Fable Fortune Preview: A CCG Not To Be Missed

After writing a feature on whether the upcoming CCG Fable Fortune could save the Fable series, I was contacted by Craig Oman of Flaming Fowl Studios and asked whether I wanted to play the alpha build of the game and find out a little more about it.

I was surprised and humbled by the kind offer to get an early look at the game: it is a mark of how determined and passionate the developers are to get the game out there, and also of how confident they are that what they have is worth playing. Needless to say, I practically bit his hand off at the offer. What follows are my thoughts on the alpha build of Fable Fortune.

As soon as you get to the main menu, you will experience chills of nostalgia. Everything from the font of the menu options to the nebulous depths of the crystal ball located on an old, wooden table perfectly encapsulate the mood and aesthetic of the Fable universe. The art style is achingly handsome. The music is exceptional: subtle, soft, but enveloping, transporting you to a place of magic and old lore.

As expected from a CCG, there is an area where you can customise your deck and an area where you can open card packs and buy more cards. The card packs look like those old paper fortune-tellers you used to play with as a child to “predict” people’s futures; a subtle nod to the title and in keeping with the thematic currents of prophecy and fortune tellers throughout the Fable series. The runes on these packs glow and opening them feels like divulging a deep mystery. Mechanically, the similarities with Hearthstone are abound, but the design of Fable Fortune makes the whole process feel classier and enriched somehow.

The whole menu has been expertly designed to make you feel like you are inside a world, rather than simply being a functional and necessary aspect. Clicking on “cards” causes the camera to pan over a beautiful spread of cloth with ornate drawers next to it. The drawers open to reveal your custom decks. Meanwhile your cards are spread across the cloth in exactly the same way as if you were building a physical CCG deck. Details make a game and it’s clear even from the menu screen that this is a game being made by a team who have an eye for it.

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The actual match gameplay mechanics also bear obvious similarities with Hearthstone’s system. Instead of Mana pools to determine what you have resources to do in a turn, you have Gold, which operates in exactly the same way (although the satisfying gold-chink sound, taken from the original RPG, is hard to beat). Like Hearthstone, your Gold reserves increase each turn, giving the matches an escalatory quality. There are six classes: Knight, Merchant, Gravedigger, Prophet, Alchemist and Shapeshifter. Each class has its unique set of cards and a special ability which distinguishes them There are also neutral cards which any class can use. The abilities are in some places familiar, such as Prophet Sand who can heal two points of health, but in other places, wholly new, such as Alchemist Miracle who can place a random “vial” in her hand which is a 0 cost card that has one of four effects: +1 strength, +1 health, heal 1, or my personal favourite the “vial of confusion” which swaps the health and strength of a monster. Where this game differs from Hearthstone drastically, however, is the additional elements of trophies, quests and morality which give the game its immense tactical complexity.

Decks also have a “trophy” card which is a 0 cost card that you are always dealt at the start of the game. The effects of trophy cards are often small; “The Boot”, for example, deals 1 measly damage. But playing trophy cards at the right time can give you a critical edge. Further to this is the unique morality and quest system which differs from any CCG out there. It has been discussed at length in their Kickstarter campaign videos, but you really have to play it for yourself to understand how it affects the game. Depending on the arena you choose to play in, there will be a choice of three possible quests you can select at the start of the game, thus meaning that each arena alters the nature of the game you’re playing and therefore gives Fable Fortune far greater breadth than any other CCG I’ve played. These quests could be anything from spending 12 Gold to playing 3 monsters with higher strength than health. The flavour text of these quests will make you smile: it has all the barmy humour hallmarks of the Fable series. But the arenas not only offer tactical depth, they also offer another nostalgia trip as you revisit famous (and infamous) locations from the Fable universe such as Fairfax Castle and the Oakfield Plains. The arenas are designed three-dimensionally and integrated with game hub (so your deck of cards might be tucked between two shanty-town buildings or resting on a plinth); as visually arresting as any area in the original Fable trilogy, each has their own unique ambiance and music.

The feel of a game is almost as important as how it plays and what strategy it offers, just look at a game like PS3’s Nier whose feeling is so rich and powerful it has been acknowledged as a masterpiece despite its clunky gameplay. The humour in Fable Fortune is on point and as Fable-esque as ever, with some neat modern references too. As you play the “Knothole Fist Fighter” he exclaims, “Pow, right in the kisser”. Do the developers watch Family Guy? If you asked them, they’d probably just smile and wink. If there is one thing wrong with the aesthetic and feeling of the game, it’s that some of the animations do not feel 100% finished; some are slow (they take maybe a couple of seconds too long) and others just don’t look as beautiful as the rest of the game, slightly breaking immersion. These are small problems however that will probably be ironed out in the final game.

