Monday, August 4, 2014

Keeping It Simple: Digital Card Games



As I just blogged about, I am getting increasingly fatigued by modern gaming.  Everything is "hurry, hurry, hurry!"  Or, if not that, it is often about "second life" experiences.  That is, it is about deep experiences where the player can invest hundreds and hundreds of hours immersing himself in a virtual world almost as tangible as his material reality (games like Skyrim and Eve Online, come to mind).  Now, I am a fan of such experiences - in fact, I think such games are what is best about modern gaming - but it can get all so tiring after awhile.  Sometimes I just want to be able to sit down and quickly and easily invest myself into a game.  You know, sort of like with a board game where you read the rules, set up the board, and off you go!  No muss, no fuss.

Usually Chess is my go-to game in this regard.  Despite its 21st Century online trappings, it remains first and foremost a classical board game in style and temperament.  Indeed, it's these very same hoary characteristics that have proven so irresistible to me over the years.  But as I suffer from "poor little rich girl" syndrome (but I suppose it would be with a 'guy' in there instead!) I can't help but to occasionally turn my back on this pearl and cast about for something new and different, something that not only has the endless stratagems of Chess, but also the inviting "pull up a chair and join in" gameplay as well.

And that is how I found myself in the world of digital card games.

Of course, I have heard of the grandmaster of such games - I speak of the world famous Magic: the Gathering - but I have never actually tried it.  Much like I was largely disinterested in the Dungeons and Dragons craze of the 1980s, I was never interested in the collectible card craze of the 1990s.  That is, until now.

It would seem that the collectible - or is it 'tradable'? - card game craze has spread to PC gaming with all the virulence of a sub-Saharan Ebola breakout.  I guess this is understandable as digital card games (DCGs), like their CCG/TCG paper counterparts, are designed to get the player in a collecting mood, hence it is perfect for an online translation with built-in "micro-transactions."  For that reason alone there are now more DCGs than I can keep track of!  I have to confess: after trying a bunch of them, I am now glad that this is a growing trend.  A lot of these DCGs can be a lot of fun in a very Chess-like "easy to play, hard to master" kind of way.

With that in mind, I'd thought I would provide a quick synopsis of those DCGs I have tried and why you might want to as well.  Just bear in mind that I really haven't had a chance to try any of these games too deeply yet, so I might be overlooking some great features, or even missing some flaws.  The following isn't meant to be a review, just an overview of what I have discovered so far.

1) Scrolls by Majong



As soon as I saw this DCG's Chess-like battlefield, I knew I had to be an early adopter - something very unusual for me, especially when this game is still only in a v.1XX stage of development!  But seeing how great it looked even at this early stage of development, not to mention having the legendary Minecraft dev studio Mojang behind it, I concluded this was a risk I was willing to take.

And I have not regretted that decision as Scrolls really does feel like Chess in a DCG world.  Gameplay is simple: use your deck of cards (or "scrolls" in this game's terminology), currently divided into four armies - Growth, Order, Energy, and Decay - to call units onto the battlefield or to cast all sorts of spells, something only limited by the amount of resources you currently have available (resources are gained by sacrificing cards from your active hand).  Once on the battlefield, your units attack after a specific countdown period ends (which, of course, can be influenced by the appropriate spell), eventually rushing across the board to hack away at anything in front of them, including the enemy's five idols that lay at the end of the board.  Of course, your opponent is going to be doing everything he can to stop you from hacking away at his idols' fragile 10 hit points, including placing combat units and other obstacles in your path, to casting spells and other dirty tricks.  Play continues in this fashion until one side loses three idols, signaling the end of the game.  And that is pretty much all there is to this game!


But as with Chess, the simplistic gameplay hides a deep vein of strategy and tactics.  Just putting together a deck that properly balances units, resources and spells is quite a game unto itself.  Take that challenge, and add in the Chess-like battle board with its idols, lanes of attack, and units that can slide from attack lane to attack lane, and you have a lot on your plate to manage.  And let me tell you: it all is a lot of fun.  Oh, did I mention the crafting, as well?  Yup, you can convert your duplicate cards into something better if you wish.  So add that in there as well.

