The Collectible Card Game style pool already has plenty of swimmers in it. Keyforge is busy trying to dunk Magic: The Gathering‘s head under, while the Pokémon TCG is quietly having a wee in the corner, hoping nobody notices. Someone has pulled Netrunner‘s trunks off and it’s spent the last ten minutes underwater looking for them. Along comes Achroma, sprinting to the edge of the pool where it takes off, shouting “Cannonball!” ready to make a splash of its own. For the most part, it manages it, but the lifeguard’s got a few questions that need answering when it comes up for air.
I have no idea where the pool analogy came from, or why I took it so far. Let’s move on.
Card games in this style aren’t something new. Assemble a deck of cards that complement one another, and take turns playing cards in your play area which beat the cards in your opponent’s play area. It’s a tried and tested concept, and new games keep getting made in this style because it works. It works really nicely. Your deck becomes this crafted, personal thing, which you pit against someone else’s crafted, personal thing, to see which comes out on top. When you’re not playing, you can tinker with your various decks’ compositions, and in the case of Achroma, just enjoy the beautiful artwork. I’ve not seen another card game with the same style of illustration that Achroma employs, and I like it all the more for that fact.
I’m not the most experienced in this field of tabletop games, but I’ve played a bit of Netrunner, I’ve played the Pokémon TCG with my son, and I’ve watched plenty of Magic: The Gathering. Everything that even someone as inexperienced as me would expect to be in the game is there, albeit with different names. Your play area is your Canvas. Your deck is your Palette. Discarded cards go to your Dregs. Shards are the currency du jour, and in an interesting twist to some games, they’re both what you spend to play cards, and what you need to collect to win. Collect 30 shards and you win. Actually, it turns out that isn’t the only way to win. Collecting 30 shards is called a Chroma win, while reducing your opponents to zero shards – therefore knocking them out of the game – is called an Achrom win.
This concept of colour is everywhere in the game and plays an integral part in the setting and theme. Chroma is the magical (colourful) life force, which is fighting against Achrom (or, a lack of colour), a savage dark energy. It’s a really neat thing to weave this into the way the game is won or lost. Being able to win with either Chroma or Achrom is akin to a ‘good or bad’ win, yet it doesn’t feel bad. A win is a win, after all. No-one remembers how you won, just the fact that you did, right?
Yeah… about that.
Achroma has obviously been built from the ground up with an accompanying app in mind. It’s an app which does a few things, but the most important for Achroma as a product, is the player profiles. When you first fire the app up, it’ll ask you to create an account, and show you where your friend code lives. If you play against another registered player, the apps are essentially synced, so the game knows who is playing against who, and it’ll update its database accordingly with the winner and loser. You can even place your phone, running the app, in your play area. It has a shard counter which is linked with your opponent’s, so if I steal one of your shards, your total automatically decreases while mine increases. That’s pretty cool.
As I alluded to above, the app also tracks how you win your games. There’s a slider which tracks your Chroma vs Achrom wins, which is a really nice touch. It strikes me that Achroma could easily have been a digital-only game, like Hearthstone, or an analogue-only one. Instead, it stands astride both, with a foot in each pond. Oh dear, I’m back with the pool analogies. Moving on!
Although my experience so far has been limited to the ‘The Curse of Curdle Hill’ starter pack, I’ve found the game really easy to learn, easy to play, and less fussy to do deck construction with. The construction rules for the base game type – Canvas – limit you on the rarity of the cards you use and how many copies of each you can use. Decks are also locked to a single one of the five Realms in the game, so there’s not the same mental strain of how best to combine more than one type, that you might get in Pokémon TCG for example. The app even tracks which cards you have in your collection through a code on the bottom of each card, which you can enter manually, or scan with your phone’s camera. If, that is, it works for you. Which brings me onto…
For the most part, my reviews focus on the positives of a game. I try not to cover games I know I won’t like, for obvious reasons, and while I really like the actual game of Achroma, I’ve got a few issues with the app. And they’re quite big ones, in my opinion.
First up, when I opened my ‘The Curse of Curdle Hill’ pack, I contacted the publisher because the rules were missing. It turns out that no, the rules weren’t missing, you just don’t get a physical copy of them. I don’t mind games that use apps in some way. I’ve covered the Escape Tales series which all use one, Destinies (review here), which is entirely app-driven, and Dune Imperium (review here), which has a great solo app. But not even being able to learn how to play the game I’ve got in front of me, bothered me hugely. I appreciate that they describe the game as evolving, but at the very least include the base game rules.
So I downloaded the app. My son was off school ill recently, and while I was looking after him one night, I thought it was the perfect chance to learn to play. He’s sleeping beside me, I’ll open the app and read the rules, and teach myself how to play. Except there are no written rules in the app. I followed the guide thing that the app starts with into the tutorial, which shows you how to use the app, and then jumps into a how-to-play video, which is great. However, the video has no subtitles/closed-captions. So with the sound down (so as not to wake him), or if I was deaf, I still had no idea what to do.
Eventually, I found that if I started a game, then tapped on the diamond, and then chose Rules, it showed me the rules! Hoorah! Except that the rules page is just an in-app web browser pointed at the ‘How to play’ page on their website. Oh, and that in-app browser has no navigation buttons to drop back into the game you were playing – Grrr! My final grumble, you’ll be pleased to hear, is that the card scanner just doesn’t work. I’ve got access to two Android phones here running v9 and v12 of the OS, and on both the scanner won’t use the camera. It just shows a grey box. I’m pretty technically-minded, so I even tried manually adding camera permissions for the app (as it doesn’t ask for any), but it still doesn’t work. As a result, I’ve entered a total of one card, because there’s no way I’m manually typing in all 60 eleven-character codes. Maybe it’s better with iOS? I don’t know, but it shouldn’t matter which type I have.
Achroma is a difficult game for me to review. I love supporting indie publishers here, especially when they’re from the UK, and Achroma is practically up the road from me, in Dorset. The game they’ve put together in Achroma is great, it really is. It’s a quick, easy-to-learn CCG-type game, and the polish on it, for a first title, is superb. The cards even have shiny UV-spot pieces on them. The artwork, illustration, and design principles are better than a lot of games I’ve played that have come from publishers and designers with a lot more time and money to throw at them.
I know I devoted a whole section to my grumbles about the app, and as much as I wish I didn’t have to write it, I owe it to myself and my readers, to be honest and transparent. I was sent a copy, for free, to review, but I have to treat it as if I’m a paying customer. You can shout “Get with the times, old man!” all you like, but the reality is I had a game which I couldn’t learn to play without a phone or computer next to me, no sign of even a player aid or reference card for when I’m in-game, and a card scanner which doesn’t work. If all of those things weren’t true, I’d have been over the moon with Achroma.
The upshot is this. If you don’t mind having your phone with you to play, and if you’re happy learning from a video or website, then CCG lovers are likely to absolutely love Achroma. The folk behind it have plans for more packs, more Kickstarter campaigns, and more and more content, which is what games like this live and die by. I think the game is very clever, very enjoyable, and gorgeous to look at. I’ll just always have that nagging thing, clawing at the back of my brain, asking what will happen when my phone is no longer supported, or if something were to happen to the studio. With a hard copy of the rules, everyone could play this forever. If the website and app disappeared tomorrow, the rules – and therefore the whole game – go with them. These are the times we live in, and I wish Realm Runner all the luck in the world with their game. They deserve it, Achroma is a fantastic game.
Preview copy provided by Realm Runner. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Publisher: Realm Runner Studios
Playing time: 30 mins