Virtual trading card games can be hit or miss, but Hong Kong-based developer CDE Humble Gaming has done a good job with a relatively new iPad release, Arena 9-HD. A sharper revision of the original iPhone rendition, the new iteration has seen a few upgrades in play, monetization and progression.
The mechanics and rules of the game are simple and similar to several other card games, but there’s a surprising amount of strategy involved. The object is to control the most cards on a nine space grid. To do this, the player must strategically place cards onto the grid in order to flip over their opponent’s cards. Here’s how it works: upon starting, players are given a starter deck of basic cards and each game allows them to use a hand of five. Each card has a number on all four sides.
The idea is to place a card with a higher number next to an enemy card with a lower number on the adjacent side, meaning that if player places a card with a “7” to the left of an enemy card with a “6” on the left-hand side, then the enemy card will flip over. This is claims the enemy cards and is called a “Turn-Over.”
There are five elements — wind, water, earth, lightning, fire — and each game will have randomly placed grid spaces containing these elements. Each card has an element associated with it and putting the right element card on the right element space will give a +2 bonus to all sides. Conversely, the incorrect element will lose value. In addition, there’s a mechanic called an “Elemental Kill,” meaning that any card surrounded by stronger elements on two sides will flip (e.g. a fire card surrounded by two water cards). This can be done using a combination of player and opponent cards.
Unfortunately, this mechanic was not well explained. Initially we thought that only the immediately stronger element could cause an Elemental Kill, as the tutorial seemed to indicate. However, later in play, elements other than the immediately stronger element caused the same effect. Moreover, placing an incorrect element card on an element grid will reduce its values by -1 or -2, with the latter being the “opposite element,” a term that wasn’t adequately explained.
The other two mechanics of Mirror and Add are easy enough to understand. Mirror means that a placed card has two sides that are identical to any two adjacent cards. Add means that the sum of two adjacent numbers on one side, is equal to the sum of two adjacent numbers on another side.
In both of these cases, the affected cards will flip and they can be used together for a more devastating effect– e.g. any card that is flipped over using Mirror or Add can then flip over adjacent cards.
The game’s monetization methods improved since its original iPhone version. The app is free, on both devices, so the company makes money through the sale of digital card packs. However, players do not necessarily have to buy these packs with real money, as they did with the original iPhone version. They can play and earn AP currency to buy most of the packs. But it does require a lot of playing to access better cards.
With all collectable card games, buying packs risks accumulating duplicate cards. Thankfully, and unlike analog CCGs, enough duplicates will allow many cards to be upgraded in what is called the “Arena Smith,” but 20 duplicates are needed.
Arena 9 is integrated with OpenFeint, with the usual complement of achievements and leaderboards. The game also has a synchronous player versus player Challenge Mode, which grant greater rewards for its users.
Arena 9-HD turned out to be a surprisingly addictive game. If you do like CCGs and strategy, this is a game that you’ll probably spend a lot of time with.