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Review: Shards of Infinity (Android)

Reviewed by Taleweaver, posted May 31, 2019, last updated May 31, 2019
I've been interested in deck builders, lately. When this came out, it jumped straight to the top spot.
May 31, 2019
  • Release Date (NA): May 6, 2019
  • Release Date (EU): May 6, 2019
  • Release Date (JP): May 6, 2019
  • Publisher: Temple gates
  • Developer: Temple gates
  • Genres: Card game, Deck building,
  • Also For: Board Games, Computer
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
    Co-operative
Deck builders are a relatively young genre of games, and not to be confused with Collectible Card Games. In deck builders, each player starts with an identical (small) deck of cards, mostly consisting of currency. On your turn, you draw some cards and use these to either buy cards from the central open stack of a handful of - more powerful - cards, or resolve other stuff that's on cards you have. At the end of your turn, all cards you had in your hand and all cards you bought go to your graveyard pile, and you draw an equal amount of new cards. Should your deck ever run out of cards and you need to draw, you simply shuffle your graveyard pile and this becomes your new deck. As such, you will eventually draw and play the cards you purchase. The first and most known deck builder is dominion. Released in 2008, it is an absolute classic and still having expansions released for it, it is an absolute recommend to play. But as I have barely any experience with it, I'll leave that for someone else for now. Fact is that the game spawned an entire new genre that iterated and improved upon one another. It has resulted in dungeon crawlers like Clank, word games like hardback, science fiction wargames like star realms and fantasy games like ascension. ...and this roundabout way is to introduce my actual game. You see, the makers of ascension created a follow-up: shards of infinity. And while I was busy exploring the apps from hardback and star realms, Temple gates (aka: the makers of the awesome race for the galaxy app) were working on bringing shards of infinity to the video game genre. Did they succeed? Well...let's get started...
Taleweaver
Damage to infinity

In shards of infinity, you play as battling mages. Each player starts with 50 life, (hardly) no experience and a deck of ten cards. The goal is to reduce the other mage (or mages)' lives to zero. Seven of those cards simply add one currency, the eighth card simply deals one damage. The last two cards do stuff depending on your experience. And that's a characteristic you'll find on many cards: they get stronger as you gain experience. It' fairly common to see cards like the shard reactor: "gain 2 currency;at level 5 or higher: gain 3 currency instead; at 15 or higher: add 4 instead". But even so, the infinity shard is a special one. At level 30, this cards deals infinite damage. In other words: make it to level 30 and play the card from your hand, and you win.

mainmenu. shardscards. ingame3(shard).

I won't lie: I thought this card was a gimmick at first. Something to draw in the audience. And perhaps something to make sure that the game doesn't drag on too long, because all players can spend one currency to upgrade their experience by one. But after playing enough games to write about it, I can say that it's more than that. More precise: there are two (somewhat) complementing winning conditions in this game: winning by power or winning by experience. And the beauty is that this isn't really an 'or/or' situation.

But to get deeper into this, it's probably best to take a look at the game this one resembles most: star realms.


Space opera versus fantasy

Before Shards of Infinity (SoI), I was hooked on star realms. And for good reason, as it's a pretty dang interesting game as well. More so: the base game on android/iOS is free, and doesn't come with any "...but you'll have to pay to win" hooks lesser free games have. As such, I was a bit less willing to fork over money for SoI, especially since I read that they were very similar. Well...I can at least assure you that I disagree with those reviews. More to the point: I can say why they're saying it, but also where they are wrong.

The similarities are obvious: in both games you start with 50 life and have to reduce the other person's health to zero. Both games start with a deck of eight currency cards and two damage cards, and each have you draw five per turn. Both games have cards that stay on the table rather than being reshuffled in the deck, providing continuous bonusses until the opponent spends damage to throw them in the graveyard. And both games have four factions...or five, if you want to count the 'factionless' cards you start with (I'll get to factions in a bit). And finally: both games are, at their heart, mostly abstract. One is about different kinds of space ships and planets whereas the other features a bunch of fantasy beings. It's obviously a different theme, but it doesn't affect the game in one bit.

On the other hand are three important differences: the experience system, the infinity shard, mercenaries and shields. About a third of the cards have an experience treshold. They always do stuff, but once at or above that experience level it does more than that. This means that games get more frantic as they last more turns. In fact: even aggressive "I just want to damage you until you're dead" players might find themselves leveling up a bit from time to time to deal even more damage.

Mercenaries and shields are less outspoken differences, but still mechanics that differ more from star realms than the similar ones. Mercenaries are 'one play' cards. Meaning: when you buy them, you can either chose to add it to your deck and have the effect when you draw the card, or have the effect immediately and not have it in your deck. I'll get into details in a bit, but for now, remember that this is a very meaningful decision in a deck builder game.
Shields are innovative in their own way. When an opponent attempts to damage you, you can reveal a card with a shield on it to prevent that much damage. Perhaps on the surface this looks similar to star realms, where some of the 'permanent on the table' cards require you to spend damage to destroy it first, but this plays out completely different. You see: as a player, you need to decide whether to hit your opponent (who MIGHT have a card with shield in hand) or their permanent cards (who WILL be dead and thus remove the advantage they'll give). This dilemma is one of the ways SoI has tactical depth over star realms.

