Impressions: SolForge

By Ben Barrett on August 28th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.

SolForge is a Kickstarter success story, nearly doubling their not insignificant target of $250,000, and since then going live on Steam, where it has been unfolding for a couple of weeks. It’s a unusual, credible take on the genre, exploiting the digital nature of its medium to the fullest. Cards are simultaneously in your deck and in play, sometimes with entirely different statistics in each case. It’s incredibly quick to learn despite these complexities and won’t take long to hook you – but can it keep your attentions? How does its take on “free” effect it? Moreover, is it any good?

I should say that, despite my enthusiasm for it, SolForge infuriates me, and I’m trying to puzzle out why. It’s not from an overly complex rule set: there are two types of cards, creatures and spells. Creatures go in one of five lanes when played, while spells have immediate effects. After a turn of rest, played creatures go “on the offensive” and begin to attack across their lane on command, once per turn. If they encounter an opponent’s beast/robot/man/dryad, each does damage to the other’s health equal to its own attack. If they don’t, they do damage to the player instead. 100 life each, first to 0 loses. That’s pretty much it, all the complexity of play actually emerges from the way cards play out against one another.

There’s no obfuscation, either. Rarely is anything other than how many of the two maximum cards per turn I’ve played or the attack and health values of the various creatures relevant to what happens. Mistakes are made because I either didn’t do or miscalculated my math – my fault, not that of the game. Board states are easy to read and the interface, perhaps due to the (shhh!) iOS origins, would take a concentrated effort to mess up using. Any negative impact on your side is given a confirmation dialogue, forcing you to seal your own fate if you realise, seconds later, what a mistake it was.

A lack of predictability might be the problem. With a new hand of five cards every turn, setting up future plays is difficult. One of the great misconceptions about card games is that it’s entirely the luck of the draw. This is true in poker as much as it is in TCGs: you have perfect information about what cards are in the deck. Therefore, you can play around them. If the only way to win is for you to play a certain way and then top-deck the right card, then spotting that and knowing to go for it is a skill. Drawing five minimises that – it’s unlikely none of them will be useful.

But that isn’t what raises my anger either. It’s just skill transference – what’s lost in play is made up for by increasing the importance of deck building strategies. Now we might be getting closer to the source of the problem: a fresh account comes with two starter decks and that’s it. You can win booster packs and silver, the in-game currency, through daily challenges. You get some just for logging in or winning a battle, but there’s no constant gain. Unlike, say, League of Legends each game doesn’t guarantee a reward so after a certain number per day, progress just stops. This is frustrating, but not as much as when comparing a new, F2P account with one that Kickstarted the game or has chosen to spend money.

The difference between the cards available to each of these players is huge. One is playing with an odd mish-mash of what happens to be available and the other can cherry-pick combos and synergies from almost the entire card pool. I understand that those who choose to pay in this business model are meant to be given an advantage but the level to which this is true can vary. In Dota 2, it isn’t true at all. In League, two new players are going to be equally useless until they’ve learned the MOBA basics, no matter which may have paid for a champion. A new Solforge player using a starter deck will not stand a chance against one who has dropped a certain amount of money on the game and then googled a half-decent deck. It’s a problem stemming from the CCG structure – if the playfield isn’t even, personal skill doesn’t matter very much. If there was ever a game that needed to have its paying and non-paying audiences seperated this is it.

However, I think my biggest issue stems not from a slight “pay to win” feel – which I don’t enjoy being on this side of, but understand the profit it produces – but the nature of what is bought. Single cards cannot be purchased in any way. Once you have your “gold,” the only thing currently on the Solforge store, it can be spent on either cosmetic upgrades or booster packs. Booster packs are of varying value: the cheapest being purchasable with silver, the most expensive the equivalent of about $12 and containing vastly more and superior cards. Yes, this is how card games have operated since the early 90s, so what’s to get uppity about now? The lack of a secondary market. Since the first person cracked open a Black Lotus and his friends all consoled him and offered “great deals” of cards now not worth thousands of pounds, there’s been one.