Unlike Hearthstone’s quests which only add more gold to your pot and thereby allow you to purchase more decks, Fable Fortune’s quests are part of the match. The tactical thing to do is pick a quest which you feel you can complete quickly. Different classes (and decks) are more suited to certain quests and making the right choice based on the cards in your hand and your knowledge of the deck can be challenging. Completing a quest gives you one morality point (there is a maximum of three) and allows you to choose either the Good or Bad path. The paths alter your class’s main ability, which can flip a game on its head. This three-stage morph gives pace to games and also offers far greater flexibility of strategy during a match. For example, a Shapeshifter’s base level ability can deal 1 damage to opponent or creature (much in the same vein as the Mage in Hearthstone). Complete a quest and choose the Bad path and your ability will heal you if you kill an enemy monster. Choose Good, and you’ll deal 2 damage if your target has 7 health or more. Both can be extraordinarily useful. If you are against an opponent who is heavily damaging you, then picking off their 1 health creature for cheeky heals can suddenly present them with the problem of you recovering faster than they can damage. Going Good means you can deal more damage to their stronger creatures.

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The morality is not simply binary, however, but deepens late in game. Complete a second quest and you will have the choice of Good or Evil again. You can flip-flop between the two for some interesting effects. Go Bad with the Shapeshifter the first time and get the heal, but then change to get the 2 damage; only now, it’s 2 damage to an opponent with 5 or more health, extending its utility. At 3 morality, the effects will be come even more useful and powerful yet again. It’s not only your class ability which is altered by morality however; many cards interact with it. Some cards ‘morph’ depending on how much morality you have and whether you are Good or Evil. When they do, they are completely distinguished depending on your moral standing. This process feels like you are molding a miniature world, which captures what the Fable RPG was all about. Other cards have effects based on morality. The glorious ‘Demon Door’ (a tear of nostalgia?), allows you to draw 1 card for each point of morality you have, making it a late-play godsend.

The morality mechanic is also fantastic because it prevents a match between the same classes becoming a question of who can implement their identical strategy first. As an Alchemist, I played against another player with similar card set; he went Good in order to gain vial cards that had enhanced bonuses (+2 strength, for example). To counteract this, I went Bad, which allowed me to choose which vials were added to my hand. This allow me to adapt my strategy to defend against his superior buffed cards. It also transformed the utility of my deck.

Though the matchmaking is brilliant fun, it’s occasionally sluggish (this may have been due to the extremely small player pool) and some of the matches can be quite long. Unlike Hearthstone in which two hours of playing might yield seven or more matches, I had one battle in Fable Fortune (I’m fairly certain against one of the developers) which must have lasted 35 minutes. Neither of us was able to get the critical advantage until the last gasp of the game (I was eventually bull-dozed in two turns, but for the most part neither of us had lost anything more than 1 or 2 points of health). This is not a huge problem, but it means you are settling down to one or two games rather than many, and it makes the game a battle of concentration as well as strategy, because when you’ve been playing the same match for 30 minutes, it’s easy to mess up on something trivial.

Fable Fortune is fascinating because there is so much crossover with games like Magic: The Gathering, Duel Masters and Hearthstone but also so much that is new. This is equally true of the card-effects. Yes, you have the very familiar: “when you play this card it has an effect”, “when this card dies it has an effect” (called Big Entrance and Last Laugh respectively) but there are also highly unusual mechanics such as Zeal, which is an effect that takes place while the card is on full health, or Feral, which is a Shapeshifter-specific mechanic which means that if you used Rend in the turn (the Shapeshifter’s damage ability), the card’s effect is boosted. Another difference with other CCG games is rather than having specific cards that “block” enemy attacks, preventing you from attacking the opponent’s health/lifepoints directly, you can put any card in “Guard” for 1 Gold. Cards with Safeguard have effects that trigger when you put them in Guard, meaning it’s possible to chain a series of incredible abilities to turn a game around. There are cards we all recognise from CCGs such as “Bottled Rage”, which gives a temporary strength and health boost and then kills the monster at the end of the turn (very similar to the Hearthstone’s Warlock spell “Power Overwhelming”) but also some totally unique cards I have never seen in CCG before.

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Fable Fortune is brilliant in that it gives us the mood and feel of Fable but also rewarding tactical gameplay; gameplay which after hours and hours of practice remains challenging and offers new twists and possibilities. With Hearthstone, I very quickly realised what was out there, which legendary cards I wanted and could use, and what the scope of a deck could be. Even with the frequent DLCs, I felt I could keep up. With Fable Fortune I still feel daunted by the sheer, impressive scope. I started the game with 40 decks. Having opened them, I still feel like there are cards out there I’ve yet to encounter.

CCG is a saturated market soon to become even more saturated with The Witcher: Gwent and the Elder Scrolls CCG, but Fable Fortune stands out for its scope, tactical depth, humour and gorgeous aesthetic. Naturally, there are things which still need to be tightened up: the game is not finished, after all, but suffice to say it’s rare I play an alpha build which is so polished and immersive. The Kickstarter is still running; there are only seven days left (as of 21st June) and they are not close to their £250,000 (only £59,000), but with your help, they might just make it in the closing rush that normally is part of fund-raising campaigns. I highly recommend you part with some Gold so you can enjoy its brilliance too.

For more information on Fable Fortune, visit the official Kickstarter page by clicking here.