game I thought would be that perfect, long game, but it's not - it has some definite flaws which, while they don't prevent it from being enjoyable, do prevent it from being a classic. If I-O is one of the most newbie friendly interactive fiction games I've ever encountered, this is probably about the least newbie friendly interactive fiction game I've ever come across.
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Varicella is a black comedy, with the accent on "black"--mayhem and self-aggrandizement are your character's primary objectives. It follows the lead of last year's "Little Blue Men" in making the PC amoral, driven by greed and unimpeded by sentimental things like compassion--but it addresses a factor that Little Blue Men did not, namely the problem of expecting the player to go along with the PC's objectives. All of the rivals you bump off, or arrange to have bumped off, are profoundly evil; most of them seem to enjoy abusing or exploiting those weaker than themselves. (It is arguable whether you, the PC, are just as evil, but certainly your enemies are unsavory folks.) The player can see Varicella as a sort of avenging force, therefore, even if there are no signs that Varicella actually feels that way or cares about the various evils perpetrated by his enemies except insofar as they affect him personally. It's a rationalization, but a useful one.
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Fineart Forum
Face It, Tiger, You Just Hit the Jackpot: Reading and Playing Cadre's Varicella
We consider a specific character, Princess Charlotte, in the 1999 interactive fiction work Varicella by Adam Cadre. To appreciate and solve this work, the interactor must both interpret the texts that result (as a literary reader does) and also operate the cybertextual machine of the program, acting as a game player and trying to understand the system of Varicella's simulated world. We offer a close reading focusing on Charlotte, examining the functions she performs in the potential narratives and in the game. Through this example, we find that in interactive fiction - and we believe in other new media forms with similar goals - works must succeed as literature and as game at once to be effective. We argue that a fruitful critical perspective must consider both of these aspects in a way that goes beyond simple dichotomies or hierarchies.
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Number of Reviews: 10
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Most Helpful Member Reviews

28 of 33 people found the following review helpful:
The game Photopia should have been..., January 8, 2024
by David Whyld (Derbyshire, United Kingdom)

Okay, confession time. I've never been a big fan of Adam Cadre's work and have spent the last few years wondering if he's heavily into bribing people to say nice things about his games because I could never see what the fuss was. Photopia left me cold; Lock & Key confused me so much I don't think I managed to do a single thing right; I gave up with Narcolepsy five minutes into it despite telling myself I'd at least give it a fair go before passing judgement. So when I was looking around for a game to play and chanced upon Varicella I wasn't, despite its reputation, really expecting much. I figured that at best it would be a well written mess that had been heralded as a masterpiece for reasons which I would never understand (which is pretty much my opinion of Photopia). So imagine my surprise when not only did it turn out to be very good, but also one of the best text adventures I've ever played.

What's it about?

The complicated goings-on at the Palazzo del Piedmonte where you, one Primo Varicella, are the Palace Minister. Despite the rather grand title, you wield little actual power and your duties generally include those of a glorified butler. But you're a schemer and eager to seize every opportunity that comes along to better yourself. And if this comes at the expense of others, well... too bad.

And now such an opportunity has presented itself. The King has just died and his son, Prince Charles, is five years old. Soon there's going to be a power struggle for the position of regent (who will officially rule the land in the Prince's stead but unofficially can do pretty much what he likes) and you intend to come out on top. Of course, that means dealing with your rivals as quickly as possible but you have few qualms about that sort of thing. "Dealing" in the case being a polite term for murder.

The introduction is good. Very good. Primo Varicella at once becomes a real and believable character, although it's easy to see why he's held in such poor esteem by everyone he meets in the game. He's a fussy little man, obsessed with manicures and interior design who considers himself the only genuinely sophisticated person at the palace. He's also quite happy to murder anyone who stands in his way, hardly a quality likely to endear him to other people. On top of that, he has an over-inflated opinion of himself and his own abilities, as demonstrated so well during the introduction:

Piedmont, it seems, will be requiring the services of a regent for the foreseeable future. And you can think of no better candidate than yourself.

There you have the introduction which does an excellent job of setting the scene.

Difficult game?

