Hands On: Scrolls

They could have called it cards, you know.
We sent Rich Stanton to the exotic location in front of his keyboard to play Scrolls, the next game from Minecraft maker’s Mojang, which is currently in the throes of its alpha test stage. Needless to say, the deck-based card game has some familiar influences.

I’m going to tell you about Scrolls, the new game from Mojang, but first it’s confession time. This is the opinion of a loser. And not just an occasional loser. I’ve played twenty five games of Scrolls and, while there have been chinks of light in the darkness, I’ve been getting absolutely stomped.

Scrolls is in alpha at the moment, with a small community is dedicated to building devastatingly effective decks – as well as add-ons, more on which later. Hasu’s the name of my chief tormentor, sounds like a villain’s name if you ask me, but he’s not the only one. Who knows how Mojang picked ’em, but the alpha kids are monsters.

Let’s start with the decks. There are three preset decks of ‘scrolls’ (not cards, silly) each built around a specific resource: Order, Energy and Growth. Energy is explosive troops – artillery units that sacrifice precision for overwhelming power, waddling cannon bobbleheads, plus a smattering of gunners and goblins. Order is knights that boost each other, loads of buffing spells, and legendary heroes, a precision force for driving through packed rows. And Growth is about crushing numbers: wolves, rats, barbarians and trolls that accumulate in sudden spurts and can quickly overwhelm more solid foes.

The scrolls can be creatures, structures or spells, and each one’s cost is tied to a specific resource. The lovely deck-building tool lets you tweak the presets or start afresh, perhaps with a multiple-resource deck, and the minimum number of scrolls at the moment is 40 – though this may be revised upwards. So far, so Magic. But Scrolls doesn’t really play like other card games.

Magic’s influence is unavoidable in places, particularly with something like the creature abilities – these are more or less adopted wholesale. Scrolls’ big difference, however, is its gameboard. This consists of five rows with idols at either end – destroy any three of your opponent’s idols to win the game. It’s a simple condition, but it makes Scrolls work in a beautiful way.

Creatures have a countdown ticker, which goes down each turn and triggers an attack at 0. Most units can also be moved once each turn, to any square surrounding them. Getting good at Scrolls is about learning how to time your countdowns and buffs perfectly, but the first skill to learn is positioning. Loading up firepower on a single row can make it pretty much a no-man’s land for your opponent, but leaves you wide open to the same tactic – the better players use loose groupings instead, always leaving spare tiles for movement, that can be instantly focused in a single turn.

Actually getting the army on the field is a matter of resources, which are refilled each turn and can be increased once each turn by sacrificing a scroll. This is a super-smart mechanic that does away with the need for specific ‘energy’ cards, and has yet another twist – scrolls can instead be sacrificed for two more scrolls. You can choose to do either once per turn. What this means is that, after drawing a scroll to start a turn, you will always be able to increase your resources, or get more cards. It stops bottoming out, basically. Anyone who’s ever played a Magic variant will recognise the value in that.

It also means your hand is always active – even if you’re happy with the on-field setup, you can be powering up for future moves. The best players, and that dog Hasu is a master at this, set up low-level structures and creatures early, then enchant and / or destroy them in ways that increase resources. It’s basically an economy push. This gives the breathing space to gather scrolls while fending off early pressure, so by the midgame you’ve hit the big ones and have enough in the bank to start using them. Hasu is a particular fan of the ‘God Hand’ card, word up to my fellow Clover lovers, which sets all of your creatures’ countdown to 0 and increases their attack by 3. Lovely. I’ve lost to that about five times now.

Common themes across the decks are the importance of buffs, which are nearly always the deciding factor in games, along with cheap earlygame structures that act as rush-blocking debris and provide minor boosts. But in terms of how they operate each resource is worlds apart, which is not always a good thing. The Energy deck’s army can often reach a critical mass on the board, where there’s so much artillery flying that everything’s smashed to pieces instantly. But it’s a slow, slow thing to get going.

