Riftforce ★★★

In Riftforce we fight for power and control. As magic broke into the world and elementals began to awaken, ten guilds sought to dominate this new source of strength. In this game of hand management and strategy, prevailing over our opponents will require all our wits and the understanding of the small subtleties inherent to each faction.

CARD BATTLER

Riftforce is what the Japanese call a “Card Battler”. We start by building a deck by drafting four different factions, each with their own power. Then, we shuffle their cards together and fight for the control of a board divided in five spaces. Whoever gets 12 points first, be it by destroying enemy troops or by holding ground, emerges victorious. It’s simple, quick and eminently competitive.

On our turn we only have three actions. The first is to play up to three cards, from the same type or with the same number. In the same way, we can also discard a card to activate up to three elementals of matching type or number. Lastly, we can skip our turn to draw, which also nets us one point per space we are present on and our opponent isn’t.

The trick is that each of these actions affects the quality of the other two. If we play a bunch of Plant elementals, we’ll have fewer cards to activate them. Conversely, the more we activate the cards we already have to fight with our opponent, the less actions we’ll spend developing our board. Managing our actions while dealing with our opponent is inherently difficult.

One of the most interesting aspects of Riftforce is how the factions come together. We could combine them randomly and the result would be perfectly playable. However, some factions pair better with others. For example, the Shadow guild, who earns us one additional point per kill but deals little damage, is better paired with hard-hitting Crystal or Fire elementals.

This makes Riftforce interesting to explore. While the guilds are rather similar to each other and vary mostly on how they move and deal damage, there are better and worse ways to combine them. Often, combinations I had dismissed out of hand were surprisingly viable and interesting in their own way. Their effects might be uncomplicated but they afford more possibilities than it meets the eye.

DEPTH

The simplicity of Riftforce‘s mechanics hides a surprising amount of depth. Over and over, the choice between playing more elementals and actually using them proves hard to gauge. Whenever I play it, I always assume it’s going to be a light experience only to be forced to stop to think for a few minutes. It’s not easy to play your cards right.

Often, after making a move I feel I could have made better or that I’m missing some way to manage my hand better. I catch myself not using my cards to the fullest or not paying enough attention to the several ways I can trigger elements with the cards in my hand. It reminds me very much of the finer decisions made in customizable card games, like sequencing and using all the resources available each turn.

I’m rather impressed by how subtle some of these nuances are. For example, we can play up to three elements at once. However, we draw up to seven cards so there are always going to be 1 or 2 unplayed cards left. This means it’s very difficult to have a perfect turn where we maximize all our actions.

Above all, there’s a constant pressure to keep the opponent in check. Letting our opponent score while drawing cards is a recipe for disaster. There’s a strong need to keep the tempo of the game in our favour. If we can hound our rival with constant attacks while leaving no open spaces, keeping an advantage will be easy. But, if not, the tide can easily turn against us in the long run.

IDENTITY

Riftforce‘s main flaw is its feeble sense of identity. It lacks a powerful central idea binding it together and is, altogether, rather plain. It does not break new ground, much less communicate a specific theme or convey a social message. Rather, it’s a mechanical design pure and through and is content with just offering nuances.

This weak sense of identity makes it less exciting. Card play is engaging but also straightforward and dispassionate. We won’t find new experiences in its box and we won’t walk away thinking about its meaning. Riftforce is undeniably compelling, but it sells our imagination short. I can’t help but feel it’s spartan to a fault.

While playing cards in the right order is enjoyable and tense, Riftforce lacks those little moments of creativity we see in other games. It’s difficult to surprise or trick our opponent or to stand back in awe of a brilliant move. We may pair elementals and find out they work well together but it never crosses the line into the novel or unexpected. The game remains stoic, like a well-polished stone.

However, Riftforce is uniquely well-positioned in today’s market. It sits at a sweet spot where it’s simple enough for anyone to jump in while also being sufficiently deep to secure a good experience. One common problem with the genre is that they require too much previous experience for their depth. And, if they do, you are better off jumping off the deep and playing something like Flesh and Blood or Netrunner.

Smash Up comes to mind as the best example of this problem. It’s meant to be good for some casual fun, even a bit silly, but having to read every card puts a damper on that. Riftforce solves this issue by not having any text on its cards. Everything you need to know is in the factions you draft, the elementals themselves are blank.

It’s not just the rules, the actual strategy is accessible. It takes very little to learn and do well in Riftforce. The cost of jumping in is very low, which is a huge bonus in a card battler. You can play thirty matches of it and still have fun with someone who hasn’t played more than a couple.

Riftforce features colorful, bright cards which are easy to tell apart. It’s no easy task to feature two shades of blue, grey and black and have them become immediately distinguishable. The illustrations are nice as well, but again the lack of flavour holds the game back. They don’t draw us into a larger fantasy world filled with unique creatures.

Despite its limitations, Riftforce is a good game. It’s sharp, deep and fun and stands its ground in the crowded card battler market. With an expansion in the works and an incoming release by Capstone, it has the potential to grow into a small favourite. It has the foundation necessary for it, it only needs the ambition to do so.

RIFTFORCE (2021)
DESIGNCarlo BortoliniARTMiguel Coimbra
PUBLISHER1 More Time GamesLENGTH20 minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS
2SCORE★★★

A copy of the game was provided by 1 More Time Games for review purposes.

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