CCG Week: Faeria

By Tof Eklund 14 Sep 2016 4

Oh, the anxiety and ecstasy of influence. You can see it etched into Abrakam’s CCG-boardgame Faeria. Faeria innovates boldly in some ways but takes other mechanics wholesale, gleefully drawing inspiration from its roots one moment, and timidly echoing convention the next.

To fully appreciate what’s going on with digital CCGs post-Hearthstone, one has to look back at what happened in the first CCG boom. I still remember my first deck of Magic: The Gathering cards. It was Beta edition, if that means anything to you, and one of my friends who bought a deck at the same time got an Alpha starter. A “starter” - I wasn’t thinking of my deck as a “starter” back then, I was assuming I’d trade some of my cards with my friends and we’d play with our decks and that would be it. Back then, you didn’t “collect” card games, that was something people who cared about sports did with baseball cards. It’s this perfect crystal of a memory for me, because soon after, everything changed.

The commercial success of Magic led to a boom of CCGs, though at that point we were mostly caling them TCGs (Trading Card Games), because it took a while for us to realize that cards were intentionally being allowed to go out of print and become collectors’ items, a wave Wizards of the Coast rode until $500 valuations of rare cards led them to come up with new tournament rules that made all but the most recent card sets ineligible for serious play. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

That first wave of CCGs after Magic copied nearly all of it’s mechanics. “Tapping” became common language for about five minutes, but then Wizards of the Coast obtained or began to enforce their trademark on “tap,” and a broad range of more-or-less similar terms proliferated: crank, turn, tilt, exhaust, etc. That was far from all: other CCG borrowed Magic’s all-at-once no-map combat, summoning sickness, turn order, rarity, mana system, summoning sickness, counter-spells, ante (even though no-one ever played for ante outside of tournaments), and everything else.

There were a few standouts, including Richard Garfield’s second CCG, Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (which went out of print in 2010, but still has "official" tournaments and sanctioned print-your-own expansions), and Illuminati: New World Order, which expanded on Steve Jackson Games’ stand-alone Illuminati game - undervalued classics, both. Over time, the CCGs that survived, like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, settled into a certain set of genre conventions and deviated from Magic in the different ways, but at the same places. I’m oversimplifying, but this is kind-of where digital CCGs are now viz-a-viz Hearthstone, the runaway hit in the genre.

Many are copying Heathstone as fully as they think they can get away with, and are resultingly doomed to failure and obscurity, but some are much more thoughtful and measured in what they take from Blizzard’s flashy, accessible formula, looking for the revised foundations of the CCG formula and differing in some very interesting ways. Faeria is one such game, and it achieves it’s distinctions in part by drawing on turn-based strategy (as does Duelyst, another interesting experiment with the genre), but also in some interesting ways by harking back to Magic itself.

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In the words of Yogi Berra, "it's like deja vu all over again."

Faeria has collectable cards, of course, rarity, and crafting (it and Duelyst both adopt Hearthstone’s rarity and card pack systems as-is), and different factions, but the first and most dramatic thing it does is return land to CCG play. Faeria is played on a hex map, but it starts out as an empty ocean, then the dueling gods (yes, you play as a god in this game) being to fill it with land. That’s a tidy religious reference there, Elohim hovering over the waters, and while the dueling-gods motif is paper thin, it feels just a little like Populous, even as the role of land is to allow spellcasting and - this is key - to control space, more like Go or Settlers of Catan than a “god game.” You can only summon creatures to land you control, and then only to their land type (Mountains, Deserts, Lakes, and Forests), so getting your land placed close to the enemy god is one of the keys to victory. Complicating this is that land doesn’t give you Faeria (mana), it provides prerequisites, so a two-mountain three-Faeira card costs three mana but can only be played if you control at least two mountains.

Players get three mana/turn, and some cards give mana, but there are also Faeria Wells at each of the four corners of the hexagon not occupied by gods. Mana is accumulated from turn to turn, not use-it-or-lose-it, a huge change compared to nearly every CCG from Magic to Hearthstone. This makes controlling the Faeria Wells on your side of the board and seizing at least one of your opponent’s a path to victory, but it conflicts directly with building a bridge to attack your rival. Add in the additional layer of creature movement, normally one hex/turn but affected by specials like flying, aquatic, and charge, and you have an interesting boardgame even apart from the CCG element.

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Highly improbable distributions of land abound in Puzzle mode.

There are other nuances, including the way you don’t draw land, you play one of your choice per turn, or two Plains (basic land that only neutral armies can be summoned to) or draw an extra card or gain an extra mana. but land-placement is the key difference between Faeria and all other CCGs out there right now. You could remove the decks, add in a perfectly symmetrical set of creatures and spells (“Events”), and it would still be an interesting game.

This says to me that we’ve reached a key point of maturity with CCGs: they’re well-established enough and familiar enough that people are ready to cross them with other genres in serious ways: Faeria is far from the first CCG with a strategic map, but it’s the first one I know of with a fully-developed board-game side to play. Much like we now have a broad range of hybrid RPGs, including You Must Build a Boat and Card Crawl, Faeria is a boardgame-CCG hybrid, and there will be more crossbreeds to come, like the way that the Gwent mod makes The Witcher 3 into a RPG-CCG.

