Forgive me for being a little sceptical, it is a natural reaction for anyone approaching free-to-play mobile games. A catch, in some monetary form, has to exist somewhere, or else why would the product exist in the first place? Skylanders Battlecast is not the first such app to be thrusted upon my mobile, and it almost certainly will not be the last. Yet, at least it has something to it, something a certain other broken free-to-play mobile game released in the same timeframe does not. Skylanders Battlecast is a collectible card game, a genre that has found considerable resurgence in digital form in the last few years and it is clear from the onset that the game takes much of its inspiration from its predecessors, particularly Blizzard favourite Hearthstone, as the bold cutesy style combined with a similar play-style certainly suggest.
There is one rather notable difference however: the existence of physical versions of all the cards that the player can scan into their phone (along with some rather impressive visual augmented reality fireworks) to claim the digital as well. At first one might think that this is a rather inventive idea, the ability to play the game both digitally and physically sounds rather exciting. Unfortunately it does not quite work in this fashion. Unlike most card games, the mechanics fail to work without a machine performing certain tasks such as random number generation and stat tracking. What this boils down to then is that these physical cards have no purpose beyond their conversion into digital form. The skeptical (and indeed the logical) mind would conclude that their existence is purely a tool for milking the physical wealth of the player base (most likely children and their pocket money) as well as their credit cards (or more likely their parents’). Perhaps the most entertaining part of these physical cards is that each is marked with a barcode, cunningly hidden into the border, ensuring that cards can only be registered to a single account. Just imagine the hilarity as children come to blows over trading cards that are already frozen out.
So, given the rather intense displeasure at Activision’s marketing strategy for Skylanders Battlecast, it is with some begrudgingness that we have to admit that the game behind it actually has some slightly interesting and novel mechanics. As with most CCGs players collect cards, either by purchasing, trading or winning games, then build decks to compete against each other. Often a combination of the skill of the player and a chunk of luck, combined with the power of their deck will win the day. As the game progresses the mana pool of the player builds up (usually growing at a rate of one mana point per turn, albeit with a slightly frustrating random element), allowing them to play more powerful cards that do more damage later in the game, eventually doing enough damage to defeat the opponent.
The most marked difference in gameplay is that players are not aiming to deplete the lifeforce of the caster (as they would in both Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone) but rather defeat three heroes that the player chooses from their deck at the beginning of the game. These hero cards usually form the basis of each deck, often combining with specific cards that can only be played when they are on the field. It also allows the game to utilise characters from Skylanders which anyone familiar with that universe will appreciate. Each hero has a set amount of health as well as damage which allows them to attack once per turn. While there can be up to three heroes on the field at any time, only one may take up the active position which allows them to attack and gain experience. Every time a spell is used or a hero attacks the hero adds a point of experience, and every three points gains a level. Once they reach the second level, the active hero gains access to their skill (essentially a reusable card that still costs mana to play), and at the maximum third level they are granted a significant damage boost. At the same time, since most spells and attacks can only target the active hero, they are at far greater risk of being overwhelmed. Fortunately once each turn the player can swap out a hero for another on the sidelines where any damage will slowly be recovered.
This creates an interesting dynamic that is rather unique to Skylanders Battlecast when compared to other CCGs. Players must be cautious of how much damage a hero might take in a single turn while at the same time weighing up the rewards of leaving them out to gain experience and become more powerful. This risk versus reward mechanic is a huge chunk of the enjoyment that can be found in the game: level up a powerful hero and they may be able to decimate the opponent before they can react, however leave it too late and that investment is gone and most likely the game is lost. At the same time players must think about the potential of cards that can stun heroes so they cannot swap out, others that force damaged heroes to return to the front, or worse more powerful (and therefore expensive) cards that simply damage heroes in the backlines.
The hero mechanic is certainly the most interesting part of the game, sadly the other cards that form of the basis of the deck are disappointingly bland. A vast majority of the cards simply do damage with little to no other effect. Matches far too often descend into stagnant slinging matches as players cast their most powerful cards and timely swap damaged heroes out and back in, until someone lucks out and does enough damage to defeat their opponent. There are no counterspells that one might see in Magic: The Gathering, nothing similar to secrets in Hearthstone, indeed nothing can be played at all when the opponent is taking their turn. The result is that there is simply a lack of intelligence and depth to the game, meaning rarely if ever are you satisfied by outwitting and outplaying your opponent. This will be a big turn off to any seasoned CCG players, however given that Skylanders Battlecast is clearly aimed at a younger audience it does make some sense to not overcomplicate matters. In many ways the game feels like an introduction to the genre rather than a competitor, although given some time to evolve this may perhaps change.
CCGs traditionally have woeful single-player content, something understandable perhaps given the nature of the head-to-head gameplay. Here Skylanders Battlecast puts other free-to-play card games to shame (Magic Duels almost mockingly was released with just five single player campaigns, each with just five battles that could be finished in an afternoon and Hearthstone was perhaps even worse). With a broad tutorial and nine differing realms to conquer each with many battles within, it all adds up to quite a lengthy experience that might while away those otherwise boring journeys. It is interesting to see the single-player content being a core part of the game and not just a throwaway segment and again perhaps shows Battlecast’s emphasis on a more casual younger crowd who may not necessarily want to battle each other.
As with virtually all of these card games you still most likely will not be able to compete with those that own every card through heavy time or monetary investment, but with the bonuses given for playing through the single-player content as well daily free cards it is possible to build up a passable deck without spending anything at all However we’re not entirely sure we can forgive Activision for the sneaky money grabbing by commercialising both physical and digital content, particularly given that the physical cards have no other use beyond being scanned in. But all being said and done Skylanders Battlecast is a passable CCG with some novel mechanics that is unfortunately let down heavily by its mundane card catalogue and overly simplistic mechanics. It will appeal more to its target younger audience who may be intimidated by Hearthstone and particularly the insane complexity of Magic: The Gathering and perhaps those simply looking for a less demanding, more casual, mobile card game.