How my favourite game is slowly driving itself into the ground.


My favourite game – and main hobby – is Solforge, a digital card game for the iPad and PC. For the past two years, my iPad has been almost exclusively a Solforge-playing machine, and it’s something I enjoy enough to put money aside for it each and every month.

If you haven’t ever played, here’s a basic overview: you collect (digital) cards, and put together a 30-card deck to battle against an opponent. Your cards level up and return to your deck, so you have the chance of drawing stronger versions of the creatures and spells you’ve already played. This opens up some interesting design space – a card can be extraordinarily strong at level 1, and then relatively weak at levels 2 and 3, or it can have a useless level 1/2 and a ridiculously good level 3.

The team are constantly coming up with interesting card designs for the expansions. There are a few different play modes, a bunch of brilliant mechanics, the world-building side of things is really fascinating to me,  and there are a handful of other fun features. Even though it’s only in beta, Solforge has a small-but-active community.

Unfortunately, it also seems to have a death-wish.

This is the first competitive game I’ve ever played, and so as I got deeper and deeper into the game, I learned a whole bunch of new terms. “MVP”, apparently a common sports term, means “Most Valuable Player” – in the context of Solforge, it’s used in reference to the card that did the most work to help you win a match.

And “meta” means “the competitive scene”, more specifically which decks and cards are seeing a lot of play. A healthy meta means that there are a few different top decks, and an unhealthy meta means that one particular faction or card is dominating. The more repetitive or uninteresting the competitive scene, the less healthy the meta is.

For the whole time I’ve been playing, Solforge has lurched from unhealthy meta to unhealthy meta.

(For those who play the game: when multiplayer mode was first introduced, Shapers dominated. They were nerfed in the patch that gave us the omni-present Weirwood Patriarch, which was then nerfed when set 2 came out. Yetis then dominated the meta for a few months – although that was arguably the most varied meta Solforge has ever had, with a few semi-viable alternatives – until set 2.3 was released, which brought us Ironmind Acolyte. Ironmind was then the undisputed champion of the queues until set 3 came out, which brought Broodqueen, Aetherphage and Doomrider, the combination of which has resulted in almost two months of the least interesting meta Solforge has seen so far.)

Again this is the first collectible/trading card game that I’ve ever really been passionate about. As a kid I played a tiny bit of Magic: The Gathering and the Pokemon TCG, but I never encountered genuine competitive play. My understanding is that cards can’t be perfectly balanced because it makes the game quite flat – there needs to be strong cards and weak cards, and apparently very strong cards are helpful for teaching new players how to construct a deck, but for whatever reason the Solforge team keep putting out a few cards each set that are so far above the power curve that no one plays anything else.

This seems like a fairly easy issue to avoid – don’t make a card that’s just flat-out amazing at every level. The three-level system in Solforge gives a lot of flexibility to strengthen or weaken a card (if it really needs to be stellar at level 1, give it bad stats later on), but – and this is just my personal opinion – it feels like the design team are afraid that a card they like won’t see play unless they make it exceptional at every level.

(The balance issues of some cards – such as Seal of Deepwood – are more complex than that, but the majority of offenders are simply great, all the time. Broodqueen has extremely high health, Aetherphage’s attack AND defence are incredible, and Grimgaunt Doomrider is perhaps the most egregious of all. His base stats are simply huge, AND he grows every turn.)

As a result, Solforge decks are invariably built around one or two incredibly powerful cards, and matches quite often come down to “did I draw my incredible powerful card?” – for a game with such incredible potential, it’s disappointing and frustrating seeing elegant design reduced to basic coin-flipping. Official word suggests that this is something that isn’t going to change – deck design in Solforge is always going to be “pick a card and build around it”, something I find hugely uninteresting.

But that’s just my personal preference – the issue that everyone can agree on is that Solforge‘s powerful cards are too powerful, and so the meta can consist of playing against the exact same deck for months and months on end.

Fortunately, Solforge‘s upcoming update will feature the ability to fix broken cards on-the-fly

Unfortunately, the new patch brings problems of its own.

I have a collector’s brain. It’s something that I try to limit in real life, else I’d quickly become a hoarder. Every few months, I need to make sure that I’m not filling my house with junk, just because my brain sends me pleasure signals from owning things.

It’s one of the reasons I enjoy Solforge so much – it allows me to collect without taking up physical space.

When you enter a tournament in Solforge, you win a prize pack at the end. The better you do in a match, the better the prize back. What’s more, if you win more than half your matches, you earn your entry fee back. This is called “going infinite”, and it’s a fun way of building a collection – through winning games, rather than just buying new packs.

When it was originally kickstartedSolforge was advertised as a trading card game – the functionality isn’t there at the moment, but eventually they’re planning to introduce the ability to trade your cards to other players, for cards you’re missing and (presumably) in-game currency.

Solforge is completely free to play. You can create an account and play as many games as you like, without ever spending a dollar. They’re extremely generous with daily rewards – every three days, every player can enter a tournament for free, and (as I mentioned) if you win more than half of your games, you can play again – still for free – straight away.

The incentive to put money into the game is that you can play whenever you like (instead of just once a week) and any cards you get from putting money into the game are tradeable. Free-to-play accounts won’t get to trade, paid accounts will. If you “go infinite” in a tournament that you paid money for, future tournaments are also considered paid, meaning that you can chain wins to build up a bunch of tradable cards.