Of all the DCGs I have tried so far, Scrolls has the best art of the bunch.  I know that doesn't sound like too much, but in a game genre where the cards are the primary focal point, the card's artwork is essential to getting the player immersed in the game's setting.  Scrolls really knocked one out of the park here with all the art being really evocative of the fantasy world it seeks to create, one I hope we get to further explore with some sort of campaign.



Speaking about campaigns, there isn't one yet, but there are a bunch of "Challenges" where you can play against the AI for loot.  And, of course, you can spar against the three levels of AI at any time, too.  So there is sufficient gameplay for the loner who might not want to go online and compete against real people just yet.

The music in this game is also quite good, too.  While it currently is limited, what is in the game also goes a long way to create an appropriate medieval atmosphere.

Another important point to mention: Scrolls, unlike the following DCGs, is NOT free-to-play, but requires an upfront purchase.  This is something that I think might actually further its popularity as there is a degree of hostility to micro-transactions in the gaming world.  So, once you buy the game, all the scrolls (cards) are yours to unlock!

It might still be in a very early stage of development, but I hope Scrolls makes it to a proper v1.0 because I think there is a lot of promise in this package already.  The only downside to speak of is the small player base (about 1000 people online per 24 hour period).  I suspect this will change once the game gets further along and closer to release.

2) Card Hunter by Blu Manchu



As Scrolls saw fit to step outside of traditional DCG design with its Chess-like board, Card Hunter has done the same by a) wrapping the experience in a very nostalgic Dungeons & Dragons wrapper, and b) making the player's cards into pieces of equipment for your questing party.  This last point needs some explaining because it is so unique.

Unlike most other DCGs where the cards are the actual playing pieces, in Card Hunter the cards represent the abilities that are integral to the equipment used by your party of card hunting adventurers.  For example, in the following picture, you can see that my Elf warrior can equip a level 3 suit of "plain old armor" that comes with three types of armor cards that can be used to turn aside attacks:


It is this very clever use of incorporating cards that really sets Card Hunter apart from other DCGs.  That, and the traditional RPGs elements of leveling up via XP, and collecting loot from fallen foes.

But there is also the nature of the gameplay itself.  Really, Card Hunter is less a card game than it is a traditional turn-based game of tactics.  Unlike your traditional card game where cards are placed this way and that on a flat surface, in Card Hunter the player is presented with something more closely resembling a match of D&D where figurines are used:


As you can see above (with my party heading into an ambush!), it really is a charming presentation.  Also a well-thought out one as such things as line of sight, difficult terrain, other other aspects are displayed on the game board.  Really, at times Card Hunter feels more like a tabletop wargame than it does a card game, especially seeing how your cards are just extensions of your gear.  Gameplay even reinforces this notion as its tactical, "fire and movement" nature feels like anything but your typical game of cards (which makes me wonder why we haven't seen a WWII card game yet!).  These little battles are actually quite challenging as the AI puts up a really good fight.  I also love how the battles are linked together in a narrative framework along the lines of a proper D&D module:


All in all, Card Hunter is a wonderfully inventive package for the DCG enthusiast.  Of all the DCGs I tried, I also think it is the most friendliest to those seeking an expansive single player experience as in addition to the MP battles as there are plenty of interesting SP quests to go on.  My only possible concern is that while Card Hunter is F2P, it can feel a bit pushy at times when it comes to getting you to open your wallet.  While you can earn in-game currency from selling loot, this only seems to net you a few coins per adventure - something you'll burn through with all the equipment shops in this game!  This means that you will probably have to buy more than a little "pizza", this game's premium currency, if you want to buy some decent gear in an expeditious manner.  But I think what concerns me more is the fact that this game's "Basic Edition", which unlocks 11 Treasure Hunt adventures,  9 collectible figurines, 100 pizza slices and 1 month of premium club membership (which nets you extra loot), costs a pricey $25.  And if you want the Attack of the Artifacts expansion that includes a similar line-up of goodies, that is another $15.  All together that is $40, something that leaves the browser-based DCG (yes, CH is browser-based) genre behind and begins to approach the realm of a Pay-to-Play game.  To be fair, I actually think I could see myself eventually springing for this package because Card Hunter is that good, but it still can lead to a bit of a price tag shock as far as I am concerned.

3) Duel of Champions by Ubisoft


When playing Duel of Champions, the player definitely get the impression that some suit at Ubisoft was green with envy over the success of Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering and demanded:  "What about our beloved fantasy franchise, Heroes of Might and Magic?!?  Doesn't it deserve a DCG of its own?!?"  Good question.  And somebody at Ubisoft delivered a good answer with Duel of Champions.