Growth, on the other hand, has several sneaky routes to some extra early resources, and thus plenty of cheap wolf units. A mid-tier Growth unit, the white wolf, is boosted for every other wolf on the battlefield. So you kind of see where they’re going. Let a Growth player’s unit count get out of hand, and suddenly they’re placing extra-strong monsters on every turn.

Only Order left me a little cold, but that’s perhaps because it’s extremely similar to its Magic equivalent. Low-level knights that buff each other are paired with high-level commanders that buff everyone, and loads of enchanted gear is available to buff things even further. I do enjoy playing as the Order deck, but it lacks some of the fresh ideas the other two bring.

It’s worth noting that my various conquerors nearly all use mixed decks, going with two resources rather than one. One neat touch here is how well the different resources interact, with certain cards even having specific roles to encourage cross-resource play – like an early Growth blocking card, which increases Order by one simply through being placed.

At the moment Scrolls lacks its singleplayer mode, an adventure campaign that the game’s lead designer Jakob Porser puts great stock in. With nothing to go on there, we’ll have to wait and see. That shouldn’t be too long a wait. Porser reckons the game will hit beta and be available for purchase by the end of the year, by which time it will have four resources rather than three. It’s also worth mentioning how you acquire scrolls: gold is earned after each match, which is used to buy new ones in a store, and it’s likely the released version will have the option to buy gold or reward boosters with real cash.

One thing with Scrolls especially struck me: Scrollsbot. This is an AI that I had a few games against, a pretty decent one, and I naturally assumed it was part of the alpha. Turns out it was made by a fan, username of kbasten. Jakob Porser can reel off dozens of other examples of add-ons people have made already, including an offline deck-building app, a ranking tracker, and spectator modes. Porser emphasises that the core game remains sacrosanct, and ironically enough one thing that will be banned is bots, but otherwise Mojang will back community mods and projects all the way. Well after Minecraft, why wouldn’t you?

That’s the unavoidable shadow that will always loom over Scrolls, and probably everything else Mojang do – what’s the Minecraft link? If anything, it’s in how unflashy and focused Scrolls is. It’s a good looking game, but it’s also a hybrid of card-battling and top-down strategy; not the easiest sell, but who cares when you’re sitting on a mountain of cash. Scrolls isn’t about winning another slew of industry awards, revolutionising entertainment or even selling millions of copies. Scrolls is about making a great strategy game out of classic elements, and reinvigorating them with clever rules. So much so that it feels weirdly like a labour of love, or an homage, in certain respects.But let me put it very simply. Do you like card battling or turn-based strategy games? If the answer’s yes, prepare to like Scrolls an awful lot.


  1. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    Erm…yes, please!

    • Chalky says:

      Yeah, I was never really too excited about this game but actually now it’s looking pretty damn good.

  2. ScubaMonster says:

    This game is looking a lot better graphically than previous screens I’ve seen of it.

    • SouperSteve0 says:

      It looks too much like a flash game to me, especially that last picture.

      • Deadly Habit says:

        I never get this “looks like a flash game” argument. Hand dawn western cartoon look to it, but take Japanese devs with typical anime like looks and you don’t get the same argument.

        • MasterDex says:

          You and me both man. What’s really funny is how I never really heard such a complaint about The Binding of Issac when it actually was a flash game.

          Some people just can’t be pleased.

          • Caiman says:

            It’s just become the thoughtless criticism du jour for anyone who thinks a game doesn’t look like a AAA shooter. Spend some time browsing the Greenlight comments section and you’ll soon tire of it. Comes from the same stable of criticism as “Minecraft rip off” if there’s a cube visible anywhere onscreen.

        • Adekan says:

          I don’t get the general dismissive attitude involved with ” Oh it looks like a flash game “. Some of the best games I’ve played have been flash games. The platform a game is developed on shouldn’t have anything to say about the quality. Sure, there are plenty of repetitive time waster flash games, but there are also fun, deeply involving flash games made ( For free, in most cases! ) by talented dedicated teams.

