Gaming on the cheap [collectible card game]

The Collectible Card Game

If ever there were a type of Tabletop Game that seems to exist purely to suck every last penny out of your wallet then it is the Collectible Card Game. Between having to rely on booster packs or turning to the aftermarket to pay through the nose for a thin piece of card with a picture of a dragon on it you are being bled dry at every turn. It can be enough to make you want to chuck in the whole lot and go back to playing solitaire!

Luckily however the PC once again comes to the aid of our collective wallets. With the explosion of free 2 play digital card games and digital recreations of all your favourite CCGs and we are going to list off some of the best out there for you.

Tabletop Simulator
More Games Than You Can Shake a Stick at

So we have already talked about Tabletop Simulator and just how powerful it can be as a tool to let you game on a tight budget. Everything we said there is still true for card games, with Steam currently listing over five thousand items under “card games” on the workshop.

So this is just a quick reminder before we start talking about programmes and games made just for single games.

Jinteki.net
Android: Netrunner
Netrunner is a game with a long and somewhat tumultuous history. Beginning life in the 90’s as a Wizards of The Coast original, designed by the creator of Magic: The Gathering, it was a interesting idea for a CCG. Casting one player as a cyberpunk Mega Corp tasked with achieving “agendas” whilst fending off the attacks of the “Runner” a role taken on by the second player. It made for a fun game infused with the lore lifted from the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG. Made all the more interesting by the asynchronous format of the game, with both player employing unique mechanics and cards.

Sadly Wizards abandoned support for the game and it would be quite some time before it was returned to life by the folks over at Fantasy Flight Games. Who took the game, slapped the fluff from a board game called Android that they make on it and released it back onto the market.

In this new revival however they had abandoned the old CCG model in favour of the “Living Card Game” (marketing buzzwords are the best!) model that they had been using for some of the other card games they had been producing. This change meant that you no longer had to buy booster packs but instead could pick up the Core Set and have a complete set of cards to play both sides. With “Expansion Packs” that included 3 of every card being released to expand the cards you had to work with. You could say goodbye to having to buy Booster Packs or “Deck Builder Kits”.

This was all great for the wallets of the world, at least on the surface, instead of running the risk of having to spend possibly hundreds of pounds to get the cards you wanted you simply got all the cards in a single set. However the rub came with the expansions, with a new one being released nearly monthly and with a cost in the £10-£20 range the price would soon start piling up if you wanted to stay up to date. Of course you don’t have to do that, the Core Set has more than enough cards to allow for hours of play but even that core set is hardly cheap, coming in at around £30.

That is still a lot of money to spend on a collectible card game that you might not end up even enjoying. Especially when you consider that you can pick up a pair of pre-made Magic decks for £16. Couple that with the problem of what happens if you don’t live near anyone who would like to play with you?

Well that is where Jinteki.net comes in. The free to use site allows you to not only create decks with all of the latest cards but also try those decks out against other players around the world for free. You will need to have a copy of the rules handy of course and spend a little time learning the sometimes awkward user interface but once you have gotten past those teething troubles you will be able to play Netrunner as much as you want without spending a penny.

When you use it in concert with the fantastic NetrunnerDB.com, which allows you to build decks and export them to Jinteki easily. It even allows you to limit yourself to only cards from certain sets, so if you want to see what you can do with the cards in the Core Set it is only a few clicks away. There are also deck lists available designed for new players to get a sense of how the game plays.

It really is hard to not gush over these two sites, the level of polish that both have. From high-res scans of cards to well considered and stable user interfaces. Not to mention the welcoming and friendly communities that are more than willing to help out any new comers. These two sites truly are the best way to get in Netrunner today.

Magic: Online
Magic: The Gathering

The big daddy of the CCG scene, Magic: The Gathering has played with the digital realm for awhile now. With releases on console and PC that, whilst polished, lacked the most basic joy of any CCG, building decks.

Well with the Magic:Online platform Wizards have tried to port the physical card game over to the PC space with decent success, I have heard.

This entry is going to be a fair bit shorter for the simple fact that, try as I might, I couldn’t actually get the application to work for me. From trying to create a account to getting the thing to actually launch I was blocked by dropped connections and all sorts of other problems.

In the end it doesn’t matter so much for this list since the digital version of Magic still carries a buy in price of $9.99. We have included it mainly because Magic is one of the biggest card games out there and to ignore its digital version would be foolish.

Digital Only CCGs

So as the rather sparse list above might tell you there are not so many ways to play Physical Card Games in the digital space. There is also a problem for all of the above options which might not be obvious straight away, namely that none of them are very easy to use on a touchscreen device.

In a perfect world we would have a version of Magic or Netrunner that you could boot up on your phone or tablet for a quick game on the train or the loo.Sadly that day, much like FFG re-releasing the WH40K RPGs, is but a dream for the foreseeable future, so we have to contend ourselves with Digital Only card games.

