On…Scrolls (BETA)

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Remember Scrolls? That Mojang game which was being developed and got a whole bunch of hype after Bethesda tried to sue them (for similarities to ‘The Elder Scrolls’ series) and you know, because it’s Notch, the most successful internet hype whore of the last several years? Well, it’s finally out in open beta form with a similar business model as Minecraft. Basically, you pay a reduced price now to have access to the beta, and you get all future updates as well as the full release for free from now on. The current price is £12.99, which is a little steeper than I what I paid for Minecraft (back in September 2010 according to my Mojang account, roughly at the halfway point between alpha and full release). And oh yes, you’ll need a Mojang account and currently they’re only accepting credit/debit card payments (no paypal…unsurprising considering Notch’s bad run in with them). [Edit: You can now pay with other methods than credit card! Yay!]

Still, the trailer looked intriguing, and I must admit, my boyfriend watching Yugioh the anime has got me on a bit of a CCG kick. I was a huge card game collector as a kid (but who wasn’t right?), and I remember all the money I wasted on things like Pokemon cards, Yugioh cards…I even had some Magic the Gathering cards though no one I knew played it. Anyway, as I’ve grown older and hopefully now a bit more responsible with my money (or is it that my money now has more responsibility?), I’ve been really interested in finding a digital collectible card game, one which would let me enjoy collecting cards without spending much money (besides an initial investment). I remember playing the Yugioh games on the DS which were excellent and let me relive the feeling of collecting and building a good deck, without having to spend a fortune on all those booster packs etc. Then, a few weeks ago, I downloaded the Pokemon online multiplayer trading card game, though I swiftly quit because it was too hard to build a deck entirely from digital (you can scan in existing paper cards which I suspect is the only way to have fun because the starting decks suck). Also I got called a noob in the chat of my first game, which was a tad off-putting considering it’s Pokemon. You know, I’m pretty used to being called a noob and worse things in games like League of Legends but in Pokemon the TCG? Yeah, that was a shock. Plus, the game is horribly incomplete with very limited options for multiplayer. Not my thing.

So now Scrolls comes out and it looks to fulfil all my hopes and dreams. Does it live up to the expectations put upon it by its Mojang name?

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First, let’s look at what the cards – I’m sorry – scrolls, are like? Well, you get a starter deck from a choice of 3 and each deck uses a different resource (energy, order or growth). The decks are themed to fit different playstyles. Energy, the deck I chose, is about the long-term; stalling out the opponent until you can summon huge machines which will decimate their ranks, as well as putting down huge defensive structures to stop their assault. The order deck is about positioning troops to give them large buffs, and provides a mix of offensive and defensive traits. The growth deck is the aggressive, fast deck which emphasises putting out units quickly and overwhelming the enemy with lots and lots of units (as well as putting out big units which gain bonuses for the number of similar units). As far as I can tell, there aren’t that many types of scrolls in the game so far. All scrolls use one of these three types of resources. Mixed decks therefore look to be a risky investment (more on this in the gameplay section, but basically, getting resources involves sacrificing so having lots of different resources is hard to manage). To get more scrolls, you earn gold from playing games and then you can spend the gold in the in-game store. You can either get a random scroll, a random scroll pack or a random scroll of a specific resource type. There is also a random selection of 6 scrolls which you can purchase and the selection is unique to your account as well as being on a week’s rotation. The idea behind this is that players can purchase good or rare scrolls for cheap and trade them to players to earn a profit.

There’s also a real-life money purchase scheme, where you pay real money to buy shards which can be used to buy cards. Now, is this a pay-to-win game? Mojang has promised that it isn’t, and my impression of the game so far is that buying shards is not necessary. You earn gold at a really fast rate so buying new cards and building up your deck doesn’t require so much of a tremendous investment of time that most people would be tempted to pay money. I haven’t played in the ranked multiplayer yet so I don’t know how much money affects that. But I suspect this game is perfectly playable even without spending any money, and I’m so far having fun with it even despite my limited deck. I think half the fun of trading card games is thinking of how you can improve your deck, and then randomly hoping you’ll get that card in some form or another. After all, it is a collectible card game and part of being good at the game is having good cards. I mean, I guess it would be like being mad at the rich kid in school for having more cards than you, but at the end of the day, if you had the shiny Charizard which you just lucked upon, you had way more street cred than that rich chump. “Screw the rules, I have money!” doesn’t look to be a viable option in this game.

