Highgrounds is a surprisingly fun deck building game of liches, farmers, and archers
Did you ever wish Magic: The Gathering was a bit more… cute? Newbie-friendly? Highgrounds is a browser-based strategy deck building Flash game that feels kind and inviting, addictive and satisfying. It's currently in open beta, so anyone can – and should – start playing. “Your army escaped a great flood and crash landed on a mysterious haven. But you are not alone,” the tutorial level warns. “You must build an army and lead it to victory in battle to claim the Highgrounds.” Sounds simple enough. Highgrounds isn't big on story or exposition, and that's fine. It gives you a goal, tells you how to reach it, and sets obstacles in your path to overcome. And by obstacles, I mean 2D soldiers that look and animate as though they were paper dolls.
A numbers game
Here's how it all works: You and your enemy both begin play on a square piece of land, each with your own city to defend. Your default city generates two gold, which resets each turn, and allows you to choose from four recruits. You can place recruits onto either the front or back row. Your recruits come from your army, which is a lot like a deck in Magic. There are two factions in the game so far; one which uses gold, and the other which uses crystals. Each recruit has a different ability based on their position. For example, Ramm the knight has an attack power of three when placed in the front row, but generates an extra gold for your side when placed in the back row. Your gold resets each turn, but so too do your available recruits. Think of this like deck shuffling: your starter army has 16 units, but by default, only four are available to choose from. You choose what you can afford, and on your next turn, the available four are shuffled so that you can choose four randomly-chosen new units. My personal favorite and go-to recruit was Oakley, the giant. This bruiser costs a whopping 10 gold, which isn't easy to accrue if you get dealt a bad hand. Still, he's worth it. While most units have damage values of one to three, Oakley does a mighty seven points of damage. Once he's out on the field, he can be a tough obstacle for your enemy to overcome. Speaking of damage, it doesn't work how you might be used to in strategy games. Instead of units competing with each other, they're competing with each others' team totals. In other words, individual units don't have health, and aren't killed. You try to rack up points using your attack values, or deny the enemy points with defense. So if Grom the troll, who has three attack and three defense, goes up against Ramm, Grom will win, because his defense value of three denies Ramm's attack value, also of three. You can also pick up units which don't do attack damage, but wound enemy units, which keeps them from acting. Whoever has the larger pool of points at the end of a turn wins and gets to deal damage to the loser's city. The amount of damage you're allowed to deal is based on the difference between scores; the higher the difference, the more damage you get to do. Damage is also broken up into tiers by multiples of four. So, if you beat your opponent by three or less, you only get to strike once. Beat them by four to seven points, you strike twice. Eight to eleven, you strike three times, and so on. All of that sounds really complicated in writing, but in practice it's painless to learn. I have always been turned off by deck building games because there's often too much to keep track of, but Highgrounds constructs itself in a way that makes sense.
The game features single-player and multiplayer battles, and in fact to reach the Highgrounds you'll need to win battles against human opponents. Ben and I played a couple matches, and while the game itself was loads of fun, the aspect I enjoyed most was its seamless transition to asynchronous play. If you contact a buddy via in-game nickname, Twitter handle, or Facebook, and agree to play a game, it'll drop you into the same square battlefield as in the single-player. You'll make your decisions, choosing which units to place where and who, if any, you want to dismiss, and the game will play out much the same as if you were playing against the computer. If at any time life comes up, you can back out or simply close the Highgrounds window, no saving or anything required, and the game will move to asynchronous play, where you can send a move, wait for your opponent to do the same, and view the results later. Technically, this means the whole game is asynchronous, but since armies animate at the same time to attack and matches move at such a quick pace, it just doesn't feel that way. If you plan on playing competitively with friends in real-time, I highly suggest turning off notifications. Ben and I kept in contact via instant message so we knew whose turn it was, but I was also getting a beep on my phone every time it was my turn. My email inbox skyrocketed from one to 22 over the course of two games. If you really want to get a leg up on your human opponents, you'll want to visit the game's shop and buy booster packs, which give you even more recruits to choose from when building your army. This is where a free-to-play game like Highgrounds makes its money, but the pricing schemes make sense. Booster packs cost gems, a currency that can only be obtained with real-world money. You get 500 gems for $5, 1050 gems for $10, 2300 gems for $20, or 5900 gems for $50. You'd have to be a pretty hardcore Highgrounds player to warrant the $50 option, but the other amounts are very enticing, given the cost of booster packs. A value booster pack contains six recruits, two of which are guaranteed to be of uncommon quality. It also has a low chance of providing you with a rare quality recruit. It costs a very reasonable 100 gems. Even an ultra booster pack, which also contains six units – two of which are guaranteed uncommon, and two more which are guaranteed rare – as well as a high chance for ultra-rare, only costs 600 gems. There are two downsides to this monetization, however. Gems can't be earned, and the game currently lacks an ultra-cheap gem purchasing option, so if you want that ultra booster pack and nothing else, you can't buy $6 worth of gems, you have to buy $10 worth of gems. Still, you shouldn't need any of the booster packs. As you progress through the 28 battles which lead to the Highgrounds, you gain new recruits from your conquered enemies. This will be enough to get you through most battles and even many online opponents, and smart deployment decisions trump raw power. Highgrounds is in open beta, and is limited to the PC only for now, but its publisher, Spry Fox, has a history of strong iOS and Android games. If this comes to your phone, be prepared; buy an extra-strength battery.