An increased emphasis on single player comes naturally with this hybridity. There’s so much more that can be done to make a game against a computer opponent interesting. Hearthstone has it’s Solo Adventures, but they’ve always seemed a bit odd to me, as the costs and incentives are such that they’re mainly something that players have to pay for and work through to get cards that they want for multiplayer.

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Tarum thinks he's so slick with his free round-one Faeria trees. Well, I've got you this time, oak-boy.

I’d love a Faeria campaign. It doesn’t exist, yet (Faeria’s still in Early Access), but there’s a thread of narrative through Faeria’s extensive set of single-player quests and puzzles, and the Codex allows you to quickly and easily build competent decks. The Codex is my second-favorite thing about Faeria: It consists of twenty blocks of six cards each: select any five to make a deck. You unlock the Codex cards by playing tutorial games for each color/land type in the game, and they’re not all common cards: the only rarity you won’t see is the top one “Legendary,” full of unique characters, just like in Hearthstone. Each Codex block has a theme, and cards that make sense together.

You play with and against Codex decks in the tutorial single-player games, but the Codex is more than a tutorial. First, as you can use a Codex deck just like any other, it gives new players a way to jump right into multiplayer with a deck that will be competitive a low ranks and allows for basic strategies like Forest “buff,” Dessert “mobility,” and Faeria’s relatively-unique Mountain “combat = mana gain.” Second, Faeria allows one to use up to three copies of each card in a deck, but Codex blocks are all two copies each of three cards, so the Codex demonstrates the value of deck diversity.

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It's like a Lego hexmap of magical destruction.

Perhaps most of all, building decks with the Codex is fresh, fast, and fun. I’d buy a premium game that used something like Faeria’s Codex, with more advanced blocks being unlocked through play and balanced against basic blocks by being higher risk/reward or requiring combos to unlock their potential. Faeria does something like this as part of their laudable commitment to “Fair Pricing:” you can buy a complete playing set of the core cards (everything currently available) for $50, and if you do, all the packs you’ve purchased (with real money or in-game Gold) are refunded to you as Gold (to spend on cosmetic features or the first expansion, when it comes out).

Along with “Fair Pricing,” Faeria also promises “Fair Grinding,” meaning it’s considerably more generous with card packs, Gold, and Pandora Coins (draft mode tickets) than any other CCG I’ve played on the Hearthstone model. Sure, some fully-monetized FTP games give their cannon fodder tons of low and mid-level cards, but those games also keep all of the best stuff for the whales. Faeria doesn’t pull that crap.

On top of that, Faeria also does some original things with draft mode, as you can “Enter Pandora” with a Phantom Coin or a Pandora Coin. Rewards are better and you can have a longer run with the premium Pandora coins, but everyone gets a free Phantom coin every day if they don’t have any, allowing players with less money to start a new draft run every day. The end result is that, though I haven’t spent a dime yet, if I do go for the full unlock, I’ll be getting enough Gold back to buy over 50 packs of the first expansion… which could very well entice me into playing for a full unlock of it. That’s a heck of a way to convert freeloaders into customers who’re paying AAA prices for a game, assuming Abrakam’s doesn't go bankrupt first.

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This is literally the first time that I’ve ever wondered if a digital CCG was being too generous.

Faeria’s draft mode isn’t just accessible to all players, it also alters the basic rules of the game in ways that make playing in Pandora unique. There’s a mid-game shift that alters mana gain and gives both players powerful Treasures that add a balanced assymetrical set of “trumps” to the game (by “trumps” I mean “cards that are more powerful than the rest,” not “frighteningly unstable politicians” - you have to spell these things out, nowadays). Choosing which Treasures to draft has a lot to do with your deck, but also says something about the player. My personal favorite is Iona’s Mirror, which gives you two copies of the last Treasure your opponent played.

Faeria’s weak spots are style and lore. I don’t much care for Hearthstone’s supersaturated “everything is epic” with-a-dash-of-cute art, and Faeria’s art, while exceptionally well-done, is very much in the same vein. At it’s best, the art for Faeria is breathtakingly beautiful and finds it’s own style, but too often it has a “me too” quality that makes the game look more like Hearthstone than it is. This might be intentional, part of a strategy to draw in Hearthstone players and show them a better time than they were having with Blizzard’s CCG.

It feels like there should be more of a world to Faeria, with it’s warring gods building (rebuilding?) continents, and whatever-the-heck Pandora is stirring in it’s sleep, but it doesn’t hold together. There are different kinds of creatures, of which the froggy Triton warriors might be the most original, but far more are utterly generic: hulking Ogres, aqutic Merfolk, angry Bears... and then there are the uncomfortably colonial “Tiki” pygmies and the even-more awkward mix of demons and Arabic religous zealots you can summon in the Desert… yeah, I’ll come right out and say it. The worldbuilding’s terrible, and as much as I want a campaign, I’m frankly afraid that the story might make things worse, not better.

But I’m at my snobbiest when it comes to story and worldbuilding, neither of which are tentpoles for CCGs or Board Games. Stylistic cliches aside, Faeria’s a remarkable game both for what it is and what it says about where CCGs, at least the best ones,are going.

Faeria is in Early Access on Steam, and “coming soon” to iOS and Android.

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