This is the first of several articles about SolForge. This series is aimed at designers, producers, and developers in the industry. This specific article is aimed primarily at game designers who have not examined SolForge. Feedback welcome!
SolForge is turn-based, featuring creatures battling against each other in the tradition of Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic the Gathering. Unlike those games, where combat is very free-wheeling (with attacks, blocks, surprises, and spells midcombat), SolForge features a structured playspace. Creatures are played into one of five lanes, and each turn they will battle with the opponent’s creature in that lane. If there isn’t one there, they attack the opposing player instead. Players start at 100 Health; reduce your opponent to 0 and you win the game.
There are only two types of cards in SolForge:
- Creatures, which battle
- Spells, which impact creatures and players
Creatures in this game feature much more permanence than in other TCGs:
- Damage on creatures doesn’t go away each turn.
- Spells that boost stats and grant abilities are not “enchantments” or similar that can later be removed.
- Compare to Magic the Gathering, where Creature Enchantments are extremely risky plays because of the “destroy-two-cards-with-one-in-response” problem. Since you can’t play cards during your opponent’s turn, you are certain to get at least *some* value out of your spell before the creature dies.
- EXAMPLE: Jet Pack gives a combat bonus and some mobility. It looks like “equipment” but it really is just a spell in this game.
Because there are no resource cards in this game, deck building is relatively easy at first. Pick cards you like that might go well together, and go. There are a few restrictions:
- The deck must contain exactly 30 cards, with no more than 3 copies of any one card.
- The deck can’t have more than two factions (colors) of cards in the deck.
- Since there are no land or energy cards in the game, this is the easiest way to enforce some separation of abilities and powers. Without this restriction, the game would likely degenerate into a small handful of decks that take the best cards from each faction.
- Generally, players play with 16 to 22 creatures and 8 to 14 spells. The selections depend on the style of deck — more creatures for aggressive decks, more spells for the controlling decks.
At the start of the game, each player draws five cards. The turn sequence is pretty simple:
- “Start of turn” effects happen, including “defensive” creatures no longer being “defensive.”
MAIN – in any order
- You may play a card.
- You may play a second card, unless you are the first player and it is your first turn.
- You may use the “Activate” ability on any of your creatures, but not if they are “defensive.”
- Initiate Battle. Each creature that is not “defensive” attacks the opposing creature in the same lane.
- If a creature is attacked, it deals damage back to the opposing creature. (Even the defensive ones.)
- Damage on creatures carries over from turn to turn, giving your small creatures a chance to whittle away at large opposing enemies.
- If there isn’t an opposing creature there, they attack the opposing player instead.
- “End of turn” effects happen.
- Discard your hand.
- Every fourth turn you “level up,” reshuffling your deck and discard pile into a new deck. (See below.)
- Draw five cards.
- Because your deck is 30 cards and you see five cards a turn, you are very likely to see the cards you need during the course of the game.
What Happens When You Play A Card
If you play a creature, it starts “on the defensive.” That means it won’t attack when you or your opponent click the Battle button. However, if something attacks into it (for instance, an opponent’s creature played on a prior turn) then your creature will still fight back.
If you play a spell, you pay whatever costs and select whatever targets are necessary, then the spell’s effect happens. While there aren’t mana costs in SolForge, some powerful spells require something extra. (For instance, destroying one of your own creatures to destroy one of your opponent’s creatures.)
The Upgrade System
After you play a card, an upgraded version of that card is put into your discard pile. In this way, the cards you play early “level up” so when you draw them again on a future turn they will be stronger than before. This is a major innovation, something that gives a ton of gameplay depth and complexity while not requiring land cards or mana costs.
Some cards are better than normal in their Level 1 forms — a creature with 7 attack and health instead of the normal 4 or 5. To make up for this, the Level 2 or Level 3 versions might not be as good “as normal.” Or a card could have a poor Level 2 and a game-winning Level 3… playing the card means your deck has great late-game potential but it might let you down in the midgame.
This video by Stone Blade Entertainment shows the basics of gameplay. (3 minutes)
This video by a tournament player shows a complex game. (20 minutes)
There are seven keywords that quickly encapsulate many things that can be done to and with creatures. Every keyword is hotlinked for details during game play, but once you get the hang of it things all intermingle quickly and easily.
Armor # prevents the first # damage each turn. Generally found on Alloyin creatures (Forge Guardian Beta) and directly countered by some Nekrium cards through their use of stat reduction.
Mobility # allows a creature to move once during its owner’s turn, turn up to # slots away. Generally found on Tempys (Everflame Phoenix) and Nekrium creatures (Soul Drinker). There are not any direct counters to mobility, other than playing creatures who can block and survive.
Aggressive allows a creature to attack right away, skipping the Defensive state entirely. Generally found on Tempys creatures (Lightning Wyrm), and they usually don’t have much health. A smart answer is to play with cards that spawn additional creatures, even small ones — Uterra has many ways to do this.
Regenerate # allows a creature to regain # health at the start of each turn. (Both players, including at the start of opponent’s turns.) This ability is usually found on Uterra creatures, which also has ways to boost stats over time. Regen creatures are stopped by Nekrium, who has the ability to kill-on-any-damage (Blight Walker) or kill-with-spell (Dreadbolt, Cull the Weak, Death Current)
Breakthrough creatures (Deepbranch Prowler) deal damage to creatures that block them, and then deal damage to the player equal to the amount of extra damage. There aren’t many direct counters to this strategy, other than playing creatures with lots of health (some of the Tempys ones) or cards that reduce power (Nekrium).
