When someone mentions The Elder Scrolls series, what do you think of? Most people would probably say that it's an open world high fantasy RPG where you can wander around ye olde towns and castles, stealing sweet rolls and cheese wheels while putting arrows in peoples' knees. Perhaps you first heard of the series with the release of Skyrim, a game that has had an exceptionally long lifespan thanks to modders. Or maybe you latched on to some of The Elder Scrolls' earlier games, like Daggerfall. In any case, The Elder Scrolls is a series that many people have come to enjoy for its gameplay, which may surprise some to learn that the latest game in the series is as far away from being an open world game as possible.
That's right, not only has there been a new Elder Scrolls game that has already been released, but it's also being showcased at E3 2017 (according to Pete Hines, Bethesda's VP of PR and Marketing, several times during his various Twitch steams of the game), and it doesn't involve any kind of adventuring whatsoever. Instead, it is a collectible card game, similar to Hearthstone or Gwent or Yu-Gi-Oh. Now, before you go and claim that Bethesda is run by a bunch of idiots who don't know what they're doing while furiously deleting your copy of Skyrim, it would probably do some good to know what this new(ish) Elder Scrolls is first.
Developed by Dire Wolf Digital and titled The Elder Scrolls: Legends, the game was first announced at E3 2015. While it was obviously overshadowed by the likes of Fallout 4, Dishonored, and DOOM, it came back at E3 2016 with a trailer. Later that year, an open beta was released, followed by an actual release on Windows platforms on March 9, 2017, an iOS release on March 23, 2017, and a Steam release on May 31, 2017, with versions for other platforms like Android and Mac. It should be noted that it is completely free to play, your progress is tied to a Bethesda account, so you can play on as many devices as you want without losing anything, and while there are microtransactions, they are quite optional (more on this later).
Seeing as how it is a card game, the basic gameplay of The Elder Scrolls: Legends is rather simple: you build a deck of cards, find an AI or human opponent, and then attack the other player until one of you runs out of health. That being said, there are a few unique game mechanics in The Elder Scrolls: Legends that prevent matches from devolving into a spam-fest of cards. The first is that there is a sort of a recovery mechanic built into each player's health bar. Every 5 points of damage to a player's health (by default, you start with 30 health) will cause a rune to break, causing them to draw a card. However, there are some number of cards in the game, dubbed "prophecy cards," that will allow you to play that card for free upon the breaking of a rune, which can help stabilize the board, preventing super fast aggro decks from just dominating everything (although it's still possible). That being said, it is impossible to completely clear the board with a single prophecy card; there are only two prophecy cards that can reliably cause enough damage to kill a single target, and even then they aren't exactly all that common to run into.
Secondly, The Elder Scrolls: Legends has a rather unique dual-lane board. While you may be familiar with single lane boards a la Yu-Gi-Oh, which lets any character card on the field attack any other character card, The Elder Scrolls: Legends' dual lane board means that you will have to eventually play character cards on both lanes of the field, as character cards generally cannot cross lanes and attack creatures that are not already in that lane. Furthermore, one lane will (in standard play) always be a Shadow Lane, which prevents newly played character cards from being attacked in that lane for one turn, letting you launch "sneak" attacks to some degree.
But, given that The Elder Scrolls: Legends is a free to play game, the big question that most people undoubtedly have is "Just how free is it?" If you just started playing the game right now, you will be able to play through a three or four hour campaign (though its length depends entirely on how quickly you can grasp the game mechanics), featuring some decent cutscenes that are very loosely tied to Skyrim's backstory. Upon completing the campaign, you will get a starter deck for each of the five main deck colors. You can mix and match cards from any of these two colors to create your own deck if you wish, which means that for the cost of $0, you get a mildly amusing campaign, a number of decks to mess around with, and, consequently, a bunch of pretty card art to look at. You can also destroy cards that you don't like to create other cards, though the exchange rate can get rather steep if you are eyeing some of the more rare cards.
Furthermore, you can obtain some 50 coins per day via daily challenges (which are generally rather easy), another 15 coins and a free card for every 3 wins against human players, and a variable amount of coins and card packs for simply participating in the Arena modes (which gives you what is essentially a random deck to fight other human players or AI). These coins can be used to purchase packs of six random cards (valued at 150 coins each), or, more rarely, expansion packs (valued at up to 3000 coins, though this is subject to change depending on the contents of future expansion packs). In that sense, The Elder Scrolls: Legends is legitimately free to play, as there is nothing that is locked out or prohibitively expensive, as long as you are willing to play on a somewhat regular basis. From a competitive standpoint, rarer cards don't necessarily guarantee victory either, as there are no small number of fairly effective budget decks.
To put all of this in perspective, if you started playing only multiplayer right now and only played enough just to complete the daily challenges and somehow never won a single game, you will still be able to purchase the entirety of the game's Fall of the Dark Brotherhood expansion pack within two months, giving you access to many cards that most of game's more knowledgeable players consider to be above average, alongside whatever currency and free cards you get along the way.
Unfortunately for The Elder Scrolls: Legends, it is likely proving to be a challenge to market a card game based on a very popular open world RPG series that has nothing to do with cards, especially when it is competing with Hearthstone and Gwent. However, that shouldn't stop you from giving the game a try, especially if you like looking at very aesthetically pleasing card art based on some of the more relatively obscure parts of The Elder Scrolls' lore. That the game is free doesn't hurt, though the learning curve might be a bit off-putting, especially since the game's audience consists of no small number of veteran players.
Fortunately, the playerbase is reasonably large enough that you should be matched up against people of your skill level most of the time; the game's subreddit alone has around 11,000 subscribers, and the game managed to breach Steam's most active games list within 24 hours of its release, proving to be slightly more popular than Ghost Recon: Wildlands. As a result of this, you can generally find a game within 30 seconds, though, as one may expect, it may vary based on the time and your location. But if you don't like The Elder Scrolls: Legends and get stomped every single game, what's the worst that can happen, aside from losing some pride?