Prismata Release

About a year ago, I reviewed a game called Prismata. It was quite rightly pointed out to me that my review mostly consisted of talking about StarCraft.

Woops.

I also promised to reblog that review when the game actually released to remind you all to go play it (seriously, a year later, it is still basically the only game I play).

Instead of reblogging that previous post, I’ll do a little overview to give you a feel for the game. I’m going to warn you that the game looks way more complicated than it is. If you go through the tutorial in the game, it will start you with very simple scenarios and introduce the concepts one at a time. By the time you play an actual game, nothing about it will feel overwhelming.

I will also warn you that it is truly its own thing. All comparisons are misleading. I’ve seen “turn-based StarCraft,” “Dominion, but your whole hand is on the board every turn,” and “Fischer Chess960 without board positioning.” Uh, yeah, none of those capture Prismata quite right.

Here is a match I’ve started vs a bot:

Screenshot (26).png

First important thing to note: it’s not a card game! It looks like a card game, but it’s not. I might have to reiterate this point later. You don’t have a hand. You don’t have a deck. There is no drawing of cards. Think of the squares on the screen as “tiles” or “units.”

If you look at the bottom left of the screen, I have: 0 gold, 0 green, 0 blue, 0 red, 0 energy (the lightning bolt). These are the resources used to buy things.

The bot went first, and now I’ll go:

Screenshot (27).png

Now it says I have 2 gold. This is because I clicked my drones to make gold. I have 7 drones. This made 7 gold. Then I spent 5 of those to make a Blastforge that has appeared yellowish at the bottom (pro-tip: this is a bad play). If you look on the left, this is the fourth item down the list and it clearly says “5 gold.” I also now have “2 energy” created by the engineers.

This blastforge will start giving me “1 blue” to spend every turn. I won’t keep going through turns like this. I did this to illustrate that this is more of an economy building type of game. It’s not a card game! I buy units to put on the board. I never keep units in my hand.

This brings me to the first, and possibly most important strategic concept of Prismata: there is no hidden information. There is no draw luck. The game works closer to chess than a card game because of this.

Unlike chess, every game will be different. There’s a base set of units that stays the same. Then there’s a pool of units from which a random set is pulled for the game. After a while, you’ll know every unit in this pool, so it’s how they combine that’s the interesting part.

Okay, so I’ve said there’s an economy component, but what the heck do you do? What’s the goal?

The goal is to destroy all of your opponent’s units. This is different from chess (“kill” the king, a specific unit). This is different from Magic/Hearthstone/generic card game (bring the opponent’s life total to 0). This is different from “Victory Point” games (have the most of something).

In general, units that cost blue are good defenders; units that cost red are strong attackers; and units that cost green are…well, a mix?

Like all great games, it’s impossible to get any understanding from someone telling you about it, but I’ll try to give a you a “feel” for a small fraction of the types of strategic decisions/trade-offs you’ll be making in a match.

Economy:

Drones produce money to buy things, so there’s a sense in which buying drones is an exponential growth process (though not really for technical reasons having to do with energy and finite supply). The more money you have, the more you can buy.

It’s tempting to try to grow your economy to the max, then you just win, right? Sort of, but economy takes a few turns to actually pay off (a drone costs 3, so it takes 3 turns to pay for itself). This means your opponent could make almost no economy, rush a bunch of strong attackers, and kill everything before any of it pays for itself.

Wait, so why not skip all economy and just make attackers? This sometimes works, but mostly it’s because your opponent could make a tiny bit more economy than you and ride it out long enough to gain the advantage.

There’s a sense in which economy size is the fundamental decision you’ll make each game. It’s really fascinating, because depending on the random units you’re playing with, low economy games are the way to win or high economy games are the way to win. Often, you must find the right balance in the middle.

Tech:

Tech refers to whether you want to be making green, red, or blue. New players tend to want everything. If you’re making all three colors, you have a ton of flexibility, so you can buy anything to counter what your opponent is doing, right?

It seems that way at first, but remember, it costs money to make a blastforge to produce blue. If you spend the money, it’s wasteful to not spend the blue. To put it another way, if you don’t spend the blue resource, you may as well have spent the money on something that goes to use right away. More succinctly: the more efficient player tends to get an advantage.

Another fundamental decision you’ll have to make each game is which units you want to buy and how to get the tech units to make the right colors to buy those. There’s a lot of interesting strategy with this, because as soon as you or your opponent buys a tech building, it gives away information about what units you want. There is a trade-off: tech gives the opponent information, but it lets you buy attacking units first.

Attack/Defense:

This is the meat and potatoes of any given turn, so I’m not going to be able to even scratch the surface.

Basically, Prismata has units that can absorb damage (think Magic, where a blocker that doesn’t die has their full toughness the next turn), but there are also units that permanently take damage (think Hearthstone or really any modern online card game).

Deciding how to distribute damage is one of the main things you’ll do in the midgame.

Prismata has units that always attack but also units that only attack when clicked (usually at the cost of being able to defend). There are also units that can be targeted (in other words, you have no choice how to distribute the damage with respect to them). Some units can block the turn they come out, while others have to wait a turn.

All of these differences make really interesting tactical decisions. To give you the flavor of one. There is a unit that has 4 health and permanently takes damage. It can’t attack, but it can be sacrificed to do a burst of 4 damage.

So you might want to set up your turn so that it takes 3 damage the turn it comes out, then can be sacrificed the following turn to deal damage. This way you get the maximum value from it.

