This comes from fairly far afield. This week, and assumedly for several more months, I have been playing Shardbound which is one of the most fascinating strategy games I’ve played in a very long time. And it is very definitely not League of Legends
What is it?
Suggested to me by Steam because I like Civ so much, Shardbound is a tactical card battler. Each player picks a hero who represents a faction with specialized units and spells with the express goal of knocking out the enemy’s hero. The game is played in turns on the map with hexagonal tiles where heroes and summoned minions do battle for control of a Shard a resource rich hunk of land that is falling from the sky. There’s high ground and low ground, as well as cover, so it really feels like Hearthstone and X-Com had a very beautiful weirdo baby. Shardbound was originally funded on Kickstarter, making three times its $50,000 funding goal and is now in Alpha development though the game is available to the public.
What do I like about it?
There's a lot to love here. Despite being in alpha, Shardbound has a lot of heart. The factions, while not without their faults, are painstakingly crafted to each have a highly unique play style and look. The factions that I logged the most time on were the Steelsingers (Red) and the Fatekeepers (Blue).
The Steelsingers try to get the most out of their cards by maximizing stat values and adapting to every situation through specialized upgrades. Petra, their faction leader, can have her AI friend Rupert churn out Gizmos to flood the field with annoying little robots. She can also command her loyal employees at Westgaard R&D to make her mechs more effective through new armor plating or cost reduction from Efficiency Experts. She can even deploy units in enemy territory through the use of Strike Packs or Builder Platforms which upgrades their units for deep deployment potential!
The Fatekeepers are real oddballs - however, that does not keep them from being effective. Lead by Professor Mori, the blue faction excels in coming at people from bizarre angles and devaluing the enemy’s minions so they can’t effectively fight back. The Fatekeepers bring an assortment of entities from beyond time and/or space to befuddle enemy minions. The Baffling Presence can ignore terrain and enemies, lowering their attack before striking, and Rift Tricksters can swap places with enemies to mess with formations. Mori herself brings powerful spells - Slow Reflexes stops an enemy from attacking while Gravity Well can heavily (pun) weaken clustered enemies.
The game itself is a very cerebral experience. I’ve played quite a few duels and the most common statement was “I am braining so hard right now.” with a variety of different spells and minions in each faction each matchup is a radically different experience. One game can be a battle to control the high ground while another can be a zoning fight of keepaway and hurling spells.
I’ve not even mentioned the art yet. Though it is muted due to me playing on potato quality (an actual graphical setting in the game) I did make my computer chug to feast my eyes on the models in high settings. All of the models have very distinct styles. Petra (Red Leader) is very business-looking like while Mori (Blue Leader) is more quirky. The art is wonderful and the work that Nicholas Kole (Character Designer) and Blair Armitage (3D Modeler) have done is impressive.
The game already has a small burgeoning community. The coolest feature in this regard is if someone is streaming you can submit decks for them to play on their stream. Several nights I spent submitting decks for streamers to play and watching the hilarity ensue. Despite its very serious and strategic gameplay the game itself has a large element of fun and experimentation that is really enjoyable and amplified by the kind community that surrounds it.
What Don’t I Like About It?
This is a hard topic to delve into because the game is so early in development that any criticisms made can easily become moot. Yes at the moment there is a lot of placeholder art so many of the battles which would feel incredibly cool are setting up a lot of the same model with different stats. By the way, the placeholder model is named Karen as decided by the game’s community. She’s everywhere for the time being while the devs work on gameplay and art. The Karen levels here are off the charts.
Not to harp on issues that can be explained away by alpha. Shardbound’s factions have some identity problems. Factions either do The Most or not much at all that is unique. This is represented well in the differences between the Red and Blue factions. The Steelsingers have a lot going for them with their units being able to upgrade to suit the situation, units that reduce the cost or increase the stats of other units and their ability to easily destroy problem artifacts and minions. Blue’s central mechanic? Well, it's a thinker I found that Blue’s common mechanics were card draw and map mobility. Good mechanics but they don’t present well. A lot of blue is washed out into the neutral factionless cards as well. I took a look at some friends decks who played both factions and across the board blue decks had almost always much more neutral cards in them than red decks do. Which points to the overall health of the factions.
The game definitely feels like early alpha which is what makes it so weird that it is open to play by the public. As a whole the game shows a lot of promise, makes sense because it is coming from most of the original developers of Dawngate so everything that is in the game has a lot of flavor already I want, very badly for this game to be a huge success because it has already captured my heart. Despite its faults which I hope it rises above Shardbound still shines as a bright example of what ambitious indies are capable of.