Over the last few weeks, in the search of "things to mess around with whilst listening to podcasts" I've been paddling around in the world of online CCGs. Since CCGs seem to be an area which a fair amount of the LRR community are interested in to some degree, I thought I'd share my general impressions of what I've come across here, as a sort of not-at-all-comprehensive guide to stuff that's on the market, and also a place for general CCG discussion and/or suggestions, if that's something anyone wants to do.
I may add a bit more to this in the future, as there's a couple of other things on my radar, but for now, here we go:
I can't Believe It's Not Magic
First, a disclaimer: I don't like Magic: The Gathering very much. I'm aware that's a very much a minority opinion here, which I'm fine with (I have no issues with anyone else enjoying it, it's just not something I personally care for), but it does become relevant on this topic. Because nwhile the vast majority of CCGs follow the 'two people try to kill each other with summoned allies and one-shot spells/abilities' format, it turns-out there are quite a few digital CCGs out there that can more or less be called direct copies of Magic. I'm going to lump these MtG-clones in this one section, as I'm probably going to end-up being fairly brief.
First up is Hex, a game which has the dubious distinction of having been sued by Wizards of the Coast (settling out of court). This isn't terribly surprising since aside from a small difference in the mana system, Hex is identical to magic in its core mechanics. 5 colours of mana, same phases and priority set-up. The only difference is that instead of requiring mane of a specific colour to cast, cards instead check how many sources you have of that colour (something it refers to as your threshold). For example, if you've three white sources and one blue source, you could still play two two-mana spells that each require one blue source; the end-result seems to be that it's slightly more forgiving of multi-colour decks.
It also has different character classes, with minor differences in starting life totals and 'Hero Powers', but this is largely secondary.
In all other respects it can just be thought of as an MtG set designed for digital play (including a number of secondary/keyword mechanics that take advantage of this, such as effects that alter the position of certain cards within you deck for example). I will say that there has been a fair amount of effort put into it for something so unabashedly derivative. Most of the artwork is of a fairly good standard, and there seems to be a relatively single-player campaign (although one which it will not be possible to complete with the cards you get for free) and co-op multiplayer. But at the end of the day, it's still basically just MtG and from what I've heard it's not really all that much more free-to-play than MtGO so I'm not sure if it's really worth it personally. Still, it seems to have a reasonable player-base so maybe it's got more going for it, but I'm not really the person to judge.
The other MtG-clone I spent any time at all with was Spellweavers, which has so far managed to avoid to the wrath of Hasbro's legal division. It's differences from MtG are a little more numerous. For a start, it has 6 colours of mana instead of 5 and the way they're played for mana is a little different. As with Hex, cards check for you sources of mana, rather than amount. Unlike Hex, your mana producing cards (called 'shrines' here) don't raise both: when you play your one-per-turn, you must choose to either raise your level of a specific colour, or play it to increase your level of available mana and draw a card (the latter mechanic being, I suspect, an attempt to mitigate mana-screw/flooding).
The other difference is in the combat phase, as when you attack you can choose to have each individual creature attack either you opponent or one of your opponent's creatures (creature cards all have a 'speed' stat in addition the their combat stats, and can only attack or block creatures of equal or lower speed). Blocks are then assigned, although a creature that is being attacked cannot be assigned to block anything else.
Also, there are hero powers.
So, mechanically it does at least make some effort to distinguish itself from MtG. In terms of other areas however, it lacks, say, Hex's polish. The experience being largely a case of two perfunctory tutorial AI matches, then you pick one of the starter decks, then it just shoves you off to play other people. I didn't play it for long enough to get a feel for how it's free-to-play aspects feel, so I can't really comment there.
So, Hearthstone. The most popular online CCG in the world, at the moment (I think it's currently more successful for Blizzard than WoW). I'm not sure if I really need to go into that much detail about the rules, since odds are either everyone already knows or can fairly easily find-out.
It's one I've spent a fair bit of time with though, so I think I can probably give a fair bit of a an overview of its f2p experience.
