Friday 14 August 2020

Switch Review - Faeria

The digital card game genre dominated is by ‘Hearthstone’ , so can ‘Faeria’’s unique board game inspired twist help it find an audience on Switch?

Developed by Abrakam Games

Published by Versus Evil

Released in 2020

Today Governments around the world can’t decide if Loot Boxes count as gambling and therefore shouldn’t be bought by children. Banned in Germany and Belgium, Republican senator Josh Hawley is certainly not a fan. "When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn't be allowed to monetise addiction. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences." In Britain, The House of Lords Gambling Committee says video game loot boxes should be regulated under gambling laws. The Lords say they should be classified as "games of chance" which would bring them under the Gambling Act 2005. "If a product looks like gambling and feels like gambling, it should be regulated as gambling," their report says.

Its lucky congressmen and Lords didn’t know what I was doing as a youngster. 25 years ago, 13 year old me was openly gambling with teachers in the “War Games Club” at school. We played ‘Warhammer’, we played ‘Star Trek Customizable Card Game’ and we played  ‘Magic: The Gathering’. While the first required players to spend hundreds of pounds buying lead figures, the second two, like the loot boxes of today, rewarded children that were willing to blindly buy packets of cards. Where other table top games were sold as a complete product, Magic cards would come in randomised packs, like Panini stickers. The most powerful cards would be rarer than others, making collecting and trading them as much a part of the experience as actually playing matches. Players would assemble their own decks, with a near-limitless ability to personalise their game and develop their own tactics. In my school club, there was no greater accolade than beating an older student. So I would spend all my pocket money, buying packets in the hope that I would get that one powerful card that would assure victory.

“A lot of kids grew up playing [card] games like ‘Magic: the Gathering’ and ‘Yu-Gi-Oh’, and are now at an age where they can unleash their creativity" says Jean-Michel Vilain, CEO of game developer Abrakam. "'Faeria' is a strategy game, mixed with a card game, mixed with a board game [and] of course 'Magic : The Gathering' was a big influence". While ‘Faeria’ was not the first computerised deck-builder, nor is it the most popular, it is well regarded online. Sometime even called “the thinking man’s digital card game”.

Two players face off across the table from each other, both controlling a God. Starting with an initial hand of three cards, they take it in turns collecting a currency called Faeria and spending it by playing cards. Each turn new cards are drawn from a deck and different ones have different effects. Some lets a player to control more areas, others allow you to earn even more currency. Predominantly though, you'll be laying down creature cards to attack the opposition’s creature cards. Each creature has an attack and defensive stats that can, of course, also be manipulated by laying additional cards. If a creature takes on another, the value of their attack score is taken off the opposing creatures defence value. If its greater they'll die, although only after their health score is weigh against the instigators attack value. In many fights, no creature survives a confrontation. If you wish you can also attack the players God character, who has a health value of 20. When a God’s health is reduced to 0 their player immediately loses and therefore a winner is decided. On paper it sounds incredibly complicated and this summary only explains the absolute basics.  There is a steep learning curve, especially for those not used to deck building games. However, after a few games the mechanics do become second nature and you quickly start to gauge when to play cards and when to hold onto them for maximum effect. You start judging if it is better to defend your position with creatures or rush in and try to take down the opponent’s God before they've had chance to build up their own defensive card army. ‘Faeria’ becomes quite nuanced, and like a great chess master you start to think several moves ahead. You attempt to hold out against an onslaught hoping you draw that vital card from a shuffled deck at the most opportune moment. Games can be over in minutes if the card draw isn't in your favour. Alternatively, two evenly matched players can duke it out for half an hour, attacking and reacting to each other’s tactics.

Intriguingly 'Faeria' was originally conceived as a physical board game that used tiles and meeples rather than cards. "The major gameplay inspirations behind ‘Faeria’ are [the board games] 'Settlers of Catan' and 'Carcassonne'" claims Vilain. When it became a PC game, out went the miniatures and in came the decks. "We were inspired to add cards to the game years into its development at a time when ‘Magic Online’ was the only popular digital card game." Frustratingly for Abrakam games, during the protracted development of 'Faeria', there was a dramatic influx of digital card games. 'Legends of Runeterra', 'Slay the Spire', "Gwent: The Witcher Card Game', 'Eternal Card Game', 'Shadowverse', 'Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales', 'Hearthstone' , 'The Elder Scrolls: Legends', 'Hex: Shards of Fate', 'Magic Duels', 'Ascension' , 'Kards', 'Griftlands' , 'Ancient Enemy' and ' Duelyst', all enjoyed massive commercial success before ' Faeria' found its audience. "Now, there are heaps of online card battle games vying to be among the best card games on PC" says PC GamesN. "It is one of the quickest growing genres in the industry". "We had no idea that the market would be crowded because the first concepts for ‘Faeria’ predate 2010" laments Vilain. "An incredible amount of digital card games have followed, something we would never have believed when we first started. The variety of card games is huge now. We've been blown away by the wave of innovation coming to the genre. It truly has been a renaissance of sorts that we could never have predicted."

