16th Feb2023

‘SolForge Fusion’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

When I wrote about a game called KeyForge a few years ago, I remember using words like “innovative” and “groundbreaking” and I also had to mention that games legendary designer; Richard Garfield. With credit for Magic: The Gathering (perhaps the most important collectible card game (CCG) of all time) Garfield is a designer of true pedigree, and KeyForge was an AI-assisted concept that could have changed the landscape forever. As it happens, for reasons that don’t matter here, it didn’t… But clearly, the idea of using AI to assist game development is a concept that has stuck with Richard Garfield, and now he’s back with another ground-breaking new concept called SolForge Fusion.

SolForge Fusion takes the idea of semi-randomised decks which are seeded by a unique key, then printed in what the game refers to as “faction decks.” Each faction deck contains 30 cards, a Forgeborn leader, and usually some token creatures which may or may not be summoned by an effect. The 30 cards that make up the main bulk of the deck include ten cards each of level one, two and three – with each individually named card occurring at all three levels. With a faction deck in hand, a player will then take a second faction deck and combine the two – separating all level two and three cards and placing them on the table, and shuffling the level one cards. One Forgeborn character (from either faction deck) is then chosen for the game about to be played, and the game can begin.

A few other things just to make clear about SolForge Fusion; each faction deck is very much randomised or at least, as the website puts it is “algorithmically generated” and there’s no sense yet as to how well a half-deck might be balanced. Indeed, if you combine two faction decks and find some absolutely ridiculous combo, that seems to be a desirable outcome and a focus for how the game is intended to be played. Rather than deck-building as you might in a traditional CCG, SolForge Fusion invites you to combine different faction decks and find out what happens.

The Fusion element of the SolForge Fusion name is also interesting, because each unique half-deck can be scanned into your computer and played online via a dedicated client, so SolForge Fusion exists both physically and digitally, and your deck combinations will persist across both mediums (with the same cards.) This, obviously lends itself to a competitive online scene as well as offering the potential for localised play. The “Starter Set” that we received contained four faction decks, which obviously gives six different combinations of deck, and then booster packs are available, each of which contains a generous four more faction decks which can all then be mixed and matched together however you like.

SolForge Fusion is based on a fairly standard fantasy theme, but there are definitely some sci-fi and more futuristic elements thrown in. My decks feature elves, demons, dragons and undead, but they also seem to have aliens and robots as well. This isn’t quite as wacky a mix as say Keyforge has, but it doesn’t feel quite as high fantasy as Magic: The Gathering does. Sadly, I would say that my early experience with the game puts the theme very much to one side – although this may be simply because it’s quite difficult to establish a brand-new IP in such a tightly contested and well-trodden area.

Thankfully, the gameplay steps up to the plate to cover any shortfalls in theme. SolForge Fusion is a really enjoyable game with a fantastic pace, lots of dynamic action on the board and key mechanism which ramps up the power level organically and automatically, avoiding issues with resources or board stalling that can happen with systems like Magic. Each turn, a player in SolForge Fusion will play two cards and then discard the remainder of their hard (which usually starts at five cards.) A player who “has the forge” will be considered the lead player, and places cards into the front rank of their board, whilst the other player will place their cards onto the rear. The game board consists of five lanes, so this creates a five card wide, two card deep board on each player side, and the players cards face off against each other in these lanes.

When a card is played (lets imagine its a level one card) the player will then search the reserve deck of the next level up (level two, in this case) to find the improved copy of that same card – this is then added to their discard. Bear in mind the nuance here – on your turn you’ll play two cards and draw the upgrades for them, but then you’ll discard your remaining cards (usually three) and they won’t be upgraded. A player can skip playing a card in order to upgrade any of their cards to the next level, but obviously that comes at the cost of not playing a card to the board and improving your board state.

After each player has played their cards, there is a bit of clean up – the forge is passed to the other player, cards that have been activated will untap, cards in the rear rank move forwards and cards in the front-rank attack. If an attacking creature is unopposed by a creature in the matching lane on the opponent side, it will attack the player and deal damage as shown on the card. Players start with fifty life, and dropping to zero will result in loss. If a creature is met by another creature, they each deal damage (which can sometimes be negated by armour) and then one or both creatures may be removed. One interesting thing about SolForge Fusion is that creature damage is persistent here – so a creature that takes two damage and survives must be marked with a token or similar to show this.

There is a lot that I like about this system. I really enjoy how the mating of two decks can result in some very unique strategies – using one faction deck that is good at augmenting creatures to overpower creatures from another faction that have abilities like flying or breakthrough (which both allow them to avoid defending creatures, or to crash through them) for example. Once that decision is made and the game begins, I enjoy the choices made in the moment to perhaps play a card and upgrade it if you get exactly what you want, or the option to search for a particular key card to upgrade because you need to get to your level two or three ability.

The Forgeborn characters (which are a bit like MTG Planeswalkers in some ways, but don’t actively sit on the battlefield and therefore can’t be attacked) each have a level two, three and four ability, and these correspond to the stages of the game. The level two ability can’t be used until one cycle of the game has been played and so it goes on, but each ability will provide a powerful one time benefit – perhaps summoning some minions, maybe adding power or armour to a creature, and who knows what else might be generated by the SolForge Fusion system to make these guys even more interesting?

In terms of a product set, the SolForge Fusion features the four faction decks, a handful of tokens and two paper player mats, but it does not include rules (which are maintained online.) I’ve seen this style of pack a number of times before and I honestly don’t like the lack of rules or the paper player mats, but to give SolForge Fusion a bit of a break, the rule system is bound to change due to the hybrid nature of the game, and the player mats are really only in existence to guide new players in respect of the two-rank, five-lane system. After four or five plays, it becomes second nature to simply play without them – and neoprene mats are already available. The tokens are OK, but tracking player life is a pen-and-paper job to begin with, and I think two life dials would have been a nice inclusion.

Overall, SolForge Fusion is a promising new game from a designer with real pedigree not only in traditional games, but also in this hybrid-digital arena thanks to KeyForge. This gives me hope that some of the issues with both classic CCG’s and KeyForge will be avoided entirely by SolForge Fusion, and the early evidence is that lessons have been learned. The deck-pairing system is great, and the way the game flows just works well right from the outset. There’s some weirdness in terms of round tracking and perhaps the components could have included a few more things to make both structure and life totals easier to follow, but I honestly think that comes with a bit of practice and a trusty pen!

**** 4/5


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