Scrolls Preview

It’s going to be a good year for trading card games. Last month I took a look at CardHunter, which promises an interesting blend of fantasy RPG and CCG (and executed to perfection, no less), and Blizzard’s Hearthstone also might make an appearance later this year, to say nothing of the various Kickstarter-funded games like SolForge. This week though, I’ve been taking a look at Mojang’s offering, Scrolls.

Mojang, you’ll remember, is responsible for that all-consuming, monolithic game Minecraft. What’s perhaps most striking about Scrolls therefore is it seems to share absolutely nothing with its forebear. This is Mojang (if you’ll forgive the obvious pun), forging a new and exciting path into the unknown, and looks set to try and dethrone the mightiest of CCGs, Magic: The Gathering. As something of a Magic (and now CardHunter) aficionado, I approached the Scolls beta with high hopes, and not a little trepidation, that we might get to see another worthy collectible card game on Mac OS.

Scrolls has more in common with Magic than it does with CardHunter. That’s to be expected, where CardHunter offers a lot of new ideas on the framework of the traditional CCG, Scrolls seems to stick much closer to the traditional model, with none of its individual variations standing out from things we’ve seen before. In brief, you build a deck of cards (or use a pre-constructed one), each turn playing them from your hand, conjuring and enchanting creatures in an effort to destroy a set of your opponent’s “idols”.

Probably the most striking thing about Scrolls is that summoned creatures are fully realised and animated. In almost every other CCCG (computer collectible card game), using a card to summon a creature is represented with the card being placed in the playing field. With Scrolls, you get to see the creature itself. It feels less like a board game and more like a battle from a Final Fantasy game (albeit without the clunky menu system). Sadly, this doesn’t seem to carry across to enhancements and other modifiers, which are not realised as visually (although to be fair, many are perhaps too abstract for this).

The mechanics then. You start each battle with five scrolls (cards) in your hand, and no mana with which to cast them. Once per turn you draw a new scroll, and you can sacrifice a scroll from your hand in exchange for a mana limit increase (mana is replenished to your maximum each turn) or for two other scrolls. You can then cast scrolls (depending on their mana cost and your available mana) to summon creatures onto a hex-based playing field. Once on the field, creatures can move to adjacent hexes each turn, as well as attack your opponent.

Each creature has some basic stats (attack, health, movement and countdown), and an area of attack (typically this is a straight line towards your opponent’s idol). Countdown is perhaps the most original mechanic in the game. Rather than attacking each turn, the creature’s countdown will decrease by one point. When it hits zero, the creature will attack that turn (after which the countdown is reset again). When the creature attacks, it will attack the first creature in its path, or if there are no creatures blocking it, your opponent’s idol. Crucially, the attacking unit doesn’t take damage during an attack. The game is over when a player loses three idols, and all damage persists between turns.

Everything else in the game is about manipulating these mechanics. So there are creatures that don’t attack but instead heal other creatures. There are creatures that don’t move to attack, but affect specific areas of the field. There are enchantments that buff creatures, and there are spells that do everything from direct damage to target creatures, to setting the countdown of all creatures to 0.

The sacrifice mechanic neatly does away with two problems faced by other CCGs, namely getting mana screwed (where you can be in a position where you are just unable to use any of your cards due to not having adequate mana cards) and bad card draw (getting a bad selection of cards due to bad luck). It’s rare that a round in Scrolls will involve both sides passing without taking any action. Indeed, as with CardHunter, the game feels very polished, with solid, well thought-out mechanics. It’s certainly a “purer” game than CardHunter, and as such will probably appeal to fans of Magic and its brethren, rather than converting people who are indifferent to the genre. I’m also not convinced yet that positioning really matters as much as perhaps it should; though does seem to mean that a lot of attacks get “wasted” on empty rows if the creatures are unable to move (although as others have pointed out, this may very much depend on the specifics of the deck you use).

The game has a few modes available, both ranked and unranked one-on-one multiplayer, as well as quick matches and “trials” against the AI with different conditions. Even at this point in time, there seem to be a lot of people playing. There’s also a greyed out button for “tournaments” signifying things to come. The deck builder is adequate for the job, but more experienced players will probably find it lacking if it doesn’t receive more attention at some point, as finding specific cards and doing any sort of in-depth analysis is not easy in its current state.

Some criticism has been levelled of the business model; the game has an entry cost of $20 (to get access during the beta period; supposedly this price will increase on launch), and there’s an in-game store where you can spend in-game gold and real-world cash to bulk up your card collection. That said, the reality (at least at this moment in time) is not so bleak. The game starts you off with one (of three) deck and 2000 gold. You’re awarded gold through participation, an average of 180 per battle, which is enough to buy a random scroll for your faction. In addition, you’re awarded one new scroll per week. Shards (the premium currency) can currently only be used to buy avatars, new starter decks, or specific scrolls (out of a choice of six that are randomly selected per player, per week). Each of these purchases also requires spending gold as well may be bought using in-game gold instead, and there’s currently no way to convert real money to in-game gold. Oh yes, and there’s also an in-game trading system.

Personally I think I prefer CardHunter’s approach to just giving you loot after a battle, but I’m not really going to complain about the approach Mojang has taken. Right now, the only issue of importance is the selection of cards seems a little weak. I haven’t seen an awful lot of variety, and it will probably be a long time before the game is able to compete with the 1500 or so cards available in a Magic “Standard” tournament. And just to really nitpick, though the game runs well on the Mac OS, it is launched via a shell script, which is less than ideal, as it leaves an otherwise useless Terminal window open.

So for now I’m going to return to the game, but I’ll leave you with TotalBiscuit’s take on the game, but only because he’s playing it on a Mac.

Scrolls is currently in beta, but buying it from the official website now gets you immediate access and a discount on the release price.