Firstly, Hearthstone has a good UI. That may seem minor, but it's really not for this sort of game. It's also fairly simple, and, crucially, games tend to be quite fast regardless of whether you win or lose (especially compared to MtG and its imitators). Its also fairly accessible in general, giving new players access to a fair amount of cards early/free and enough from each of its classes that you can experiment. One thing I do remember from when I was first starting out with Hearthstone was my second game against a human, which became an intense fight for board control, trading minions back and forth until as we tried to eke out the game-winning advantage. It was a good game, and showcased what Hearthstone can be at its best. As of writing this, I've probably clocked a few hundred normal games of Hearthstone in total. I cannot remember more than five of them that played-out anything like this.
This is where the problems begin. For that 'at it's best' situation to happen, it requires that both players are playing similar types of decks with similar levels of card quality. The first point is a problem, because 'similar types' here means: not aggro, because aggro mostly just wants to hit the opponent without worrying about the board. Now take a quick guess which sort of deck is the easiest to construct if you're on a budget but still want to be effective. If you said 'aggro decks' well done. As to what's wrong with that, it's because facing an aggro deck is shunts the game in a more luck-based direction, because if you can't mulligan into your early game enough, to the point where you don't have a minion to play on turns 2-onwards, you are going to be losing that game unless you manage to draw into a card that can wipe your opponent's board (and not all classes even have viable cards for doing that).
Another thing not all classes have: viable options for decks that aren't aggro. For those that do however, most of those tend to be very expensive, comparatively speaking. Even against Aggro though, their victory is still often going to depend on drawing their 'answer' cards when they need them. In fact, most games of Hearthstone largely come down to whether or not one player has managed to draw the card that can 'solve' the current situation; if they do and their opponent doesn't, then that's probably the game right there.
This is really where Heartstone's simplicity starts to work against it. A lot of the time, there really isn't all that much decision-making involved; it'll typically come-down to if you've drawn the one card you can optimally play or not, and if you haven't (or if you have but you opponent has also drawn a card that will counter it on their turn) then you're probably screwed. A lot of games will effectively 'play themselves' once the first turn starts, with nary an interesting decision in sight, being largely dependant on the draws. This again shunts things in an even more random direction, which is further compounded by just how prevalent RNG effects are in the game, many of which are strong enough that they can effectively decide the course of a game depending on how they go. As a result, the normal constructed games of Hearthstone will just lose their shine pretty quickly.
One might think that The Arena, Hearthstone's draft mode, might compensate for this. Unfortunately, that mode only really has one viable deck type (unless you get ridiculously lucky on your card pool), which is an aggressive tempo deck. It also tends to very heavily favour certain classes over others (Mage tends to dominate Arena to such a degree that once you get past 4-5 wins, it's pretty much the only class you're going to see).
Tavern Brawl, the final mode, is more geared around sillier, weirder games, often with special rules and stipulations. While it's games do tend to be a bit more varied, they frequently end-up being even more RNG-heavy, depend on which Brawl is running that week, and isn't even available for 3 days of the week (on the EU servers, anyway. Asian servers have it for even less, I believe).
So yeah, honestly I can't recommend it. While it's certainly got space as a fairly light game with friends, its own CCG nature does work against it a bit in this regard, and the wider multi-player aspect is unlikely to be rewarding for any real length of time, at least if you're anything like me.
Shadow Era could probably be dismissed as being a Hearthstone imitator if it weren't for the fact that Shadow Era predates Blizzard's game by about three years, having been officially released in 2011 (the similarities in mechanics between the two can probably be put down to both being influenced by the now largely defunct WoW paper CCG). This means that Shadow Era has been around for 5 years, and is still going. That might not sound like much, but considering that a fair few CCGs released since it have folded by now, that does imply it's doing something right. In fact, it seems to have lasted well enough that they also released a physical version of the game (which should say something about how little its mechanics depend on it being electronic).