The lack of it makes that process of building a decent deck and evening the odds more difficult. I’m not saying these single-cards should be purchasable directly from the developers but a Diablo-style auction house would be perfect. Players can decide how much certain cards are worth and everything can be traded based on a single currency, the exchange rate of which is controlled by real world ones. Far from lowering the amount of packs bought, it incentivizes players to drop the odd dime, in the hopes they’ll crack a popular or powerful card and be able to re-sell it. As an analogy, consider Valve’s habit of putting crates in their drop systems and the amount of money they must make on keys.

Despite all this, I do keep going back. I’ve logged in almost every day since release and usually played a few games. It has the addictive nature synonymous with the genre, which helps, but there’s a certain amount of uniqueness as well. The levelling up of cards as a game progresses gives a feeling of escalation, particularly on the turns where more powerful versions can be first played. Close games and comebacks often revolve around these turns, making them throughly memorable. They can further blur the line between personal skill and me shouting “DOUBLE LEVEL THREE? BULLSHIT” at the screen, though.

Some of what I’ve mentioned as negative has upsides too – the lack of a secondary market means I don’t have a complete knowledge of every card when I start playing. Therefore there are really nice moments of “oh jesus, a new card, what does this one do?” and games are often microcosms of learning. From a few games I quickly realised what cards were red herrings of seeming power, and which could really spiral out of control. The ridiculously overpowered Grimgaunt Predator showed me anything that can gain health and attack from naturally occuring scenarios was likely very good. One game taught me activated abilities were to be feared in all forms as they eek out slow, predictable advantages.

Given it’s free, it would be difficult for me not to recommend you give SolForge a shot. I think there are some flaws in its paid for elements and the mechanics don’t clearly benefit from player skill. Blanked out menu options of campaigns and tournaments suggest there’s plans for expansion which would be welcome. What’s available is also described as just the “2013 Core Set” with more cards to be added later. If after a couple of games you don’t feel the need to continue I can promise you it never really evolves and you can safely abandon it. Like me, however, you may find yourself turning it on for an hour each day just to play a few quick matches and increase your card pool.

SolForge is available now on Steam.

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43 Comments »

  1. Gap Gen says:

    Technosmith sounds like an Aerosmith club remix.

  2. realitysconcierge says:

    I gave this a really good romp and I liked the game itself, but the metagame is lacking in so many ways that I just couldn’t continue. If they get some decent matchmaking in, as well as some information about when and why you’re getting bonuses for logging in/ winning games I’d be a happy camper. A ladder would be amazing as well. Also, though the UI is functional, it is pretty depressing. Especially compared to the upcoming hearthstone.
    More often than not I found myself losing because of mistakes I made than anything to do with luck, as far as I could tell.

  3. Cytrom says:

    I can’t really fathom why anyone would play a card game virtually, when you could do it with real cards. Same goes for sports games. Although I guess its a bit like porn…

    • gunny1993 says:

      More people to play with

    • Ben Barrett says:

      Access, elements that don’t work with real cards (SolForge would be completely non-functional, or at least require a significant amount of proxying), player-base. Quite a lot of reasons, really.

    • Odoshi says:

      It’s cheaper. MtG is one of the greatest moneysinks of a hobby you could have.

      • KikiJiki says:

        Takes up less physical space as well.

        As a player on and off since 1995 I have vast constructs of various size and stature filled entirely with cards

        • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

          The Dyson sphere is a particularly nice one. I was impressed when you showed it, but I think next time you should check your orrery in advance to prevent a repeat of the unfortunate incident in which Jupiter collided with it.

    • e82 says:

      For games like this, or MTG/etc — I’m simply too lazy to resolve all the rules manually. You can still get the strategy aspect of it and enjoying that element of the game, but not need to bother with resolving ‘X card has Y bonus against this guy, and this card gets a +N something this turn, and .. and..and’, nice just sort of laying it out and letting the computer do the rest.

    • ScubaMonster says:

      Perhaps because maybe you can’t find anybody in your area to play, you can find many more people online, and the convenience of doing it right from your home. I enjoy collecting physical cards a lot more than virtual, but I don’t really know anybody who plays them, and I don’t really like the idea of going to various hobby and comic shops asking if they have MtG tournaments/groups (maybe I’m just anti-social). But with an online game I can play whenever I want at a whim. I don’t have to schedule a time that works for everybody, go drive there and back. I can hop on my computer for half an hour then go do whatever.

