Penny-Arcade artist and co-creator Mike Krahulik (That's Gabe, if you follow their comics) showed off his hybrid card game and roleplaying tactics game Thornwatch earlier this year, and I spoke with him about the concept behind Thornwatch and what the long term plans were then. At PAX Prime, I had the opportunity to sit down and see what Krahulik and his co-designers had cooked up and changed in the few months since. What I found was that while core mechanics remained relatively unchanged, the game had done much more to flesh out underutilized mechanics and story driven play.
Unlike my prior experience with the game, this time around there was a strong story at work. The Thornwatch had been summoned by a boy who needed to rescue his kidnapped sister from a vicious ebb witch, who controlled a powerful sludgy substance that corrupted the natural world. As the group went into the first tactical battle, the boy appeared as a card in the game's "river" - which usually tracks general board effects like a cloud of miasma or a spreading disease. The kid added a tactical consideration, if one of the players didn't spend some time maneuvering to slow him down, he'd escape into the witch's cave ahead of us. It was obviously a waste of our time to keep him from escaping - he quickly moved from where the fighting was, keeping a character from doing damage just to slow him down.
Or was it? We'd be letting a kid run off to die alone. Perhaps not the noblest choice.
We elected to slow him down, keeping my damage-dealing Blade character out of the fight. In return, when he was still alive at the end of the scene we all got a potent card to add to our deck for the next fight. It's a fulfillment of the kind of narrative progression through deckbuilding that designer Krahulik was talking about earlier in the year, but hadn't implemented yet.
There were some other small twists: The tank classes were harder to take down. The magical sage had more ability to manipulate theirs and others' decks for the group's gain. The characters' somewhat clunky basic attacks had been simplified - and much of the game's layout was more user-friendly. The extended nature of the play we did, moving from one scene into another, allowed us to see the real ramifications of getting towards the end of your deck. As your deck got smaller there was a greater chance that the few wound cards you took would end up in your hand, inching your character closer to death. A few other touches were present: Male and Female versions of all the class art, as well as more fully fledged map/comic combos for playtesting.
Thornwatch is definitely still in playtesting, but the solid core of the game is still exciting. The monsters you fight are at times incredibly dangerous and at times simply not a threat. Likewise, sometimes a series of bad draws can render a character boring to play as you repeat actions or are locked out of fun choices. Those issues seem small, though, in light of what is a very fun core. If that core is executed right, then the game will have not just a unique premise but fun mechanics on its side. If you get a chance to play at an upcoming PAX Convention, I highly recommend it. You can find more details at the game's official site and you can also read our extensive preview about the game's development.