Scrolls

EDGE - - CONTENTS - Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Mo­jang For­mat An­droid, iOS, PC (ver­sion tested) Re­lease Out now (An­droid, PC), TBC

An­droid, iOS, PC

Scrolls is never go­ing to do Minecraft num­bers. Mo­jang knows it, and you don’t need to be an in­dus­try an­a­lyst to pre­dict that a chimera of card and board games held to­gether with dig­i­tal-only su­tures will have to con­tent it­self with niche ap­peal, even – or per­haps es­pe­cially – after Hearth­stone hooked mil­lions. All that granted, it’s still wor­ry­ingly quiet. Mere days after launch and there’s enough time to boil the ket­tle while the server hunts out your next Judge­ment match. At the time of writ­ing, an in­au­gu­ral ranked win drops two achieve­ments at once: one to wel­come you to ranked play, another for cracking the top 2,000 play­ers.

It’s a func­tion of the qual­i­ties of Scrolls, but not its qual­ity. Lurk­ing beyond the 11-part tu­to­rial, and a few in­struc­tive losses at the hands of the AI or the pleas­ant com­mu­nity, there’s a game of cap­ti­vat­ing com­plex­ity, of forg­ing strate­gies two moves ahead that will be stress tested and re­forged sev­eral times a match. But you have to put the ef­fort in to ex­ca­vate it. Spend­ing money, in the form of a Shards cur­rency, will ease the task slightly, but the in-game gold drops are just about gen­er­ous enough if spent wisely. The real work is in re­for­mat­ting your brain, and there’s no buy­ing your way out of that.

The ba­sics are ably cov­ered by the tu­to­rial, where you’ll learn that the board has five lanes, with three hexes per side in each of them. Book­end­ing each lane is a pair of lit­tle stone idols with ten hit­points apiece, the ob­jec­tive of each game be­ing to crum­ble three or more of your op­po­nent’s idols be­fore they can do the same to yours. Crea­tures, struc­tures, spells and en­chant­ments are the tools in your deck to that end, a fa­mil­iar mix of buffs, key­word-based pow­ers and sim­ple at­tack and de­fence stats for any­thing you plonk on the board.

That board, how­ever, is where Scrolls starts to peel away into a more nu­anced pos­si­bil­ity space. Crea­tures and struc­tures come with a count­down – some longer than oth­ers – which ticks down ev­ery turn and de­liv­ers an at­tack or spe­cial abil­ity at the end of the round on which they hit zero. Struc­tures are rooted in place, but units have a move, able to hop to an ad­ja­cent hex each go. It would be tor­tu­ous to track all the cooldowns, per­sis­tent dam­age and lin­ger­ing ef­fects phys­i­cally, but they morph the game from com­plex creature pile-on into an in­tri­cate slid­ing puz­zle. You’ll need to pro­tect your best troops as much as your idols, po­si­tion­ing block­ers so that your big hit­ters can wind up, or plac­ing at­tack­ers on the wings and then mov­ing in when your op­po­nent’s count­downs put them at the dis­ad­van­tage. It’s a smart de­sign that de­mands you be smart in re­turn.

Like­wise Scrolls’ other novel ad­di­tion to the genre: a per-turn choice to sacrifice one of your cards for ei­ther two new ones or to per­ma­nently ex­pand your re­source pool’s size by one. In other words, you can build to­ward a card ad­van­tage or re­source ad­van­tage. Be­tween this and the po­si­tion­ing game, almost ev­ery turn has an en­gag­ing dilemma to solve. Think­ing through all th­ese choices means mul­ti­player games, in ei­ther friendly or ranked flavours, can eas­ily take up to half an hour, but hard-fought wins are truly re­ward­ing. Tri­als against the AI are far quicker but still tax­ing in all the right ways, this long list of chal­lenges with spe­cial rules do­ing much to re­fresh you after lengthy spells of ver­sus play.

Mo­jang does less than it could to ease your progress, though. After Hearth­stone’s read­abil­ity, where ef­fects tell you much of what you need to know at a glance, Scrolls bor­ders on in­el­e­gant at times. To find out what a card’s power is, you’ll need to hover over the unit, click, and usu­ally flip the card over to see what the key­words mean in me­chan­i­cal terms. You’ll learn a lot by rote, but mul­ti­ply that by a 30-hex grid and it’s no won­der novices’ turns drag on. A sim­i­lar phi­los­o­phy has been ap­plied to deck-build­ing. While the cards are ar­rayed neatly, they’re too small to read with­out click­ing to see them en­larged, and the stats pane is also hid­den by de­fault be­cause it cov­ers some of the workspace, mean­ing there’s a lot of click­ing, check­ing and drag­ging to be done be­fore you’ve as­sem­bled 50 into a deck.

It’s too long be­fore you un­lock all the starter decks, too. Still, once you do, there are four fac­tions to play with. Growth is the be­gin­ner of­fer­ing, spe­cial­is­ing in spawn­ing lots of crit­ters, and at­tack buffs. Limited grid space di­min­ishes the ef­fi­cacy of sheer num­bers, though, leav­ing all but the best decks feel­ing un­der­pow­ered. Or­der is popular with top-rank­ing play­ers, a mix of solid de­fend­ers, a few tricks with count­downs and pow­er­ful knights. En­ergy has a lot of ranged at­tack­ers, min­imis­ing the risk of face-check­ing into a nasty sur­prise, and does a good line in struc­tures. Fi­nally, De­cay has a num­ber of cards that do di­rect dam­age to idols, and can Curse units to in­crease the dam­age they take. Mul­ti­fac­tion decks are made vi­able through a Wild re­source type that can be spent on any card, but are finicky com­pared to the pu­ri­tan ap­proach.

There are plenty of in­ven­tive syn­er­gies to be mined nonethe­less, but Scrolls has one fi­nal lim­i­ta­tion. In the cur­rent metagame, many decks build up to un­stop­pable mo­men­tum, with the Do­min­ion key­word even adding new pow­ers for tak­ing out an idol. Coun­ter­ing early and of­ten is es­sen­tial, but fall more than a step be­hind and you’re likely to stay there. The prob­lem is, it might be sev­eral min­utes be­fore that trans­lates into a win, un­less you cede, which can be un­sat­is­fy­ing for ev­ery­one.

The meta of card games can shift quickly, of course, and it would be a shame if enough play­ers didn’t adopt Scrolls to make it worth Mo­jang’s time to ex­pand this en­gross­ing core. Hid­den depths are all very well, but they are likely to re­main that way to all but a ded­i­cated few un­less the Swedish stu­dio can find a way to ren­der its deep niche pur­suit a lit­tle less ar­cane.

You’ll need to pro­tect your best troops as much as your idols, po­si­tion­ing block­ers so that your big hit­ters can wind up

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