If the explosive popularity of Hearthstone has taught developers anything, it’s that cards are hot right now. The thrill of opening packs, the yearning to acquire resources to buy said packs, the compulsion to show your deck to others, it’s a formula that will make any game dev’s mouth water. The guys at Supercell (creators of Clash of Clans) we’re certainly not going to miss out on this Pavlovian Bell, and have unsurprisingly released their own card-based extravaganza in the somewhat lazily titled Clash Royale.
Those of us unfortunate enough to get sucked into the black hole of the original game will immediately notice obvious similarities. The overwhelming majority of characters, art style, menu layout/player interface, animations, token quest system, sound design, fonts, color palette, and whole aesthetic have unceremoniously been lifted straight out of Clash of Clans. I get that these elements are becoming a brand, but I wish that there was more drive to do something a little bit adventurous. Most importantly (from a financial standpoint at least) however, the dastardly duo which propelled the freemium success Supercell has cultivated are also implemented; namely the resource system and forced downtime. If you’re a borderline ADHD gamer like myself, when you purchase a game, you play until the thought of more makes you feel bad. The folks at Supercell understand this mentality, and like the twisted Nurse Ratched-esque oppressors that they are, cap the amount you can fruitfully play in one sitting and tie your life to reward timers. Combined with the slow diminishment of in-game currency, the core mechanic of Clash Royale is creating impatience which can be remedied with cash purchases. Lots of cash purchases.
All this exploitation seems a bit Machiavellian, but it’s by no means localized to the Supercell guys. It’s just it’s so blatant and so effective in their games that it serves as a good poster child for the problems endemic to the free mobile gaming space. So all that aside, I begrudgingly admit that Clash Royale is a well-executed game. Just like Clash of Clans, these guys know how to make a polished and mechanically deep game complete with all the bells and whistles: smooth animations, smart character design, good tactical choice gameplay, appropriate card integration, psychological hooks, all the hallmarks are accounted for. You have a deck of collectible cards which are played on a map (think a mini League of Legends setup) with the intention of destroying the enemy towers. Your opponent also has a deck of wacky characters with different attributes set to do the same. The game is an expanded rock-paper-scissors affair with your opponent as you frantically place units of the battlefield to try and counter/outmaneuver their efforts.
Clash Royale does not fail at making an online multiplayer experience and the folks at Supercell yet again prove themselves more than capable of finding that delicate balance between accessibility and mastery potential. As one might expect from a game seeking worldwide mass appeal, it’s easy to learn and understand but allows for a more serious players to meaningfully tinker with units’ compositions. Unfortunately the game’s leveling system can prove frustrating. Every component to the game, from the units to the player him/herself has a level which can be raised by collecting cards and upgrading cards respectively. Unsurprisingly, these levels make a world of difference on the battlefield. Equally unsurprisingly is how the game places an emphasis on playing for a longer time than sound tactics. This means that those who have had an account for longer can easily overcome someone smart who has been played less time. Personal bitterness aside, while I cede that it’s an understandable design choice, for a ranked ladder climber like myself, I feel cheated by losing to cards and high level units I don’t yet have access to. I hate systems which tether you to the middle of the bell curve and while it’s not impossible to surmount a far higher level opponent, a decent one will almost always beat you. I understand that making a game with wide appeal all but ensures a few toes will be stepped on, but such a heavy emphasis on existence over substance will leave some a bit salty.
Linked to this is the loot system, whereby the game rewards you not for how well you play per se, but more so if you’ve played the requisite amount of time. What you get from these drops is essentially random, which creates a number of issues. First, while you may have a strategy or deck of units you like, you are basically obliged to use: a) the cards which you just so happen get more frequently, as those will be the highest level (and therefore the most viable) and b) cards which are so strong they nearly necessitate inclusion regardless (until higher levels at least). The so called epic cards range from good to obscenely powerful and since what you are given by the random number card god is arbitrary, this means not only can you be deprived of wielding this awesome power, but you can also lack the requisite counter cards. In such scenarios, especially when accompanied by a lower player level, mean either a quick surrender or a torturous slog of a defeat are given. In fact, the whole card system as a whole seems a bit token to me, implemented more to add another hook to the line than anything meaningful from a gameplay standpoint.
Other than gripes with larger systems as a whole Clash Royale merely utilizes, I can’t speak too poorly of the game. Do I wish they did a little bit creativity into making something new? Sure. Are there enough hooks included to make a fisherman’s wife blush? Yes there are. Does it pander to the average player and put far more emphasis on playing a lot/buying things than being skilled. Absolutely, but I like money too so I get it. Will I be playing this game a few months from now? Probably not. The fact is that while all these inherently negative things are true and not really even hidden, credit deserves to be awarded for making a very functional and pretty enjoyable experience. Clash Royale is not Beatles type artistic revolution or a Mozart-esque mechanical brilliance, but more of a Katy Perry, whose appeals are a a bit shallow, but pleasant enough for me not to whine too much.
Clash of Clans goes card-based. While this is mostly to capitalize on the resurgence of CCG’s and all their addictive qualities. It’s somewhat vapid yet undeniably well-crafted game.