By Jason Harper (Hhean), OnRPG Tactician
Scrolls is Mojang’s first release in the wake of its runaway megahit, Minecraft. At its core, Scrolls is a collectable Card Game, similar to Magic: The Gathering. However, positioning in the game is unusual, as creatures are placed on a hex grid rather than simply being summoned in a row in front of you. This garners the game a number of mechanics usually found in Tactic games. The victory condition of the game is unusual too; Rather than attacking another player directly, you win the game if you can destroy three of the enemy’s five totems, each of which is found on one of the game board’s rows. This means that positioning and movement in the game aren’t gimmicks, but instead is a core component of winning the game.
At the start of a match you draw six cards into your hand, and draw a single card on each subsequent turn. Frustratingly, there’s no way of discarding your hand for a new one if you don’t like it, so a bad opening draw can screw you. Cards can be sacrificed to gain one of your deck’s resources (Order, Growth or Energy) or draw two more cards. Since your resources can be gained from any card, rather than having to rely on specific cards (Like Magic: The Gathering’s land cards) you can’t get your resources blocked by a bad draw. Players can then play as many cards as they like, provided the total cost of the cards they play is under the amount of resources available to them on that turn. If any of these cards are creatures, they’re put onto the game board, and it begins preparing for its next attack.
Placing a single creature on the board can provoke a complex set of questions in itself. Do I try and oppose the enemy in a space they’re strong, trying to weaken their foothold on the gameboard, or do I place out of their way, forfeiting a totem or two in order to build strength later in the game? Which of my units can I afford to place in the front row, knowing that the enemy is undoubtedly going to kill them next turn? Do I place a high threat target near an enemy unit to draw attention away from my larger number of weaker units, or do I use those units as an expendable shield? Scrolls doesn’t favour one strategy over another, and the correct answer is constantly shifting as a match goes on.
A creature can’t move more than one hex a turn, and most can only attack in a straight line in front of them. They will always attack if able, but have a cooldown of a few turns before they can strike. This means it’s rare that a player can commit to an assault without you seeing it coming a turn in advance, allowing for plenty of counterplay. The goal then is to establish enough board control that they have no option but to fall for your traps, or to present them with so many simultaneous threats that they are stuck in a losing game of choosing what they need to sacrifice rather than how they can mount an offensive of their own.
When you begin, you’re given a choice of three starting decks, each one using one of the game’s three resources.
Order relies on establishing board control through massed troops and sudden assaults.
Growth is an aggressive rushdown deck focused on smashing the enemy so hard early that they never get a chance to fight back.
Energy is a defensive endgame monster with plenty of damage dealing spells to keep the board clean while they’re weak.
Another resource called Decay is planned, which will gain power from the death of creatures, be they friend or foe. It’s possible for a deck to be made from multiple resources, allowing for some very powerful combinations that are currently dominating the top levels of play.
The game’s small team shows most clearly in its art design, as it looks like the game’s various assets were made in photoshop by a single artist. The artwork is consistently good throughout as a result, with everything in the game remaining aesthetically cohesive. However, the look of the game isn’t quite so refined as a number of its competitors, which often draw upon large pools of experienced freelancers to get exceptionally detailed illustrations on their cards. The animation quality on the characters is also quite good, giving a little bit of personality to the creatures while they attack or move around. The music is pleasant without being distracting, though there currently is a very limited number of tracks in the game.
One of the game’s biggest surprises has been its excellent community. People frequently talk during matches, and take both the good and bad in good humour. I’ve yet to encounter a rude or abrasive player, which has been a wonderful change of pace from your usual General Chat trolls and MOBA monsters. It’s incredible that this game seems to have avoided whatever problems The Banner Saga had with its silent community, overcoming the lack of team play to be found in games of this sort.
One of the reasons for the game’s talkative community may be its trading system. It’s in your best interests to reach out to other players and swap cards with them, or else you’re stuck using whatever you happen to discover in the store’s booster packs. Some people likely will enjoy the surprise of getting whatever a booster pack can give you, but if you want to get a deck built with any speed, trading will get things done far quicker. While you can purchase a limited pool of specific cards from the shop, whether you get something you actually want in that pool is entirely down to pot luck.
When you’re not feeling sociable, the game’s AI can provide a stiff challenge. You can play a normal match against the AI, or run the gauntlet against its Trials, which add in unusual handicaps to the match. The earlier ones of these provide an easy means of acquiring the ingame currency, but they quickly turn vicious as you progress. These provide a great introduction to the game, allowing a new player to build up their confidence before tackling other human beings.
Deck variety is a problem currently, as the number of decent cards is rather small. As a result, you will see the same card combinations come up frequently, especially in your first few games where most opponents will be using the same starter decks. While the existing card combinations are interesting in and of themselves, the scope for creativity is limited.
Since the game is still in beta, it has its share of bugs and rough edges. Crashes and freezing are commonplace. The game’s feature set at the moment is also very limited, lacking basic functions like a friends list, or even a menu option to leave the game. Your only option to get out of the game is to hit the Esc key, which feels like a bizarre omission. The game also has an unusual conflict with Avast antivirus, where you can’t login unless it’s disabled.
The payment model for the game is a half way between F2P and a straight purchase. The game has to be bought in order to get access to the beta (and, just like Minecraft, its price will rise as it approaches release) while also allowing you to buy various cards and cosmetic options in-game with real currency. The only things really worth purchasing though are the other two base decks that you didn’t choose when you first logged in.
I’ve enjoyed my time with Scrolls so far, but it’s clearly a ways off from being finished. It’s unlikely to compare to the unstoppable money making monster that propelled Mojang into existence, but it’s definitely worth the investment if you’re a fan of collectable card games. The rough edges on the beta make it a harder sell for those who aren’t already fans of the genre, but those problems will hopefully disappear as the game approaches release.