      I actually think Magic Online is a great game. It’s bare bones card gaming, no flash at all, but it’s the core magic experience. You can trade and buy cards. There’s websites where you can buy specific individual cards from people. Pretty much works exactly as if you were playing and buying cards for real.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      What really boggles my mind is that that I’ve seen paintball and RC car/plane* sims. Yes, the gaming industry is now producing simulations of simulations.

      *Not just racing/flying games with an RC skin, but stuff where you are standing in the middle of a field trying to keep an eye on your plane from 500 feet away.

  4. Commander Gun says:

    “However, I think my biggest issue stems not from a slight “pay to win” feel – which I don’t enjoy being on this side of, but understand the profit it produces – but the nature of what is bought. Single cards cannot be purchased in any way.”

    This really. Although i have to say that the three daily bonuses (login, 1st win and 3rd win) are netting quite a reasonable harvest of new cards, occasionaly getting epics and legendaries, if you want to construct a certain deck and missing that one card (x 3), you’re out of luck. They do plan to launch a trading system, but only for boosters/cards you got with real money, which is a bit silly for a F2P game.

    The game itself, i like it more and more. It is too bad you cannot plan your plays with certainty (like holding that Wrath of God and let your opponent overcommit, after which you spring the trap), but like you say it is much more like poker. You have drawn 10 cards, having seen 0 copies of a card which you know is in your deck 3 times. You can cimply calculate the odds of at least 1 copy appearing in your next 5 and then decide if you want to make the gambit.
    That also explains why the game provokes some emotional response. In the long term, the best player will certainly win (like in Poker), but in one game, even if you have 80% chance, you can still base your previous plays on this and have bad luck.

    • ScubaMonster says:

      I completely agree. Every collectible card game, physical or virtual is going to be pay to win. That’s just how they work. Someone who spent $200 on Magic the Gathering cards is going to have a lot better cards to choose from than someone who spent $50. But the real issue is that with physical cards, I can actually go hunt down specific cards for my deck, whether it’s at a comic shop or ebay.

      This is where Magic the Gathering Online excels. It’s exactly like the physical card game. You can buy boosters, but that’s basically a waste. You can trade cards, and there’s even websites dedicated to selling specific cards for the game. If anybody likes MtG I highly suggest checking it out, it’s the exact core experience of the card game. Now, it’s completely bare bones and no flash at all, but all I care about is the core experience, which is pure MtG through and through.

      They don’t really advertise it much, so a lot of people don’t know about it. http://www.wizards.com/magic/digital/magiconline.aspx

  5. Norgaard says:

    Recently I’ve tried two CCG’s, namely Solforge and Might and Magic: Duel of Champions. Both of which somehow failed to keep my attention for longer than a week. M&M is a lot more polished and extremely generous towards new players, you get tons of free stuff and blue seals (second in game currency you need to buy) at the value of ~30 euros if I remember correctly, and you keep getting them, even tho’ at slower rate. I was hooked at the start and played countless ranked games until my attention drifted to other games.
    Solforge on the other end isn’t as generous when it come to free stuff, even tho’ you get three daily rewards, you still can’t get at the same lvl as people who pay for cards. At the moment first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Solforge is “boring”. Interface is dull and even PvP lacks challenge and is somewhat soulless, considering that there isn’t even a chat full of badmouthing and poor sportsmanship. Having said that, game is still in progress and there is a lot of room for improvement, as I read elo system, trading system is something that will be implemented in future, but those are just promises atm.
    When it comes to card games my experience is fairly limited, but in my opinion M&M’s module balances the lvl of play, as everyone has a chance of getting that “paid” stuff, it’s just down to grinding and determination. And well used freebies put you on a fairly competitive deck. Having said that, I still find gameplay pretty monotonous and lackluster as the time goes on, so I just grow tired of these games… maybe I’m not made for card games.

    • arccos says:

      I really thought Duel of Champions was a blast for a little while as well, but didn’t have much staying power. It was a decently complex game, with interesting effects from the cards, but something just didn’t click.

