Review: Shards of Infinity – a divinely good deck builder, now on tablets
Looking for a good deckbuilder that you can take with you? This might be it.
If you’ve played deck builders like Dominion or Ascension, you already know what Shards of Infinity is all about: Start with a basic deck, add to it, refine what it does, and play until you win.
If you read my SteamWorld Quest review, you know that I love deck builders and deck builder-likes. As someone who used to use his iPad almost exclusively as an Ascension machine, and with Shards of Infinity being the direct follow-up to Ascension, I went into this digital port with high hopes and I was not disappointed.
Since this game draws heavily from Ascension and branches out in important ways, I’m going to cover it for two perspectives: One, as though you also played and loved Ascension and you need to know if you’re going to like this game and; Two, as though you’ve never heard of either.
Let’s start with everything these games have in common
Every turn you draw five cards from your deck, which starts as a basic deck of 10, and you play them all in any order. Like Ascension, you have two primary currencies, which include one for purchasing new cards and one for combat.
There are four factions of cards, which include a defensive faction with high numbers, a faction that’s all about card draw and bonuses when you play other cards from that faction, a faction about combat and removing bad cards from your deck, and a faction that’s all about low cost and getting as many of them into play at the same time as possible.
Most cards are played and discarded, but some cards enter play and stay in play. The game is all about building an effective, coherent engine and then utilizing that engine to move towards an important victory threshold, all while your opponent(s) is/are doing the exact same thing. Games take about 5 to 15 minutes (specifically on digital, since the game does all math and shuffling for you) and can be played with humans or AI, in person or online.
Pretty similar to Ascension so far, right?
Here’s where things diverge. Most importantly, you’re no longer pulling victory points from a pool and accumulating victory points with the value of your cards: in Shards of Infinity you’re now trying to whittle your opponent’s life points down to zero, a la Magic: The Gathering.
This also means that the combat currency is used differently since you can attack your opponent with it. Now the cards that stay in play aren’t idle constructs like they were in Ascension, they’re actually active Champions with special abilities and their own health points, so you have to make decisions about when to attack them and when to attack your opponent directly.
Furthermore, some cards have Shield values so they can protect you from damage while they’re in your hand. The seemingly small change in goals has cascading design implications and all of them make for an extremely engaging experience. It is now much more difficult to evaluate exactly what to do, which makes for an interesting game every time you play.
Furthermore, Shards of Infinity is now a deck builder where you can pay for cards that you don’t add to your deck
Many heroes have a new red border, marking them as Mercenaries, and when you pay their cost you have to make a decision: Get their effect immediately or get nothing now but add them into your deck for later. This gives mercenaries a changing value over time and presents players with difficult questions.
Do I want to add a powerful hero to my deck, or is late enough in the game where I’m not sure I’ll see them again? Do I really need that Power bump right now, or is having that card into my deck going to mess up my flow and composition? There are rarely concrete answers to these questions and making those tactical decisions will make or break you in this game.
To deepen the gameplay even more, there is now a third important currency that serves several purposes
Like Honor in classic Legend of the Five Rings, you can accumulate Mastery points, which persist across turns unlike Gems (the purchasing currency) and Power (the combat currency) which must be expended that turn or lost. Many cards have different effects that kick in at different Mastery thresholds.
For instance, one hero generates one Mastery when played, but if you have 10 or more she also lets you draw a card. One of your starting cards generates 2 Gems initially but can generate 3 or 4 as you cross higher and higher Mastery thresholds. Most importantly is the almighty Infinity Shard, a starting card every player gets, which becomes a game-ender at 30 mastery since it will then generate infinite Power when played at that point. Mastery is interesting to me because sometimes it doesn’t do anything for you, but sometimes acquiring enough will literally just win the game for you.
All of this congeals into an experience where I am engaged at 100% capacity every single turn, which is exactly what I want from a game like this. I don’t want a strategic road map telling me the definitive way to get from here to a win; I want a map of the stars, an open sea, and the burning desire to sail through the storm to what I hope will be victory.
Shards of Infinity delivers that in spades, standing head and shoulders as one of my absolute favorite deck builders. When you throw in the fact that Temple Gates Games, the digital porting studio, using dynamic, machine learning to power the game’s organic, compelling AI, you have a compelling experience that’s extremely difficult to walk away from.
That doesn’t mean it’s without its flaws, Shards of Infinity does have a few issues, even though it’s great on the whole
The thing that bugs me the most is that there are some extremely powerful cards in the game where, once they spin up to their potential, they’re nigh-impossible to stop. I already mentioned the Infinity Shard, but since everyone has that it’s actually not that much of an issue.
I’m more concerned with cards like Fao Cu’tul, The Formless, a void — sorry, wraethe — champion that costs 4 Gems and has 4 hit points once in play. Fao normally just provides you with 2 Power per turn, a nice boost but nothing game breaking, but also has a unique ability where if you have 20+ Mastery, it just doubles your Power for that turn. Usually, you can muster about 10-20 Power per turn, which is enough to break through a couple of Champions, overcome a shield or two if your opponent is holding cards with them, and deal a few damage to your opponent’s hit points.
This is typically how the game goes, with the devil being in the details of exactly how much you can pull off. Fao, however, can double that 20 into a 40. In a scenario like this, that relationship is wildly non-linear. Your defenses are built around the normal damage numbers, so all of that bonus Power just goes directly against your life, which adds up to multiple turns worth of damage all at once.
In a game where you usually only win by a turn or two, a balance that I appreciate immensely, a multiple turn swing is a huge deal. When you consider that access to a card like Fao Co’tul is totally random and you can’t really do anything to stop your opponent from getting that card, nor can you ever remove it from their deck, you start to have a few scenarios where you’re left scratching your head going, “Well that wasn’t fair.”
Beyond that, while Shards of Infinity is a vast improvement over Ascension in terms of how much you interact with the people playing with you, there are still some issues with that aspect of the game
I frequently found myself playing against myself with little regard for my opponent’s overall strategy or current game state. When I’m playing against AI I think that’s fine, since I ultimately am just playing by myself here, but I think it’s a little less fine when playing against other humans. If there’s only a modicum of player interaction, why are you playing with other people anyway?
The bottom line is that Shards of Infinity is a fantastic deck builder with some minor, noticeable flaws and the digital port of it is absolutely stellar. I think ultimately if you like deck builders, you’re going to love this one and if you hate deck builders, you’re probably going to run into some of your most common complaints with the genre, maybe somewhat less. As a lover of deck builders, myself, I recommend it wholeheartedly and can’t wait to play more.
Shards of Infinity is available on Steam, Android, and iOS.
Jake reviewed Shards of Infinity on iPad, with a code provided by the porting studio. He’s friends with Theresa at Temple Gates, and it’s an immense privilege knowing people working on such great projects. He’s happy to finally replace Ascension as his #1 digital board game, though Carcassonne is still pretty great, too.
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