So what is the gameplay like? The game plays on a hex-grid consisting of 5 rows and 3 columns on each side. To win, you must destroy 3 of the idols which are located at the end of each row. Scrolls cost resources to use and to gain resources, you must sacrifice a scroll (which will give you 1 resource). You can either sacrifice a scroll for resources or you can swap in the scroll for two different scrolls. Each turn, your total resources are restocked. So, imagine you have an energy deck and on your first turn, you sacrifice a scroll and now you have 1 energy resource. The next turn, you sacrifice a different card, and now you have 2 energy resources. You play a scroll which costs 2 energy to play, and your resources are depleted. Next turn, you get 2 energy resources back, and if you sacrifice a scroll, you’ll now have 3. Imagine now that a few turns down the line, you have 7 energy resources. You can now play a scroll which costs 3 energy and another that costs 4 energy on the same turn. Pretty simple stuff, but it forces you to be incredibly tactical about which scrolls you want to play and when. You have to decide when you want to sacrifice, when you want to swap for two, which ones to sacrifice, which scrolls to play etc. The decks will affect your style of play here too. For example, if you have the growth deck, monsters cost much less in resources to play compared to other decks. You can summon a wolf for 1 resource, and even the top tier monsters only cost 3 or 4 resources. This means that you can sacrifice less to summon more. On the other hand, if you have the energy deck, most of your decent attackers and structures will cost 3+ resources, so it takes a few turns to sacrifice enough to even be able to play your cards.

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There’s also a countdown system for your attackers and for structures with special abilities. Your attackers can only attack the enemy when their countdown reaches 0, and the countdown reflects the number of turns that have passed since the attacker was summoned. Structures might also have special abilities on a countdown such as a global heal. Again, the starting decks are tailored around different countdown styles. The growth deck has short countdowns, allowing your attackers to attack quickly and often. The energy deck has long countdowns, but in exchange, your attacks do much more damage. There are also melee and ranged attacks, different status effects and of course, magic cards whose effects are incredibly varied and often help turn the tide of battle. Some are cast and have an instant effect, whereas others are enchantments which are like equips that have a certain effect.

The beta includes a tutorial which I found a little lacking, though this might be intended. They explain the basic mechanics but leave it up to you to figure out the wider strategy and the style of gameplay you wish to adopt. They also leave out certain answers and the wikis online haven’t been worked on much yet. For example, I didn’t know if your deck ever ran out of cards (it doesn’t) and I also didn’t know how all the interface worked initially (such as the ability to scroll over your cards to read what enchantments it has). I get the impression that the game wants you to figure stuff out through trial and error. Your ability at the game improves over time just by having more game knowledge about what certain cards do, what kind of combos are possible, how the opponents’ decks functions and their weaknesses etc. Which is just fine for a game of this type because that is a huge part of the challenge.

Now to air a few qualms about the game. The interface is downright awful. It took my boyfriend and I far too much time to work out how we could challenge each other to a battle. There’s a kind of chatroom system and you have to join one to see other players and then scroll down the list of player names to find your friends. As far as I can tell, there’s no friendslist option which I do think would be helpful. More gripes about the interface. The store is a tiny portion of the screen. Most of it is taken up by a static image of a grumpy looking storekeeper. The settings options are very minimal and the resolutions available are really low. In fact, they’re so low that some monitors might struggle loading the game (as my boyfriend’s did) and he fixed it by hitting alt+enter (after some googling for a solution). Oh and I guess because it’s a beta, it’s rather buggy and has frozen on me a few times (usually when I try to do too many actions too quickly…I guess my APM must just be too high for this game to handle xD).

Also the deck builder is just horrendous to use. It’s very unclear. I ‘loaded’ my deck and it basically threw all my scrolls in a heap on the allocated section of the screen (‘the table’, though it doesn’t look like a table), and then there was an open book above it. No explanation given whatsoever. It turns out, the book is a catalogue of your unused cards and your deck is below (rather than the opposite way which I thought was more intuitive). Nevermind how it makes sense to put scrolls in a book, but whatever. Adding a scroll to your deck involves dragging the scroll out of the book and onto the square underneath. I later discovered there was a button which sorts out your cards into neat rows, but it still looks awful. Maybe I just have a low resolution, but you can’t see the detail on the cards very well, and you have to mouse over them to see what they are. Am I just being greedy in wanting an easier to navigate interface for deck building? Some faster way of sorting cards? Because the only sorting is done by manually typing in the name of the card or sorting by name or cost, which is pretty useless. An option for sorting  by resource type, or by attack power or health or something a bit more in-depth would be a great addition. Another good addition I think would be a list view of my scrolls; it would just be so much easier to navigate in my opinion. Look, I understand that the idea is to make it look like you have a pile of scrolls in front of you on a table so that you can tactilely sort it all out. It’s supposed to bring up the idea of real card games I guess. But the whole point of a digital card game is so I don’t have to bother with that. Imagine if they included a process by which your scrolls become weathered over use and get ripped! I don’t want to deal with that in a digital card game. I don’t get a tactile feel from the interface putting my cards in a mess because well, it’s digital, and I can’t physically pick them up. Clicking with a mouse is not comparable at all. The deck builder definitely needs a revamp or at least more options because it’s just such a horrible part of the game at the moment.

