Prismata, by Lunarch Studios, has just entered early access on Steam and promises a new experience in strategy by hybridising card-based combat games (think Magic the Gathering or Star Realms) with the ethos and structure of a Real Time Strategy game.
Drawing on 5 different resources and a host of units with different interlocking offensive and defensive abilities, players slowly build an economy and base, all abstractly represented by cards, unleashing their army onto their opponent’s defences each turn, whilst simultaneously trying to shore up their own. The success of digital-only card games like Hearthstone and Gwent, and the increasing digitisation of physical card games since Ascension made its way onto iPad, has created a growing market of players ravenous for tabletop style strategy shenanigans in virtual space, and Prismata’s nod to RTS games clearly sets it apart from most. But it won’t appeal to everyone.
Many of the decisions come down to some pretty fraught calculations as to which units to build in which order to breach your opponent’s defences as efficiently as possible. Since the stock of units at your disposal can be huge it can result in a head-spinning amount of number crunching, where the slightest mistake could be the difference between victory and defeat. Enhancing this overwhelming sense of calculus is the flow of combat, which sees all of your attack values aggregated into a single damage pool that can then be split among defenders. While this ostensibly speeds up matches, it only enhances the sense that players aren’t really interacting with their units and facing them off against each other, so much as driving a positive integer as high as possible. While this will no doubt appeal to math junkies, casual players or the less number-obsessed are likely to find timed matches somewhat frustrating.
In principle, distilling the core of an RTS into a card game is an interesting idea, and Lunarch makes a good go of it, but ultimately Prismata draws on the element of RTS games that I find the least appealing: the long ramp-up of forces until you inevitably wash across the map like a militarised tsunami. Having excised the compelling spatial element of the RTS (the physical layout of your buildings and the hunt for resources on the map), all you’re left with is the cold hard numbers that tick beneath the surface – numbers that of course are present at the heart of any well-designed card or board game, but which are normally carefully massaged out of sight. Like Victorian children, maths in a board game should be seen but not heard (OK, so the comparison doesn’t completely work).
Although I’m sure it’s possible for an experienced player to make a comeback from the back foot, it felt to me that matches were often won or lost in the first few moves as a result of this numerical snowballing effect. When enough economic momentum is built up, players can unleash all manner of destruction on their opponent and then it’s all down to inertia and slowly going through the motions until all trace of them is wiped out, a process that can feel disheartening to winner and loser alike. Of course, even a game like Hearthstone can go that way, but there’s usually the chance of a good draw that opens up a powerful combo you’ve been waiting for (or a bad draw slowing your opponent down), whereas here all the information is openly and painfully on display. Whilst this perfect information makes the game a little chess-like in its strategies, and this is precisely the reason I’ve never gotten on with chess, the lack of any kind of uncertainty (whether from card draw or other forms of RNG) make these combats a case of who can see and exploit the math on display the quickest.
A charming single-player campaign provides a more puzzle-like respite from the pressures of competitive mode, offering a mounting series of challenges to overcome, all wrapped up in a nicely presented visual novel style narrative of AI robots running amok.
However even here there comes the tipping point realisation of how to solve the puzzle, followed by the somewhat tedious war of attrition that follows as, turn after turn, you slowly whittle down your opponent’s defences. Still, part of this is down to my dislike of maths and if you thought that Hearthstone had too much randomness and not enough long division then this may be the game for you.