Luckily for us there has been quite a explosion in the world of Digital Card games, the days of dodgy websites with even more dodgy games on them are long gone. With heavy hitters like Blizzard getting in on the action there are plenty of high quality games around.

To get on this list a game needs to meet two criteria, they have to be free 2 play and also need to have touch screen support.

Hearthstone

Let’s get the most obvious Digital CCG out of the way first.

Hearthstone is Blizzard’s hat thrown into the ring of Card Games. Using the lore from the insanely popular Warcraft series and mechanics that are basically Magic: The Gathering with the serial numbers filed off, along with plenty else.

The game has unsurprisingly high production qualities behind it, from flashy animations and sounds at every turn to the sometimes obnoxiously overdone card effects this is about as close as you are going to get to playing Magic in a free form.

Hearthstone eschews the classic Land Cards = Mana mechanic of Magic for a system where the players instead gain one extra Mana per turn up to a maximum of ten. A change that does allow for matches to be short and to the point with both players being able to pull out the big guns within minutes. However in doing this the game does sacrifice complexity, some would say too much but that really is up to you to decide.

The game includes a deck builder with new cards being unlocked through “Packs” that you gain during play, each pack giving you a random selection of cards. As is the standard with these sorts of systems the flow of packs is plentiful early on but the stream quickly slows to a trickle, with the option to buy more packs with hard cash always hanging over your head.

Whilst there are practise matches that can be played against the AI the bulk of the game is in the online multiplayer. One of the interesting things about the multiplayer is that players cannot directly speak to each other, instead of a text chat or voice chat they must rely on pre-set emotes. It can feel sometimes limiting but it also means that the worst abuse you will have to deal with is someone spamming “Well Played” as they kill you. This also has the advantage of making it fairly safe to allow younger kids to dip their toes into the online play but I would recommend sticking to the AI if they don’t want to be kicked up and down the garden path by someone with whatever deck is currently considered “Overpowered”. There is also a ladder to try and climb up if you enjoy banging your head against brick walls.

However, if you are willing to ignore the attempts to draw you into spending your cash then you will find a light and well made little distraction that comes with strong touch screen support. It is worth noting that whilst you can play the game on your phone we found it unbearably slow on a Samsung Galaxy S6. On tablet you should have a much better time and on a PC it will run fine on most hardware.

Duelyst

Duelyst is a interesting take on the CCG format. Taking advantage of its digital nature the game is more of a combination of a CCG and a Tile Based Tactics game. With each player playing the monsters and spells in their hands onto a battlefield and then having them attack each other. All whilst the “Duelyst’s” themselves stride across the battlefield and try to not get killed.

Whilst the game mostly sticks to the standards of Health/Strength values for cards and the usual card powers. Such as cards being able to move or attack twice a turn or act on the turn they are summoned. They do take advantage of the battlefield for some interesting twists on the format. A good example being a creature that, when summoned, kills all allied creature around it and adds their Health/Strength to its own. There are also area denial powers that can lock of tiles or cause damage to those on them. The game also lifts the “One extra mana a turn” model from Hearthstone with the extra wrinkle of there being three extra mana that can be picked up from the map.

The Grid based gameplay means that being able to stay out of the way of your opponent’s heavy hitter can be as valuable as summoning your own creatures and a careful use of cheap units to shield yourself and your valuable units can be a valid tactic. Add into the mix cards that allow you to teleport units across the map and you have a fun game of positioning that can often lead to upset victories. A player could have four 12/10 units on the field but still be beaten because thier opponent was able to stay just out of reach and nibble away at them.

Helping all of this along is a unique pixel art style that looks terrible in screenshots but fantastic in motion. Every unit in the game has unique and flashy animations for being summoned, fighting and dieing all of which takes place on some very pretty battlefields.

Off of the battlefield you have the ability to create decks based around one of several factions. The deck building is a fairly robust affair and the game gives you a decent number of card packs to start you off with. The sting of running out of card packs is some what reduced by the surprisingly extensive single player content in the game.

From the ability to play practise matches against the AI, beating each of which unlocks new cards, you also have the Puzzle maps. Which all have one goal, to kill the enemy player in a single round. These are a great way to learn about some of the more unique mechanics in the game and earn some rewards along the way.

Whilst the game does have support for touch screens it is not the best around, whilst you should have no trouble tapping your way through a match there is no way to view a card to see its details during your turn. As the game takes a tap of the screen or even a held finger as simply wanting to select a creature. Instead you have to wait until the enemy turn to be able to tap your creatures and read the details.

On the multiplayer side we again have a emote only style of communication and ladder play.

Overall Duelists is a fun and engrossing hybrid of CCG and Tile Based Tactics game that you could easily sink hours into.

