The card game that everyone’s flooping about

On the list of animated shows I’m glad my daughter likes so I have a plausible reason to watch more of them myself, Adventure Time is right at the top (Littlest Pet Shop, in contrast, is last). So it’s with great delight that I report that Card Wars – Adventure Time does right by the show and is better than most mobile card battle games, held back only a bit by its unnecessary two-pronged monetization.

Fans of the series probably already know that Card Wars is a real thing in Finn and Jake’s universe, kind of their own version of games like Magic: The Gathering. What you play in the mobile game is pretty darn faithful to what we’ve seen on screen, right down to some of the creatures and buildings, as well as “flooping the pig” — flooping being this game’s version of tapping to activate a card’s special ability.

Card Wars - Adventure Time

The biggest difference is that Card Wars – Adventure Time doesn’t take that long to figure out, despite Jake’s warning that there are lots of rules. Each battle has a setup phase that has each player lay out four landscapes on his or her side of the board. Creatures can only be played into their corresponding landscape, except for rainbow cards that can be played anywhere.

Only one creature can be played at a time into each of the four lanes. All of them have varying mana costs to play, plus values for attack and defense. The other types of cards are buildings, which buff the creatures in their lanes, and spells, which have a variety of effects. The Volcano, for instance, wipes out everything in its lane on both sides of the board.

After playing cards from your hand, leftover mana can be used for flooping. Then it’s time for attacking, which is where the game distinguishes itself from a very crowded genre. Each creature deals damage to the opposing creature in its lane, or to the opposing player if the lane is empty. But there’s also a skill-based component in the form of a rotating wheel: depending on when you tap to stop the wheel, you could end up doing normal damage, a critical hit for double damage, or miss and do no damage at all.

Card Wars - Adventure Time

That mechanic definitely affects strategy, as you can play a high damage but low defense creature if you feel confident enough in your reflexes to use the wheel effectively in defense when it’s the AI’s turn to attack. And if you’re purely a stats guy or gal, the wheel can be turned off.

Except for the innate special abilities possessed by each character, which take several turns to build up before you can activate them, that’s pretty much the whole of the gameplay. It’s just involved enough to be interesting but without the complexity or depth of Magic or its ilk. For a mobile game it feels just right, as battles generally only last a few turns.

Deck sizes are also on the small side, though they grow as you level up characters with experience from successful duels. Chests uncovered in battle yield common cards (though in keeping with the Adventure Time spirit, the first rarity level is “Cool”), and rarer, more powerful cards can be created through a crafting system, with recipes also appearing as the spoils of victory.

Card Wars - Adventure Time

As you play through the various zones on the campaign map, you’ll end up battling the same characters several times. Each individual battle can also be played three times to earn stars, with the victory conditions changing after a win. Common conditions are winning with only certain types of cards or in ‘x’ turns or less, so it helps to keep several decks constructed.

So far, so great, right? Definitely, but there are some negatives here too. One is the heart system, which restricts how many battles you can play in one session. It’s not horrible, as you can win a refill and a permanent increase in your total hearts every few battles. But its mere existence will certainly rankle some people.

It would also be nice if Card Wars – Adventure Time made up its mind if it was a paid app or a freemium one. Instead it’s both, with a price to download and a premium currency called gems that can buy more powerful cards, extend losing battles without forfeiting the loot and experience you’ve earned, and yes, buy more hearts. Again, there are much, much worse cash grabs out there, and it’s very possible to play without spending any more money. It’s just frustrating that Kung Fu Factory didn’t have the conviction to pick one monetization path and stick to it.

Card Wars - Adventure Time

What isn’t a letdown is the art and animation, which look like they were plucked straight from the show. There’s some limited voice work done by the real people who voice the characters on TV, and a whole host of familiar characters and locales. This is a game that nailed the feeling of the show and stuck the landing.

That makes the heart system and price issues easier to take. Card Wars – Adventure Time isn’t perfect, but as Finn and Jake might say, it’s a lot closer to being a cool guy than a dweeb. And no one likes being called a dweeb.