In 2009, an RTS called BattleForge was released. It was a representative of a somewhat novel concept in the RTS space: it brought some aspects of collectible card games (CCGs, such as Magic: The Gathering) into the gameplay.
In BattleForge, players assembled a deck of units, turrets, and direct-action spells. These ‘cards’ were cast difrectly onto the battlefield, restricted to being summoned in proximity to friendly ground units. Each card had a tech cost: there were contestible orbs on the map, and once captured each orb counted towards how high-tier a unit or spell could be called upon. But! In BattleForge, each orb needed to have a ‘color’ or alignment associated with it: cards were grouped into Shadow, Fire, Ice, Plant (and other? it’s been a while since I played it) alignments, and many cards required a certain minimum number of orbs of their color to be summoned. So, mixing colors could be very useful, but tricky to navigate.
Fast forward to late 2017. From basically nowhere, a similar RTS/CCG hybrid called Golem Gates launched on Steam. It reminded me instantly of BattleForge – the premise of both games is quite similar. In both games, players summon units, turrets, and spells directly onto the battlefield. In both games, the players bring a ‘deck’ of units into combat. But, as much as Golem Gates might feel similar to BattleForge on the surface, there are some deep differences to the gameplay as well, and some of them don’t reflect so terribly well on the latter game. Let’s take a look.
What’s In a Name?
Going into the game, I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. While the concept of a deck-building RTS CCG is pretty straightforward to picture, the actual nuance of how that plays out in practice isn’t really easy to grok: after all, each CCG (both physical and digital) has its own spin on the genre. As you might imagine from my introductory paragraphs, visions of BattleForge (which I greatly enjoyed) danced in my head. And the game’s name doesn’t really provide much context – Seriously. What are Golems in the context of the game? What are their Gates? Maybe the plot centers around an animate simulacrum of the founder of Microsoft? Sorry, that was an attempt at humor. The game’s art doesn’t provide a lot of direction either: everything seems to be made of metal, or infused with metal: shades of browns and greys abound.
With little enough to go on, I jumped into the tutorial. Sadly, lore and backstory were non-existant, though the game itself is easy enough to learn. But I mean, come on! There is clearly some explanation for why things look the way they do in Golem Gates, some explanation for the aesthetic and the lore, but it’s not forthcoming in the game (yet, at least: it is Early Access after all).
Er, back on topic. The game is simple enough. The player takes on the role of a Harbinger, which are those vaguely angelic robots features extensively througout the game menu. The Harbinger is a hero-like unit whose death loses a player a match. The Harbinger, as far as I have seen, cannot be healed and is not a particularly potent attacker, but summons a temporary flying scout unit at regular intervals. More than a MOBA hero, the Harbinger felt to me like Commander units from the Supreme Commander game: mostly a liability that must be protected.
Over time, each player generates resources which are used to play units, turrets, and active spells onto the map. Players go into battle with a deck of cards – I currently have about 45 cards in my deck – I don’t know what the deck size is yet, but suspect it’s a Magic: The Gathering derived 60. We’ll get into deckbuilding shortly. Now, this has all been pretty similar to BattleForge or even AirMech so far, but this is where things change: unlike BattleForge, but like Hearthstone, or Petroglyph’s Mytheon, or Duelyst, players are granted random cards at regular intervals. They can have an active ‘hand’ of about 10 or 12 cards, though the cards are granted quite slowly and it seems uncommon to have a full hand. Each card is discarded once played, and players must stack multiples of whatever card they hope to be able to use on a regular basis. You like using Fireball? Well, you’d better bring 4 or 5 of them into combat.
The Nitty Gritty
Matches center around the control of resource points. These points grant increased resource generation to the player, and some grant bonuses, such as move speed, when captured. The maps themselves are really interesting: they can be kind of laney, but not like a MOBA. It’s a little hard to describe: some of them are kind of open, some have 1-2 paths, all try to allow players to do tricks with line of sight contrasted against traversal: one map, for instance, has a long path around the map at the top and bottom, but bisects most of the map in the center with a narrow chasm: this allows players to slog their armies the long way ’round, or build an army in the center by using vision to bridge the chasm. The maps seem a little gimmicky, over all, but the promise of free-range combat without being tied to a physical base is one that I really appreciate. Just not entirely sure they’ve done the best job of pulling it off.
