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.