Survival sandbox games really do feel like a sort of dime-a-dozen subgenre of MMO gaming, so when I was tapped for this CardLife early access preview, I wasn’t really holding a lot of expectations. With that said, I managed to find some fun in this charming little sandbox and most of that charm was hidden inside this game’s use of its cardboard aesthetic.
At first blush, you’d be forgiven for passing CardLife off as being Minecraft made out of corrugated cardboard. While that might be mostly accurate on a brass tacks level, the material that literally makes up the game world presents itself with a few unique wrinkles (pun slightly intended). First among them is the fact that any item you craft - be it a wall for a building, your weapons, armor or tools, or even your character’s face and body – can be fully customized by cutting out a shape.
You have to stay within certain parameters and there are dots you have to ultimately connect, but the shape you come up with can be yours. Extra pieces can even be cut out of the whole, like cutting out your own custom windows for building walls or cutting a unique visor for your helmet. It’s a clever little trick, though it can be unwieldy owing to the fact that you’re using a mouse to draw your shapes. At least, it was for me. Perhaps there are those reading this who can draw things with a mouse better than I can.
Beyond that, you’re pretty much plopped into a sizable map and left to scrounge for materials and craft things from the items around you. Once again, the charm of CardLife’s cardboard world really comes to life, with hills, mountains, monsters, flora, fauna, and even the clouds made of shaped and stacked cardboard. It’s disarmingly cute.
Mercifully, this entertaining visual aesthetic translates into a generally more approachable survival sandbox experience which didn’t lull me into a false sense of security. The materials you need to make items are almost never hard to find and even respawn in swift order; the dangers don’t strike as particularly dangerous; and mitigating things like health and hunger are pretty simple. Even if you die, it’s a matter of making it to your body and recovering your dropped inventory. That said, making new kit is such a dawdle that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel bad if my corpse got looted.
To the point of corpse loot, there are mostly PvP servers on right now, but the rules of engagement among the servers I visited didn’t seem terribly cutthroat. Houses you put down can’t be opened by any random person unless you craft an item that grants express permissions, and the folks I saw in-game really seemed to be more focused on exploration than hunting one another.
To that point, much of the fun of this game does seem to be geared more to the exploring type. The map is significantly sized and you kind of have to make your own fun, as the guides in-game mostly tell you how to make things than they do aim you at interesting stuff to do. This can be enjoyable for the most part. One time I decided to dig straight down just to see how far I could go and I ended up in a small underground cave with a bunch of imps and some unique materials to harvest. In that regard, CardLife hit me less like an ARK: Survival Evolved or Conan Exiles and more like a Landmark style of sandbox.
With all that said, the lack of other things to do collaboratively or even competitively might be a misstep for many. CardLife seems pretty content in being a more relaxed exploration-focused game and has drawn in the sorts of folks who like that in my experience. It’s probably not going to stir the emotions of many folks as a result. Also, a cute visual style will only carry you so far.
Still, for what it is, CardLife has some intriguing potential that seems to have created a niche for itself among the swath of sandboxes that confuse “emergent gameplay” with “let people claw at each other on a whim.” If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind a blocky visual style and would prefer to have more discovery in their survival sandbox gaming, you might want to give CardLife a look.