Free to play as a concept is always met with suspicion when it comes to video games. The fear is often how intrusive the grind can be and how much you can play before you are forced to buy something for a random increment of money. Thankfully, not all free to play games fall into the trap of predatory microtransactions. Duelyst, a Kickstarter-funded tactics card game by Counterplay Games, falls into the latter category in most respects. Part card game, part strategy board game, Duelyst has a lot to offer in such a small package, the least of which is a solid multiplayer experience that challenges your abilities to think ahead.
The objective of Duelyst is simple: beat your opponent's general by summoning minions and using magical spells against them. The game is played like a standard trading card game, where you use mana points to pay for different cards each turn. The twist here is that you have a board to tactically move your generals and summoned minions on. Much of the design of Duelyst follows the cues from board games such as Mage Wars—placement and timing are often more important in a given tactical situation.
The game boasts six different factions with major strengths and weaknesses to complement different styles of play. Add to this a slew of neutral minion units to help fill out decks of forty cards. Gameplay is done in turns as you automatically build up the energy each turn to pay off the summoning costs of the cards, which can range from 0 to 7. All of this can change the strategy the player employs, effectively making Duelyst a real tactics game above anything else.
It is not without flaws, however. Drawing cards is very slow—one card per turn unless you use an ability to draw more—and sometimes you will be starved for the right card you need at a given time. This is normal for most card games, but it is possible for the player to use their entire hand in one turn, which means the drawing power you have is outpaced by playing power. You can replace one card from your hand with another from your deck, but outside of certain cards that allow you to draw more than once on a turn, it is a noticeable disadvantage at times.
Another nitpick, which is really more a resource limitation, is the lack of changing battlefields. Each battle is played on the same grid, without fail. New boards to play on that add features or automatic hazards would be an interesting way to shake up the gameplay. Or, at the very least, make matchups more compelling from a terrain stance.
Of course, because it’s a free to play game, most of the new cards you obtain stem from buying new packs. You can earn in-game gold to purchase packs in-game by completing different objectives. 100 gold gets you a pack, which contains five random cards. Real money can be used to buy large amounts of packs, the most expensive being $50.00 for 40 packs. The game does suffer from some grind, as gold is hard to come by outside of completing objectives, such as daily challenges.
There is also no way to really control what cards you get, but Duelyst does have a way for you to shape decks to gain the desired cards you want for a particular strategy. There is a rudimentary crafting mode that allows you to sacrifice extra cards to create new cards, provided you meet the numbered requirements for it. Sacrificing cards, of course, yields you less points for crafting, but it is the only way players can customize specific decks right now is by obtaining cards they need outside of packs. Rarer cards, while better and more powerful in most cases, are not always viable in ranked play due to strategies employed by other players.
Thankfully, Duelyst does have a lot to offer for the player, even if most of it is a distraction. Daily challenges, for example, give you a chess-like situation where you need to beat your opponent in one turn. You also have a Gauntlet mode, where the objective is to last as long as possible against multiple opponents. There is even a single player solo mode that teaches you the game's mechanics, but the real meat of the game comes from online play.
On average, you can gain about 75 gold a day, provided you only play ranked online. This is mostly done by completing daily challenges, such as playing 3 games in a row, playing with certain decks, or so forth. The rest of the gold you earn through other modes is a one time deal. So while there are 30 solo challenges for example, they only net five gold a piece. This means playing ranked online is the better bet for players, as it will reward you faster with gold for new cards.
Duelyst is the most fun when it’s played online. For the most part, the rest of the game is a good diversion to hone your skills or grind for gold, but to really test your abilities and tactics, online play is where to go. The community in Duelyst is pretty big, and with over 400 different cards to collect, there is enough variety in the game to actually be competitive with other players. The need to grind is lessened due to this; the game gives you a ton of cards to start with, and it is possible to win with the just the basic cards. After all, Duelyst relies on strategy more to achieve a victory.
The game itself has beautifully drawn character portraits and artwork. Developer Counterplay Games contains several developers from Diablo III, and it shows in the artwork on display. The fluid, high fantasy style with jagged, pointed spikes and a slight euro-anime feel give the game and its factions a lot of character. In-game sprites are extremely diverse but heavily pixelated, which clashes with the rest of the aesthetics. It’s not really bad, but it is a bit disappointing that Counterplay Games went with pixel-graphics over animated sprites. The music, however, is fantastic, with looped but catchy battle music that gets your blood pumping in the thick of a fight.
Duelyst is an easy game to recommend to people. It’s quick and simple to learn, has excellent tactical gameplay, and it’s actually free to play. The grind is fairly minimal, and there are some nitpicks in design here and there to latch onto, but overall Duelyst is a well-made strategy game worth investing some time in.
Duelyst was reviewed with a copy of the game that was downloaded from the game's official website and played for over fifteen hours on PC. It is also available via Steam.
Duelyst is an easy game to recommend to people. It’s quick and simple to learn, it has excellent tactical gameplay, and it puts the free back in free to play