Oh yes. I've played some difficult games before but none that come close to Varicella in terms of sheer, downright impossibility*.

* Okay, maybe an exaggeration. After all, I've finished the game so I have firsthand knowledge that it's not impossible, but play it a few times and see how far you get. If you're like me, you'll spend your first four or five plays through the game not having a clue how to finish it.

My first time through the game I actually felt like I was making some pretty good progress. I wandered around the palace, chatted to people, discovered a few things, got a good feel for how I felt everything was likely to pan out - and then I got killed. Yep, soldiers stormed the palace, grabbed me and a moment later one of my rivals, clearly better at this sort of thing than I was, proceeded to shoot me in the head. Exit one fussy little man. Hitting UNDO didn't undo my problems unfortunately as the event with the soldiers and the subsequent untimely demise is on a timer and the program only allows one UNDO in a row. So all UNDO did for me was allow me to relive the moment of my death. Over and over again. Oh joy.

Undeterred, I restarted the game and tried to do better this time. I didn't succeed. Before long, I found myself replaying the final events of the previous game and getting steadily more annoyed at what I felt was an unfair and somewhat premature ending. I'd have probably quit then if not for the slight problem that Varicella was just so damn good that I couldn't bear to quit.

Part of its difficulty stems from the sheer shortness of the game. There is an incredible amount to do to reach an ending which doesn't involve one of your rivals killing you before you kill them and a lot of what needs to be accomplished to steer the game along the path you're after isn't at all straightforward or obvious. A lot, in fact, is the sort of thing you're unlikely to stumble across through sheer luck and instead needs to be plotted out very carefully over a period of many, many games. It's possible to make a few wrong moves here and there, waste a bit of time, but the shortness of the game and the available time you have to complete everything you need to do means that time-wasting just isn't an option. If anyone tells you they finished this game on their first play through they're either a) lying, b) lying, c) lying or d) relying on a walkthrough. Even knowing roughly the sequence of events that you need to go through in order to win, it's still far from easy to actually get there in one piece.

Saving your game regularly - the sort of thing anyone who has played more than a few text adventures knows to do instinctively - is less effective in Varicella due to the game's shortness. Several times after dying I reverted to a previous save only to find myself in another no-win situation because I hadn't performed a certain action by a certain time. In a lesser game this sort of thing would have driven me to distraction (and sent the game off to the recycle bin) but here it's almost forgivable considering the game's other strengths. Almost. When you've just died for the tenth time in a row because you missed something not particularly obvious right at the start of the game, it gets increasingly harder to keep feeling positive.

Persistence seems to be the best way to get anywhere. A couple of times I didn't even try to finish the game, I just explored different avenues that were open to me and if one avenue didn't seem to lead anywhere I restarted and tried something else. One entire game I sat by my surveillance equipment and watched everything I could through it, seeing what I could discover about my rivals that they might not want me to know. In the end, persistence does pay off in that you finally manage to put everything together but you might be forgiven for thinking that you're getting nowhere.

Any characters?

Lots, and very good they are, too. They're a pretty despicable bunch for the most part and at times I was reminded of films like Pulp Fiction where every character, no matter who he or she is, is a nasty piece of work. You might find it hard to sympathise with them - they are, after all, a bunch of back-stabbing, conniving, evil little hellions who would throttle an old woman for her last coin - but it's possible to relate to them all the same. They're all interesting characters with a fully fleshed out background and while none are as well detailed as Varicella himself, they nevertheless perform their duties admirably in giving the player some worthy adversaries to pit himself against.

Not that everyone is against you. With a little bribery, you can find one ally and some detective work and inspired questioning will get you another. Asking as many questions as you can of the characters is a good way to learn things but this is best done in a session when you're not planning to finish the game as the sequence of events that trigger after a set amount of time are likely are come around long before you've exhausted every conversation piece you can think of.

Charlotte is perhaps the only character in the game who doesn't fall into the despicable category, although she has more than a few despicable acts done to her. She spends the majority of the game locked up in the asylum atop one of the palace towers following a mental breakdown after her husband was shot on their wedding day. Several of your rivals regularly rape her (an option, fortunately, you're not able to pursue yourself).