        • Hypocee says:

          Well, it’s a reaction I have sometimes so lump me in with the thoughtless console kiddies I guess. There’s a particular art style strongly encouraged by the Flash art tools – heavy, linear taper vector brushes, gamut banding, Platonic gradients – that’s usually accompanied by the worst of weightless 3D animation jankiness imported to a 2D environment. The game can be great, but it’ll be behind art I don’t want to look at.

          Mind you, these shots don’t trigger it for me.

      • BrendanJB says:

        It’s called vector art, and it’s been around for a lot longer than Flash has.

      • Doz8u says:

        I Agree with you, the last picture looks like a flash game, because of the heavy suggested brush strokes you get from the flash paintbrush.

        Its not necessarily a bad thing though..

    • BathroomCitizen says:

      Let me tell you a story, lad. A story about what it’s bugging me off in its art style: it reminds me of that ol’ Dragon Age flash game that left a terrible scar in my soul that will last forever.

      But the game sounds fine, so… who cares!

    • yurusei says:

      Chances are the graphic style was chosen to accommodate tablets and smartphones.

      Oh yes, I’m going there. This is just the game I’d like to play on a handheld device.

  3. The Random One says:

    So this is one of the Elder Scroll games, right?

    • dongsweep says:

      I don’t know, it is really hard to tell the difference.

      • dustin says:

        This is definitely the next game in the Oblivion series. The owners of Bethesda decided to fold Bethesda and gave Mojang the IP to use from now on.

        If I have any gaming money this year, I’m definitely going to spend it on anything “Mojang” makes instead of anything made by a sham company calling itself “Bethesda”.

    • MrTambourineMan says:

      Did you just mention Bethesda? I’m soooo buying this game, I <3 elder scrolls.

    • Zarunil says:

      Did you just post ‘Elder Scrolls’ in public? Expect to hear from our lawyers!

    • solidsquid says:

      Yeah, it’s the Elder Scrolls Online

  4. Max Ursa says:

    how do i play this in minecraft? i cant find it anywhere.

  5. InternetBatman says:

    If anyone’s interested in fairly good single-player Magic the Gathering, check out Magarena. Get it before they’re sued out of existence.

  6. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    I have to say I’m disappointed that there’s so much similarity with Magic. A pity they haven’t tried to do something more original.

    I would hope for a new setting for sure, but at the very least something more interesting than copy-pasting the red/white/green themes.

    As it is, this could turn to be like MTG: Tactics. Ugh.

    • pakoito says:

      After 15 years of testing and trying, there are few games that do what Magic does with game mechanics, period.

      • Ninja Foodstuff says:

        But I’m not talking about the mechanics, I’m talking about the themes. Surely they can be changed. I mean, c’mon, they could have at least tried to make it different:

        Red is explosive troops – artillery units that sacrifice precision for overwhelming power, waddling cannon bobbleheads, plus a smattering of gunners and goblins. White is knights that boost each other, loads of buffing spells, and legendary heroes, a precision force for driving through packed rows. And Green is about crushing numbers: wolves, rats, barbarians and trolls that accumulate in sudden spurts and can quickly overwhelm more solid foes.

        • TillEulenspiegel says:

          It does sound like a ripoff in that respect, but meh. It’s not something that’s been done a million times before, so it’s at least more interesting than your typical four elements + whatever.

          M:TG is successful for a reason, and those are strategically interesting themes.

        • frenchy2k1 says:

          Depending on your vision of Magic I guess… Magic was anything but uniform, which gave it depth and flavor. Red had goblins for example, and it hard to beat their shtick at being cheap and overwhelming opponents.

          So, you can argue that Magic happened before Scrolls, I cannot really agree with you about the theme. Magic’s themes were Red=Fire/Rock/Destruction, White=humans/knights/order, Black=Death/corruption, Blue=water/illusion and Green=Nature. Some of those crisscross with Mojang, some can apply to all factions.

