What would happen if the nerds who play collectible-card games challenged the nerds who play real-time strategy games to a fight? Given that we're both kinds of nerds, we feel pretty safe in saying that basically nothing would happen, other than an empty threat or two and some awkward silence. EA Phenomic has decided to focus on a conflict that people might actually want to see with BattleForge, a hybrid game that will offer the base-building and marching armies of real-time strategy games, plus the card-hoarding and deck-building strategy of a collectible-card game. The result: more or less what we just played at a recent press event.
In our time with the game, we had the opportunity to play with a fully unlocked account with access to all cards in the game from all four colored suits: frost (blue), fire (red), nature (green), and shadow (purple). These four colors all contain creatures, structures, and shiny magic spell effects that are in keeping with the theme of each color's abilities. Fire, as you might imagine, is very offense-focused and has many ferocious melee fighters and combustion-based magics; frost is defense-focused and has many heavily armored troops and freezing spells; nature is focused on healing; and shadow brings undead armies and unstable bonuses (which both help and hurt their user) to the table.
Our session with the game began with some cooperative multiplayer scenarios, which we played with a preset nature deck. BattleForge is primarily an online multiplayer game (there are no computer-controlled bot players that you can use to fill out a multiplayer session), so the game has a central interface reminiscent of an online game lobby, from which you can jump to buying card packs online, auctioning cards, messaging your friends, and getting into a co-op game. Starting up a co-op session is a matter of finding your friends online and inviting them to a group, which persists outside of a match. The player who creates a multiplayer session is considered the group leader and decides which maps to play next. For the purposes of our multiplayer session, every mission on the game's overworld map was made available, including numerous four-player maps, a few smaller duel-size maps, and the largest six-versus-six multiplayer maps, which we unfortunately did not get a chance to try.
Our co-op session was less than successful, largely because we and our fellow players were new to the game and were less interested in following the mission objectives (there are specific, location-based objectives on every map) and more interested in fooling around with our cards and spells. As we quickly learned, nature is perhaps the gentlest of all of BattleForge's colors, but it can be a resilient combatant, and with enough creatures gathered together using the game's "select all" command (keyboard "="), even the soft-spoken forces of nature can pose a strong threat--especially if you're a greedy jerk who steals all of the resources.
The first of BattleForge's two resources is an ever-increasing generic magic pool, which you use to summon more creatures, structures, and magic spells. You can increase this pool by discovering and capturing additional magic towers. You start off most matches with two towers in your possession, as well as a single monument. The monument is the game's second resource, and you can capture and attune these to one of the four colors to grant you an additional magic point of that color, which can then help you satisfy the casting cost of either more-expensive cards of the same color or cards of a different color.
For instance, playing a purely green deck, we had several low-level cards that required only a single green monument point as a prerequisite to summon, but we also had several higher-level critters that required us to have two, three, or even four green-attuned monuments under our control to bring into play. Monument capture will be especially important for players who build decks with more than one color; even though playing both blue and red in the same deck gives you more flexibility, you'll also need at least one blue-attuned monument and one red-attuned monument to start summoning cards of both colors.
In our brief time in co-op, we found that the game seems to start with the typical real-time strategy pace of churning out a couple of cheap units and immediately sending them out to explore new territory that starts out shrouded by black fog of war. This pace changes once you store up a pile of magic-pool points and definitely increases once you capture a monument or two to unlock higher-level cards with more-expensive requirements. BattleForge lets you summon friendly units and structures anywhere near either a friendly ground unit (flying units don't count) or a friendly building. And you can do this summoning immediately, without having to click on a base to select it, queue it up, and push it out along a waypoint.
The net effect is that once a fight breaks out in enemy territory that you've scouted, you can summon a bunch of armies right there as long as you have some ground troops in the area. This means that you can summon as many armies as you can afford to summon immediately, as well as any defensive towers if you care to set up a perimeter on the fly, say, around some newly captured towers and monuments. You can also try to get cute by sneaking a single unit around enemy territory to get yourself line of sight (so that you can instantly summon an army in the vicinity on your enemy's flank), but most of BattleForge's maps seem to be designed around choke points that stop this kind of sneaky behavior and force conflicts instead.
After we got through a handful of co-op sessions, we then struck out on our own, first playing with the deck editor to put together what were probably the worst BattleForge decks ever created, considering our limited experience. The deck editor lets you delete, edit, and create decks by simply dragging and dropping whichever cards are in your collection into your deck for use in later play; there's even a "sandbox" mode that also lets you drag and drop the critters, buildings, and spells from each card into a real-time, "safe" environment to see how they move and perform in practice.
Presumably, the best decks will strike a balance between cards that are inexpensive to bring into play to start the game, expensive and powerful critters that can be brought out later to turn the tide of battle, and a handful of structures and spell effects that can be used to augment whichever strategy you're going after. For instance, frost has several cards that can heap defensive bonuses on units, and nature has cards that can heal units, so a frost/nature deck could conceivably be built around cheap creatures that can take a pounding because they're constantly being protected by frost spells and healed by nature spells. Shadow has several cards that are keyed off of the number of enemy corpses on the battlefield, and fire has several explosively damaging spells that affect all enemies in an area, so a fire/shadow deck could be targeted to blast as many critters in one place as possible, and then bring in corpse-enhanced creatures to benefit from the carnage with additional attack power.
This unusual and distinctive real-time strategy/card game hybrid is currently in a beta-testing state. BattleForge is scheduled for release next month.