Not a game for kids

There are several dark threads running through Varicella. Charlotte's rape is one of them. Spend enough time checking your surveillance equipment and you'll find an unpleasant scene (mercifully interrupted before its conclusion) with another of your rivals about to molest the young Prince Charles.

Now I started the game thinking that Primo Varicella himself was the lowest of the low due to his plotting to wipe out his enemies, but it quickly becomes apparent from playing through even a portion of the game that he's actually quite a lot less despicable than of his rivals. While more than happy to indulge in power-grabbing games and murder of people who haven't actually done anything to him, he's certainly more tolerable than his rivals. It's probably true to say that he's bad but not half as bad as anyone else.

The tale of the unsatisfying ending

You know on internet forums how when they're about to tell you something that you might not want to know they tend to put a row of dots or SPOILER SPACE with the letters one per line so there's no way anyone can glance at the spoilers without realising what they're looking at? Here we have a single row that says SPOILER so skip over the next few paragraphs if you haven't reached the end of the game yet and don't want it spoiling for you.

(Spoiler - click to show)

The ending was the game's weak point for me. Is there more than one ending? I'm not sure. I finished the game a couple of times and the ending I got was the same each time so I'm assuming it was the only one. If so, well... what a poor way to finish the game.

You win, defeat your adversaries, become regent for the land... and then the Prince grows up, turns into a real terror, stages an uprising, overthrows you and has you tortured to death. Hmmm....

While this certainly made a change from the usual run-of-the-mill game endings where you live happily after ever or find the big treasure chest or slay the evil dark lord and save the world, it's the kind of ending that makes me wonder what the whole point of the game was. Surely there must be a better reward for all that hard work than being tortured to death? Even the endings where I failed and got shot were more satisfying.

Of course, it's altogether possible that there are other endings that offer a more fulfilling conclusion to the game. But I finished it twice - once on my own (and slightly aided by the walkthrough) and once solely with the walkthrough - and both led me to the death-by-torture ending.

Better than Photopia?

Definitely. Now if people spoke about Varicella in the same kind of hero-worship tones that they do Photopia, I could understand where they were coming from. But whereas I finished Photopia and was left wondering just what the big fuss was, when I finished Varicella I immediately played it again several more times just to see what else I had missed. Recommended.

9 out of 10

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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
One of the deepest IFs ever, August 20, 2008
by Maze (Rome, Italy)

Although David Whyld's review almost says it all, I wanted to express my opinion on why this game is awesome, and what is the best way to play it (yes, you have to be prepared: preparation will lead to a deep gaming pleasure, while getting to Varicella unprepared might lead some people to total frustration).

The king is dead. Within your palace, all will happen, and you will have to plan your way to the throne. That is: get rid of all the opposition. Within 100 moves. You are a vile, treacherous man, and you will behave as such.

You have a very limited amount of moves before Varicella ends, and you have to plan everything with a huge amount of accuracy. Personally, I totally hate games with time/move limits. But this was not the case. Because this game is wonderful. And because I was prepared.
You gotta think of yourself as a time voyager. Varicella is simply the body that you will evilly posses in your journey. Thus: you have a mission, but you also have time-voyager curiosities.
Begin by satisfying the curiosity. Dedicate a number of games just to the discovery of what happens in the palace, and when. It will not be boring at all, because the world you'll get immersed into, is a deep and fascinating one. And in it, a lot of things change during those 100 moves.
After you know what's going on, and possibly when, you can get on the puzzles/treacherous-plannings. Start by solving a puzzle a game. Then, when you think you have solved everything, put them in the right sequence for the final rush.
Other than that, if you're not a lover of draw-the-map-yourself, you might also want to download the map.

If played the right way, this game will totally capture you. The palace is rich and detailed. Almost everything is interactive. And, while some NPCs are quite interesting, others are totally fascinating. Plus, for once we have an IF where you play a vile, immoral, and clever character: and this adds a lot more depth and fun ;-)

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Hints For Beating Chicken Pox, March 19, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)

For a game like Varicella, that's been reviewed to death and has even had academic papers written about some of the characters, I don't know that it's all that useful to write a review that lists my likes and dislikes. (For the record, I liked the structure, writing, and setting lots and lots. I disliked the implied extreme sexual violence; I'm not particularly squeamish but this game made me squirm.) I do think the game's handling of its female characters is under-explored. (Cadre strikes me as trying to have his cake and eat it, while insisting that he doesn't even like cake.) More on that later. I thought I'd focus the review on providing some hints for new players.

