Due to a rather annoying illness I was unable to make it to my regular board-game playtesting this month, but I have been doing some playtesting – admittedly, of a rather different sort.
The Free-to-Play game Rise of Legions is currently in “Early Access” – or, in other words, open playtest.
It’s a member of a category of games that I personally enjoy, but have very rarely seen – pretty much only in old UMS (Use Map Settings) maps for Starcraft, SC2 and Warcraft 3 – the tug-of-war battle game.
A close relative of the MOBA (or DotA-like) genre of games – which perhaps unsurprisingly began in the same UMS environment of Starcraft – a tug-of-war battle game is akin to a real time strategy game in which you build factories to produce units, but can’t actually control those units.
That might sound limited, but the strategy in terms of which units to build when and where can prove surprisingly deep (with factors such as unit synergies and counters resulting in interesting interplay, and strategic decisions on whether or not you want to give ground in order to allow faster responses from your newly built units) especially when a little extra spice is layered on top. Rise of Legions definitely manages to spice it up a little, incorporating three additional game layers.
The first is the addition of direct summoning and casting – during the game, in addition to your spawners, you can directly summon units onto the field of battle, and support them with spells. This doesn’t overshadow the tug-of-war aspect as the units you can summon are for the most part identical to those you can spawn (with the exception of powerful heroes in the top tiers of the game), and the spells all require the involvement of your units to make a meaningful impact – the spells can never damage the end-game goal and thus can never be the final decider.
The second layer is tied to the first – while you may play any spawner you have from the very beginning of the game (or at least, as early as you can afford it) your summons and spells are gated behind time barriers. Some spells turn on after the first 4 minutes, while others become available after 8. Those end-game spells can alter the battlefield entirely, and enable huge pushes that ensure the game ends on time.
The final additional game layer is the “deck” building system – before you start playing Rise of Legions you need to pick which summons, spells and spawners you will have access to, with a total of 12 available to you. As each one has a cooldown, you may wish to have multiple identical spells or spawners, to ensure you can always use them. As is common in games without a resource system within the deck, you’re limited to two of the four available archetypes; darkness, light, nature and technology.
Rise is, to me at least, a very fun game even in its incomplete state. The devs have taken an interesting approach to the free-to-play monetization by twisting a very common – and very maligned – form of monetization and combining it with their matchmaking system.
Cards have different levels within the game; stone, copper, silver, gold and (for the computer opponents only) gem. To level the cards up takes either “grinding” – that is to say, playing the game a lot – or the expenditure of purchasable currency. Cards of higher levels can be used more often, and only a small proportion of the cards are even available at the stone or copper levels.
Normally this would be a deal-breaker for me on a free-to-play game – after all, I don’t find it fun to exist purely as the punching bag for wealthier players – but in Rise of Legions they’ve made it work because of a clever mixture of factors:
The most key factor is that you can only match with people playing decks of the same level – if you have a gold card in your deck, you will only match with other gold players, leaving the stone rank players alone.
But that alone would be a bandage, rather than something that made the game shine. The shiny aspect of it is the way that the two factors of leveling combine – at each level you have more options to put in your deck, and more ability to reuse the same option as the game goes on. Thus at higher levels the game is more complex, while at lower levels you’re still making meaningful choices when building your deck; at higher levels you are deciding which 12 abilities you’ll have, at lower levels you’re deciding which of the 7 abilities available to you you’ll have more than one of – or, if you go two-colour, which of the 14 you’ll have and whether you’ll go for one copy or two.
Overall I give rise of legions a massive recommendation if you’re looking for a free-to-play, lightweight strategy game that’s over in less than half an hour a go.