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Scrolls: The Overshadowed Second Game

Markus Rohringer Posted:
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When your first game as a developer was an incredible hit like Mojang’s Minecraft, this means unavoidably a hard life for whatever comes next. While it’s almost impossible to live up to expectations, at least you have the benefit of the spotlight. However, you are really out of luck when at the same time one of the industry leaders decides to release a game in the same genre – which happened with Blizzard and Hearthstone. Scrolls was unlucky enough to get overshadowed not only once, but twice. 

Working on Scrolls was planned from the very moment of the company’s formation and the founders did not let themselves distract by the success of Minecraft. It seemed clear that this would be a game in completely different dimensions, everything about it felt smaller from the start. There was hardly any hype, and whatever attention the game might have gotten with its announcement was quickly drawn to Hearthstone, when Blizzard officially decided to go for a Card Game too. Still, Mojang deserves credit for sticking to the plan instead of riding the success wave and release a lackadaisical Minecraft 2.

Fans of Scrolls will presumably moan in agony by now. Is there any article about their beloved game which forgoes the mentioning of the omnipresent Hearthstone? Well, probably not; too much are the dynamics of their success and timelines connected. However, I understand the frustration, as the games themselves are hardly comparable. In our look at Scrolls we found a refreshing mix of collectible card and board games with a lot of tactical depth, but which is ponderous and dragging at the same time. Very unlike the streamlined, super-accessible but also simplified version of traditional CCG-mechanics, that Hearthstone is.

It probably didn’t help the success of Scrolls that until its official release in December, it cost $21, while a lot of the competition is for free. With the expansion to OSX and Android tablets it was reduced to $5, also there is a free light-version. Looking at the current player numbers maybe the move was made too late, although the latest inclusion in a humble bundle increased the player base noticeable – for the time being. But not all of the lacking success can be blamed on competition or pricing. The game mechanics themselves are playing a huge part too.

When you play your first round or tutorial, everything seems rather intuitive and simple. You play your cards like in any other game, with the exception that your units are placed on a battlefield. There are five rows to position on, and on each row there is an idol to defend while trying to destroy the opponent’s one. Every row consists of three columns on each side, and the attack order is according to this positioning. This means that your upfront unit will get attacked first, and only when it is destroyed, your next unit (or idol) will receive damage. Usually every unit can be moved one tile per round (exceptions confirm the rule), so the whole positioning game is highly dynamic and board control is the top priority.

While this is easy to grasp, in every turn it gives you a lot of options. Especially because of the sacrifice-mechanic that is a main part of the game. Every round you can sacrifice one scroll (card) – either for permanently increasing your resource stock, which is refilled every round, or for getting two new scrolls. These sacrifices hurt more often than not, but the right tradeoffs are a key to success – a lecture that can only be learned with a lot of practice. “Easy to learn, hard to master” might be an overused phrase, but Scrolls is exactly that kind of game.

And this leads us to the only real problem that Scrolls has, which unfortunately will be a buzzkill for many people. Usually online card games are the ideal candidates for having a quick round in between. 20 minutes of fun and you’re done. Ok, one round easily becomes four or five, as all card-addicts might know, but with Scrolls you can forget that entirely. There is nothing like a quick round, except when somebody surrenders. The tactical depth makes decisions tough, and that means a lot of time is spent for thinking, like in chess. And the game gives you this time – but unfortunately your opponent as well. Waiting times of over a minute per round are pretty common, even though it might be a little bit better at an expert level.

Combine that with a build-up that is anyway already pretty slow and you have a gaming experience that can be rewarding at times, and just plain dragging at others. As units have some sort of cooldown and often attack only every second or third round, it’s not unusual that it needs three or four rounds until there is any action at all.

In terms of game modes Scrolls covers the whole standard repertoire. If you don’t feel like competing against other players, you can do a quick skirmish match against the AI or you venture on one of the many trials, which put you in a given scenario that you have to overcome victorious. Both are available in three different difficulties, so that is also a very good training ground. Against human competition you can choose an unranked quick match, but there are of course also ranked matches if you want to climb the ladder.

If you are not the biggest fan of constructed games, but rather want to see how your spontaneous deck building skills stack up against the competition, then the judgment mode is the right place for you. Similar to the arena in Hearthstone you pay an entry fee and have to choose out of four different cards until your deck is completed, with the difference that out of those 45 scrolls picked, in the end you only select 30 for your final deck. Then your only goal is to go on a run as long as possible, because after either two losses or five wins the fun is over. Based on your performance the reward is a combination of gold and random scrolls, which obviously pays off if you’re really good.

Despite the criticism, fans of collectible card games who are already bored by the typical Magic copycats should not get too discouraged. It might sound strange, but besides its fundamental flaw, Scrolls offers very engaging game mechanics and tactical possibilities. Also, it does a lot of things right. For example, scrolls are tradable. You can buy or sell them on the black market or buy some packs or random scrolls from the store. There is a possibility to use real money, but everything can be bought with in-game gold, which is handed to you quite plenty.


Markus Rohringer