Whatever it is doing right, it's probably not the UI, which definitely feels five years old and made by a small studio. The game also considers an in-game global chat tab, one which I would strongly advise keeping closed.
Where the key thing lies is that it has a certain amount of depth to it. The key area this manifests itself in is the resource system. The economy of Shadow Era works like this: at the beginning of each turn, you may choose to 'sacrifice' one card in your hand, which is placed face-down in your resources pile, where it will probably remain for the rest of the game. The early game of Shadow Era, therefore, is one of trying to decide which of the cards in your hand you can afford to never see again. Deciding at what rate to keep sacrificing cards is also something to consider, as is when to pause or stop so as not to cede card advantage. It's an interesting puzzle, and one that doesn't seem to allow for a clear answer. In fact, one of odd things I've noticed looking at higher level games (which the game makes it quite easy to spectate) is that even at the highest levels, it's quite common to see decks that contain more cards than the minimum required number – sometimes considerably more cards. It suggests that there's a fair amount of varience present, which you would hope fore given that the cards are divided into two different 'factions' (humand and shadows) and then further split into seven classes (four of which are unique to one faction or other, three of which are shared).
It certainly seems to have avoided falling quite into the level of tedium Hearthstone drops into, but then that may not be the highest bar to clear. While it's higher amount of card types -- plus an actual discard pile that can be interacted with by certain cards/effects -- give it considerably more depth than Hearthstone, it's not all that remarkable in this regard when compared to CCGs in general.
On the downside, the most obvious potential issue relates to a quirk of how damage works. Specifically, the damage of the attacker is applied first, then that of the defender, assuming the defender is still alive. That last point is crucial, because it means having a creature (or 'ally' as the game calls them) out on the board is going to drastically limit what sort of allies the other play can put out without expecting them to immediately die. While the game does contain enough comeback mechanics (and cards which function as such), most deck-building advice I've seen still says “build with the idea that you're going second, because if you don't you'll lose when you are”, which indicates that going first is still a pretty sizeable advantage. Something which I'm not sure the fact that Shadow Era lacks muligans may not do much to help with.
The other main problem is that Shadow Era isn't really free-to-play. I don't mean in the sense of needing to buy boosters to win, I mean that in order to get a feel for the two factions and the different classes you will need to buy the premade decks of those. Which can cost between US$10-US$20 depending on how thoroughly you want to look into that. While it's possible to earn enough premium currency to buy these, it's not really feasible to do so with the one starter deck you pick at the beginning (funnily enough, when it comes to expanding your collection, general wisdom seems to be that getting premium decks than exchanging duplicate copies of the cards in them that you already have for the non-premium currency which is used to acquire specific cards may actually be the better tactic than buying boosters).
Is it actually worth that though? Honestly, I'm not sure. It's a better use of money than resorting to the gambling of buying random booster packs (something which I am extremely reluctant to do at the best of times), but that by itself isn't enough to justify it over just buying a game that doesn't still use a free-to-play economy on top of that, especially when there are also other, cheaper options out there.
Infinity Wars: Reborn
Currently in open beta, Infinity Wars: Reborn is, as the name might suggest, the second incarnation of Infinity Wars. The previous version having apparently largely collapsed, then was bought-out and rebooted, complete with what I think is a new theme (an almost endearingly kitschy mess of clashing alternate realities, featuring giant robots, cyborg zombies, gun-wielding angels, techno-witches and more nonsense besides). While a lot of the terms will likely seem familiar to anyone who's played MtG (Haste, Vigilance, and Flying are all keywords that function in ways you'd expect, for example) the game has a couple of differences from the rest of the crowd. While it still follows the 'kill the other player' approach, the theme is one of armies assaulting each other from their fortresses rather than the usual glorified pokémon battle. Victory is achieved either by reducing the health of the enemy fortress to zero or reducing the morale of the opponents army to zero. This latter is primarily achieved by killing enemy troops, all of which reduce the morale of their army by an amount printed on the card when killed. The other difference, taking advantage of its online nature, is that all card art is animated.