Don't get me wrong: star realms is certainly a fun game to play. But one of the definitions of what makes something a game involves "making interesting decisions". Shards has these decisions just about every turn. In both games, you have turns where you simply cannot use all your currency to buy cards you want. There might not be the correct factions (again: later), or it might just be too expensive. But if there's a card you want in star realms and can afford it, it's a no brainer. In SoI, there is always that "...but if I spend all my currency, I can't increase my experience this turn" dilemma. This really is a strategic element to consider: how much cards do you have that benefit from a higher level? Does leveling up mean I buy lesser cards that might get me killed before I reach 30? Or do I go straight for the jugular and just buy more powerful attack cards?

Star realms works by a "the best defense is offense" principle. Attempting a defense is like building a sand castle: it can be fun, but it'll be gone in the end. I assumed it was because, like more deck builders, things tend to spiral out of control. In the early turns, you swap out one to three damage at tops. But in the mid- to late game, blows of 20 to 30 damage aren't very uncommon. And while SoI has this as well - heck: it features an even higher '...and draw a card' ratio of cards - those shields really can help to survive.

ingame. ingame2. rules.

On factions and deck trimming

Back when I played magic: the gathering with friends in the nineties, we played it among us. And as the themes weren't as streamlined and the internet wasn't a household, we had no idea that we were playing it wrong. More to the point: we followed the rules correctly, but we treated that "minimum 60 cards in your deck" rule as an oddity. Pretty soon we all had a whole bunch of cool cards, so we added just about all of 'em to our deck. And because we all did it, it was pretty late that we discovered that we would ALWAYS lose to someone who kept as close to the minimum as possible. The reason? The more cards you add, the lower your chances of drawing the cards you needed or that combined well with other cards.

Deck builders have that issue as well, and even more so. The basic cards are serviceable at first, but as your deck grows you really don't want to draw a 'add one currency' or 'add one damage' card when you have cards that are better on all fronts in your deck. As such, means to keep your deck thin isn't a luxury feature. Sometimes not buying any card can be the best strategy.

Most if not all deck builders have some ways to get rid of unwanted cards, but here too, shards of infinity has a clever instrument: mercenaries. As explained earlier: you either buy these as normal, or as a one-time effect. This obviously solves that "keep your deck lean" dilemma, but it solves two other problems in the same solution.
Number one: the center row of cards always consists of six cards. They get immediately replaced once someone buys a card, but only then. So deck builders often have "I don't like any cards here" situations. Either early in the game when you can't afford costly cards, or later in the game, when small cards would be no longer chosen. This way, the center row rarely stays the same very long.
Number two: playing a card instantly counts as 'playing a card'. And that is important for the following bit: factions.

Factions are the flavor of a card. You buy each with the same currency, but aside the starting cards, every card is cataloged under one of four different factions:

-purple: these are cards that generally deal damage or that can either remove cards from your graveyard or that feed off of other purple cards in the graveyard ("deal 3 damage plus 2 for each of this card in the graveyard").
-green: these generally heal you and combine well with other green cards played on the same turn ("gain 3 life. Deal 5 damage if you've played another green card this turn, or reveal one from your hand").
-brown: these revolve mostly around the cards that stay in play (champions). Many either are champions, and those that aren't either help pay for the cost or improve these ("gain 2 currency...or 4 if you've got a champion in play").
-blue: these specialise in defense, card drawing and improving experience. In contrast with the other colors, these give (large) experience bonusses if you manage to get a purple, green AND a brown card in your hand and/or play.

Each faction can benefit from mercenaries being played from the center (I only drew one green card, but if I buy and play that green card as a mercenary now, it'll trigger the bonusses on both of these cards), and the factions obviously work better if you buy more cards of the same faction. The fact that a third to half of the cards are mercenaries also help to keep the game dynamic.

Factions are fairly common in deck builders, and those that do tend to provide synergies you want to achieve. Deck builders like hardback or (again) star realms make nearly all cards about twice as powerful when two or more cards of that faction are used on the same turn, which makes deciding which card to buy almost a no brainer. In comparison, SoI has those cards (in green), but generally encourages multiple colors. This is possible because there are hardly limits in what the factions can NOT do (blue doesn't deal damage, purple doesn't draw cards, brown doesn't gain xp and green doesn't gain currency). The result is that chosing which card to buy is harder than in other deck builders, but makes seeing the combos work more satisfying. All deck builders I've played thus far had the 'disadvantage' that once you were locked in a certain strategy, a lot of the cards in the center become worthless to you. There is more ambiguity in SoI: if you're going for the infinity shard on level 30, it makes more sense to also add some shield or life gaining cards to your deck. If you want to go aggressive, you might want to get some brown champions as well, as they both deal damage and put your opponent at the dilemma whether or not to deal with them. And 'draw card' effects become very important if you want that bonus for those blue cards that trigger when you play the three other colors on the same turn.

