Here’s a fun thought exercise. Your gaming studio has created perhaps the biggest independent gaming hit of all time and made a bajillion dollars in the process. So, how do you follow up a game like Minecraft? The answer for Scrolls’ developer Mojang appears to be: don’t even try to.
Scrolls is about as far away from Minecraft as you can imagine: a card-based tactical combat game in the vein of Magic the Gathering. Where Minecraft is a concept that is almost universal in its appeal, Scrolls is operating towards the other extreme. It’s a niche game in a small genre with a vociferous fan-base. The question is, can Mojang use their popularity to leverage the game and bring card-trading strategy to the masses? Do they even want to?
Early signs suggest that such an ambition might be out of reach. From a mechanics perspective, Scrolls is pretty tight. Each player in a game brings their deck of 40 cards selected from one of three armies – Order, Growth, or Energy. Cards come in three forms: creatures, spells and structures. The aim of a game of Scrolls is to destroy three of the totems on your enemies’ side of the board. Placing cards or using spells costs resource points, and resources can only be gained by sacrificing cards in your current hand (or occasionally through a spell).
The player has to make a decision, then, about which cards they want to place and which they are willing to sacrifice, with resources refreshing at the beginning of every turn. This all means that you start making strategic decisions on the very first turn. Is your priority to get as many units out on the board as quickly as possible? In that case, sacrifice spells, or high cost cards, and play your cheap creatures to fill up the board and start wearing down the enemy structures. Or, alternatively, perhaps you’re willing to take some early damage to your totems in order to build up a strong hand and consolidate resources.
They key to success in Scrolls is not only strategic placement of units or clever use of spells, but managing ‘Countdown’. All creature cards have three statistics. Naturally, attack determines how much damage a unit does and Health determines how much damage they can sustain. These two stats are relatively straightforward: a unit with a high attack and a low health belongs on the back of your grid, as far as possible from taking damage, and vice-versa for a creature with high health and low attack.
The complexity and strategy comes from successfully managing the third statistic – Countdown. Countdown determines how many turns a unit must wait before they are able to attack. A clever Scrolls player will not only be trying to synchronise their own army, but noting enemy countdowns and trying to manage their own side of the board around that. For a new player, and especially one who is not particularly au-fait with card battle games, this can be a lot to get your head around. Trying to strategise on a turn-to-turn basis will see you dispatched with ease in most games when you’re up against someone who has put some thought into their tactics and some time into customising their deck.
Outside of the battles, Mojang are putting together a pretty slick suite for players. Some options are greyed out for this Alpha build, but the finished game will include a single-player campaign mode as well as tournament play for serious players. You earn gold for completing matches and can buy additional cards to add to or supplement your deck. The menus, interface and chat integration are all very clean and crisp, giving the impression of a polished product.
But there is still a part of me wondering just how popular and successful a card-trading game like Scrolls can be? The nature and the depth of the strategy means that the moment a new player steps beyond the comfort of the most easy AI opponents, they’re probably going to be stomped into the dirt.
How many players will pick themselves up, dust themselves off, roll up their sleeves and begin climbing their way up a pretty steep learning curve? How many will just run away screaming? I’m somewhere in the middle at the moment: my sleeves are rolled, but I can’t help but emit a high pitch squeal every time I see my army crushed by a foe who understands Scrolls better than I do. Which, at the moment, is every single game.
Scrolls, from Mojang, is due to enter open alpha in the coming months.