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Hands On: Scrolls

Roll one up

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.

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