Spectromancer is a fantasy, strategy card game for iOS and PC that sees mages from a range of different classes dueling against one another in head-to-head combat by summoning creatures and devastating spells. If this sounds rather familiar, it might be because Magic: the Gathering’s esteemed creator Richard Garfield had a hand in the creation of this game.
So how does it play? Well, rather unlike that other famous game he created all those years ago, Spectromancer is actually quite a bit different and has a few tricks up its sleeves to make the card combat genre aspect of the game feel fresh and exciting rather than tired and overdone.
Read on to find out why…
In Spectromancer players start with 60 life points and can play one spell a turn, either summoning a creature into one of the six slots (as this is a lane-combat game) or casting a spell that deals damage, heals units, boosts power of cards and other such effects. Spells cost elemental power (essentially ‘mana’) of its particular element and a player gains 1 of each element’s Mana per turn, unless other cards increase that somehow. Creatures have attack and life points of their own and each creature deals damage to the other when they clash the other creature in the same column. Creatures’ life points do not regenerate each turn and they die when they run out of life points. The first player to zero life points loses.
On paper, this sounds like a very familiar formula – wizards dueling against one another with creatures and spells in a fight to the death by draining away the opponent’s life points to zero. While it does take some of the form of other more well-known TCGs, Spectromancer is decidedly different in a number of very important ways. Firstly, it’s not a TCG at all – there are no cards to buy or collect as everything is available up front, and there isn’t even any deck creation or editing either (except for one specific alternate game mode that lets you do this). So then how on earth is this a card game at all, you may wonder?
All players have access to a similar pool of cards which they can cast a theoretically infinite number of each, once per turn. There are a range of elements that cards can come from, and each player is always given 4 units from each element for their own card pool. These are randomly selected from each element’s pool at the start of the game and do not change for the rest of the duel. Each player also has a specific class of mage, and it is this class which determines the fifth element of their card pool to go with the basic 4 of fire, water, air and earth cards. There are quite a lot of cards and special elements to choose from, from Demonologists and Cultists, to Illusionists and Beast Masters.
This semi-randomization of the decks may sound awful in theory, but in practice its actually extremely well done thanks to the very finely tuned balancing between all of the possible creatures, spells and elements in the game. The strategy of each individual game is going to change as well depending on what spells are available to you and the interactions possible between the cards you have. This ingenious system makes the replay factor of the game incredibly high, and it goes some way to explain why Spectromancer has enjoyed such a long life so far with a very dedicated online community of players.
Spectromancer has a story-driven campaign mode for single player that sees you working through a story of intrigue and deceit among the council of mages and earning quest items along the way. This mode is either easy or quite challenging depending on the difficulty you pick, and it’s a really good way of getting to grips with the strategy of the game while playing a specific class and learning its element’s unique cards.
There is also an Online League mode where you can play off against other people and raise your rank. This is really the heart of the game as it has a strong community and there are always people online to play with, which is impressive for a game that is starting to show its age around the edges a bit. You can also find people that match your skill level so you don’t feel overwhelmed by experienced players straight away.
There are a couple of other fun alternate modes which mix things up a bit. You can play an AI game with a custom deck of your own, if you like. There is also the League of Heroes which sees you climbing through AI opponents and it even has a slightly different game feature where each player starts with the Mana Storm in play – each time a player uses a card from their class’s element, all their elemental mana is randomly switched around, causing some chaotic shenanigans which adds to the fun.
There is also a draft mode where you get a hand in picking what cards will go into your available pool for the game and this is an interesting way to think more about what goes into a good card pool and which spells work best with others. You can even do a local hotseat multiplayer match so you can play against a friend in the same room sharing a single device. It’s a great way to introduce people to the game and have a bit of fun when hanging out with others. I’ve introduced a few people to Spectromancer this way and they’ve really enjoyed the quick and easy “pick it up and play” aspect to the game.
Sometimes in Spectromancer summoning a creature with more of a utility kind of ability in front of an opponent’s weaker unit means that you can continue to reap your creature’s benefit without much danger from a high damage creature attacking it each round. I like to put a Master Healer in front of an opponent’s Elf Hermit because it protects it and he will only take 1 damage each turn, which he will heal anyway from his ability. You can also put a Wall of Lightning in front of a weaker enemy creature so that it will continue to deal 4 damage each turn to the opponent and not take much damage in return.
Some other strategies focus around manipulating the mana you can increase and decrease, either yours or your opponent’s, and it’s important to remember that mana (or elemental power as the game calls it) is the currency of the game. Being able to have more of it and restrict your opponent’s ability to gain it and use it is going to help you win the duel. Placing mana-gaining creatures in front of opponent’s Walls or other weaker creatures will ensure that you can steadily gain more mana each turn than the standard amount. Doing this however means you’ll need to be careful of direct damage spells and also creatures that get played on top of another friendly creature: for example, the Necromancer’s Emissary of Dorlak can get around your trick of protecting a mana-gaining creature in front of a weak one by overlapping their weak creature with the Emissary.
Also, just because you have enough mana to cast a spell, it doesn’t mean you should. There are a lot of high cost creatures whose attack power depends on how much elemental power is left, so if you use it all in one go to summon them they will be weak until it builds up again and you’ll lose vital life points from the creature as it is attacked by the opponent. Sometimes it’s better to hold off for a bit longer and let the elemental power increase further so that the creature has a decent attack when it enters play.
For a game that is a few years old now, the core gameplay of Spectromancer really holds up to the test of time. It is different enough from the other games out there that it doesn’t feel like a rehash of another game, while the randomized card pools and constantly changing strategies each game really helps add to the replay factor, keeping it fresh and exciting while at the same time slowly developing a skill for what cards are available and which combinations make for the best strategies.
Even though the game is starting to look a bit less flashy than more recent digital card games in the presentation, polish, audio and animation aspects of the game, the core gameplay is still so good that it’s easy enough to look past these once you start playing. You’ll get hooked into the gameplay right away and will find a lot to chew on in the game’s various different modes and features. I recommend checking out Spectromancer and seeing what you make of it.
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