Scrolls, Mojang’s Minecraft follow-up, is much more than a passion project

Walls defend your troops, and often confer boosts to them. Unit stats denote their attack power, health and the number of turns they take between strikes

Yes, Scrolls is Mojang’s first game since Minecraft, and yes, it bears few of that now-legendary game’s marks, with neither its open-ended scope, nor its raw accessibility. But that doesn’t make Scrolls some sort of passion project. It’s not a breakaway from Mojang’s core desire to make games for large communities of players. And neither is it anything less than interesting, original and smart. It’s constructed from a fashionable set of components: collectible cards and turn-based puzzle-strategy, an amalgam of Magic: The Gathering, Might & Magic: Clash Of Heroes and Stratego.

Its two players face each other over a board of hexes, with a line of idols along the two shorter sides. The aim is to destroy three of your opponent’s idols, spending cards to place units on the board with which to do this. In Magic: The Gathering style, each card – AKA scroll – bears the image of a character or item. Some represent offensive units, which take a number of turns to charge before they strike the first enemy unit that stands in front of them, or the idol if there’s nothing in the way. Others buff your units’ stats or serve to debuff your opponent’s, and some are structures, which may buff units or act as walls. But using scrolls costs resources – the cost is shown on the card – which you amass by sacrificing up to one unwanted scroll per turn. The best scrolls can cost seven resource points to play, introducing the need to make hard choices over what to sacrifice, what scrolls to hold on to until you can afford them, and whether to invest your resource points in placing one powerful scroll or several weaker ones.

The result is a complex mix of unit placement, timing and resource management. Defending offensive units while they charge up for their attacks is vital, and so is ensuring that you have a good set of scrolls in your hand to play each turn. A concerted single-turn assault can wipe out a whole army that took several turns to amass. And mastery is down to understanding the subtle interplay between different scrolls’ functions.

All of this is compounded by the natures of Scrolls’ three factions: Growth, Order and Energy. Each offers a different deck of scrolls and demands a different way of thinking. Growth’s wildmen and wolves are loosely governed by kinship – proximity to certain units can confer bonuses, or might award extra attack points if they’re killed. Order’s knights and zealots include scrolls that allow you to move units more than once a turn, and a general who sets all units’ attack countdown to zero. And Energy’s based on automatons and explosives, with some suicide units that blow up to attack. This faction also has structures that can perform ranged attacks. Being inspired by collectible card games, you’ll be building your own decks of scrolls by buying randomised cards with either in-game currency earned through play or real cash.

Units’ animations vary in quality at the moment, with some being very detailed and others more perfunctory, but they’re all distinctively designed and easy to tell apart from each other

With so many variables in the mix, Scrolls is a challenge to balance. “Right now, it’s a matter of trial and error, and changing as we go, which, admittedly, isn’t the best way to go in the future when the game is released and people have paid money and spent a lot of time collecting scrolls,” says lead designer and Mojang co-founder Jakob Porser. The solution is to run a beta phase in which Mojang can tweak Scrolls depending on player feedback. “I think it’s a great way of both balancing the scrolls and getting the chance to listen to input from the players. After all, they are the ones we’re making the game for.”

Balance is a slippery concept, though, and Porser isn’t looking to sand down every edge to make Scrolls blandly fair for all. “I have still to encounter a perfectly balanced CCG, and I don’t think that should be the aim either when making one,” he says. “I know how much I love trying to find broken combos and show them off by opening a can of whoop-ass on my dear friends.”

Instead, fairness comes in the determination that Scrolls won’t feature a ‘pay-to-win’ microtransaction model that would give cash-rich players an unfair advantage as they amass their decks. The game isn’t free-to-play – it’ll be sold at a low price – and every scroll will be available to those who’ve played enough to earn the points to buy them. But on the other hand, neither will Scrolls penalise players who don’t have that much time. “The current plan is that the players will be able to spend some extra money to get some extra content, but that the content you can get this way is limited. That way, those who have more time than money can get scrolls from playing, while those who have more money than time can spend some of that hard-earned cash to close the gap.”

That kind of inclusive attitude pervades what could have been an exclusively hardcore game. “Anyone who has played, for instance, Magic: The Gathering knows that a normal game is about 70 per cent playing cards and 30 per cent discussing the rules. I don’t mind this personally, but the amount of rule knowledge that goes into playing a game is staggering,” says Porser.

Despite its depth, though, Scrolls is simple to pick up, its blend of turn-based tactics and card management providing a clear basis for how to play. “We have worked really hard on making the core rules as slim as possible, and I dare say we have done a pretty good job at it,” says Porser. The fact that it doesn’t take long to become immersed in charting Scrolls’ tactical depths is a promising sign indeed.