      Personally I think it’s a much better game than any of the other F2P card games, and everyone should give it a shot. It even has a short-ish single player campaign with rewards.

      I guess in the end I just don’t like playing PvP games where luck is such a deciding factor.

  6. BooleanBob says:

    Presumably there are alternatives out there, for those who are interested by this sort of game but share Ben’s reservations about the importance of a level playing field. Spectromancer is one, I think. From the description in the article the two games sound very similar. Any others?

    • Kefren says:

      Spectromancer is fun, especially two-player hotseat. The phoenix is a game-breaker though, and in two-player we forbid the other player from using it.

      • Drinking with Skeletons says:

        Interesting. For me and my hotseat buddy, the phoenix is basically a non-entity. It’s sometimes nice, but there are almost always better options.

        Now the turtle, man, fuck that thing. We don’t ban it, but whoever gets the turtle is assumed to have a huge advantage, and the game tends to warp around it whenever it’s deployed. And those first-level Chaos healer guys. They can go to hell.

    • Drinking with Skeletons says:

      After playing SolForge, I have to say that I found it to be a needlessly complex version of Spectromancer.

      • Severian says:

        Spectromancer is great, and I’d recommend it to anyone who want a MtG-like fix. I’ve just started playing Sol Forge and suspect I’ll dabble in it for a few weeks and then wait until they get proper match-making. It’s strongest feature is the level-up mechanic, but you’re absolutely right that it is highly reminiscent of Spectromancer.

        • BooleanBob says:

          The level up feature sounds like it might have been cribbed from the Pokemon TCG, which was also great (the gameboy colour title was one of my favourite carts).

        • Drinking with Skeletons says:

          Don’t forget that Spectromancer doesn’t have microtransactions and the demo actually grants you (or used to) full access to multiplayer, just with an extremely limited class selection.

          Oh, and the cd-keys unlock the DRM-free exe from the devs, even if you purchased it on Steam.

    • tumbleworld says:

      It all sounds quite a lot like Scrolls, which, again, is reasonably fun, but not fully-fledged enough yet, and too focussed on its Pay To Win aspects.

    • ScubaMonster says:

      Actually, the best one out of them all is Magic the Gathering Online http://www.wizards.com/magic/digital/magiconline.aspx

      It’s the core experience, thousands of cards, you can trade, buy, and sell individual cards, or sets, etc. People put together websites selling cards this way. Or you can buy booster packs or starter decks from the shop, but it’s generally better to hunt down cards you want instead of gambling with boosters.

      It’s bare bones presentation and no flash at all, but it’s exactly like playing the physical card game in every aspect. I highly recommend people check it out. Wizards of the Coast don’t really promote this game and I have no idea why.

      If I had one complaint at all, it’s that there isn’t a huge community, but you can pretty much always find a game going on. This is a symptom of Wizards of the Coast not promoting and marketing this game. I don’t know why, they could make a ton of cash if more people played it.

  7. BOM_Sefir says:

    I just have to say that the game is still in the works. As you can see on Steam it is an early access game so there are still many additions to come. I am pretty sure some sort of card trading or auction hose is one of those additions.

  8. Reapy says:

    My problem with collectible card games is that they always cost so much. I kind of want to be into them, but they are games that punish expirementation heavily. It is hard to try out decks and card combos when you have to pay or grind out those cards. What if your idea was wrong? You are stuck having wasted that time and money, and yet again have to grind out for another attempt at deck building.

    • Lorewin says:

      I’ve been playing this quite a bit, and have spent exactly zero money, and have crafted half a dozen decks with different mechanics.

      Because of the three key deck building limits:

      1) all decks must consist of exactly 30 cards; and
      2) no more than 3 of any one card in a deck
      3) no more than two (out of 4 total) colours in a deck

      it’s entirely possible to try out a concept while just owning one or two cards which you think will interact with others. Sure, to tune it absolutely you’re going to want more, but in general I’ve found they come in at a decent (if mildly unpredictable) rate.

      That said, I tend to craft decks I think are fun or interesting, rather than steamroller multiplayer killer, so enjoy playing with friends more.

      I do find the total lack of a chat interface oddly lacking, making the random matchmaking a bit soulless.

