Thursday, January 15, 2009

OK, Who Stole Those Six Hours

I was expecting to return from the holiday induced posting hiatus last week, and initially, that was exactly what I started to do.

My plan was to grab On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode Two from Greenhouse, and I was about to do just that, when I decided to take a quick look at the other games available through the service. One game in particular caught my eye: Spectromancer, a card based strategy game partly designed by Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering. It seemed interesting, but was only available for Windows. So, I figured, I'd reboot into Windows, quickly check out the demo, then reboot back into Linux to pick up the game I'd initially planned to buy. An hour later, I purchased Spectromancer. Six hours later, I realized I should probably go to bed.

Now, collectible card games have always intrigued me, but I'm consistently put off by the investment required. You end up with a similar problem to microtransaction-based MMORPGs - whenever you lose a match, you can't be sure if it was your strategy that lost the match, or if it was just that your opponent had spent more money. Spectromancer ditches the collectible aspect entirely. The cards you use are the ones included with the game, because they're the only ones that exist. Playing through the campaign will grant you additional cards to use during the campaign, but those same cards are available to anyone who bought the game.

Spectromancer seems simple at first, and in a way it is: You and your opponent both have six slots in which to place cards, usually creatures or structures, which can do a wide variety of things, but usually attack the opposing slot each turn. If there is a creature in that slot, the creature will take damage, if the slot is empty your opponent will take the damage directly instead. The goal is to reduce your opponent's life points to zero. You also have spell cards, which are not placed in slots - they simply have an effect when used, such as healing your life points, hurting your opponent, or raising your stats. The game is simple enough to play that it doesn't have a tutorial, and doesn't need one, but underneath this simplicity lies a strategic depth that will gradually unfold the longer your play the game, and that's exactly what makes it so addictive.

Now the game isn't perfect: your deck is randomly drawn at the beginning of each match, so you'll occasionally find yourself in the middle of losing a match, thinking that you'd be doing much better if you just had a certain card. This is going to happen more often if your strategies often count on a single card or group of cards. The only way to avoid the aforementioned situation is to expect it, and get used to making due with what you have. Thus does add variety to the game, but I can see how it would turn certain people (especially those who enjoy deck building) off.

Spectromancer is only a 20 meg download, and I would definitely recommend trying it out. Unlike most of the games offered through Greenhouse, it's only available for Windows, and I couldn't get it to run using the copy of Crossover Games I acquired when they were giving it away a while ago. Still, if you have the means, I highly recommend giving the game a try, just make sure you've got the next few hours cleared.