Last year, I reviewed a nifty little card game called Astral Towers. It was an Indie game released on Big Fish for a mere ten bucks, but it was pretty darn good. I liked it, and Alex Lucard liked it enough to list it in his top ten games of the year. As such, I was chomping at the bit to play Northmark. It may not be by the same people, but it is an Indie card game, and that’s about all it takes. I love card games, you see. I can’t get enough of them. If I lived near a card shop, that’s where all my money would go. I’d be there every week for tournaments, events, and the like. I’d play them all too. Sure, I’d likely lose most of the time, but I’d have fun doing it damn it!
Anyways, let’s find out if Northmark is the latest card game to make a splash over on Big Fish.
This game follows the Puzzle Quest strategy to success. You start by making a character from a few presets. Your character doesn’t join in battle, but he does bestow his bonuses to your character cards, and your class determines your starting cards. After setup, you move around on an over world, completing quests, taking up side quests, battling in arenas, shopping, and solving a few riddles throughout your journey.
After your liege lord is nearly killed by an assassin, you’re sent out to investigate the who, what, where, why, and how. Conflicting stories test your brain power, but it soon becomes obvious that the nearby Elvish and Dwarven kingdoms are somehow involved, and that some unseen force may be manipulating events to start a war. Through your combat prowess and wits, you must uncover the plot and take down all that stand in your way.
The plot is incredibly basic and hits pretty much every trope you can imagine. What makes the game stand out, though, is the writing. Despite the fantasy art, the characters all speak in incredibly modern terms, break the fourth wall, and make the occasional pop culture reference. This stands out, but not in a good way. You see, the jokes aren’t that funny, and they make it hard to take the story seriously. Right before the end of the game, you end up taking a detour to buy soap for a barbarian clan. A female warrior took over the clan, you see, but can’t stand the smell. It’s just silly. The writer(s) clearly had fun with it though. It’s just that humor isn’t a universal thing.
When it comes to the game’s presentation, you can certainly tell they didn’t have much of a budget. The art is nice enough, but there are no animations, and many character portraits are used repeatedly. Combat is pretty boring looking, especially compared to any other card game I’ve played. The camera never moves, and there’s no fanfare whatsoever. The music is nice but plain, and the effects are extremely limited. You could safely play this game without sound and have a normal game experience. Overall, the presentation is nice enough that you won’t shut the game off because of it, but it doesn’t stand out for any good reasons at all.
Northmark is played a bit differently from most card games. For starters, you have two â€œdecksâ€. The first is a deck of character cards, from which you choose three units to man the front lines. Each unit has an entrance cost, and you may not exceed the limit given to you before battle. Each unit has its own health and its own stats. Some get a bonus to attack power, others to defense, or perhaps bonuses to magic or poison use. They also benefit from your character’s stats, which you can increase whenever you level up. So if your low level grunt has no bonuses, but you have a plus two to strength, they’ll get that strength boost when they attack. Each unit also has a group of ability cards that only they can use. These might simply be attacks, but could also be powerful buffs or abilities. These need to recharge after you use them.
The second deck is the battle deck, which is made up of twelve cards from your collection. You can choose which cards go in the deck, but beginning players will not have enough to fill it up. In that case, you’ll start off with a bunch of low level cards to battle with. New cards are purchased from shops or earned through quest completion.
During battle, turn progression is determined by unit placement. Your top unit acts first, then your opponent’s top unit, followed by your second, and so on. On a unit’s turn, you must play a card. This card can be chosen from your unit’s abilities or from your hand. The hand is made up of seven random cards from your battle deck. There are three major types of cards. First are attack cards. These cards add to your unit’s strength, and then pit that unit’s improved score against the enemy unit of your choice. If you attack score (magical or physical) is higher than the appropriate defensive score, you deal the difference in damage. Next up are buff cards, which give your units temporary boosts that last a specified number of turns. These usually just increase attack or defense, but others give you a chance to double your damage, or other nifty things. Finally, debuff cards can be played on your opponent. These can lower stats or remove positive buffs from their units. Each unit can have up to four buffs and debuffs attached to them at any time, so playing them wisely is paramount to your success.
When a unit dies, they are removed from the field. Rather than having other characters take their turn, that turn becomes void. This means it can be beneficial to take out a weak enemy first, so that you can get more turns to battle the tougher foes. Careful unit placement is always key. If your plan is to buff your strongest character and have him/her use strong abilities, then it is important to have them at the bottom of the field, so they only attack after they’ve been buffed. The ability to cast buffs makes even the weakest character useful, as they can boost allies and heal instead of simply throwing out pointless attacks. The game is over when one person runs out of units, so each one matters.
There is a good amount of tactical consideration in this game, but in the end, it ends up less than it could have been. Even the toughest enemies field no strategy. Instead of focusing on one of my units, they always attacked seemingly at random. I rarely lost a unit, and never lost a battle. Also, while there are nearly two hundred cards in the game, most become useless pretty quickly. Cheap buffs and attack cards serve no purpose, and using the low level spear man over the higher level golem would be insanity. Also, while you have a large number of skills from which to choose when leveling, you’ll find that most of them are pointless. Enemies rarely use magic, so increasing defense is a waste of a level. Also, boosting magical attack doesn’t just boost damage when using spells, it adds that affinity to your basic attacks. Since most units don’t come equipped with high magical defense, you can get by even the stodgiest of defenders this way. If you want, however, you can safely just pump all of your levels into strength and overwhelm your opponent without much trouble.
The game took me about three and a half hours to complete, including most of the side quests. That’s very short, and there was not much to do afterward. There’s a quick play option, but you can’t bring over your cards. Instead, you have to play with pre-made decks. That’s just lame. Replaying the game with a new character class might sound like a good idea, but that, too, isn’t worth your time. You’ll find that you won’t be using the starting cards fairly quickly, and initial stat boosts become pointless as you level up. There’s not enough variety to make another play through worth it.
It may sound like I’m bashing this game, but I honestly enjoyed my time with it. It needed a bit more thought put into it, and it could have been something amazing. As it is, only those desperate for a new card game experience should check it out.
Short Attention Span Summary
While the mechanics of Northmark are solid, the surrounding package is underwhelming to say the least. The presentation is plain, the story is poorly written and predictable, the challenge isn’t there, and there is very little replay value. Still, it can be fun to play at times. As such, I’d recommend interested buyers either wait until there’s some sort of sale or they’ve got a free game coming to them from Big Fish before picking this up. As it is, it just isn’t worth the price of admission.