The Game I Should Have Played
I remember seeing PoxNora at SOE Live a few years ago. At the time, I was excited to get an initial look at PlanetSide 2, which was then in the later stages of development. PoxNora had been around for several years even at that time, and I remember thinking that I should go check it out, but I didn’t. Well, I corrected that former mistake this year at PAX South, and I was pretty impressed by what I found.
PoxNora is a bit of a hard game to write about. The graphics are a little dated, so while the team boasts some fantastic artists, the translation from drawn to digital is a little jarring. The concept art definitely has roots in the CCG world, and I’m pretty sure I recognize some of the styles from my old high school days. That said, it can be a little tough to get past graphics that probably weren’t cutting edge when the game first came out.
Over eight years since initial release though, and PoxNora is still running strong. A claim very few other games can make, which is what initially interested me in giving the game another look. What I found was a game with a tremendous amount of personal nostalgia. I played collectible card games and tabletop a lot in high school and college, and I’ve found a lot of what I enjoyed from those other games in PoxNora.
I also found a game with a strong community and a development team that has given their community a lot of opportunities to contribute. The game’s version of the collectable card, called runes, have expanded over the years. To help introduce new players to the game’s factions and mechanics, the community worked with the developers to create a series of decks. Each deck is free to new players who work their way through the tutorial and “Walkthrough Campaigns.”
Their latest expansion “The Ronin” adds new runes, maps, and new single-player campaign, which made me wonder how they handled depreciating older runes. The old CCGs I played back in the day would roll out a new expansion periodically, and then slowly ban the oldest expansions from play. The result is a system of slowly evolving rules that also maintain a steady income stream.
At the PAX South booth, I brought that system up and asked how PoxNora addresses the same issue. Errata can be addressed in a digital environment easily, but consistently keeping the game slightly imbalanced in favor of newer runes can’t be easy, even in a digital medium. It so happens that they don’t even try with PoxNora. The oldest runes are just as viable now as the newer runes.
The draw to buy new blister packs I think is mostly the desire to complete collections and try building new decks. Much like my friends and I built theme decks in our Magic: The Gathering days, I expect you see the same here with PoxNora. The genius behind their revenue model is that you get a couple of the runes from the new expansion, and that generates the desire to have more. There’s no need to eliminate the old, because human nature is to desire the new.
All of that is just sort of setting the stage for why this game caught my attention more than expected, though. If you can look past the graphics, you find a game with a certain unexpected sophistication. It’s not as high-budget as a game like Call of Duty with all the flash and show massive starting capital avails you of. Instead, this game relies on the depth of content and the creativity of the other players to create appeal.
A lot of the complexity in the game starts at just the runes. You can just use one of the starting decks, but eventually the fun is in building your own and trying out new ideas. Runes come in a variety of types and functions. The basic creature summoning and direct damage spells of other similar games are there, but PoxNora goes even further.
Some runes allow you to summon stationary tile enhancements that provide various bonuses to Nora-production, which is the mana-like substance used for summoning and playing other runes. Other runes might give a bonus to all friendly creatures nearby, or even attack hostile creatures. There are even some that can be activated to give another creature some new ability for attack or support. Even more interesting, apparently some decks have tile improvements that grow and spread over time to other tiles.
Some runes are actually equipment that can be granted to summoned creatures. Using Nora like any other rune, these are placed on a targeted creature to give it some extra status or bonus. Like everything else, it’s more complicated than it appears on the surface, though. You don’t have to place it on your own creatures, which opens some interesting doors.
That’s actually where PoxNora starts to separate itself from the field. The plethora of runes available and the different interactions between them create that level of sophistication and complexity that I really wasn’t expecting. Much like my previous experience with CCGs taught me that there was a progression to players as they gained experience with that game, PoxNora seems to capitalize on that fact for replay value. Players probably start out focusing on creatures to beat their opponents down before transitioning into something more spell-centric. Eventually, the more experienced players settle into complex strategies of deception and misdirection, and not a little whimsy.
The periodic expansions and solid forum activity suggest that there are depths to this game and the strategies around it that I haven’t even begun to explore yet, but I think I may. My only regret is that the game isn’t available for mobile device. While it does struggle a bit compared against many modern PC games, I think it’s ideal for the mobile market. It’s now added to my standard travel laptop and I expect long waits in the air terminal will be less burdensome now.
I don’t know that I’d call it the best game ever, but it’s certainly better than I expected. If you’re looking for a game with little overhead and more intellectual stimulation than Candy Crush, I’d certainly recommend you check out PoxNora. It’s the definitely on my list of games I should have played, but I’m trying to correct that little oversight as we speak.