For the developers the most significant difference between 'Faeria' and the dozens of other similar titles isn't what you do in the game, it is how you pay for it. "The key difference is that 'Faeria" is not a free-to-play. We really didn’t want to have micro-transactions messing with our gameplay experience. Purchase the game and play. All cards can be unlocked in under 100 hours". Despite Vilain's obvious disdain for games that demand a continuous financial investment, it has been something that Abrakam games have themselves dabbled with. 'Faeria' may well have initially been a "pay once and play forever" game but in August 2016, it too went free-to-play. This lasted till July 18th, 2018 with the release of the "Fall of Everlife" expansion when it reverted back to an up-front fee. "Our initial idea was when we Kickstarted the game [we would do a] purchase premium card game" says Vilain. "It was actually because of the release of 'Hearthstone' [that] we didn't stay true to ourselves. It's a classic example of learning the hard way.” Internally its believed that 'Farria' should always have stayed as a pay-up-front game. "I have personally been very frustrated by how much money you need to drop on ‘free’ games in order to keep up competitively" says developer Christopher Lewis. "I hope games like 'Faeria' can demonstrate there are other business models available”.

That’s not to say there aren't "pay to win" options available to impatient players. If you don't want to grind for 100 hours to unlock things, you can buy DLC that immediately speeds up the process. For the game's launch half a dozen "upgrades" can be bought from the eshop and as the developer says these "unlock the premium 'Faeria' experience". As the game states a premium package "provides a mixture of accelerated progress and exclusive items. Looking to get the most out of 'Faeria'? This content is for you". Evidently, if you only buy the base game, while you'll technically have eventual access to everything, to be competitive against other human players from the outset, you'll need to spend more. For the developer this is easily excusable. "We don't give all the cards right away to the players for the simple reason that it would be overwhelming.” Abrakam believes that you might be buying the best army, but without battle experience you won't be able to use it properly.

The problem though is obvious : Most people don't have a spare 100 hours to invest in game, just to have access to all the content they have already paid for. Its seems for Abrakam, the best business model is to let players unlock content through playing the game, while offering the option of letting the cash-rich/time-poor player buy short cuts to the top-tier cards. Ultimately while 'Faeria' may not be a freemium game, you may well find yourself paying more than you intended just to be competitive when you battle others online.

A less controversial way that 'Faeria' separates itself from the other digital card games is the inclusion of a hexagonal grid on which players battle each other. "It takes place on what we call a “living board,” which means each player builds the landscape as they go" explains Vilain. "This ensures the title has a never-seen-before depth compared to other card games. [...] The game has an important board game vibe, and constructing the board is entirely part of the gameplay". With this manipulate-able playing field 'Faeria' feels more like a strategy game. There are no simple plays or obvious moves which makes the game ideal for the tactically minded.

A game starts on a completely empty ocean so it’s up to the players to build the terrain around them. In between playing cards, each player can lay two blank or one specific piece of ground. For the developer it’s a game changer, but one that is entirely complementary to the card laying mechanics. "Do you want to summon big giant tree creatures? You’re going to need a lot of forests. Want to jump around with some frogs? Make some lakes. Devils shooting fireballs? Mountains" explains Vilain. "You can even combine any combination of colours. You can make mountains and lakes to summon a fire-breathing frog, for example."

"I like how the board and land placement leads to lots of subtle differences and improvements you can make to your play" adds Christopher Lewis. " In 'Hearthstone' you either play card A or card B. In ‘Faeria’, even with just two cards you can play, you have to decide which land to play and where to play it, then where to place your new creature." According to Vilain success in the game comes from understanding how to best modify the game map to take advantage of the cards in your deck. "The lands you build—be they mountains, forests, deserts, or lakes—dictate the type of cards you are able to play. It is up to you how many lands and of what type you want to build."

'Faeria’ offers one of the most versatile deck-building mechanics in the genre, and it is especially accessible for card game newcomers. Cards are grouped into various types, based on what ground they need to be laid on. So to use your strong green forest creature, you need to have enough cheaper green cards to ensure you can build a big enough forest for the beast to be placed in. Because they share the same terrain type, you'll be able to play the majority of your deck by focusing on building one specific ground type on the map. The more you play, the more you'll come to understand which cards work best with each other and before you know it you’ll be tailoring favoured decks to suit specific foes or missions. It wouldn't be unrealistic to say you’ll probably spend longer picking cards to build your decks than you actually do battling with them. "A lot of thought goes into each card and it’s a meticulous process considering all the different options, trying them out and reiterating until I feel satisfied" says professional 'Faeria' player Dennis  "Modgnik " Norrgård. "My success, while assisted by having a strong foundation in other card games, has come from thousands of hours simply building different decks." There's a magical feeling when things come together perfectly and you play a string of cards raining down attacks on an opponent’s God. Victory can be grasped from the jaws of defeat by the simple arrival of one card. Of course, if you’ve filled your deck with unnecessary cards, you're risking the chance of the best cards not showing up in battle. Mastery of deck building is what will determine if you win matches, and the best combination of cards will include ways to get resources, boost creatures and defend your God.  Only a fool will focus on just including all the strongest cards you have. "'Faeria' allows you to build your own decks. Naturally we want that process to be a fun strategic puzzle" says senior game designer Dan Felder. "Decision-making is the heart of most gameplay, particularly strategy titles. "

