Ruling the world one deck at a time

I’ve been playing a game called Combat Monsters recently, and although it’s still in beta, I have to say that I’m very impressed. Rubicon Development, the studio behind the game, describes it as a combination of “a traditional RPG battler with a deck constructing game,” and while I’m not entirely sure what that means, the most obvious influence is Magic: The Gathering.

“I’ve been an avid player of [Magic: The Gathering] all my life, but it’s always annoyed me in a way that the online game is still just a card game, but online,” Rubicon co-founder and managing director Paul Johnson said. “I wanted to make something in a similar mold, with similar mechanics, but have a proper tactical element to it; and a game board to move your pieces around on.”

Combat Monsters

Thus, Combat Monsters. The game takes place on a virtual game board that changes in shape and size between matches, rendered in 3D, on which you’ll place and equip monsters, cast spells, play magical runes, and more. But rather than simply controlling the action from on high, you’re represented on the board as a playable character, as is your enemy. Victory is earned by slaying your enemy’s avatar; defeat comes if he does the same to you.

Much like Magic: The Gathering, success comes from a combination of tactical skill and a powerful deck. There are currently 132 unique monster cards spread across 11 races with more than 50 special powers shared among them, plus 70 weapons, 28 sets of armor, 42 spells, and 22 runes: all of which can be collected and assembled into custom decks. The studio claims that decks and expansions will be affordable – “free or almost free,” is how the press release puts it – but anyone who’s spent time with free-to-play games knows that “pay-to-win” is usually lurking just around the corner.

Johnson, however, says that’s not going to be the case with Combat Monsters. “I believe that the only way to make any game stick – especially a free to play one – is to make sure it’s balanced. Making a game where one guy’s wallet beats the other guy’s wallet is fun for nobody, even the guy with the bigger wallet. Without proper balance you simply have no game at all. I just don’t want to make things like that, so I don’t,” he said. “And secondly, by reminding people that the game is free to play, they can make their own mind up without first putting their hand in their pocket, unlike ‘pay in advance’ games. A player doesn’t have to trust me on that first part, they can see for themselves with zero risk.”

Combat Monsters

Newcomers to Combat Monsters get a free deck and can play indefinitely, building their deck by playing the single-player campaign, completing achievements, leveling up, and defeating other players in online combat. Johnson acknowledged that paying players will be in a better overall position than non-payers, but explained that people won’t have to sink a lot of money into it in order to remain competitive.

“Once you’ve spent some money (we’re very generous with our pricing) the options for strategic planning expand exponentially. Do you want to play a tank deck using humans with big weapons? Do you want to play with a healer deck favoring defense over attack? Do you want to make a long-range archer deck?  You can do all these things once you have a good card pool, but these options are not available to someone who’s not willing to spend – they have to stick with that they started with,” he said. “But, and this is the biggie, any one battle needs only one deck. So a player who’s spent a little can compete with a player who’s spent a lot on an equal footing. They will always be playing their ‘one good deck’ that they can make from their more limited card pool, but the other guy has far more freedom of choice for which one to play with next.”

“That’s why we call it ‘pay what you want’,” he added. “You really have to pay something to get the most out of the game, but a minimal spend will get you competitive with the more serious heavy hitters.”

Combat Monsters

The response to the Card Monsters beta has been very positive and Rubicon has big plans for the future, including: an in-game marketplace for trading cards; scheduled and “sit-and-go” tournaments; team play and other types of game modes with different challenges, rules, and win conditions; and of course, more cards. Lots and lots more cards. “We won’t just be punting out a few new cards here and there like you might expect. We want to get the card count up into the tens of thousands eventually, certainly into the single thousands by next year,” Johnson said. “The logic and graphics engines inside the game are already designed to cope with this, even on mobile, and we have ideas by the truckload, with some real mindbenders coming.”

Combat Monsters doesn’t have a hard-and-fast release date yet but the beta (which you can play here) has gone so well that Johnson said the studio is currently eyeballing early October on all formats – PC, iOS, Android, and Blackberry 10. If strategy is your thing – and especially if you’re a Magic: The Gathering fan – it’s definitely one to keep an eye on.