Spectromancer: Ending

Spectromancer‘s single-player campaign consists of a series of maps with assorted enemies on them. At any given point, you have several available choices of who to fight next, under differing conditions and for differing rewards: some grant new spells, some extra hit points or additional starting mana, some give stranger advantages. You ultimately have to defeat everything on the map to finish it, but the ordering can make a difference to how easy this is. In other words, it’s basically the Mega Man formula, although not nearly as pronounced here as there.

The campaign is pretty short: as I’ve observed about other CCG-derived computer games, it’s probably best regarded as a tutorial for two-player dueling. It provides some nice twists on gameplay at the end, though, such as when the victory condition is to hoard mana, or when you face an opponent who can only cast fire spells but gets five fire mana per turn instead of only one, or when you suddenly have to play a couple of matches as a Spectromancer. Being a Spectromancer means you don’t have the normal fire/water/earth/air elemental spells at all, but instead get five specializations: death, holy, mechanical, illusion, and control.

Illusion had been my own character’s normal specialization, and seemed to be the only one I could choose on my first play-through (probably because I hadn’t yet found the place to enter my registration key and the game was playing in demo mode). The others in that list (as well as a sixth, Chaos) were things I had encountered in enemies — Control seemed a particularly fearful thing to me, because its focus is on depowering the opponent and preventing you from doing stuff. But these are not the only specializations in the game: apparently the Steam bundle that I bought included some DLC defining a few more that I hadn’t seen at all, such as Sorcery and Demonology. Now that I’ve completed the Campaign mode once, I can start over with any of them.

But you know something? I’m probably not going to spend much time with these new options, or with the various other game modes. I’m trying out the remaining specialties in tournament mode (challenging a series of computer-controlled opponents without a plot) to see what they add, but other than that, I’m feeling like I’m pretty much done with this game. I’ve seen what it has to say.

It does have some pretty good ideas. If the campaign took me longer to complete, I could keep writing about one interesting twist per session and not run out of material for some time. I particularly liked the mechanic of the Elementals, a common highest-level summon: their attack power is equal to your mana pool in the corresponding element. This means that their strength is potentially unbounded, but only if you don’t weaken them by spending the mana. So once you have elementals in play, they distort your decisions. Also, if you summon an elemental as soon as you have enough mana, you spend all the mana in the act of summoning it and leave it with no attack strength at all — but it’s usually worth it anyway, because elementals also increase the rate of mana gain for their element.

One more thing I’d like to comment on before closing this: the plot. The campaign mode’s story is mostly forgettable, just your basic dark lord destined to rise again and chosen one seeking out the scattered fragments of an artifact in order to battle the encroaching darkness. But at the end, it manages a twist on the idea that I don’t recall seeing before [SPOILERS]: it ultimately turns out that, in the previous age, after the Sauron wannabe lost his bid for world domination, he repented and started to seek redemption. The player character has forgotten that he is none other than the same dark lord, risen again for the purpose of stopping what he put in motion a thousand years previously. I think the last game that I saw do something this clever with a Chosen One plot was The Longest Journey, which went in a rather different direction. Why are we not seeing more variations like this? Would they grow tiresome if we did?

Spectromancer: Mechanics in Detail

Usually it's not this even at this point.Spectromancer gives you a random assortment of 20 spells in each match, in a grid of four levels and five elements. The levels just correspond to increasing power and mana costs, and in the single-player campaign mode, you don’t have access to the fourth level at first. The elements are fire, water, air, earth, and a specialty that varies with the character — possible specialties include Cleric, Illusionist, Mechanist, and a few others. Each element has its own mana, which builds up at a constant rate of 1 unit per turn, unless altered by magical effects: certain creatures aid you by accumulating mana faster, and at least one creature decreases it for the opponent. This is a mechanic that would probably be unwieldy in an actual card game, but it’s fine when a computer is keeping track of it.

Note that I describe continuing magical effects as properties of creatures. That’s because summoning spells are the only continuing effects in the game. Anything that isn’t a summon is an instant. This is one of the game’s the most severe bits of streamlining. The effect on the design is that things that would be enchantments in a more M:tG-like system are instead things with hit points, and have to be put on the board, where they can be attacked and destroyed.

The board consists of six columns and two rows, one row for each player. When you summon a creature, you choose a column, and for the most part, it doesn’t move from there. This placement takes the place of assigning blockers. When your creatures attack — which they do every turn, with no option of holding them back — they’re blocked by the opposing creature in the same column. I remember seeing a CCG prototype with a similar board mechanic a number of years ago. For all I know, it may be commonplace in the more advanced sort of CCG, but I thought at the time that adding a board to a CCG seemed overly elaborate, too rules-heavy. The difference is that in a tabletop game, you have to read and understand the rules (if not their implications) before you can even begin playing. In Spectromancer, you can just play and learn the rules by observation. The ordering of the columns is usually unimportant, but some creatures have effects on the adjacent columns, which is the closest this game gets to a targeted enchantment. Also, combat gets resolved from left to right, which, in rare cases, can be important: if you kill a creature with a global effect, the combat in the remainder of the columns is resolved without that effect.

Combat is done in a similar manner to M:tG, but with one important difference: creatures have hit points, which persist from round to round. The middling-hardy creatures are effectively impossible to kill in a single turn, and have to be killed by degrees, which means that their owner is guaranteed at least one turn of whatever effects they have.


The other day, Play This Thing featured Spectromancer as their game du jour. Since I already had a copy from one of those holiday bundles on Steam, this seemed like as good a cue as any to finally give it a try.

A glance at a screenshot is enough to make it clear that this is a Magic: the Gathering imitation, but that’s a misleading thing to call it for a number of reasons. For one thing, it carries the connotation that the designer is riding on Richard Garfield’s coattails, trying to find an untapped vein of the gold mine he discovered. But Spectromancer was co-designed by Richard Garfield himself, apparently with an eye towards correcting the flaws in the original, or what he perceives to be the flaws. The result is something that shares certain mechanics with M:tG, but not the really important ones.

This isn’t really a CCG at all, you see. It’s more accurate to describe it as a CCG-themed board game. Controversially, there’s no deck-building (just like in Duels of the Planeswalkers — perhaps they’re aiming for the same casual used-to-play-Magic-a-little audience). There isn’t even a deck. I once described how Etherlords simplified the “deck” concept into something easier for computers to deal with. Spectromancer takes this a step or two further. The cards that are available to you are chosen at random at the beginning of each match, and every spell that’s chosen is always available to be cast. The only limitation is your mana.

The gameplay does have a very M:tG-ish feel, but it’s almost unbelievably simplified. In M:tG, turns can run pretty long: you untap your cards, perform any upkeep resulting from continuing enchantments, draw a new card, tap lands to get mana, cast spells, choose creatures to attack, resolve combat, cast more spells. Obviously some bits of this can be simplified by a computer interface, but there’s a tendency for certain cards to mess that up, forcing you to make decisions during the upkeep phase or whatever. Here’s what you do on a turn in Spectromancer: You cast a spell. That’s it. You usually have to choose a target (in the case of a summoning spell, a target location), but that’s the only complication. Turns are short and sweet.

There’s more to say, but I’ll say it tomorrow, after I’ve played a bit more. It’s engaging enough that I’ll probably stick with it until I finish it.