Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Adventure Time: Card Wars

Post-Launch Review
Adventure Time: Card Wars (Android)
Developer: Cartoon Network
Released: February 2014


Did you see that episode of Adventure Time where Finn and Jake play Card Wars? This game is that game. Collect monster, spell, and building cards, and battle opponents from across the land of Ooo to unlock stronger and rarer cards!

At Launch

Card Wars earned overall average reviews, ending up around 71%. Reviewers enjoyed collecting and battling cards, as well as how the game gradually ramps up its depth and complexity. The humour inspired by the show was also praised. However, Card Wars was heavily criticized for its energy meter and in-app purchases, which reviewers felt belonged in free-to-play games, not paid apps.

Post Launch

Updates have been on a roughly monthly schedule. Patches have added new cards and rebalanced existing ones. The most significant update added the tournament mode Deck Wars. A recent update has moved to always-online functionality, only saving progress made while connected to the internet.


This is one of the only mobile games I've ever played that's really hooked me - I've been playing constantly for a week and a half. But I'm going to have to open this review with a negative, because it's such a huge flaw that it could be a dealbreaker: Card Wars is a paid game that includes an energy meter. Energy meters usually only appear in free-to-play games to impose an artificial (recharging) play time limit to encourage the player to spend money to keep playing. Card Wars uses this mechanic even though it already costs $4 to buy.

I will admit that this is, comparatively, a somewhat unintrusive energy meter. You regain an energy heart every time you win a match, so early on when it costs one heart per match, you can play as long as you keep winning - you'll only hit the wall if you lose a lot. And beating certain "boss" matches awards you a refill as well as a one point increase to your maximum number of hearts, so that helps too. But as you progress it'll cost you more hearts to play a match - if you're not careful winning won't be enough to keep you going anymore. 

Of course you can always refill your hearts by spending a gem - the cash store currency. Gems are also used to continue a losing match, buy cards, and expand your inventory space. Luckily you can earn some free gems by clearing all three objectives of a quest, and for placing high enough in a tournament. I've earned and spent bunches of gems on rare cards and inventory slots without spending any real money.

Anyway, on to the good stuff.
You start with a very basic deck, and you have a few ways to earn new cards. Defeating monsters during a match has a chance to drop a chest (or a bag of coins, a currency you can spend to unlock a card chest). As you progress through the quest matches you'll unlock crafting recipes that will combine two or more cards into a new (often stronger and rarer) card. The further you progress, the better your chance of finding rare cards. You can also earn a guaranteed rare card by opening the Algebraic Chest using three gems - and since you can earn gems by completing quest objectives, you'll have to consider whether you want to push forward quickly or spend some time on gems to get early access to powerful cards. Oh, and speaking of the algebraic chest, there's an exploit you can use to choose which card rarity you'll get out of the chest, if you're so inclined.

Early on it didn't seem like there was much diversity, but a lot of options and strategy open up as you move forward. There are five landscapes - cornfield, blue plains, useless swamp, nice lands, and sandyland - and each has a wide array of monsters that can only be played on that terrain type (and weaker rainbow monsters that can be played anywhere). You can choose four landscapes for your deck, so you have the option to go monotype or to mix and match according to your play style or the cards you have access to. Corn is mostly offense, sand is more defensive, nice has a lot of healing, and so on. Each monster has a "floop" ability that activates a special effect at the cost of magic points (which determine how much you can spend on playing cards every turn). There are also buildings and spells to supplement your options, allowing you to tweak your monsters, control the battlefield, or hinder your opponent.

I don't want to go too far into things because there are a lot of options. Gameplay is fast and furious - a turn rarely exceeds thirty seconds, and (for me at least) a match is over in ten turns or less. But there's still a lot of strategy in how you build and play your deck, and in how you react to your opponent's stragety. 

Probably the coolest feature is the tournaments. Each tournament lasts two weeks. You're matched into a bracket with 100 other players, and you battle against AI-controlled player decks. For each match you win you earn trophies. You get bonus trophies for win streaks, and you can even earn them without actually playing the game when another player loses to your AI-controlled deck. Everyone in the tournament wins at least a minor prize - coins for the bottom fifty, and fancier stuff for higher ranks. The top ten win a rare gold card, which I believe is a stronger version of a normal card (for example, you can get a psionic architect through crafting, but there's also a gold version with higher stats for the same magic cost). The top player earns a special black card which is a unique card only available through tournament wins.
The tournament does have its flaws. The later you enter, the easier it is to place well, since you'll more often be matched with new players or less serious players. When I entered my first tournament halfway through I was able to score first place with something like 170 trophies over 30 or 40 matches, but when I entered my second tournament on the first day, first place had 300 trophies after only a few hours. The AI also doesn't handle certain cards very well - the main example I noticed is Brief Power, a card that reduces the cost of all other cards played this turn by 1. The AI just can't seem to use it effectively - I've seen it play Brief Power at the end of a turn after playing a full hand of cards. So, in other words, your deck probably won't do as well under the AI as it will in your own hands.

I got an early Dark Angel out of the algebraic chest, so since the very beginning of the game I've been using one swamp mixed with something else. Corn by necessity at the start, but when I got the cards for it I moved to sand, since it seems to be very well balanced between offense and defense. Most recently I've been using four different landscapes with a couple of my strongest monsters from each colour, and some magic boosting cards (Witch Way) to get out one or more very strong monsters on the very first turn. It's neat to evolve my strategy as I acquire new cards, face off against new opponents, and try to pass different quest requirements (such as win without using spells, or use only blue cards).

Some of the best moments are when you're up against the wall knowing you're going to lose on the next turn unless you can pull something out of your butt right away. It's not always possible to turn defeat into victory, but when you figure out that you can floop the Pickler and the Dark Angel to clear the lane for the Sand Knight and squeeze out just enough damage for the KO, you'll feel pretty good about yourself.

There are some bugs to contend with, though I haven't encountered any serious ones. The most common glitch is when the UI fails to update after a match (for example, your new gem doesn't show up or the next quest doesn't unlock), but this is easily resolved by exiting and re-entering the quest map. It's a display issue, not an actual unlock problem.

Recommendation: maybe.

I can't give a full yes recommendation with the energy meter in place. It's an annoying limitation for a paid game. It would theoretically help balance tournaments by making it more about wins than matches played, except that there are exploits to gain unlimited energy. Other than the energy meter, though, this is quite a fun game, well suited to the mobile format - it's easy to play for a few minutes at a time and still get stuff done, and it's also got the depth to hold my interest and keep me playing over several weeks. I'd easily recommend it without the energy and microtransactions, but as is you'll have to decide whether it's something you can tolerate.
And to add a new edit to this conclusion, a recent update makes the game online only. Any progress made while offline is not recorded. This is incredibly annoying for a game I mostly play on the subway. This and the energy meter are some pretty major flaws, but the game is great other than those things, so ugh I don't even know anymore.

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