When someone mentions 'poker', there's a number of scenarios you probably imagine. A dimly lit pub backroom, several tattooed, bearded gentlemen hunched around a small, rotting wood table. A collective of suited men straight out of Mad Men relaxed in a smokey room, sipping scotch, with hundred dollar notes stacked in front of them. Or perhaps a late night television tournament, featuring forgotten B-grade celebrities and smug twenty-something rich kids. Wherever your imagination leads you, we're guessing 'high fantasy role playing' fails to play a part.
Enter Runespell: Overture, a fantasy role playing poker game from Mystic Box. Currently only available on PC, via digital distribution services such as Steam, Runespell promises a hybrid of poker fundamentals with role playing mechanics, not unlike what you'd find in other role playing games, all of which are wrapped up in a mythological high fantasy universe. The idea of swords and monsters spliced with dice rolls will be familiar to many, but we're guessing not with card playing added to the mix. Okay, if you're a player of Magic the Gathering the concept won't be too outlandish, but this isn't just any old card. This is poker!
The foundation of Runespell is built on battles, and it is these that are played out as poker games. Each player is given several decks of traditional cards, and over quasi-turn based rounds must build classic poker hands to deal damage. Given three moves per turn, players must make best use of the cards available, able to deal not only from their own decks but single cards from the opponents decks, to create the highest damaging hand possible. Naturally, easy hands such as two pairs (and an extra to make five) deal far less damage than complex hands like a flush, and it is here that a game of strategy begins to emerge.
As each player is limited to only three moves per turn, and must deal with the randomisation of both their deck as well as the opponents, players are required to carefully plan out the best method of attack. Fast strategy could have you building quick, easy hands to deal damage quickly, yet may not pay out in the long run should the opponent build heavy damaging hands faster than expected. Meanwhile, complex hands deal the most damage yet often take the longest time to build due to card rarity, leaving you open for more frequent attacks.
As each player can only take single cards from the opponent's deck (in other words, cards not currently in a hand), defensive play is just as valuable as offensive. Spot an unused card that is needed to complete a devastating hand the opponent is readying? Stick it in one of yours before they can get it next turn. This might sacrifice a complex hand of your own that you had been planning, but will prevent the opponent from dealing maximum damage. This opportunistic style of gameplay proves to be extraordinarily involving, as the randomisation of decks and thus unpredictable nature of each game puts emphasis on tactical, thought-out decisions for each move you make.
If this were all Runespell had to offer it would run the risk of stretching a simplistic concept far too thin. Thankfully, there's more to Runespell, and these are the power cards. To accompany each game, players are able to build a hand of several special power cards, each of which requires 'rage points' to be activated. Rage points are acquired through both taking and dealing damage, the latter rewarding the most, and once the required amount has been earned these power cards can be activated.
As expected, many of these power cards are split between offensive and defensive roles, each built on an elemental type. Fire offensive will deal a randomised amount of fire damage, while fire defensive will absorb damage of attacks by the same name. The varied elemental types keep the battle of power cards interesting, as defending against one element will not help you with another.
Where Runespell gets really interesting is in the other power cards that allow for more strategic play. Some power cards allow players to lock out opponent player cards for a designated amount of turns, or even burn through the opponent's acquired rage points. Another power card type can add additional moves for that turn, giving you more time to build decks without the opponent stealing cards.
Power cards deepen the already existing element of strategy ten-fold. No longer is Runespell just a game of building hands, but also keeping an eye on the both player's rage points, defending against the right elemental attacks, and exploiting opponent weaknesses. Do you spend your rage points now, or build up more for your better attacks? Assault the enemy's health, or build defenses? The amount of tactical options available to the player put Runespell on par with almost any tactical role playing game, including those not dedicated to card games, and at no point did any power card combination seem particularly overpowered.
This solid foundation is woven into the fabric of a single player campaign, one that plays out like a classic role playing game, complete with it's own story. You play as the Changeling, a mysterious hooded creature with no memory, and through speaking to other characters and fighting battles the main plot will unfold. Though quite basic, the story acts as a welcome narrative to drive progression, particularly thanks to well written characters and snappy dialogue that is always to-the-point, yet not without its own intriguing twists and turns.
Throughout the main quest players will confront an assortment of beasts and monsters, each built with power card decks that best represent the type of creature they are. Ghostly apparitions are equipped with fear cards, while overgrown flora can heal. Even though each battle is built on the same fundamentals, the mix of enemy types and their associated power cards keeps things interesting. The game really comes into its own during a handful of battles that demand more creative play, such as a fight that locks out the use of powercards entirely, and enemies that must be weakened with a specific power card first. Sadly, these creative battles only make a small portion of the campaign, and it would have been nice to see a few more.
As enjoyable as the campaign is, the campaign itself is perhaps the greatest flaw of Runespell, being the only playable content in the entire package. Random battles in the campaign always make sure there's someone to fight, but a simplistic skirmish mode on the main menu, allowing players to build a deck and select an opponent and difficulty, would have been preferable for quick, casual play. The absence of any multiplayer offering is more bizarre, as the turn-based mechanics would have been an ideal fit for head-to-head games. Online leaderboards give some incentive to keep playing and maximise scores, yet the absence of a dedicated skirmish mode and multiplayer ultimately question longevity.
Due to its relatively low budget independent development, Runespell has production values about in line with what you'd expect from any game of similar value. That is not to say Runespell is a cheap looking and sounding title. Quite the opposite. The majority of the game's art is composed of 2D animated backdrops, such as those backing every battle, each rich with colour and particle effects. The avatars for each battle, whether it be the player's character or the enemy, are built as an animated 3D model, which acts out all attacks initiated by the player. Though Runespell won't come close to pushing systems to breaking point, the art direction is attractive in its own right, not to mention clean and easy to understand, and low system requirements should allow the game to be enjoyed on even the most dated hardware.
For the soundtrack, Runespell calls upon a fairly traditional 'epic' musical score. Funnily enough, as out of place as this score might seem considering the nature of the game, it feels right at home with every battle. Battle themes, overworld themes, and the main theme are all quite memorable, and sound effects are suitable for every attack. A little more variety in battle themes would have been nice however, as the singular battle track can grow a little tiresome by the end.
Yet this issue is only minor, and even the lack of multiplayer and such does not put too much of a damper on the quality present in Runespell. What matters most is how fun the game is to play, and in this area Runespell excels most of all. You wouldn't think it, but this novel twist on poker is both exciting and engrossing. It has that unique quality that keeps you playing for 'just one more round', never overburdening the player with clumsy mechanics or a steep learning curve, yet with just enough tactical depth and variety to keep it interesting. Considering the digital price is a meager $10, there are much worse ways to spend your money, and frankly at that price not many better.