Friday, April 25, 2014

Feature Friday #7 - Cards and Castles

Every Friday on our blog I’ll feature a game that’s doing something unique, innovative, and truly noteworthy. This isn’t just an app review; it’s an analytical look at a fresh game from the perspective of someone within the game industry. ~~~ One of the most interesting things that mobile has done is increase the cross-pollination of gaming genres. Some of the most popular titles on the platform have combined aspects of well-known games and turned them into something new and unique, not to mention highly profitable. Clash of Clans would be a perfectly average city-builder game if not for the multiplayer and attacking elements; Puzzles and Dragons leverages a Pokemon-style collectathon with a match-3 component replacing trainer battles; even Infinity Blade, one of mobile’s earliest mega-hits, combines an arcade-style fighting mechanic with an adventure RPG story. Mobile has avoided a single-genre takeover like we saw in Mario’s early days on Nintendo, because there have already been several different paradigm shifts, each one more massive than the last. This week I’ve been playing Cards and Castles, a collectable action card game that perfectly crosses genres, and wouldn’t be the same on any other platform. The first thing Cards and Castles does is crush the digital CCG aspect. I’ve played a number of collectable card games on various platforms, including the paper kind, and the biggest problem most of them has is valuing the cards properly. Cards and Castles gives you a generous starter deck and the ability to create seemingly unlimited additional decks from a decent sized pool of cards. You’re also provided enough Card Points (the game’s currency) to buy nearly two booster packs, and you earn points quickly enough to buy more after just a few matches. Even though you pick only one of the four factions (Crusaders, Pirates, Warlocks, and Vikings) to create your starter deck, you’re able to access and create multiple decks from each. The importance of this flexibility, and the attention to detail in Cards and Castles, can’t be overstated. This small tweak eliminates the buyer’s remorse of your initial uninformed decision, something that games too often take advantage of by either not letting you reverse your choice, or charging you handsomely to do so. Cards and Castles features a couple of my least favorite game mechanics, but another minor detail softened my view on their conformity to modern gaming trends. I can’t say I’ll stop playing a game entirely if it makes me create an account, but when it’s the first thing the game does, it rubs me the wrong way. Cards and Castles throws you into a winnable match - a tutorial with limited instructions (most of the game is pretty free form, with more info and help just a double-click away) - and only asks you to create a username, etc. when you’ve elected to start a battle against another real player. I emphasize the word “asks” because the game doesn’t require you to create an account - you’re welcome to play as a guest, even against other players.

If you choose not to create an account, your username is simply “you”, though you can’t be searched for by other users.

It’s also after electing to play a game online that Cards and Castles asks if you’d like Push Notifications to alert you when it’s your turn. This seems like a pretty minor thing, but the fact that these requests come after you’ve decided to keep playing, and not as soon as you step in the door, made a huge difference to me. I’ll take a hint from Cards and Castles and brush over the rules of gameplay, another thing it does very well. A much-criticized aspect of modern games is the depth and tedium of tutorials, especially in casual, social games. Cards and Castles is extremely accessible to anyone who’d played other CCG’s. Each card contains information for health, damage, movement, attack range, casting cost, and special abilities. The rules are really basic, but there are enough cards and the board is just big enough that a good amount of strategy prevails. Above all else, the game offers an unlimited number of Undo’s before you send play back to your opponent. This may seem like the game is making things too easy, but this proves extremely helpful given the lack of thorough instruction, not to mention my lack of dexterity on an iPhone screen. Where the game impresses me most is its ability to cross genres. It’s got all of the CCG aspects you’re looking for: booster packs, card rarity and special abilities, factions (card types); but it doesn’t stop there. The game plays more like a board game due to the non-unit buildings located or placed on the board. Each map features four identical towers which drastically shape the strategy of each match. The towers begin as neutral objects, but are captured (and recaptured) fairly easily and become short-ranged defense posts for your side. You can also place friendly buildings near your base, adding things like gold (mana), unit health, or damage to your cause. There are a lot of comparisons between Cards and Castles and one of my absolute favorite mobile games, Outwitters. No one would ever call Outwitters a CCG, but the games play virtually identically. The major difference, and point in the former’s favor, is that the CCG element adds not only a way to improve your team, or deck in this case, but also an exponentially greater pool of characters (cards) to choose from. I can’t speak to the game’s longterm depth as I’ve only been playing it this week, but through several days I’m still encountering new cards.
One Man Left’s Outwitters

Another major difference from Outwitters is that Cards and Castles has an offline AI opponent. Granted, this option doesn’t award you card points, so it’s essentially just practice and deck testing, but if that’s all you’re looking to do it eliminates the need to find and wait for an opponent. As for the competitive gameplay, you’re awarded points each time you finish your turn and send the proverbial ball back in your opponent’s court. With an unlimited (or at least very high) number of games you can play simultaneously, you’re able to rack up points fairly quickly, but the game also weights your first move at a fraction of your subsequent turns, so you can’t spam the system to rack up points - quite clever. My biggest complaint is that you can’t block specific users or turn down fights, and that should say something. This is a really minor problem, but I’ve played several matches against the same opponent and have no way to stop him or her from challenging me ad infinitum. My initial concern was the overall depth of the game, particularly over a longer period of time. Cards and Castles features 87 different cards, so it should last a while, but I’ve encountered another potential problem. Within a dozen or so games I’ve discovered a vast difference in quality of cards. I haven’t played long enough to determine if these massively powerful cards are simply luck of the draw, or only available in the paid sets. The latter would be quite disturbing, introducing an unfavorable pay-to-win element to an otherwise nearly flawless game, so I’m withholding strong judgement for now, hoping that strategy will prevail. ~~~ Cards and Castles was developed by Thousand Eye, and is available for Free on both iOS and Android. For a free-to-play CCG it’s extremely conservative about pushing IAPs (I’m hoping not so much that the game can’t sustain itself) and contains no ads whatsoever. There are IAPs for better booster packs and specialized sets, but it’s not conclusively a pay-to-win kind of deal, and I haven’t been severely outgunned in most of my matches so far, only outplayed. If either the turn-based strategy or CCG elements interest you, this game’s worth a look. If you do catch yourself playing and want a challenge (...or an easy victory), go ahead and add me: jdombro. Josh Dombro Community Manager

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