If you've paid to unlock everything, you'll be confronted with over 600 unique cards, each one of which features its own distinctive art and its own function. It’s a lot to take in and, as the game advises, "completing solo content is the best way to get started". Opening single player missions act as a tutorial, although even these present a challenge if you’re new to this whole card collecting business. "We've spent tremendous effort on making sure 'Faeria' could be easy to pick up. There are over a hundred hours of single-player content that slowly teach you every aspect of the game, before you can go test yourself in the player-vs-player matchmaking," says Vilain.

Adventure mode is intended for single players and this is divided into two main mission types. There’s Quests where you are battling a single adversary, much like you would play online in a God vs God duel. Attentively stages are marked as Puzzles, where you must complete a specified goal within a specified number of moves or while meeting a specific condition. These also serve as a fun way of reinforcing some of the games more advanced techniques; reminding a player to think about the order to best perform movement and resource allocation. While it sounds like a small addition, it actually feels like another game. Indeed, I’ve played puzzle games that have less scale and scope than the Puzzle section of ‘Faeria’.  

Along with improving your deck, unlocking new cards is great as it allows you to see a new piece of art work. Each of the hundreds of cards has a different illustration, and ‘Faeria’s art work is incredible. Jean-Michel Vilain believes that good gameplay isn’t enough, it needs to be supported by attractive visuals to be truly effective. Vilain claims that it boils down to a “dialogue between designers and artists” to best “convey the idea while being visually innovative and attractive.” While you may only be laying cards and looking at hexagons appearing on a map, the game feels like a glimpse at an intricate and deep fantasy world that expands way beyond what you can see in your digital hand. "From the start, we were looking at developing a modern take on the classic Faeries, the world of Brian Froud,” says Vilain. Froud is best known today for his ethereal fantasy illustrations for the novel Faeries. With their lush and otherworldly designs, Froud’s influence is immediately apparent in ‘Faeria’s visuals. Less threatening than the Tolkien or Magic universes, the creatures here feel fanciful and otherworldly, like the inhabitants of some dream. It’s hardly a surprise when you look at the other inspiration the designers drew on. “If Brian Froud is a pillar, then Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are certainly another one,” Vilain adds. The films ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’ have clearly been influential. “We certainly have a few illustrations which [contain] obvious inspiration from Miyazaki" admits Vilain. "But I think we’ve managed to take from his universe and use that to go a different route, to our own fantasy world.” Despite the countless cards, there’s an impressive cohesion across the game. But that’s not to say it is predictable. "Artists were given a lot of freedom on the concepts, [and] I think that’s the reason why the world of ‘Faeria’ looks so rich and diverse” Vilain concludes. “More than what you would usually find in other digital card games.”

With an opening introduction with an Ian McKellen sound alike, ‘Faeria’ feels lush and extravagant, a game with an epic scale. However, the game is really a tranquil journey, with twinkles when you draw cards and occasional sound bites or spoken quotes when you lay the more powerful cards. Nothing ever feels distracting and it’s easy to get lost in the splendour of the game. It is certainly a “just one more go” experience, where you convince yourself that you’ll best a particularly taxing God if your cards are revealed in a slightly different order or if you simply swap one card in your deck for another.

While there is a lot to enjoy here single player, the game does get repetitive when played alone. Due to the nature of the genre what you do, is largely the same all the time. The true strength of a game like this depends on how popular it is online and how effective the game matches you against a similar opponent. Thankfully the Switch version of the game does include cross play against opponents on the PC and while a thriving friendly community exists online, they won’t hold back when battling you in the game. Hopefully, the release on the Switch edition will bring new players in at the same time, so the online barrier to entry doesn’t feel so high.

It’s a shame that competitive digital card games will always be dominated by discussion about their cost. ‘Faeria’ is certainly a good game, with depth and complexity to keep people playing for a long time. But to truly get to the good stuff, you need to invest a lot of time or money. Whether Switch players have the patience or resources for this remains to be seen. I may get continually thrashed by both computer and real people, but it has been enjoyable, I hope this continues to be the case. At the very least, there’s a satisfaction when a carefully constructed deck performs well in battle, a joy when you best laid plans unfold perfectly.       

For me it’s been a nostalgic reminder of how much I used to love battling with cards as a young’un. Even if now it’s harder to justify spending all my available cash on the hunt for that allusive strongest card.


A copy of this game was provided for free to review. Neither the publisher or developer have seen or had any influence on the content of this article prior to publication. 

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