Battle for MOBAness
Adapting a video game to cardboard isn’t easy. As I’ve written in the past, the difficulty isn’t limited to replicating the game’s visuals, its characters and events, or even its systems. The hard part is capturing its feel. Its flow. How it operates when you’re at the controls and everything is running smoothly. That’s why making a game about pushing buttons misses the point. That’s like adapting a board game into the digital sphere and carefully modeling the jitter of your fingers and your posture at the table. Those things matter, but only as inputs, not the essence of the game being played.
So it goes with cardboard versions of the MOBA. As a genre, Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas seem like the perfect fit for adaptation. You have a bounded space, clear goals, characters doing cool combo-driven things, and things like cooldown timers that practically beg to be codified as turns. The top-down perspective even mimics the way we view a board and its many counters. So why is Battle for Biternia the first one I’ve played that’s gotten it right?
It’s the creeps that do it. You know, the little minions who run back and forth, acting as speed bumps, getting farmed for gold, smacking each other to death in the middle. These are present in every MOBA. It’s natural for a cardboard adaptation to include the little guys. Ideally as something expensive and expandable, like miniatures or chips.
Did I mention that creeps are a chore? Because they are. Oh, not when playing a video game. That’s because you aren’t responsible for everything the creeps do. You don’t click to spawn them, click to move them forward, and click on enemy creeps to make your creeps swing their swords. An e-athlete’s clicks-per-second might be a quantifiable measure of their reflexes, but even the hardiest wrists would be crippled by repetitive strain injuries after the first day if every minion demanded this much oversight. Creeps are pretty much there to impede movement and give you something to farm. They’re bumps in the road. Bumps that spill out gold. In a board game, every component demands manual placement and manipulation. Whether the creeps are mindless dummies, as in Rum & Bones, or units you spend a lot brainpower kitting out, à la Cloudspire, that means you’re responsible for placing them on the table, pushing them forward, calculating attacks, possibly stacking injuries on them, and picking them up again. All in addition to the real reason people play MOBAs in the first place — the heroes and the cool moves they’re capable of stringing together. By focusing on the creeps, the good stuff takes a backseat to accounting.
Which is why Battle for Biternia takes them out.
I’m serious. This is a stroke of brilliance on designer Chris Faulkenberry’s part. Oh, the creeps are still “there.” They just happen to be abstracted out of the equation. Heroes still farm for gold, a necessary distraction that means you aren’t attacking towers or hunting your rivals. Farming in certain places puts you in wide-open territory but pulls in some extra gold. The broad strokes are present. Yet the accounting has been removed. Now there’s nothing standing between you and the heroes.
Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of how to represent everything else. Faulkenberry homes in on two solutions: tempo and characters.
Let’s begin with tempo. In Battle for Biternia, the exchange of momentum between players is never far from your thoughts. Your goal is to destroy the enemy’s “elemental bit” (ew) while keeping yours intact. Since both elemental bits are protected by a ring of deadly towers, there are two main ways to do this. Either your heroes can smash a path to the enemy’s elemental bit and destroy it outright — a dangerous decision that will draw plenty of fire — or you can kill enough rival heroes and towers to sap their elemental bit’s, um, bitness one draught at a time. Either way, you’ll need to collect gold to upgrade your heroes, play both offense and defense, and do everything in your power to strike your opponents without absorbing too many hits yourself.
Hence the order system. Every turn revolves around order cards assigned to your heroes. There are generic orders for dashing an extra space, taking attacks small and large, the usual stuff. Each character also possesses a set of four unique cards, which are gradually added to your hand as they level up. This is where the importance of tempo kicks in. Turn order isn’t often sexy enough to warrant discussion, but here it’s the basis for nearly every decision. The player with the initiative token moves a hero first, followed by their rival, back and forth, chased by another round of each character revealing an order card to either take its action or discard it to farm or heal.
The result doesn’t play out in real-time, but it’s a close approximation. Fleeing from danger, rushing a tower, leaving someone exposed to heal injuries or farm gold, putting a ranged hero in striking distance of a target and hoping it doesn’t slip away at the last moment. These are all decisions of timing and positioning, and when both sides have four heroes running around, the board shifts according to some holistic rhythm. Here is danger; here is a lull; here is a catapult you can pay to bombard an opposing tower. Such spaces are always in flux, but never become too chaotic to manage.
A game about warring heroes is only as interesting as the roster, and Battle for Biternia provides plenty on that front. What makes these heroes function so well is that they aren’t jumbles of advantages and perks, but manageable identities that play distinct roles without draining too much brainpower. Every hero has an ability that’s always in play, plus four cards that unlock as the match progresses. The cards themselves account for the game’s lengthiest of tempos, the deck itself. Defeated heroes and used cards are both relegated to your discard pile. When you can’t draw additional cards, this discard is flipped over to become your new draw pile. Every ability therefore has a cooldown. Meanwhile, you can speed up the wait by discarding cards at the end of each round, but this runs the risk of rushing past useful abilities in your hurry to bring a hero or a powerful card back into play. As with everything else, tempo reigns supreme.
And the heroes! Of all the colorful casts in gaming, Battle for Biternia’s ranks alongside the rosters crafted by Level 99 Games. The connection is so close, in fact, that one of its heroes is Runika from BattleCON: Devastation of Indines. I approve. If you’re going to emulate, emulate the best. It would be too easy to spend a thousand words gushing over these guys. The minotaur that stampedes all over the place and gores rival heroes on his horns. The hunter who leaves the world’s most annoying bear trap somewhere on the map. The fire and ice mages with powers that shape the battlefield around them. The little mascot dude that transforms into a gigantic mouth full of teeth at inopportune moments. The duelist who partitions himself and a single opponent within a pocket dimension until one or the other has shuffled from this mortal coil. The pirate. He’s such a jerk. Especially when he refuses to die because he’s drinking grog, but also refuses to do anything useful because of the grog he just drank.
This is how you adapt a video game to our medium. Rather than slavishly reproducing every detail, Battle for Biternia focuses on the important parts: tempo, the characters, and how they interact to become more than the sum of their parts. It may omit some of the ornamentation, but it’s more than a faithful clone. It’s a supernal example of why we love bashing fantasy characters against each other in the first place.
A complimentary copy was provided.