Faeria

Another one on the list of weirdly spelt CCGs, Faeria shares a lot in common with Duelyst. Combining a Card Game with a Hex Based Tactics game.

However this time there is a spin on the game beyond the shape of the grid, when a match begins there is no map to speak of. Every turn each player can take four basic actions, summon creatures, cast spell, move the creatures they already have on the board and finally create a new piece of land. With diffrent types of land allowing for different types of units to be summoned on to them.

The game also goes with a somewhat more traditional style of gaining Mana. Each player gains three mana at the start of their turn but they can gain more from the “Wells” that are placed around the edge of the map, since all unspent mana is banked at the end of a round a player can end up earning seven mana a turn if they control all four Wells.

These two changes really make this feel like a unique game to play, having to balance the desire to attack the other player with trying to secure additional mana. Not to mention the fact that if you build enough land to reach the other player then they can reach you across the same land. Things like this can make rush tactics risky since a player might only need to weather a single storm of attacks, banking mana all the while. Before being able to come at you with powerful units or spells.

Whilst the game is somewhat less visually compelling than Duelyst, with units being represented by icons instead of animated units, it more than makes up for it with polish. From the colourful menus that run like a pig on a tablet to the satisfying rippling of the map as units fight.

On the deck building and card collecting side we once again have a standard set up, however we found it much easier to earn card packs here due to the abundance of single player content. Nearly every part of the game can be played in single player and will more often than not either reward you with card packs or currency that can be used to buy more packs or more missions. I’m sure it will eventually slow down but after ten hours that is yet to happen.

Again we have a multiplayer that doesn’t allow for direct player chatter, instead going with the old emotes. It seems these are the new standard now and whilst it is nice to not get threatened with poorly spelt death every five minutes it won’t stop you getting stomped.

On the touch screen side we have very strong support, even without the touch screen mode turned on the game dealt with finger input extremely well. With the correct mode turned on it became very nearly a breeze to play the game with only the odd hiccup of the game not knowing if you wanted to selected or only look at a card to put a damper on things. Although as I said before the menus or more specifically the main menu, do seem to run slowly and there isn’t much you can do to stop it. Luckily once you get in game it is smooth as you like.

With an interesting gimmick and polish Faeria makes itself stand out for more than weird spelling.

Shadowverse

Of all the games on this list Shadowverse is the one that hews closest to being a straight up “clone” of Hearthstone. From the layout to the mechanics it could very nearly be written off as simple “Anime Hearthstone”, however thanks to a standout mechanic it manages to avoid that label…mostly.

At a glance it is easy to understand the label of Hearthstone rip-off, they even use the same rounded card portraits for pity’s sake! And once you get into the game it can be hard to see past this until, that is, you come to the unique selling point of this game.

Every creature in the game can be “Evolved” mid-game, changing them from a weaker form into something stronger. This mechanic alone can lead to interesting opportunities as Evolved states of cards can radically change the situation on the playing field.

Now whether you think this one mechanic makes the game worth playing is really up to you but backing this up is a sometimes overly flashy visual style. Filled with colourful images and bright animations it can be quite the visual treat, or eyesore depending on your feelings on anime and manga.

If you are looking for solo play we have a suit of what are proudly declared as “fully voice acted stories” the voice acting for which is not terrible. Whilst you are not going to find any amazing performance that moves you to tears there is nothing that will make you groan too badly.

These stories will keep you busy for a decent amount of time, the first acting as a tutorial for the game. There is a decent amount of work put into these things, considering that the other games on this list only ever stretched to a unique piece of artwork on the menu.

Over on the deck building side we are once again in for the a system of random drops via card packs and the ever strong pull to just spend a few pennies on some more packs.

On the multiplayer side we once again are limited to emote only chat and a ladder system for play. These ladders that you find in these games do mean that your first few online matches should not be too brutal, however you will find the challenge ramping up very very fast as you go.

Since the game began life on mobile the support is strong across the board, we ran into little to no input problems although we could see the visuals being a problem on older systems.

Overall there really is not much to say about Shadowverse, it is a dyed in the wool Hearthstone clone with a single gimmick that might carry it for you. In the end you really only need to look at some screenshots to know if you will enjoy it. If you like the art style then play this, if not then maybe give the other games on this list a go.

And Now All The Rest!

There has been a glut of free 2 play CCGs of late, even ignoring all the smaller games we have the, finally released, Elder Scrolls: Legends, the ever encroaching shadow of Gwent and the awkwardly named Chronicles: Runescape Legends.

All three of these games have the backing of major studios and they are only the tip of a iceberg made of branded dross and me-too hangers on. To try and list them all would be the job of a mad man. The four that we have highlighted here have already proven themselves to be able to support an active community and in the end that is what you should look for in a CCG. All the cool effects and sexy anime girls in the world won’t help you if you don’t have anyone to play against after all.