The technical outlines

Shards of infinity came on my radar as it was made by temple gates, the same (indie) company that produced race for the galaxy. RftG was the best game I played last year, and that wasn't "just" because the gameplay was as good as it was. That app was slick, fast and responsive, could be started and stopped at any time, kept a nice overview all the time and had an AI that I could hardly ever defeat on hard mode. Would this hold true for SoI as well?

After some playing, I can answer that with a definite yes. The app has the same curved metallic borders and intuitive instructions on everything. It has a disadvantage on RftG in that that game can mostly be explained through (lots of) iconography, but makes up for this with an option that should become standard in online card games: large text. When enabled, this enlargens the text on the cards to be readable, even if it has to overlap the art a bit. While it arguably diminishes the aesthetics a little bit, I still play with it on, despite knowing most cards by heart at this point.

I have to be honest and admit that I had a few crashes on my device (a nvidia shield tablet). Considering the hours I've played and that the app is still relatively fresh, I won't hold it against the app. Besides: I was able to resume my game each time after restarting.

The AI is also worth mentioning. While there are a few little less-than-advantage card plays it makes with its cards, it's only on the easy setting that I'm assuming it sometimes buys random cards. On medium and hard, it gives a solid challenge.

mainmenu. shards5.

More than two

As with the card game (before the first expansion came out), three- and four player games are basically free-for-all. In real life, I can't but assume that it plays out as a sort of a stalemate or a "let's all pick on him!" effect. Against the AI...this strangely doesn't happen as much. The AI's don't go for discrimination, and the one time I just went all in against the medium AI (with the idea to beat the easy AI later) the easy AI just outright killed me afterwards. But hoarding all shields, life and attempting to win by experience (sorry: by DEALING INFINITE DAMAGE!!!!) didn't win me my first multiplayer. More to the point: I WAS attempting to get to thirty, but in the process my cards got so strong that I won with them before that happened. So all in all: this was a pleasant surprise to have held up. But make no mistake: this game is clearly designed for 2-player duels. But the game certainly allows for multiple players at the same time.

I haven't played the multiplayer, but I hear that it's fine as well. I unfortunately can't comment on that: I mostly play commuting to work.

How it all wraps up

The more I play this game, the more I see how balanced the entire game really is. Simply put: all the cards are good, with the potential to be great. if you win, it's never because of a single card but because the card played well within your deck. Yes, as with all card drawing games, there is some luck in the draw and in what's available within your budget. But when comparing it to all other deck builder's I've played, I can honestly say that this has the fewest 'bad luck' elements, which is clearly due to both the mercenary and the experience techniques. Later in the game, having an abundance of money allows you to quickly buy something that won't clutter up your deck. Likewise, cards that become better evolve with your current experience level. Some cards that are 'adequate' by themselves suddenly shift gear when your experience is high enough.

Disadvantages? Well...hardly. There is next to no disruption in the game (there is exactly one card that can steal 2 experience from your opponent), so if you wanted to trash or steal cards from your oppoenents, it won't happen. Forcing discards is also not in this game. Whether that counts as a negative is arguable (hint: it can't happen to you either). Other reviews mention the missed chance of each player having to pick a player with cool avatar...that does absolutely nothing special. This changes in the first expansion, but this isn't available in the app yet.

All in all: I've played this game dozens of times (not as hard, as matches last about 10-15 minutes), and it's very likely they'll go in the hundreds before I get bored with it (assuming this'll ever happen). It came seemingly out of nowhere (heck...I follow board games for some year and this managed to stay completely under my radar), but it is certainly one of the best apps I've ever purchased. I've had a few games that were relatively short, but most matched out evenly and often came very close calls (which makes for the best victories :) ).

Note: the video game is available on android, steam and iOS. And of course as a card game as well...
Verdict
Pros
+ Very addictive and tense gameplay
+ Easy to learn
+ Slick and fast interface
+ Challenging AI
Cons
- Takes a while to really understand how good it really is
- Not as many different cards as one would hope
- No extra options, things to unlock, achieve, ...
9 Presentation
Looks beautiful and intuitive. Perhaps the same background all the time can become a bit tedious, but I'll be too busy looking at cards to notice.
10 Gameplay
The only possible negative I could mention is that when the AI plays a long turn, it can be a bit hard to follow. But you can slow down these animations. For all the reasoning for this well deserved ten: I think the review speaks for itself. :-)
8 Lasting Appeal
It's a bit too early to say. Temple gates announced that they'll be at least briniging the (currently only) expansion to it later. I think I'll keep liking it, but your mileage might vary...
9.1
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
This is temple gates' second game, and the second one that I'm reviewing incredibly well. I understand that this might make me look like a fan boy, but that can be turned around as well: the reason I became a fan of their work is because they made two - IMHO - incredible games. Card games, yes. Not everyone's a fan of that. But within this genre, I gladly dare anyone to find me better (digital implementations of) games. :-)


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