They… I can’t decide if they’re stupid, or if they’re brilliant. Seriously, I’m very up in the air about this. Mostly, the maps are symmetrical, and most of them have some variation or gimmick. One has a force field with a physically separated control node, several of them have a super-unit you can gain control of, and several start the player with turrets near their ‘home base’ resource node. These same turrets are in the player’s starting card deck, so they’re not terribly potent. These aren’t DOTA turrets, is what I’m saying.
Units, abilities, and turrets can be placed anywhere in the player’s field of vision (some units don’t provide castable vision, however). This has some interesting applications: first off, without a base or distinct territory beyond resource nodes, battle can happen whereever. Unlike Halo Wars 2’s Blitz mode (another very similar game actually), there’s no penalty for summoning in any situation, so reinforcements and abilities are always able to be called in on a moment’s notice. Moreover, units have virtually no summon time, meaning they can start reacting immediately. At its best, its a formula for some really interesting and creative chaos.
Unfortunately, the system doesn’t seem to be at its best as often as you’d hope. Battle can be very frustrating due to instant-impact spell abilities, leaving a player in the lurch because they were clumping up their units too much. Also, most units have a very short sight radius, which leads to some myopic groping around trying to figure out where your opponent is hiding.
The game is beautiful, but the units can be kind of hard to pick apart, and everything can blend to a grey blobby mess against a landscape that’s often a similar color to your units. Similar to Grey Goo, units’ roles aren’t often clear from their visual design, and similar to Spellforce, it’s often easy to lose units or misidentify them against the game’s background.
The Raw Deal – Deckbuilding and Final Thoughts
Many deck-building games logically group their cards into archetypes. Magic: the Gathering is one of the best examples of this: Black cards (my favorite kind!) tend to deal with allowing their player to disadvantage themselves while simultaneously attempting to further disadvantage their’s opponent. Blue cards tend to deal with manipulation: dispels, returning cards to the owner’s hand, et cetera. Such distinctions make it simpler for the player to manage their playstyle through the complexity of the sheer number of possibilities, and allow players to drift towards a particular affilitation/play style. I really like the system Duelyst uses, with most units falling into a common-access group, with specialty cards for each faction serving to direct overall play style.
Golem Gates does neither of these things, currently using a model where any player can slot any card into their deck. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with such a system, it feels to me a little risky. In any competitive game, there’s always the risk that too small a selection of possible strategies will be viable, leading to overall malaise, stale gameplay, and poor balance, which can kill a game. With multiple factions or archetypes, the interplay and interactions between factions and archetypes can drive interest even if at any given time said faction or archetype may be improperly balanced.
There are downsides to both methods: I’m certain in AirMech, some of the ‘mechs see much less play than other, while there are a subset of bot loadouts seen as the most efficient. Just as in Grey Goo, the titular Goo faction might only have a handful of viable strategies. No approach is foolproof. But I really prefer such archetypes, card colors/alignments, et cetera. It’s a personal preference – mileage may vary and this article isn’t the place to make a detailed case for one approach or another.
So, where does this leave us? A deckbuilding card game in the vein of Halo Wars 2 Blitz, with a liberal helping of Battleforge. Throw in some unclear lore, visualization issues, random card-drawing (which I see as a problem because this RNG takes a big role in match strategy and performance), the limited ability to respond to offmap abilities, and often unclear gameplay instructions, make this game more far more frustrating and less satisfying than I had hoped it would be. While I actually very much enjoyed BattleForge, and Halo Wars 2 Blitz is a fun and lightweight game mode, and Duelyst is perhaps my favorite turn-based game right now, I find myself unable to recommend it at this time. Perhaps when it’s been in Early Access for a few months, and has matured as a product, it might be a more safe bet.
Typically, I can find myself enjoying a game due to clever gameplay, even if it’s unpolished or in the face of minor design issues, if I find something in the gameplay that I value. For Golem Gates, while I find several things about it compelling, the issues really get in the way of my abilty to enjoy or recommend it. But, dang, it is a good lookin’ game.