Shadow Era proves that digital CCG’s can be just as much fun as their real world counterparts

Shadow Era is a new CCG (collectible card game) similar to genre stalwart Magic: The Gathering. I don’t say this as a bad thing, quite the opposite really. It’s instantly comfortable to those of us familiar with the game, but different enough to never feel like a copycat. In fact it’s really quite different, and in very good ways. It’s definitely inspired by games like Magic but make no mistake, Shadow Era is its own game – and quite a good one at that.

In Shadow Era you’ll be using a deck of cards with various abilities to attack your opponent’s health until one of you reaches zero. To start, you’ll choose a hero card to play as. Each one has unique hit points and abilities, and is face up on the table at all times. The hero you choose will dictate which kinds of cards you can have in your deck. For example, if you play as a wizard you’ll have cards that are more often spells and not melee type attacks.

You’ll draw 6 cards to start and the game will begin. Each card has a casting strength, which is the Magic equivalent of Mana cards. One of my favorite elements to Shadow Era is how it ditches these otherwise worthless cards and goes with a totally different system of resources. Once per turn you are able to “sacrifice” any one of your cards into a resource stack. The number of cards in that stack tells you how much power you can spend every turn. The stack builds up as you add to it, so while it’s weak early on later in the game you’ll be able to play multiple cards per turn.

Some of the cards are pure attack cards (deal X damage to Y), some are items to give you extra bonuses like drawing extra cards, and some are allies that take position next to your hero, and are able to attack and defend. Smart use of all of these different types of cards is essential to winning, but that really just comes with practice.

I was amazed at how quickly I was sucked into the Shadow Era world. I can already tell I’ll be playing this game for quite some time, and that’s really a testament to both the game design and the distribution design. The card art is gorgeous for the most part, and the visual effects when the cards attack and cast spells are incredibly sharp. Everything about it really looks great.

The game is free to download and play on the iPhone, iPad, and even in your web browser. You make a free account and are able to create, modify and save different decks that carry across all three platforms. Same goes for XP, level and in-game purchases. Buying a deck of cards on the iPhone means you’ll have access to the contents anywhere.

If my progress and decks were saved locally on each device, it would’ve been a logistical nightmare and I likely wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience at all. But knowing it’s all saved in the cloud tells me no matter where I’m playing, either multiplayer or the single player campaign, I’ll be good to go. Speaking of multiplayer, it works wonderfully over the net and I was able to get into numerous games with no problem at all (though I did get my butt handed to me every time).

Shadow Era

Shadow Era

There are however a few downsides to the game and system that need mentioning. Since everything is in the cloud, that means there’s no way to play the game offline. So those of us with iPod Touchs and non-3G iPads will need to connect to a wifi spot if we want to play, even single player. This is kind of a downer but makes sense given the setup, and I’d rather have it this way that have everything local and unsynced. The other issue I had playing was that the screen size on the iPhone was really just too small to get the full enjoyment out of the game. Selecting cards out of your hand and taking everything in was just a little too difficult. It’s still do-able and fun, but of the 3 platforms you can access Shadow Era on, this was my least favorite.

Buying digital cards through in-app purchases feels weird if you haven’t done it before. You don’t really know what you’re getting until you’ve paid money, which might feel a little awkward to those not used to the world of CCG’s. It also opens up that weird world where whoever spends the most money is the person that will likely have the best deck. The CCG by its very nature can be unbalanced, so if take your stock deck into competition against someone that’s dropped 20 bucks on card upgrades, no matter how good you are you’re probably in trouble. That really only comes into play if you plan on playing a lot of multiplayer though.

I was initially unconvinced about how a CCG game would work in iOS, probably because I’d assumed that somewhere along the way they’d have messed up on the distribution model and just made it a really bad experience. Well they didn’t, and thanks to their good choices and hard work, we get Shadow Era, a portable CCG that’s well worth your time.