Of all the DCGs I have written about so far, Duel of Champions seems the closest to what I imagine a traditional CCG is in that here the cards of your deck are the only stars of the show.  No game boards, no RPG elements (well, there is a leveling system, of course), just deck building and dueling.  Fortunately, Duel of Champions makes this as interesting as possible.


In some ways, Duel of Champions is similar to Scrolls.  Here, the name of the game is to whittle away the 20 hit points of the opposing champion who lies at the far end of the board, much like the opposing idols in Scrolls.  And while there are no actual pieces as in Scrolls, the player's unit cards behave in much the same way as the pieces in Scrolls in how they unleash attacks on opposing units, and can even slide from row to row in order to seek a less obstructed path to the enemy champion.  Likewise, there are a variety of spells that you can cast to buff/debuff units on the field.

But where Duel of Champions differs from Scrolls, and just about every other DCG I've tried, is how this basic gameplay formula is given tremendous depth due to a slathering of other elements.  For example, there are three different resources players need to manage in DoC - Might, Magic, and Destiny - and all are needed to make use of the different types of units/spells.  Then, in addition to the actual unit and spell cards, you also have other types of cards to play, such as "Buildings" that provide location-specific benefits to units, or even "Event" cards that not only provide benefits to both players, but also manage to add a sense of a larger world to the game:



There are also Fortune cards to consider, cards that can fundamentally change the rules of the game.  Finally, there are even "Ongoing Spell" cards last from turn to turn until disrupted by a counter-spell.  Here is one of my favorites:  Poisonous Bulbs:



Now you know why the game board has so many different slots for the different types of cards!  Add in the fact that there are SEVEN different armies that you can currently collect, and the player soon realizes that there is almost an infinite number of possible strategies/combinations that he will encounter while playing this game.  This, I have since learned, is called the "meta-game".  When it comes to Duel of Champions, the meta-game is as robust as they come, which explains why it is currently the most internationally popular DCG out there amongst dedicated CCG/TCG aficionados.

In addition to the requisite multiplayer battles, DoC features a decent SP campaign system where the player can fight against the AI in a linked series of thematic battles spread across multiple campaigns.  Not only do these provide some much needed practice for the player to come to grips with the tremendous variety in this game, but it also will unlock some faction decks, as well as providing sizable gold rewards that the player can use to purchase more decks.  In general, I have found DoC to be a very generous game when it comes to providing the player with gold for new cards.  Not only can the player earn gold by playing in MP and SP games, but there are even daily rewards that provide increasing amounts of gold just for logging in on consecutive days!

So, what's not to like? Well, as with all DCGs, beware the ferocious community!  Be prepared to lose a lot, perhaps even more so than in other DCGs because of this game's deep mechanics, and the fact that Ubisoft has done a great job of organizing regular tournaments for prizes, something that has fostered the creation of a very competitive and competent community.

 Sadly, players must also beware another issue with DoC:  the many gold farmers who are plaguing this game.  DoC is an internationally popular game - and gamers know what that means:  fanatical players who game the system to earn in-game currency as fast as possible.  I suspect there is a lot of this going on in DoC because the vast majority of games I have played in DoC were against people with some random handle along the lines of "Johnny12345", something that is usually a dead giveaway for a person with multiple gold farming accounts.  More to the point, the majority of these players also immediately took to the chat channel and demanded that I play as fast as possible so they could get their bag of gold and be on their way to the next match (apparently the 2 minute game timer is too long for them), or they outright ask if I could throw the match so they can unlock a deck / get some gold!  Not good.  It is so bad that I really wish Ubisoft would include a way to turn off the chat function because these deck/gold farmers are really hampering my enjoyment of the game.  You've been warned.

Be that as it may, Duel of Champions is a very impressive F2P DCG, one I find myself coming back to time and again in a (vain) effort to comes to grip with the game's mechanics and win a few games.

Hearthstone by Blizzard Entertainment


I have to confess: when I heard that even Blizzard, developers of the ultra-popular Starcraft and World of Warcraft games, were getting in on the DCG craze, I sort of rolled my eyes.  Blizzard might be the kings of RTS and the MMORPG, but what did they know about DCGs?   Wasn't this just a shameless attempt to cash in on their iconic fantasy universe yet again, but in a different gaming genre?