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The cards, I mean scrolls, themselves could also be visually reworked though I suspect that won’t happen. It was just pointed out to me that to tell if a card is rare or not, you have to look at the detailing around the edge of it. But the thing is, because they’re scrolls, they’re all kinda tattered looking and you can’t tell from a distance if it’s rare. At least with shiny cards in real life, you can straight away notice their rarity. It’s much harder to do so in Scrolls, which I think will make trading a hassle. Plus there’s no option to sort by rarity.

Also a general nag about the gameplay is just sometimes the randomness of it. Of course there’s an element of randomness to every card game of this sort. But especially playing against the higher levels of AI, the randomness can be really skewed. For example, I have a scroll which is a mortar gun type thing which does heaps of damage but does it on a random tile of the map. Now, when I play this scroll, I only hit an actual target maybe 10% of the time; the rest of the time my attack is useless. The Hard AI’s accuracy with this scroll though? 95%. Plus, it feels like the harder AIs don’t even have better scrolls, they just have luckier draws. I wouldn’t feel bad losing against some super OP scrolls, then I could aspire to get it and it would mean I could learn more about the rarer scrolls. But I just lose because the AI seems to get perfect draws, sets up perfect combos and just decimates you by always having more units out and better scrolls. I think the game is very much designed to be played multiplayer against real people, because playing against the AI is just not a fun experience.

Really, there is a lot lacking from the game. I personally think that there is a considerable lack of counter-play options. The gameplay at the moment is very much, “I do this on my turn and you’re totally helpless against it…then it’s your turn and you do stuff and I’m totally helpless against you”. I have yet to see any scrolls which allow you to play them or activate based on your opponent’s moves. There is no way to remove enchantments as far as I can tell. The closest to this kind of gameplay are the scrolls that say you take 2 damage before attacking, but since attacking is not voluntary (you automatically attack when the countdown goes to 0), it still feels hopeless. Of course you can equip enchantments which kind of negate them (like an enchantment to negate damage) but it doesn’t feel like you’re comboing off it or chaining it as a reactionary thing, it feels like you’re just adding to the pile. Plus there are cards which instantly destroy your structures. I miss the kind of chain-trap/spell combos you can get in games like Yugioh or even Pokemon. I think this ultimately comes down to a lack of scroll variety in general, but as it is still early days, this could change.

So, the final question remains: is it fun? Despite these cons, I’m going to go with a tentative yes on this one. It’s very limited at the moment, but I do think it has the potential to be a good old fashioned time waster. I hope the full release works out all these kinks. I’m glad I paid the reduced price for this because I’m going to stick with it for a while, but it looks like I’m going to have to wait a while before I really recommend it as a game.

It also remains to be seen whether this will evolve into a pay-to-win kind of game, especially when more people play the ranked ladder. I really wish the paying elements were only restricted to the vanity items like avatars, because I worry that having any kind of pay-to-get-more-scrolls element will unbalance the game for people who don’t want to spend much on the game. We all hate games which basically double-charge us (first for the purchase price, then for the good content) and I hope Scrolls won’t be one of those. I know there’s the argument that the collectible element is a part of playing and I’ll never really know if someone has better cards because they played more or paid more, but still, I think many people will be unhappy with the idea that the only reason they’re losing is because they’re unwilling to spend money.

For now, I say, if you’ve got the money to spare and want something to waste some time, then why not pick up Scrolls? But to be honest, the safe thing to do is just to wait and see before you pay. Obviously you get the advantage of a discounted price if you pay now, and I do think that price is reasonable…but there’s no guarantee that this is going to be a runaway hit like Minecraft was. There are a lot of problems at the moment, and it somewhat can get away with that because it’s a beta, but if they aren’t fixed by full release, then I definitely don’t think it’s worth it unless you’re a hardcore card collecting game fan.

[N.B. I lost count of how many times I had to go through and change the word ‘card’ to ‘scroll’ whilst typing up this post, and I bet I’ve still missed a few]

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