      Ultimately, it’s free, a tiny download, and for me a refreshing change from the somewhat ponderous MTG. If you like CCG mechanics at all it’s worth a look.

      • Drinking with Skeletons says:

        You point out something important: what’s the multiplayer matchmaking like? Optimized decks are going to be a bigger problem if the game doesn’t have a decent way of matching players up.

      • Severian says:

        As far as I can tell, there is no real match-making right now. I’m just as likely to find myself up against someone with just the starters vs. someone who’s paid-to-win and running the currently trendy “Savant” deck. But it’s still early, so let’s hope these guys put something like an elo rating and match-making system in. For me personally, it’s an absolute necessary if I’m going to continue playing.

  9. Justice says:

    This game is still in early beta. A lot of very important features, like trading, matchmaking, tournaments, drafting, are all slated for release soon.

    Also, I’d just like to mention that the daily rewards for free cards are extremely generous, and you can get them all in about 10 minutes of playing. Instead of making you grind for 6 hours a day to get a good amount of rewards, they’ve given you a day’s worth of free shit for just logging in and winning 3 games.

    A FAQ has been compiled over at the community-based subreddit that is very useful: http://www.reddit.com/r/SolForge/comments/1l298y/open_beta_faq_find_answers_and_ask_questions_here/

  10. Deadly Habit says:

    I will say the tutorial is worthless and going live tosses you right into the deep end.
    A nice Magic the Gathering clone more like Cabal.

    • Severian says:

      That’s weird. I found the tutorial generally useful and the various AI’s (easy, medium, and hard) a nice way to ramp myself up to my first multiplayer match (which I won!). There’s also a wiki (solforgewiki.forgewatch.com) if you want the nitty-gritty details.

  11. wahoffelmadenga says:

    I don’t see what all the fuss surrounding Solforge is, it’s just a lanes game, Rage had a better version as a mini-game.

  12. malkav11 says:

    It’s important to note that CCGs were the only significant card game business model in the 90s, yes, but in more recent years the concept of the “LCG” or (in Fantasy Flight’s trademarked terminology, Living Card Game) has come along – it’s the same sorts of games, but instead of buying cards completely randomly and hoping to someday be able to build a competitively viable deck (a process you must repeat every time they release an expansion, and Magic is currently on a 3-expansion-per-year release schedule), or alternatively paying through the nose for power cards, LCG card releases are, gasp, fixed sets. A starter set typically gets you just enough cards to play a basic game out of the box, and then they periodically release new packs of perhaps a dozen or two dozen new cards in fixed quantities sufficient to fill out the maximum allowed quantity of a card in your deck; sometimes also releasing larger, boxed expansions.

    It’s an infinitely superior business model for the consumer and seems to be profitable enough that Fantasy Flight now has half a dozen different games successfully using this model (in a market where new CCGs tend to die on the vine in the face of Magic and whatever anime-promoted games the kids are favoring these days) with other companies getting in on the action. SolForge could have opted to go this route – I know I certainly suggested it when they were running their Kickstarter, alongside plenty of other people – but did not.

  13. TheCable says:

    Ok so I know I’m almost a month late and I will definitely sound like a preacher, but there are some things I’d like to clarify :P
    Right now the game is indeed extremely bare bones in comparison to its competitors like Hearshstone or Might and Magic: Duel of Champions. However, most of the concerns you had will be adressed in the future.

    1. While you don’t get to keep any cards and it gives the feeling of extreme randomness, you have to remember you get to see ONE SIXTH of your whole deck each turn (5 cards out of 30) and TWO THIRDS of your total deck (4 turns x 5 cards =20 out of 30) each player rank, after that point your deck gets reshuffled. So while you won’t ever *know* that you will draw a card you need, you are very likely to do so, so you can definitely plan around that.

    2. The game is indeed a CCG (will be a TCG once trading is implemented which they fully intend to do by the end of the year) so its business model does indeed lead to huge power level discrepancies between a new player and a veteran who opened a hundred packs already. However, a big part of TCGs *is* the trading aspect, the secondary market makes sure the cards you get have some value and you aren’t funneling money as a 1-way street. So the initial cost to be competitive at a high level will be high, but you can get that money back.
    It’s likely that to be truly competitive at the highest level fast you will need to pay. With matchmaking it’s not as big of a deal though.

