For a long time, digital tabletop games were more of a novelty than anything else. Games like Risk Factions and Carcasonne would pop up on the Xbox Live Arcade while we'd see stuff like Lords of Waterdeep hitting tablets. Now, though, the marketplace for these things is a crowded one. Blizzard's Hearthstone is the giant one to beat, but there are plenty of others. Elder Scrolls Legends uses the long-running lore of the Elder Scrolls games. Magic Online takes the legendary physical card game and makes it digital. Gwent: The Witcher Card Game is a wholly digital game spun off of the one built into Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. And now we have the free-to-play Fable Fortune, a new digital card game brewed out of Lionhead Studios' Fable series. Where does it stand in this crowded genre and, more importantly, can it stand out?
Let me say first that I am not a card game man. I'm not good at these games. Building a deck is a long, frustrating experience for me. Where other people see strategy, I see guesswork. Where other people see anticipation and planning, I see fog as thick as pea soup. Going into any new card game then, I'm coming in from a position different from that of a lot of card game players. I won't be able to tell you in any detail about how the game strategy or the way the classes work in comparison to each other the same way an experienced player would. Instead, as I go into this, I'm looking for ease of access to get me started, whether that's through training modes, tutorials, or a campaign. I'm looking for whether the game's gimmick is enough to set it apart from Hearthstone, Magic Online, and whatever else is out there.
It's a good idea on paper
While Lionhead built the Fable we remember, that studio was shuttered last year. Out of that closing grew Flaming Fowl Studios. taking on the game Lionhead had already begun.
The Fable trappings, I think, are the worst of this game. And I think that's sort of indicative of the Fable name in general. The concept Peter Molyneux presented so many years ago was an enchanting one. It was so enchanting that, despite the end product being mostly just okay and its two sequels being pretty good but not especially memorable, the series has persisted to this day in the minds of gamers. That led to the development of the ill-fated Fable Legends and, I think, to this game, Fable Fortune. The links to the original series are tenuous at best, and aren't enough to hold the game itself up.
The art is accomplished, but not terribly interesting for the most part. It has the same cartoon-y glow of other Fable art, but Fable's art has always been a pretty generic medieval look, without the rot of Dark Souls, the grit of Witcher, or even the dead-serious simulation of medieval strategy and dueling games like Total War or Chivalry. This is going to be very subjective, but while the art is good, it's just not interesting. That leaves the game's mechanics to stand on their own.
That old familiar feeling
On that front, what Fable Fortune offers isn't terribly unique or interesting, either. If you're familiar with something like Hearthstone, you'll be pretty at-home here, with your hand of cards at the bottom, your hero character front and center, and any monster cards you draw sitting in the middle of the screen. Like Hearthstone, you also have a growing meter that allows you to play more and more powerful cards with each turn. In Fortune, this is presented as being an increasing treasure chest because, you know, "fortune."
What is meant to set Fortune apart is the morality concept that has woven throughout each of the Fable games. When the series started, the idea of morality affecting gameplay was a pretty fresh one. Over the years, though, we've seen a million takes on that idea, and it's become pretty commonplace.
In a card game, though? It's new, I guess, but once again it is not interesting. In the card game, here's how it works. At the beginning of the game, you choose an optional quest. The quest might be to spend a certain amount of gold, to play cards that have more strength than health, or to play lots of spells, for example. Each time you complete a side quest, you can pick between good or evil options. These options are meant to add a twist to the game, but aren't so much a twist in the road as they are a speedbump. They're inconsequential and, in my experience, add little to the game.
On top of that, the team does very little to on-board players into the game. Going in, you can choose to play versus or cooperatively, or you can hop into training. The training mode is simply the option to play against a computer opponent. There's no guidance for why you might want to choose good or evil, why you might want to choose one character over another, or even exactly how the game works. I feel, looking at the game as somewhat of an outsider, like the developers have assumed anyone coming in has played Hearthstone. I haven't. The learning curve was steep for me, and I still don't really feel like I get it. And while the game starts with a pretty good loadout of cards, at least in this preview, the rate of currency acquisition feels like it's pretty slow, and chatter online suggests I'm not alone in thinking that.
To really master the game, I'd have to end up heading to YouTube to see how other people are playing and to get some deck-building strategies. When I compare this to Gwent, it feels totally different. That game featured a tutorial, if a basic one, and a mechanic straightforward enough to make itself apparent without feeling too simple.
That lack of guidance is killer for anyone who isn't going in with experience. It made an already frustrating experience even moreso.
It's hard to be optimistic about Fable Fortune. We've seen games launch rough and turn themselves around before, and I'd love to see Fortune do that. Right now, though, its prospects aren't too encouraging. I think Flaming Fowl has overestimated the cachet of the Fable series. Fortune started from a Kickstarter, but the team managed to find outside funding before the campaign ended, cancelling it a week before the drop-dead date. At that point, though, the game had gathered just $90,000 of its $365,000 goal. On top of that, the game is similar to a lot of other stuff currently on the market, and its twist isn't very compelling. Throw the lack of any hand-holding at the beginning. optional or otherwise, on top of all that, and the recipe doesn't smell great. As I said at the beginning, I'm not a card guy. Someone who is might look at Fortune and see a wildly different game. From where I stand, though, Fable Fortune is a game that, right now, fails to stand out in art, concept, and mechanic. The game works. It's functional. But there's very little worth remembering.