03 October 2018
To Infinity and beyond deckbuilding
The latest newcomer to jostle itself into the arena filled with tight competitive deckbuilders in small boxes, Shards of Infinity doesn’t reinvent the genre – but don’t mistake it for one of the crowd.
If you’ve played a deckbuilder before, you’ll be in home territory (the rulebook encourages fans of the format to dive straight in after just a couple of pages): a central marketplace offers up cards that players purchase to build up a personalised roster of creatures and abilities, juggling currency income (here, crystals) and attack power to efficiently deplete their rivals’ health.
While Shards of Infinity doesn’t dare to colour outside the lines, what’s within the familiar template offers up some interesting new hues of gameplay that stop it simply feeling hackneyed.
Mercenary cards break with the deckbuilding tradition of forward planning, widening the game’s room for competitive strategy and keeping the action breathless throughout each half-hour match. The cards can be recruited into a player’s personal discard pile like normal allies – forcing them to wait until they resurface before deploying them – or hired just for that turn, returning to the centre deck after using their ability immediately. This presents the chance for rapid jabs at a vulnerable opponent and mitigates the luck of the draw – albeit at a cost. This chewy but digestible risk-reward decision-making is made juicier by the ability of some shielded cards to defend against rival attacks – without having to discard them, keeping the gameplay flowing – so a permanent acquisition can be well worth the wait.
Behind the cards, players generate ‘mastery’, a simplified but effective system of levelling-up that makes Shards feel surprisingly deep and multifaceted for a short, small-box game. Mastery can be ticked up by spending a spare crystal or using card abilities, and gradually ramps up the power of certain cards, from generating additional crystals to increasing attack values. This makes the stakes of each match rise over time, with maximum mastery literally enabling infinite power and instant victory: a neat built-in timer with a boiling-kettle tension. It also allows players to bide their time and unleash devastating later-game blows, or rapidly chip away their opponents’ health throughout. Completely ignoring one of the various balls in the air can be disastrous, but Shards does a fantastic job of letting players juggle its mechanics in their own way.
The game’s sci-fi dressing is relatively shallow, but effective enough – its designers’ Magic: The Gathering legacy (co-creator Justin Gary is a former Magic pro) is clear. While not quite on that level – what is? – Shards’ consistent artwork and flavour text manage to get across the feel of the four core factions, be it the shadowy energy-wielding Wraethe, mechanical Homodeus, floral Undergrowth or digitally-connected Order. This amplifies the races’ general gameplay distinctions (healing, deck cycling, damage combos, resource harvesting), with plenty of interaction options for playing cards from a single faction together.
The main characters that players take control of are allied with each of the factions, but there’s no gameplay impact, serving only as an extra morsel of theme. The characters are identical in their ‘focus’ ability (spend one crystal for one mastery), making the oversized health and mastery tracker dials unnecessarily big and awkward. Fortunately, these physical components are the only element that feels bloated: Shards is otherwise a lean, mean showdown that never drags.
On its surface, Shards of Infinity lacks originality. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find a game that is quietly ambitious, hiding innovative gameplay and a wealth of well-executed ideas inside the familiar deckbuilding form. Ultimately, its adherence to convention makes it more of a refinement than a revolution – but as a polished gem it’s hard to resist.
Its clever gameplay means there’s far more below the surface than it might seem at first; Shards of Infinity may be a refinement of what’s come before, but it’s a seriously accomplished refinement nevertheless.
Designer: Gary Arant, Justin Gary
Artist: Aaron Nakahara
Time: 30 minutes
This review originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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