Review: Two armies enter the field, but only one will live to tell the tale
PoxNora is all about solid gameplay and innovation readily available over the Internet. Take one part collectible card game, one part multiplayer tournament, and two parts turn-based strategy, mix it all together in a great-looking, well-balanced package, and you've got PoxNora. It's set in a high fantasy, sword and sorcery universe populated by magicians, monsters, and plenty of folks really talented with a sword?and all you need to step into the action is a free registration available at the site poxnora.com
. Of course, developer Octopi and publisher FUN Technologies want to make a little cash, so you can choose to buy your cards (called runes in PoxNora parlance) that you can build into custom decks before you enter the fray.
PoxNora offers players eight different factions, each with its own unique core runes. Players can get a taste of these core decks without spending a dime?it's all right there in the basic game downloadable from the PoxNora web site. Unlike some games, the factions really feel distinct from one another instead of being cookie-cutter entities with a different name and graphic. That means every time you face off against someone playing an unfamiliar faction, you're in for some surprises?and not all of them pleasant. You might just run into a Champion (that's PoxNora's term for all fighting units, as opposed to spells and structures) immune to the attack of your battlefield star. For instance, the lumbering Earth Golem of the Ironfist Stronghold is immune to physical attacks: swords and the like ring harmlessly off his tough hide.
Some of the factions line up with traditional RPG races, so if you're into Elves, you'll likely want to check out the K'Thir Forest faction. Their Nature's Wrath area spell is particularly nasty. In addition to damaging every unit in its area of effect, it halves their Defense stat for several turns. Meanwhile, the Savage Tundra group were once Elves, long since transformed by centuries of life in a frozen wasteland. The faction's Freeze Bug is something of a suicide bomber, since when it dies it deals an "explosion" of frost damage to nearby units. Dwarves and the Undead are represented by the Ironfist Stronghold and Forsaken Wastes factions, respectively, and have a selection of suitable units. The Dwarven BattleRager is a wild fireplug of a Champion with a powerful Whirlwind attack that damages all adjacent units.
On the battlefield, Champions icons recall the lead miniatures used in tabletop games like Warhammer 40,000. They have the same kind of attention to detail that a well-painted miniature shows, but without the outlay in time and cash. And unlike the metal miniatures, the PoxNora avatars have a great set of animations that go along with their attacks and resting postures. Even though PoxNora doesn't sport the fully 3D graphics gamers have gotten used to in recent years, everything about it is a good-looking gaming experience, from the lobby to the loading screen to the cursor. If you remember the best artwork of the Dungeons and Dragons handbooks from the heyday of AD & D, you'll appreciate the illustrations that accompany each rune. They're vivid and detailed, and they add a level of imagination to the play, just like the old pen and paper game.
The free game offers a taste of runes from each faction, including the rare BattleRager rune, but by buying a pack of cards, the player has access to more cards and more game features. Buying a battlegroup starter deck gets a player 20 cards from one of their choice of factions, including the chance to get a few Uncommon and Rare cards. It's a way to get a quick start with a faction you like, since other packs aren't faction-specific. Instead, you buy packs that have a mix of cards from the four factions that comprise the Protectorate or from the evil Wrath factions. Like other collectible card games, players buy packs without knowing exactly what they'll find inside, but different packs guarantee a certain number of Common, Uncommon, and Rare runes. Players who buy into a premium account also have access to a store where they can buy single runes, including exclusive Limited Editions and Premium Editions. Prices in the Premium Store are based on availability and demand, so the rarest top-tier cards get pretty expensive. This isn't the only way to get at single runes, however. Players can also buy and trade individual cards from one another without having a premium account.
Besides the chance of getting more and varied cards, owning runes gives the player the chance to level up Champions after a battle. They earn Champion Points for their performance on the field, and players can use these to buy added abilities. There's an in-game price to this, though, since a buffed rune costs more nora (the primary in-game resource) to deploy. The player needs to make the call if a buff is worth the extra expense. It's not a one-way choice, though, since players can roll back unwanted buffs by spending tokens. Tokens can only be bought, either alone or as part of a rune pack.
All of this detail about cards is essential, since the runes and the decks built from them are central to the play. You choose your deck prior to entering a match, and you have no idea what the other player might bring to the field. In the free game, you have access to generic decks from any of the factions mentioned above, and you hit the field with twenty cards from that deck. At first, all of those cards are face down?you'll flip them over a few at a turn. Once you've revealed a card, you can summon that unit or call its power by spending points from your bank of nora. Each card costs a different amount of nora to play, but you earn nora at the beginning of every turn, so you'll quickly build up what you need to play any card. If you play a champion card, that unit is summoned to the field and you can begin using it on your next turn. If you play a spell card, the effects of the spell happen right away.
Once the Champions are on the map, the game plays out a whole lot like a fancy chess game. Each unit can move or attack, but since doing so costs action points, it's sometimes tough to do both in one turn. Each unit has a bank of points to spend, and it's replenished each turn. Since most units have melee attacks that require their being adjacent to their target, a unit must move up to a target and hope that enough action points remain for an attack. Like many strategy games, it helps if your opponent tips his hand by moving into range, allowing your units to move up and attack in one turn. On the other hand, speed is also an advantage. If you can move quick and gain ground, you can sometimes stall the enemy's advance. Crossing the field quickly can be important in the basic game, since the goal is to advance towards the enemy's shrine and raze it to the ground before he does the same to you.
The maps are just as symmetrical as the victory conditions. They have a variety of nicely-drawn landscapes and feature everything from frozen tundra to deadly lava fields. The designers have evidently put a lot of time into balancing the maps, since they're small enough to make sure the action heats up quickly and keeps going through the match, but not so cramped that there isn't enough room to maneuver. In general, the battlefields look just as good as the Champion avatars. PoxNora is a 2D game, but the maps have an isometric viewpoint that give the impression of 3D in the way that many older games used to do. Even with their varied looks, though, many are similar in that they place the shrines in semi-protected areas on opposite ends of the map and then put some obstacles?chasms, hills, a lake?in the center to create a chokepoint that makes it tougher to move from one shrine to another.
PoxNora is a multiplayer game, and plenty of thought has gone into making a good lobby experience where players can meet, chat, join guilds and match up for games. Players can either wait for a game to open up or set up their own, and PoxNora gives plenty of options there, since many details of a match can be configured by the players. Not only can players choose from a list of a dozen maps, but turn length and shrine hitpoints and nora accrual rate are also part of the configuration options. Looking for a quick match? Set a low shrine health and a high nora accrual rate. Want something that plays out slower? Beef up the shrines and set rune reveals to just a couple per turn. It's up to you. One little hitch with the lobby is that there's really no good way to recognize the more experienced players. New players begin in the unranked matches so that they can gain experience and rack up a few wins before moving on to ranked games, and in theory, there are icons to distinguish higher-level players. You can also mouse over a name to display a little popup with a player's ranking (the new players simply have a ranking of 5000+). But it looks like players can stay with the unranked matches if they choose and rack up wins against the newbs. While I was starting out, I had the experience of being stomped by a guy with 400+ wins under his belt. It's a minor complaint, though, because most players in the unranked area will have played only a few games, and it seems like there are plenty of players in the lobbies looking for matches at any time of day.