There is something primitive about BattleForge. The collectible-card mechanic aside, no other recent real-time strategy game has been so reductionist in its design. You collect resources -- almost mindlessly -- and then you spend those resources on an army to kill the other guy. There is no real economy, or tactical nuance, or bothering with marching your soldiers from the barracks to the front. You can summon your men/monsters wherever your troops or structures are. Spend then kill. You can't get any purer than that.
This simplicity is the game's strength and weakness. The purity of the design means that there is no barrier to entry. Can you drag and drop? Congratulations. You've passed basic training. There is no waiting around to see your super-monster in action, or wondering if he will have an effect once he gets into battle. If you meet the card's requirements for energy and orbs, off he goes. Magic and buildings work in the same way, and often a minor spell may turn the tide of battle.
The four factions are clearly defined without falling into clich? or boredom. Nature's healing magic is hard to trump, but Fire can make things explode. The balance in the card costs may be a little suspect in places, but there is so much variety among the cards that you may be tempted to go with a single element instead of mixing them up.
But as thrilling as it is to drop a giant monster into the middle of the fray, once you've assembled a viable deck (in itself a minor challenge) there isn't much left to learn. Online duels quickly devolve into rushes, where the person that summons the strongest creature first usually wins. With no fog of war in these duels, you don't scout for your enemy. You just see what he/she has and try to muster your own force. This may be an accurate representation of what a card-based game is like (I see what you have on the table; you see what I have) but it misses one of the things that puts the strategy in real-time strategy -- the battle for information.
The story is a better-than-average gods-screw-up-the-world tale that unfolds both in the campaign and in the hefty Chronicle. Where your cards and units fit into that story is left unclear. The campaign is neatly divided into paths, some forcing you to cooperate with other players online. To "finish" the game, you will have to suck it up and join a bunch of strangers. Since people are playing these maps to complete the game and earn rewards more than to make friends, don't expect any sort of planning session. There's not much need to coordinate assaults, in any case. BattleForge isn't about that.
The forced multiplayer is a good idea in the end, though, since it compels you to engage with the online world. The global map gives you info on who has an open spot for a scenario, and, even if you never see these people again, you owe them a debt for whatever loot is at the end of the map. Success means gold and upgrades for your cards, so the more you engage with others, the better your deck will be for dueling. You can always spend money to fill out your deck, or trade with other gamers. But earning the upgrades or stumbling onto a very nice card as loot is where the real pleasure is.
Of course, there is no way of knowing where BattleForge will be in two years' time. Its turn-based cousin, PoxNora, is still going strong, so there may be a market for this sort of gameplay. PoxNora, however, has a stronger tactical game and a clearer use for counter-units. Though BattleForge is a bigger-budget game, it is also a simpler one -- and may not provide the battle jones that most collectible-card duel games are designed to satisfy. As an introduction to card-collecting games, it is superb. As an RTS, it's bare-bones. As a combo, it might be worth a look.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.