I am the Little Red Rabbit Hoodlum, a fluffy-eared cleric armed with a legion of suicidal bunnies and ravenous mushroom people. My opponent is a knight in shining armor, who practically gleams with self-righteous pomposity, her hair a flaxen banner in the imagined sun. She laughs when she sees me and my army of floof, not knowing that she stands no chance.
Hex: Shards of Fate is a trading card game that will feel like home for anyone who has ever enjoyed Magic the Gathering. It has minions to summon, enchantments to dole out, counterspells to launch, and even five resource types to make use of. The world is a fantastical one, obviously, with shamanistic coyotes and spider-creatures and my favorite, the ultra-violent shin'hare. Although the universe is replete with dwarves, elves, and humans, it also features a parasitic alien consciousness capable of dragging the dead back into unliving.
Back in my match, I call the runts of a recent litter, mewling devils hellbent on carving a place in our society. I summon the Shroomshaws, which are manned by pudgy fungal creatures. My opponent does not respond. I picture her crinkling her nose at their smallness, at the idea of such cuteness being a threat. But then, things begin to accelerate, and the Shroomshaws become Battle Hoppers emboldened by command towers and armored generals. Squalling babes become a menace, grunts become a maddened force of nature. The knight goes down, down like the Titanic, down like a mug of hot cocoa on a cold winter's night.
Like I said, she never stood stand a chance.
There’s a lot of stuff going on in Hex. Cool stuff. But after more than septupling its Kickstarter target, Cryptozoic Entertainment isn’t stopping there. It doesn’t want you to just beat up your friends, or spend exorbitant amounts of money cultivating the perfect deck. It doesn’t just want to be the next big contender in the TCG ring. It wants you to experience an MMO, except with rectangular slivers of digital cardboard. Sort of.
“So, “ Cryptozoic Entertainment President Cory Jones tells me over Skype. “When most people think MMO, they think third-person action RPG, right?”
Right. I nod unseen, my side of the looking glass, even as I debate telling him that when I think MMO, I think Barrens chat and people awkwardly attempting to copulate in weird corners of Silvermoon.
“Virtual world, I run around, I see other people. That is not what Hex is. So, when I say MMO, I’m really talking about all the components that represent community building.”
He goes on to describe the cornerstones of the game, which is being billed as an MMO-TCG. Hex, Jones says, is about people. He details how there will be guilds, guild chat, and the opportunity to trade decks between guild members. In theory, it will be possible to put a deck in a guild bank and come back to dozens of notes, each explaining a different way to make your little pack of cards even better.
The world of Hex is rough-edged and a little empty right now. When you open the program, it propels you into a standard-looking screen. Stars twinkle in a velvety abyss, framed by jagged rocks. A menacing armored figure, its eyes like bits of hot coal, glares at you from the left of the scene, cape whipping dramatically in the wind. A row of icons at the top provide access to the essentials: PvP options, the auction house, access to tournaments and the proving grounds, and so forth.
It’s a realm that is obviously still being put together. The Feng Shui of the interface looks ill-considered, the font a placeholder ripped from a toolbox in the middle of a night. Nonetheless, the environment bustles with life. Chat channels are filled with, er, chat, with people exchanging tips and tricks, with people cursing. If there was a Wild West of cards, this may well be it. The only things missing right now are certain PvE components.
Hex plans to eventually introduce dungeons and raids, multiplayer events that will allow you to Leeroy straight into the heart of battle, complete with a few frightened friends in tow. Jones says the company is taking baby steps, however, instead of simply unleashing the full library of encounters in one fell swoop.
The first on the company’s list of releases: an arena.
“We have a whole big story cooked up around this colosseum-type arena. We created a character, we have an entire story around it, he interacts with you, summons into existence these various opponents who are famous figures from Hex lore,” Jones gushes.
There will be four stages, according to Jones, and a total of 20 encounters. Players will be able to lose a certain number of times before they’re made to depart from gladiatorial combat, their winnings in hand. Six bosses (and an easter egg character) will sometimes drop in, just to make your afternoon exercises that much more difficult.
Baby steps, Jones stresses again, noting that the arena won’t contain the “really deep sort of game changing and puzzle-y elements” that will define the dungeons. Instead, the arena is meant to follow the pick-up-and-play paradigm, a quick one-two as you bustle about your daily schedule. But once that’s done and dealt with, meatier features will follow, including mercenaries who are pre-generated champions you can use in lieu of your own and then, dungeons themselves.
Which sound like they’re going to be totally rad. Jones tells me that each dungeon will have between 5 to 20 encounters, and there will be opponents who alter the rules of the game. Opponents that will steal your characters from your deck. Opponents that will change how your cards work. And there are 40 - count ‘em - of these dungeons queued up, eight of which are “story dungeons” that will tell the story of Hex, and all rife with storytelling and lore.
Magic: the Gathering is in the genetic make-up of Hex: Shards of Fate. It shows in the structure in the cards, in the layout of the turns, in the little scraps of flavor text, the flow of certain decks. The important question here is: does it mimic or does it innovate?
It’s hard to say, honestly. If you want to be a cynic, you may find yourself wanting to go with the former. But Hex: Shards of Fate does feel like it’s own creature, after you’ve spent enough time poking through its innards. Born from the same field, maybe, but still a beast of its own making. The variations are subtle, however, more to do with feel than anything that can be clearly illustrated. The most salient difference is the more ponderous rhythm to the turns. Magic: the Gathering blazes along like a wildfire, ready to consume anyone not quick-witted enough to pull out the right instant at the right time. Hex tethers its players, makes it a point to have everyone pay attention to what’s going on, why it’s going on, and how it’s all going to go down.
Hex is a scavenger, a chimera, a Frankenstein beauty made up of ideas taken from a myriad of different places. One of the game’s defining traits is character building, which entails exactly what you might have suspected already: talent points and upgrades and more equipment than you shake a sleeve at.
“I feel like that component of the game, where I get to build a character, where I get to solve all these great puzzle-y challenges and dungeons, and I get the exploration component through the lens of a TCG?” enthuses Jones. “That's exciting and new, and something no one has seen before.”
As is the case with such things, we inch into slightly more awkward territory. Earlier this year, Wizards of the Coast and Cryptozoic Entertainment got into a spat about whether Hex was an imitation of Magic: the Gathering. The first obviously said yay, while the other said nay. And the two have been quietly duking it out behind the scenes since then. After fumbling over the question for a few minutes, I ask the inevitable: What is the latest update on that front?
“So far, nothing has really changed from the beginning of this,” says Jones. I could almost hear the shrug in his voice. “I mean, I think we made it pretty clear from moment one that we feel like this is unmerited and we've done a good job in all of our briefings, outlining why we believe that Hex is very very different.”
“The irony of this for me is - “ He sighs. “ - that I feel like I struggle every day with managing the innovation of this game and to be thrust into a situation, to be accused of all the things we've been accused of is so surreal when I spend so much time every day paying the price for innovating and trying to create a new category of game. It's difficult to wrap your head around a bit but we're on that long road that the US legal system has in place to settle things like this.”
Needless to say, Jones is also confident that Cryptozoic Entertainment will emerge “vindicated” from the fray.
Ah, the coyote.
My old nemesis. My champions growl from behind their herbivorous facade, eager to sink incisors into the shaman’s pelt and marrow. He brings out his sorcerers, his dreamers, his aerial fliers. I pull out a mushroom monster, gorged on the bones of my army’s children.