My friends and I will play, on occasion, a game of my own devising. Called “Cartomancy” after the particular practice of divination, it is in many ways similar to a traditional game of chess – the same board, the same pieces, the same starting arrangement – albeit with one important distinction. Each player draws a hand of seven from a standard seventy-four card tarot deck which govern the moves available to each player on any given turn. Each time we play I revise the rules slightly, most often to better balance the game, but also to ensure that the ludic elements confer the narrative motif; the game is a deliberate meditation on the competing claims of predestination, indeterminism, and free will.
The trick going forward is to perfect the correspondence between the significance of the Major Arcana in their Kabbalistic understanding with the effect such cards have upon gameplay. While I am not a believer in Hermeticism, I find its interpretation of the tarot as a recapitulation of the life of Man – writ small in the life of each individual and writ large in the history of the species as a whole – utterly fascinating, an architectonic structuring of existence which few other worldviews achieve. Yet for all this grand ambition, it began, simply enough, purely out of my love for games and a desire to thus make one of my own – which, naturally, had me looking back to two of the oldest and most successful game types still played today: the board game (particularly chess) and the card game.
Duelyst likewise is an integration of these two ur-games, and given their centuries long history, it’s shocking how novel the fusion feels. Perhaps that’s because its more obvious inspirations are relatively recent: Hearthstone and, influencing both, Magic: The Gathering. Yet what is Magic except the the sword-and-sorcery stylings of Dungeons and Dragons translated from a pen-and-paper role playing game into the form familiarized by the tarot and traditional playing cards. Of course, nearly every game has at the most remote root of its genealogical tree either chess or the deck of cards or both. Even titles such as Battlefield and Call of Duty, with their twitch gameplay and graphical fidelity, are still abstractions of warfare – more realistic, perhaps, but still sharing the same sort of story the Persians were trying to tell through pieces such as “rokhs” or pips such as swords and clubs. What distinguishes Duelyst in this respect is its ability to strip away all superfluous innovations till only a game with the same sublimity as chess or poker remains, albeit with the one very modern trapping of being a video game.
Not that this indulgence is in any way to the game’s detriment. While a physical board and decks would certainly be possible, its digitality confers upon it the same advantages that Hearthstone holds over Magic. The local comic shops in every city I’ve lived hold weekly Magic tournaments, but it’s possible to play a game of Hearthstone or Duelyst at any time day or night, on my own schedule and at my own leisure, and not merely against the same few locals but against new players employing novel strategies every time. Magic and Pokémon: TCG have their tournaments, but Duelyst achieves the same scope sempiternally.
Likewise with the deck building aspect. Whereas a physical trading card game has a high financial investment, particularly in acquiring new card packs, daily quests conferring rewards of in game gold have resulted in my pool growing steadily by ten or more cards per day without a single cent spent. Duelyst belongs to that rare breed of free-to-play that’s truly that – the mechanics of the game are in no way maligned to incentivize players to purchase additional content to stay competitive. Nor is it even a game that would have worked better given a traditional pricing model, as all too many of its competitors in the free-to-play space are. The critical mass of players required to have instantaneous access to ranked matches – my average wait time for such is about five seconds – requires getting the game into the hands of as many players as possible.
Most importantly, Duelyst advantages its nature as a video game by exploiting the video aspect for all it’s worth. This game has every bit the visual flair of the most ornately sculpted chess set or finely faced cards – including my illustrious Medieval Scapini set. It achieves such through painterly backgrounds which could just as easily belong in Bastion, and upon which each pixelated piece represents the best in the recent resurgence of such art apart from only Axion Verge and Hyper Light Drifter. As with all children of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I’ve an instinctual appreciation for quality pixel art and an immediate aversion to any of poor implementation of such. Part of Duelyst’s wisdom is in not becoming noosed by nostalgia, attempting to render the entire game so, but rather implementing particle and lighting effects freely; Duelyst wears its modernity on its sleeve with no attempt at recapturing the lost and yearned for youth of its twenty/thirtysomethings target demographic. Just as it channels the sublimely simple play of archaic games while unapologetically adding current conveniences, it likewise channels the aesthetic sensibilities of retro games without hampering itself to their hardware limitations.
Surprisingly, Duelyst does have a lore behind its world and the races which inhabit it. Accessible in the form of a codex, only six entries of at least forty are currently released. It’s a fantasy setting fairly free of clichés, taking from Tolkien neither dwarves nor elves nor orcs for any of its factions. Of the story so far, the unifying themes seems to be the net negative effect which the introduction of magic has inflicted upon the planet’s denizens, ranging from addiction to loss of self to species-wide extinction. Beyond its brevity its main failing, from what’s in the game as of now (post-launch) is the lack of any consonance between these narrative morsels and the game’s ludic elements. Moreover, while each faction has different underlying mechanics which shape the strategy of the player utilizing them, none of these seem to convey any narrative meaning or message. Such doesn’t affect the minute to minute enjoyment of the game, but a synthesis these separate sides would have elevated the experience. As it stands, Duelyst is a sport first, and a work of art sadly second.
Still, as a sport it has a great gameplay loop, each turn lasting several seconds, each match mere minutes – after which the player is showered in faction experience, gold, and occasionally new cards. Many nights since its release in late April I’ve suffered Civilization-syndrome – not “one more turn” per se, but “one more round” rather, which never limits itself to just one. But unlike Firaxis’ other franchise, XCOM, this is a tactics game which is far more forgiving. I’ll realize the right move to have made immediately after making the wrong one, but just as often will my evenly matched opponents, and both of us will usually have a chance to recover from such foolish fumbles even midway through a match.
A few years back I struck up a fast friendship with a foreign student who proved himself a chess aficionado. At least once a week in the summer we’d hang out in Manhattan; the one locale we’d always be sure to hit (other than Midtown Comics, of course) was Washington Square Park, where he’d prove himself the equal of the experts who’ve long had a haven there. Naturally, since a Kickstarter for a game entitled Chess 2 had at the same time been announced, I gave my friend an endless amount of grief, declaring his hobby, his obsession, to now be outdated and obsolete. He understood I was being sarcastic, given the absurdity of the product’s name. Chess dates back hundreds of years with one of the most passionate player-bases of any board game. If some Smash players are still stuck on Melee even after the Wii U version displaced it, Chess was in no real danger of being forgotten and moved on from.
Had Duelyst been around, however, I might have been a bit less sarcastic and a bit sincerer in suggesting that something akin to chess could represent a real iteration, a real improvement. My Romanian comrade would disagree which such a sentiment, quite loudly if we’ve been at the bars all night, per usual – but being honest with myself I know where my preferences lay. Duelyst doesn’t merely borrow elements of chess and cards, Hearthstone and Magic; it blends the best of each and begets something better than them all.