Within a week or two, the new update will be out, and the developers have announced a few changes to the way tournaments are going to work. From now on, you’ll only win your entry fee back if you win all of your games, meaning that the idea of “going infinite” is effectively dead. (Solforge can have a pretty high variance, and even the top players sit at around a 70-80% win-rate.) On top of that, only your first paid game gives you tradable content – any other games you play result in account-bound rewards.

As someone with a collector’s brain, they’ve basically taken away any incentive for me to put money into the game.

I understand that their previous business model may have been too generous (although for the most part, it was roughly comparable to other games on the market) but their current business model is simply going to mean that people can’t play in tournaments nearly as much. Player numbers are already down as a result of the stale meta, and it’s the kind of problem that snowballs quickly – as fewer people play, there’s fewer people to play against, which results in people playing less…etc etc.

Perhaps I’m wrong – they presumably know their own business model better than I do – but I know that I’ll be playing a lot less (I enjoy putting money into the game for the chance to go infinite, a possibility which now seems to have been taken away) and I simply can’t see how they’ll avoid losing the majority of their player-base.

Solforge is slowly digging its own grave, and it’s tragic to watch.

There are a handful of other contributing factors – the official forums are extremely hostile, both technically (it takes way too long to log-in, and cookies expire after thirty minutes) and socially (some of the community’s most unpleasant members have been promoted into positions of power, which is a huge deterrent to community interaction) and the iPad app crashes for me at least once a game – but these are teething issues that I’m happy to overlook, at least as long as Solforge is in beta.

But the main reasons that Solforge is driving itself into the ground are deliberate, conscious choices by the developers. Hugely unbalanced card design (on a regular basis), new tournament structures that will all-but-guarantee that fewer people play the game, and – counterproductively – even less incentive for anyone to put money into the game.

I really hope that I’m wrong, and that Solforge‘s genuinely brilliant design is enough to get them through the rough patches (as it has been so far). Because right now, my favourite game is on the path to completely alienating its player-base, and I really don’t want to find a new hobby.

Board Games Three

One of my various creative hobbies is working on board games and card games. I’ve come up with dozens of ideas over the years, but the three that have gotten the furthest are:

  • 1-2-3-Flag: An abstract two-player strategy game; similar to chess in that everyone has full information at all time. Co-created with my friend Ross, we actually prototyped this one and then played it for hours and hours…annoyingly, it doesn’t quite work, and even more annoyingly, we can’t work out why. It’s (almost) a lot of fun though, and we’re thinking of having a “playtest day” where we invite all of our game-loving friends around to see if anyone can work out how to fix it. It’s so close to being amazing, but it’s not quite there.
  • Zombie Grandmas from Hell: One of the problems with 1-2-3-Flag was the complete lack of theme – if we ever “make it”, it’ll probably have an ant theme (even though that makes no sense for its mechanics) but it could be anything from virus-themed to unicorn-themed and make just as much sense. This game is the opposite of that – we started with theme, and built a game around it. It’s a co-op game where you play a group of survivors in a house, protecting yourself from the oncoming hoardes of zombies.

    Again, it almost works. The strongest part of the game is execution of theme – it really feels like you’re working together to fend off zombies; as the game goes on, they begin to feel overwhelming, and you really need to work together to stop your brains from being eaten tea from being drunk. I identified the problem with it almost a year ago – it’s too finicky and logical, and you spend so much time moving the zombies that it slows the game right down (a problem which increases as the game goes on.)

  • Harvest! – the only game on this list that I have just worked on by myself, over the last few years, it’s set in All-That-Is and it’s a deck-building game about running a farm. I’ve not yet prototyped this one, but I’m hoping to in the next few days – my big fear is that it’ll be too much of a solitaire-esque game, or possibly a little dry. I’m hoping that there will be a basic element of fun that I can build on, but I won’t know until I take the time to write out the hundred-odd cards that I’ll need (ugh, deck-building games…) and playtest it with myself a few times.

I like making games, because it’s a different form of entertainment to the types that I normally work in – instead of “audience” and “entertainers”, you want the players to both drive the action and have fun. It’s setting up an enjoyable framework instead of simple entertainment, and it’s different enough from what I normally do for my brain to consider it “rest”.

Ross and I (just due to our incredibly busy lives) haven’t hung out in quite a while, so Harvest! is the game that I’ve been working on the most lately – it doubles up as a productively-relaxing hobby because I need to develop All-That-Is for parts of it to make sense – as a farming game, the seasons are incredibly important, and so a few weeks back I sat down and fleshed out the seasons (there’s five instead of Earth’s four, and I think they’re distinctly different from “summer/winter/autumn/spring clones).

Yesterday I was fleshing out some of the mechanics, and realised I’d made that classic mistake of over-complicating it. I quickly removed half the game, put it aside as “expansion fodder”, and suddenly it’s a lot more elegant. I’m keen to try it out with other people, but I know that the first two steps are “making it” and “playing it with myself numerous times”.

My cousin Gavin moved in just under a month ago, and he’s been developing a game too – Apocalypse: The Board Game*. My idea of a lovely Sunday evening – the both of us sitting next to each other, each developing our games, bouncing ideas off each other…

*is my suggested name for it, but certainly not its definite title.

It’s entirely possible that these games will never go past fun ideas, but that’s okay by me – fun ideas are, as you may have guessed, a lot of fun. And no matter what you may have heard, I quite like fun.

Today is going to be productive…and if I work hard enough, maybe I’ll have time to sit down and doodle card ideas for Harvest!