Spoiler-free Hints
1) The game has a reputation for being impossibly difficult. It's really not. I suspect it's the intended playstyle that throws people off and gives them this impression. The puzzles are clever, but logical and well clued.
2) There are multiple solutions to many (all?) of the game's major problems. Some of the solutions are exclusive to each other (e.g. by using one, you preclude another), but there are multiple ways to combine the multiple solutions to ultimately solve the game. (Though I'm pretty sure there's only one 'winning' ending.) This creates the initial impression that there are lots of red herrings in the game (and I suspect that there are still a few), but most of what seem like red herrings are actually used for other solutions to your problems.
3) You will die. Many times. This is, I think, what lends the game its aura of difficulty. But if you expect it, it's kind of freeing. You can experiment: spend a whole playthrough standing in or watching a room to see what happens there, try various methods of solving puzzles, feel free to do dangerous seeming things, etc. This playstyle is apparently known as 'accretive protagonist'; it's like the movie Groundhog Day, where each playthrough allows you the opportunity to learn something and over many runs, you can build up enough knowledge to complete a successful one. The protagonist hints in the introductory text that he has a master plan. You can view your task as the player is to discover what that plan is and put it into action.
4) The time restraint is somewhat tight, but there's some slop built in for mistakes. Since the solution to the game is mostly modular, you can focus your experimentation in one playthrough on trying to achieve a particular solution to one problem, then in the next on optimizing it. Then move on to another problem, etc.
5) There's a jpeg map that comes with the game. It's worth printing it out. The geography of the game is simple and logical (though with many rooms), but the map helps keep your directions straight.
6) There's a lot to discover about the setting of the game and the characters that isn't vital or even useful for the solution. It's worth it to spend a few playthroughs wandering around, examining things, and asking questions.

About the Women (heavy spoilers)
(Spoiler - click to show)I've read a few reviews that mention Cadre's use of Sierra as his mouthpiece. If asked the right questions, she'll discuss women's political and cultural status both in the Piedmont and in the geopolitical reality of Cadre's setting. She comes off as something of a freedom-fighter for women's equality. Then she takes Rico's money and wields a team of assassins to assist him in cementing his power (which may actually be the good ending in the game.) She's obviously based a trope: the femme fatale. And Sarah is the weeping, simpering, weak woman. And Charlotte is crazy. (Note that Sierra herself seems to despise these other female characters, or at best evinces no sympathy for them.) And what are their ultimate fates? Sarah is murdered by her own son (who only ever refers to her as 'bitch'), and Charlotte gets locked back up in her cell. These women aren't agents, they're caricatures intended to be manipulated by the player, then pushed back into the background. Maybe that's Cadre's point, but then you have to look at the rapes.

Sarah was raped by her stepfather (crudely revealed by Sierra), Charlotte has been raped by Rico and Louis, and Sierra herself has been raped by Modo. In other words all of the female characters in the game have been subject to repeated sexual violence. Sarah's and Sierra's rapes serve very little purpose to the story: perhaps Sarah's is used to justify or explain her temperament and maybe Sierra's is used to make Modo look more evil. Charlotte's and that of Prince Charles are even more unsettling -- they're used to advance Varicella's agenda. You wouldn't be able to solve the game without those rapes. And maybe Cadre is trying to implicate the player or make a statement about agency or something. But it's a cold, disturbing, alien thing.

I'd give this game 5-stars for its great imaginative setting, for its thoroughly complicated but fascinating plot, for its very strong writing, for its technical accomplishments and for its engaging play-style. But I found that the implied sexual violence jarred both with the tone of the narration, with my desire to sense more agency from NPCs (especially female ones), and with my tolerance for utterly depraved human monsters stalking the halls.

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