    The issues with “P2W” depend on your definition. Fair F2P games will sell you “time” in a sense that by paying money you don’t get any direct advantages, you will simply have to spend less time to unlock same content a F2P player can unlock. SF isn’t different from LoL in that regard which sells champions (similar to cards) and things like EXP/IP boosts.

    While you can only buy basic packs, they can contain cards of any rarity (9% chance to get a heroic, 1% chance to get a legendary).
    Your daily rewards can contain any card or any pack as well. I believe the % chance to get the highest rarity (legendary) card for each individual reward is 1% (so 3% each day cause you get 3 rewards), same is true for the premium pack which has a guaranteed legendary.

    I do agree that right now it’s not yet clear yet if F2P player can *keep up* with paying players and be competitive because most features which will help F2P players (some kind of ways to “craft” or use excess cards, free drafts where you get to keep your cards, campaign mode etc.) aren’t implemented yet. So you could call it a P2W if a completely free player cannot physically catch up and be competitive with at least a single top tier deck (similarly to how free player in LoL has to get a collection of top tier champions to compete). We’ll have to wait and see.
    However, the core features aren’t locked from non-paying players.

    3. I see a lot of people have a lot of unwarranted issues with premium packs. Premium packs are essentially 8 normal packs packaged into 1, nothing else. Why? Because normal pack has 12.5% chance (1 in 8) to open a legendary rarity card. So you’d have to open 8 of them on average to get 1. Premium packs give you a guaranteed legendary. That doesn’t mean they are somehow better, they simply avoid the inherent variance. They are intended for players who already have most 3rd tier rarity cards (heroics). They give FAR less cards overall for the same price, but give a discount for legendaries specifically. It’s like buying a box in Magic, if you buy more at the same time you get a discount in comparison to individual packs.

    And again, Trading is indeed coming and devs are aware how important it is. Without trading, investing money into random cards is a bit psychotic because of coupon collector’s problem (you will get first 95% of content pretty fast, but may need to open disproportionate amount of packs to get the last 5% to get the optimal deck list, for example).

    4. Right now they are working on matchmaking to prevent those “starter deck vs a person who kickstartered the game for 100 bucks and opened 100 packs” situations. Even an extremely fair F2P game like LoL gives an advantage to the paying player. A player who has access to 50 champions instead of 5 as well as a higher selection of rune pages has a HUGE edge.
    A huge difference is the fact that in a card game it’s *extremely* easy to notice the power level discrepancies in cards (rarer cards will always be more powerful in TCG/CCG business model) while in a game like LoL each champions is supposed to be as strong as any other (there are no “rarer” champions which are strictly better than the more common ones).
    However, it’s extremely hard to notice the fact that your loss may be a result of your opponent counter-picking your lane with a larger champion/rune page pool. It feels a lot more fair, but it really isn’t.
    I’m definitely not arguing the *gap* between this immediate advantage you gain by paying isn’t FAR higher in TCGs, because it certainly is, but both games have it. How much edge someone has by paying doesn’t change the definition, it’s all subjective in that case.

    The only reason someone who payed 100 bucks and unlocked 20 more champions than you or got their IP points 2x as fast with boosts doesn’t have an edge is *only* because in a good matchmaking system you simply aren’t playing with them. And like I said, it’s coming in SF relatively soon at this point (few weeks).

    5. The rewards are the way they are (you get a lot of things up front and don’t get anything for any single win afterwards) is because they don’t want people to feel like they are forced to grind. I think a lot of people don’t realize that the amount of value you get from those 3 daily rewards which you can collect in *10 minutes vs easy AI for example* is worth HOURS of grind in most other games. I agree that it feels bad to not get anything for winning, but the features which will help with that (rankings/tournaments/drafts etc.) are coming.

    TL DR; The features which seem to be missing are indeed missing, game is considered to be in open beta, matchmaking/tournaments/drafting/trading/ways to use up excess cards are all coming and should be available by the end of the year.
    So if you like the game you can easily stick around, collect the easy daily rewards each day and see where it goes.