As Hearthstone has since reminded me, there is a reason why Blizzard is considered to be the Cadillac brand of game developers.  Not only is this an enormously talented studio, but it is also a studio that never releases anything until they are 100% sure it is perfect as can be (I'll conveniently look the other way on that whole Diablo III auction house fiasco as it was a rare slip....).  Hearthstone in living proof of this.

Remember how at the start of this game article (so long ago) I said I started exploring the world of DCGs because I was looking for that good "easy to learn, hard to master" board game feeling?  Well, that is exactly what Hearthstone has in spades.  Indeed, even the opening moments of the game reinforce this notion by showing you what appears to be a medieval-looking game box, one accompanied by an inviting host who starts the game with something along the lines of "a busy night, but there is always room for another!"  Even the appearance of the actual game seems carefully designed to further this notion: it is little more a compact game board - complete with a fold line! - of the sort you would expect questing rogues would take with them as a diversion for those moments when they were not clearing out a nasty dungeon:  


The game design itself is pure genius.  Blizzard clearly took a look at the state of DCGs (and, no doubt, their cardboard cousins) and distilled those games down to their gameplay essence.  The result is that unlike games such as Duel of Champions where the formula was to add as much depth as possible via all sorts of  gameplay chrome, Blizzard decided to follow Chess' example and stick with a formula that is built upon an "easy to learn" base, but allows for deep gameplay via all the possible combinations inherent in a randomly drawn card game.  Like with Chess, what results is a fantastically addictive game that initially entices the player with its elegant and fun gameplay, but eventually ensnares them with the limitless strategic possibilities.

The gameplay itself is similar to Duel of Champions: the players choose one of nine possible heroes and face off across a board where the name of the game is to, again, whittle away at the opposing heroes hit points (thirty, this time).  Units and spells are called into battle via the games single resource, mana, that accumulates in a straightforward manner of one crystal per turn.  Simple.  From there gameplay continues in the fashion of the other DCGs in that cards are played to call units and spells into battle, but unlike DoC's decks that can contain over 200 cards(!), players are limited to choosing only 30 at a time - again, another nice simplification that keeps thing manageable.  Units operate in similar fashion to DoC in that some block enemy attacks (but not physically as in DoC where one card needs to be in front of another to block it; in Hearthstone a unit needs the "Taunt" attribute to actually stop an attack, otherwise the player can just ignore it and go for the enemy hero - an interesting twist), others can "charge" and attack immediately, and spells are popping everywhere to the benefit and detriment of units.  The nine heroes themselves also come with unique special abilities - such as the Warlock's ability to harm himself for -2 HP in exchange for drawing a new card - something can that be decisive over the course of a game.  Again, nothing radical here, rather a general simplification to the gameplay found in other DCGs.  But that is what makes it so addictive as it serves to make everything more comprehensible, especially for players new to the genre, not to mention serving to keep the matches nice and short.  This is the ongoing theme of Hearthstone:  keep it simple, keep it fun.

Even the cards are nicely simplified:



None of that "+/-  divide by zero and add the square root to all cards of a certain shade of gray" complexity that you would see in games such as DoC.

Blizzard even took steps to make the tournament system as painless as possible.  In Hearthstone, whenever you play a ranked game - and really, why shouldn't you? - you are automatically placed in a competitive ladder that resets each month.  In this way the casual player can compete over the course of a month without actually feeling the need to obligate himself to some lengthy process.  Nice!  And for those who prefer something a bit more intense, the player can even enter the "Arena" where he gets to pick from three randomly selected heroes, and then build a deck from randomly selected cards.  A series of games are then played until the player wins 12 games or loses 3.  Either way, prizes are awarded based on performance.  It is a wonderfully fun mode, albeit it does cost 150 in-game gold, or $1.99, to participate.

Not surprisingly, Blizzard polish can be seen everywhere.  While the other DCGs each have their own fair bit of polish, Blizzard has made sure this game absolutely shines.  The board itself is often nicely animated - I particularly like the griffin who will begin following your mouse pointer with his gaze if you annoy him enough! - with the cards themselves having some nice vocalizations.  The spells are also nicely realized with some cool special effects that serve to really bring them to life.



