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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