        • TheMidnightAce says:

          Yeah, except order plays like white, with blue abilities and a smattering of green. Energy plays like… sort of red, but magic doesn’t have ranged units that can’t be retaliated against (ranged units basically negate retaliate/”first strike”). It also has the biggest creatures, something red isn’t known for unless “dragon” is in the title. And growth is sort of like green-lite, because the biggest creatures are in energy. Hold on now, you’re going to flip out… the fourth energy type, if the website give any clues, is Death. But if the other types are any indication, it won’t play -just- like black.

          At this point, you can compare any fantasy games with factions to Magic. Except in Scrolls… you can’t do it really well.

      • AngoraFish says:

        Umm, you sure you’re not talking about Terran, Protoss and Zerg?

        edit: reply fail. Should have been a reply to Ninja.

        • hungrytales says:

          Fail or not it is a spot-on observation. Order=Protoss, Energy=Terran, Growth=Zerg, that’s what struck me right there as soon as I’d read 3rd paragraph.

  7. elfbarf says:

    It seems like they’re still planning for a purchase + microtransaction model which is a load of crap if you ask me. It’s a shame; the game sounds interesting.

    • Delusibeta says:

      Apparently, they gave away a key to the alpha in every copy of the current issue of PC Gamer UK, so I would not be too surprised if they decide to drop the initial buy-in.

  8. FCA says:

    I’m really interested so far, even though I’m not sure I like the microtransactions. Provably inevitable though, given that ccg’s are basically off-line microtransaction based games. Curious though: how long does an average game take?

    • TheMidnightAce says:

      10-30 minutes, depending on a bunch of factors such as player skill, deck quality, etc.

  9. Flavioli says:

    Sounds like it might be more interesting to me than PoxNora was (which seems to be the closest comparison). I just hope you can expand your deck without the need of microtransactions… honestly, I’d love to have it so I could pay once so that any cards (ahem, scrolls) are available for purchase in game, so long as it’s still a challenge to acquire incremental upgrades to my deck. I didn’t care much for PoxNora but let’s see where this one goes.

  10. MrNash says:

    This game pretty much had me at “cards” and “hex grids”. I’m glad to read that the game is turning out well. Very much looking forward to this game. =D

  11. running fungus says:

    Smart commentary. Thanks for the description.

  12. Spoon Of Doom says:

    I was looking forward to this, but it does seem like a step backwards from Skyrim, to be honest. Guess Bethesda are not yet familiar enough with the new engine.

  13. clownst0pper says:

    If they play their cards right, this could be a really ace game.

    Oh wait, they are scrolls…

    • Jahkaivah says:

      The card (or scroll) part, might have it’s obvious inspiration, but the gameboard part seems to be paying hommage to something else.

    • DeanLearner says:

      Thornton Reed: He’s a wild card.
      Dr Lucien Sanchez: Then I’m glad he’s in our deck.
      Thornton Reed: Let’s hope he plays a fair hand.
      Dr Lucien Sanchez: He’ll come up trumps.
      Thornton Reed: If, there’s not a joker in the pack… and sometimes there is.

  14. salejemaster says:

    this looks amazing, I really like the graphics, don’t get why peeps are complaining :)

  15. hjd_uk says:

    That shop owner looks like she needs a holiday.
    “I could have been an adventuer, y’know, but I flunked out of the acadamy and started working in my dad’s shop.. been here ever since”

    • Jahkaivah says:

      Her dad never have left her that debt, she’s been stuck trying to pay it off for a long time now.

  16. Retorrent says:

    Nice I really like how this game is shaping up, even the new screen shots look much better then what a saw a while back! I started playing Magic back in 93 and I loved every minute of it ,sadly these days I don’t have the time or resources to keep up with it. I hope scrolls will fill that void I tried the PC version of Magic and did not care for it all that much it. I know this will also be a pc game but it sounds more interesting.

  17. vonkrieger says:

    Looks good but is it going to cost as much as magic to play?

  18. Radiant says:

    The only deck based card game I really clicked with was the wonderful Metal Gear Acid set of games on the PSP.

    I think that was mostly due to the modern action setting.
    I didn’t even know it was a card game when I bought it; it bloody stealthed me.

    Fantasy styled card games can go throw themselves down some stairs there’s so many of them now.