Sunday, May 30, 2010

Warstorm on Facebook

Those of you who are my friends on Facebook will have noticed that I was spamming a lot of Warstorm messages this weekend. I played this game for several hours, and spent too much money on it for *cough* testing purposes *cough*. The game also exists outside of Facebook, but I only played the Facebook version.

Warstorm is a collectible card game with a difference. Collectible card games in general consist of two parts: Building your deck, and playing with it. Normally building your deck is something you tend to do alone, while for playing you need another player to battle against. Warstorm uses the interesting approach to make playing the game fully automated, with no input whatsoever from the player. While that sounds a bit crazy, it actually has two advantages: You can play against other players while they are offline, and you can play against the computer without the computer being at too much of a disadvantage for not being as clever as you. Thus nearly the whole game of Warstorm is in the deckbuilding.

A deck in Warstorm consists of 1 to 4 squads, with each squad having exactly 7 cards, one of which is a hero. Each card has a ready value, which determines how many rounds after drawing a card it comes into play, and thus basically represents the card's "cost". Besides heroes, there are spells, artefacts, and units, with the hero card saying how many of each of these are in the squad, and most cards being units. Each unit has an attack value and a number of hitpoints, plus possibly some special abilities.

The completely automated gameplay consists of the two players taking turns. In each turn a player draws a card from his deck to his hand. If he already has cards in hand, every turn (his and opponents turn), the ready count on each of his cards in hand decreases by one. If the ready count is zero, the card comes into play. The playfield is two opposing rows, in which cards automatically take the left-most position possible, thus if the two players have an equal number of units in play, every unit faces an unit of the opponent. Every turn every of your units in play does an action, in its most simple case dealing its attack value in damage to the opposing unit. When a unit is down to zero hitpoints, it goes to the graveyard, and the units to the right of it slide over one spot to keep the row without gaps. Units which don't have an opposing unit deal their damage to the morale counter of the enemy. If one side either has all its cards in the graveyard, or runs out of morale, it loses and the other side wins.

Cards with lower ready cost are generally weaker than those with a higher value. So there are several possible strategies, either going for a zerg rush with low ready cost cards, or balancing the deck, or putting mainly expensive but powerful cards in. But that isn't all there is to deckbuilding: Many cards have special abilities, and are often vulnerable against one type of other card, but strong against another. For example archers deal double damage against infantry, but cavalry deals double damage against archers, while infantry with pikes deals double damage against cavalry. Unless you battle a random opponent, you can after a loss edit your deck to exploit the weaknesses of your opponent's deck and have a better chance to win on the next try.

Warstorm has both PvP and PvE. PvP can be played against your friends, or a random opponent. PvE is played on a map, where each area of the map has a campaign consisting of several missions, and you can conquer the territory by finishing all the missions. The first areas are the tutorial, where you fight simple opponents, and get lots of hints what cards to use to counter the AI opponent's strategy. Winning battles gives you experience and silver. Owning territories gives you additional silver every day. And then you can use the silver to buy booster packs with new cards. But that is quite slow, and the "novice" boosters which you can buy for relatively little silver contain rather bad cards, which brings us to issue of money.

In Warstorm you can buy "Warstorm Cash" for real money, with one unit of cash costing between $0.20 and $0.25, and then use that warstorm cash to either buy access to new PvE areas with new campaigns, or to buy cards in various ways. You can buy random boosters of different types, or boosters in which the cards are random but all of the same faction, or you can buy of a small selection of single cards (with the selection available changing every 8 hours), or even some preconstructed decks. A 6-card booster ends up costing about $1, while a PvE campaign costs up to $5, but comes with generous silver and card rewards. While you can theoretically play completely for free, you will not have access to all cards that way, and also can access only half of the areas on the map.

But where Warstorm gets downright insidious is in the rarity of cards. To a larger degree than in other collectible card games rarer cards are better than more common cards. Many cards even exist in several rarities, with the rarer version having the same properties but a lower ready value, thus being strictly better than the common version. Thus if you repeatedly lose against an opponent in spite of having built your deck right, you'll notice that your opponents deck is full of very rare cards. That "encourages" you to buy more cards for cash. That way Warstorm can quickly reach the cost of a full triple-A PC or console game, which is probably too expensive for what it does. And you can't even trade cards with your friends, which is another big part of the attraction of most collectible card games.

Another problem is that the special abilities of cards aren't all that well balanced. For example flying and flaming are somewhat too powerful for the cost of their cards, which makes the preconstructed dragon deck (lots of flying and flaming dragons, expensive, full of rares) rather overpowered, and the few existing anti-dragon cards highly desirable.

If you ever spent some time studying deckbuilding in any collectible card game, you know that the more cards are in a deck, the less predictable it becomes. Thus in the early PvE campaigns on Warstorm you can still easily build a cohesive strategy and follow its outcome. In later campaigns, with up to 4 squads on each side, the outcome appears more determined by chance. On the one side that enables you to overcome opponents by simply battling them often enough until you get lucky and win, but on the other side it makes the game less interesting. If deckbuilding is the only thing you *can* do, you rather want it to have a big influence. You would need a lot of cards before you could build a multi-squad deck with a coherent strategy, as the different factions have different strengths and weaknesses.

In summary I found Warstorm a fun enough game, but you need to watch yourself and not fall into the typical trap of collectible card games that you end up spending too much money on them. Warstorm offers hours of fun, but probably not months. Nevertheless I recommend trying out at least the first, and completely free, part of the game.

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