Poison # deals # damage to a creature at the start of each turn. (Importantly, regeneration happens first.) This is a negative-keyword, given to opponent’s creatures through your card effects (Cadaverous Thicket). At first, this was a relatively-minor keyword as its effects are usually too slow to matter much, but there have been many cards released that key off of Poison (Dissolve).
Defender creatures (Glacial Colossus) never initiate combat. While they will battle an opposing creature that attacks it, it won’t start that fight. This means it can’t ever attack the opposing player, either. Defenders are not generally worth countering directly, though Tempys has the tools to do so. (And in draft, it is an effective strategy to give your opponent’s creatures the Defender keyword with some cards, which then make those removal spells very efficient!)
SWOT ANALYSIS FOR GAMEPLAY
Side Note: SWOT Analysis is a method used to describe a series of Strengths and Weaknesses (internal), and Opportunities and Threats (external). More information about SWOT can be found on Wikipedia.
Smart play is rewarded, while not required to begin playing.
The basic structure of a turn is dead-simple. Play two cards, battle when you want, end the turn. However, knowing what to play and when to play it is discovered through play over time. Knowing when to put creatures in the way to fight — and when to choose one card over another for its second- and third-level versions are key.
You see your whole deck.
Because you discard your hand and draw 5 cards every turn, and because you reshuffle every four turns, players will see 66% of their deck within the first four turns of the game and 96% of the deck within length of an average game (12 turns). While you see your whole deck throughout the game, you might not see the cards when you need them most…
Sideboarding happens while you play.
In many trading card games, players build a deck to play and an additional side deck called a “sideboard.” Players swap cards between their main deck and sideboard between games in a tournament match. Sideboards allow players to have answers to deal with problematic cards in the game, while not diluting their main deck too much.
In SolForge, you can put a “counter card” into your deck to stop a strategy while not watering down your own plan. In theory, for a wider array of strategies to develop because players can bring counter cards to beat down the top decks while still pushing their own strategies. In practice, there weren’t many cards in existence for this sort of metagame plan on the game’s release… but they have been adding them over time.
The keyword icon system is simple and intuitive.
Simple keywords used in interesting ways makes for creatures with small amounts of rules text hiding layers of complexity and depth.
Creatures attack every turn – the game feels fast.
Creatures battle. Other than the turn you play them and your opponent’s turn after that, every creature attacks every turn. This game is about creatures battling, and there isn’t much that happens away from that.
The combination of keywords and stats, and how they change per level, make for interesting designs
Commons and uncommons (which this game calls “rare”) are generally boring in most TCGs, mostly to keep complexity down for players’ first experience. By adding the depth of levels and the breadth of the keywords, and with smart design in each of the four colors, there is a wide array of creatures to learn and explore without a large amount of work per card. Most TCGs do not manage to make so many things so interesting with so few moving parts.
Not a lot of “game space.”
The strength of the creatures in the beginning also becomes a weakness in card design long term. There are creatures, and there are spells that impact those creatures. There are extremely few effects that go beyond that. There are a few cards that let you level up a card even though you haven’t played it, and a few cards that make other cards “free” (i.e. you can play it as an additional card beyond your first two) — but that’s about it. In addition, you can’t interact with your opponent’s turn at all — this is a weakness for “interactivity” (while also being a strength for “simplicity”). The game’s limited scope is a potential problem in the medium- and long-term for development.
Winning usually happens by drawing and playing the highest-level cards the most.
While this is not all of it — smart decisions and good deckbuilding both matter — drawing and playing your level 2 and level 3 cards more than your opponent usually means you will win. Since you only see two-thirds of your deck each time you shuffle, and since you can’t be assured of an even distribution of those higher-powered cards throughout the game, luck plays a large role in determining the outcome. Smartly, the luck is hidden behind very skill-intensive game design, but the luck is still very present.
This phenomenon is very present in their “draft” format. There are many cards, particularly spells, that mitigate the issues around underleveling. If you don’t see them in your draft, you can’t include them, and that makes the problem very present. This article by Chad Ellis describes the problem, and some ways to mitigate it.
There are many potential inspirations for SolForge cards. Since the game mythos is unique yet familiar, and since the gameplay features progression in a way that mirrors that of good storytelling, almost any form of mass media could be used as an inspiration for SolForge cards. In fact, a skin of the game could be quickly created to work with existing IPs. (The initial design of Marvel Universe-SolForge almost writes itself.)
QUESTIONS TO ASK
Because of the nature of the gameplay, SolForge has the opportunity to track and query player behavior to determine game balance and favored card designs:
- Which cards, when played, have the highest chance of leading that player to victory?
- Which cards are included in decks but are played the least?
- What is the percentage chance that a card is played when it is drawn? (In other words, how often is it chosen to be played over other cards?)
- Which cards aren’t played in constructed tournaments?
- Which cards are picked in a draft tournament but never (or rarely) played?
- What is the average turn a game ends per card? (For instance, in games with decks containing Dreadbolt, when does the game normally end? What about those with both Dreadbolt and Grimgaunt Predator?)
GAMEPLAY SCORE: B+
The core game design is outstanding, but its flaws do show up through repeated play. This game takes about two minutes to learn, which is an outstanding quality for a TCG to have. I believe that the “underleveling” problem is one that should be addressed through card design. It could also be addressed with rules changes to mitigate the damage of an underleveled hand. (Compare to “mulligans” in Magic when you have a bad opening hand. Something similar could happen for bad “level two” hands.)