Blizzard even thoughtfully limited the in-game chat options to about eight or so generic utterances, such as "well played!" (much appreciated after the nonsense in Duel of Champions!).  Blizzard even helps the player recognize he is out of gameplay options during the course of a turn with a belly-laugh inducing "Job's done!" that was seemingly voiced by Joe Biden.

When it comes to a single player experience, Hearthstone is largely as limited as Scrolls.  Until recently, players were reduced to sparring against generic normal and hard AI, but with Blizzard's launch of their first expansion, Curse of Naxxramas, now players can match decks and wits against challenging thematic AI opponents and have a chance at winning unique cards in the process.  However, as with Card Hunters,  I do think the expansion's price tag of $19 is a bit steep even if you can unlock it with in-game gold, as well.

All in all, Hearthstone is a thoroughly enjoyable DCG, one that is smartly designed to be easy to pick up by inexperienced players, yet offer plenty of meta-game challenge for the more die-hard card game warriors (as seen by all the guides and videos popping up on the intertubes).  In many ways, Hearthstone reminds me of the slot machine of DCGs, a game designed to be so addictive that you can but help to pull that handle one more time.  In this regard, Blizzard has succeeded in their mission.  But they have also succeeded in another mission: to create a game seemingly designed to be perfect for playing on dark and chilly nights, preferably by the (virtual) hearth in an (virtual) inviting inn.  In this atmospheric regard, Blizzard has also succeeded wonderfully.

Other Mentions

There are two other games that I have tried, but due to time limitations, I haven't been able to give sufficient time for a detailed mention here.  So here is a quick summation:

Magic: 2014:  This, of course, is the official PC conversion of Wizards of the Coast's world famous CCG.  From what I experienced in the demo, the game reminded me of Duel of Champions, but with an interesting land-based resource system.  Unfortunately, before I could even finish the tutorial battles, Magic: 2015 was released.  So I stopped playing 2014 with the idea of switching to 2015.  However, seeing that Magic: 2015 costs $10, I haven't really had the urge to go back and try it as I am having a blast with these other free-to-play DCGs.  Still, I did like what I saw and hope to give this title the time it deserves.

Infinity Wars:  This is a DCG (or is it Digital TCG - I am so confused by this nomenclature!) that clearly is trying to innovate.  As you might have noticed, all the DCGs I have covered have had a fantasy theme to them (no doubt due to the success of the fantasy-themed Magic: The Gathering).  What a waste!  While I enjoy fantasy themes as much as the next guy, I think this is so shortsighted, especially in light of how the DCG template could be utilized in a wide range of thematic settings.  This is why Infinity Wars initially caught my attention - it was the only DCG that I have encountered that incorporates some sci-fi units (the game's story involve multiple dimensions clashing, hence the sci-fi meets fantasy mash-up).  But there are also other notable innovations to this game.  For example, unlike all the other DCGs that have static card art, IW features animated art that can be quite nice at times.  Also, IW has an interesting war theme going on where the player's cards are led by commanders (but the player is represented by a fortress that must be defended), and cards deploy to separate assault, defense, and support zones.  There is even a morale system that makes it possible to lose a game by suffering too many (card) casualties!  Currently in open beta, Infinity Wars is definitely a game I want to explore some more once it goes v1.0.

HEX:  I don't have much to say about this because it is currently in closed beta.  I do, however, know that this is a game that was launched through one of the biggest crowd-sourced funding campaigns of all time, so there is that.  Also, this game promises to marry the DCG with the MMO in a way never attempted before.  In short: HEX has already created quite the buzz, but card game aficionados await the final verdict.


Final Thoughts

So there you go, some digital card games to get you started.  Really, all the games I mentioned on this list are worthy of your time as they each have their charms.  As of right now I would  have to say that if forced to choose one,  Hearthstone would be my favorite - I really enjoy its quick matches and elegant gameplay, but that is just me.

If you do decide to give this beguiling gameplay genre a try, I urge you to go into it with the idea of just having fun.  Like Chess, this is a very competitive environment where experience pays a lot in dividends - not to mention giving you lots more cards and, hence, options.  So, again, be prepared to LOSE A LOT OF GAMES at first!  It is going to happen.  But be patient, play your best, and enjoy each match just for the ride.  And before you know it, you too will soon be winning your fair share of games.

Well, that is what they tell me, anyway....


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