Oh, and there is one other unusual feature about it: turns in Infinity Wars are simultaneous. In the first phase, you play your cards, assign troops to assault the opponent's fortress, defend your fortress, or just hang back in your support zone, and cast your spells, choosing their targets. While you're doing this, your opponent is doing the same, but you won't see what they've done until both of you are finished and the turn moves into its second phase, wherein everything resolves. First where the troops have been played/moved, then all the spells that were cast resolve, then damage is dealt. Fun fact: many spells can only effect troops that are assigned to specific places, meaning that effectively using them frequently requires targeting troops that aren't in those zones yet, but which you're reasonably sure your opponent will be moving into those zones. Unless they know that, and play around that. But of course, playing around that will usually mean taking valuable troops out of targetable zones – which can be quite significant if that means said troops aren't defending the fortress anymore.
Incidentally, this resolution phase doesn't finish until every effect has been resolved. Which means draws aren't all that uncommon a sight in Infinity Wars, as it's possible for both players to defeat each other on the same turn.
On the downsides, it is still in open beta, which means there are some bugs in the system, including a few that can kick you out of matches (they don't seem to be common, but they do sometimes happen). The general UI also leaves something to be desired, most specifically that you can't get a good look at what an individual card does (whether it's on the battlefield or in your hand) without clicking on it for a more detailed view.
Still, I may be sticking with this one for a bit longer, if only to get a bit more of a feel for it. The fact that it has rotating set of pre-constructed decks for multi-player is a nice nod for free players too, although I would imagine once you hit the normal deck-building aspects getting 'priced-out' becomes a real phenomenon again (and, as per usual for CCGs, the main way to acquire cards is through the usual bollocks of randomised booster packs).
Android: Netrunner, Fantasy Flight's revamp of Richard “Basically Invented CCGs” Garfield's other trading card game, has been getting a fair amount of buzz in geek circles over the last few years. This is not without good reason, the fact is Netrunner, with its asymmetric games of hackers taking on corporations, and game-play focussed around bluffing and risk-management immediately stands-out from the rest of the herd. More than that, it manages to be thematic in a way most CCGs of the more conventional model never reach. While a lot of them have backstories and settings that inform card art and design, every game of Android: Netrunner is almost a story in its own right. Runners call on shady black-market dealers to supply them with new illicit pieces of software, then crush cans of energy drinks to keep them mentally alert for their next hacking attempt. Coroporations launch obnoxious ad campaigns for secondary products, to finance their advancement of their actual goals, deploying ever more elaborate security software to try and keep the hackers from spilling their trade secrets all over the net, always having to weigh-up whether it would be better to just take the bad publicity and just put out a hit on the trouble-makers and get it over with.
I don't play Netrunner, since, while itss sales model is still significantly better than gambling money on random boosters, it's a little outside my price plus no one in my vicinity plays it. Nonetheless I can definitely feel its appeal, and understand why a lot of its players tend to rave about it. It is however quite rules-heavy, and the learning curve is fairly steep, both of which can be turn-offs for a lot of people.
Now why am I bringing this up, you ask? After all, Netrunner does not have an official online version, nor does it seem that Fantasy Flight have any real plans to make one.
This is true, however, it does have a free fan-made online version in the form of Jinteki.net. Not free-to-play, free. As in: you are free to build and play decks made from the card pool of 'every android netrunner card currently printed' from the get-go.
UI-wise, as a fan-made browser service it's a little rough-around-the-edges. This is especially true of the deck-building interface, which – unless you have every card memorised – you'll need to keep a card database (either the site's own, or one of the few others floating around the web) open in another tab to refer back to. This doesn't do wonders for its accessibility, and it should be noted that Netrunner is already not the most accessible of games to begin with. However, if you're interested in giving Netrunner a shot and don't have access to many other players (or just cards) on your own, it's probably worth giving this a try.
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