Conclusion:

Well, that doesn’t even begin to describe how fascinating this game is. You’ll have to try it to get a real feel for it. Do not be scared off if this sounded overwhelming. I’d say it’s easier to learn than chess, and at least as hard to master.

 

Do not be afraid of the Early Access label on Steam. It’s been developed for eight (?) years, and it’s been played at a very high level by competitive players for several years. It is quite balanced and polished right now.

Get it Here!

It does cost money on Steam right now. This is for Early Access and the solo content (there’s a whole story and missions to teach you the game, plus a ton of individual tactics puzzles to let you work on your skills). I’ve been assured the game will be 100% free to play once it leaves Early Access, so if you want to wait for that, it is an option.

(Also, if a small number of people ask for a key in comments or something, I can maybe, possibly, probably get you one. I will not guarantee this, though, and you would not have access to the solo content).

(Anti-)Disclaimer: I was not a Kickstarter backer for the game. I have had absolutely no contact with the developers of the game with regard to this review. I am receiving nothing for this review. This review has not been influenced by any forces except my own experience with it.

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Prismata Review

A few month’s ago I reviewed a game by David Sirlin called Codex. It is an attempt to convert a real-time strategy game, like StarCraft, into a card game. And it actually does a really good job (see the post for details).

I’ll try to not talk about StarCraft very long, because the words will be indecipherable to anyone who hasn’t played it (which is probably 99% of people reading this). There is a really old and interesting question about the game: if you strip away everything but the strategy aspect, is it still an interesting game?

This may sound weird to people unfamiliar with the game, because, well, it’s a real-time “strategy” game.

The first ridiculous thing when starting StarCraft is how much there is to learn. There’s probably close to a 100 hotkeys you have to know. There’s the tech tree structure. There’s around 60 units, each of which you should know cost, types of attacks, damage, health, shields, and what the spell-casting abilities are. Knowing those things, you’ll need to learn what counters what and why.

And you might be thinking, but I’ll just click through stuff during a game to find the information. There’s no need to memorize it. That brings up the other crazy aspect of the game: apm (actions per minute). You are going to have to have 200-300 apm (i.e. clicking or pressing a keyboard key 5 times per second on average for an entire 15+ minute match), so you just don’t have time to look stuff up during a match even though that information is available:

 

If you’re not a StarCraft player, hopefully you’re getting a sense of why the question doesn’t have an obvious answer. You have to play for months just to internalize the hotkeys and learn enough to get to the point of forming any sort of strategy.

If you strip out the memorization; If you strip out dividing the opponent’s attention and distracting them; If you strip out the fog of war; If you strip out having to execute 5 actions per second perfectly for an entire match: is there an interesting strategy game left? In other words, is the winner just someone who clicks faster?

Codex went a long way to answering that question in the affirmative. Sirlin brilliantly left in an aspect of the fog of war and tech trees. But the fact that it is a card game messes with the answer a little. There’s still some luck and some blind countering and some memorization to know what possible answers your opponent will have.

Okay, so this post is supposed to be about Prismata. To me, Prismata gives us a near perfect game for answering the question. There is absolutely no hidden information. All the units and their costs and their abilities are listed on the side at the start of the game. A beginner can play matches with slow enough time controls to carefully read all of this and formulate a plan before making moves.

As soon as your opponent buys a unit, it goes onto the board. So there is no random hidden information of shuffling it into a deck like Codex. Despite it’s appearance, Prismata is NOT a card game. There is no deck or randomness in gameplay at all.

The only randomness is in what units you are allowed to choose from during setup, and I think this is absolutely brilliant. In traditional strategy games like Chess or Go or even StarCraft, there are set openings that one must memorize to play at the top level because every game starts the same. This takes the strategy out of the opening.

In Prismata, every game is different. You have to look at the board you’ve been given and start planning a strategy on Turn 1. It’s a really exciting and fresh idea for a strategy game. It’s like if Chess or Go started with some randomized board state. You couldn’t go into a game with a plan to play a Queen’s gambit or the Kobayashi opening or something. You have to develop a plan on the fly based on the board. It’s a true battle of skill.

Before this review gets too far, I have to bring up the last comparison to Codex. Codex is a card/board game. There is no real online way to play. I played quite a bit by forum, and this might be tolerable for some people. The community is certainly very active, and you won’t have trouble finding a match. But it brought too much fatigue for me, and I stopped liking it for awhile.

Prismata is computer only (eventually through Steam and a separate client and web browser, though I’m not sure if all will continue to be supported after Steam release). If Codex had a computer version, it might compete for my attention. As it is, it’s a game that is played in person, occasionally.

Prismata has an excellent set of tutorials and basic bots and “story” to play through to get a newcomer up to speed. The game looks horrifically complicated, but it is actually very easy to learn and difficult to master. I promise if you play through the basic stuff, you’ll have a full grasp of the basics and even have a few basic strategic ideas. Do not be intimidated by a cluttered screenshot if this game sounds at all interesting to you.

Prismata is a game for people who like strategy and/or card games but who don’t like some of the ridiculous aspects of both. Many strategy games have too much hidden information to make good decisions or too much technical execution to execute a strategic plan. And card games, well, the online ones at least have way too much randomness. There’s also that super annoying way card games completely change every few months when new cards get released and you have to dump a ton of money into it to stay relevant.

Did I mention Prismata is true free to play? Since it’s not a card game, you’ll be playing the real game every game. Neither side will have an advantage merely from grinding out hundreds of hours or paying hundreds of dollars to unlock some legendary thing.

Right now, if you want to try it, you’ll need to request an alpha tester key here. It should release on Steam very soon, though, and I promise to reblog this with the link at the top to remind anyone interested.