BattleForge feels like an experiment, and not just because it combines three hobby genres into one, but because the game centres around micro-transactions, an alternative revenue stream that's as divisive as Jade Goody.
In BattleForge, a fantasy real-time strategy game at heart, your army is not made up of units determined by the race or faction you pick pre-match. Instead, you conjure units from a deck of 20 virtual cards, clicking on the card's tooltip at the bottom of the screen then clicking on an area next to an existing unit on the battlefield for an instant spawn. There is no restriction on what cards can be used to make up your deck: any combination is possible. In this way, BattleForge is perhaps the most customisable RTS ever conceived.
Cards are based on one of four powers: frost, fire, nature and shadow. Generally, frost cards are defensive, fire cards are aggressive, nature cards are supportive and shadow cards are risky but potent. Following that, a card will be one of three types - a unit, a structure or a spell. Conjuring monuments, which are strategically dotted around each map, allows you to choose which of the four powers you want to assign it to. You can only play cards if you control a corresponding monument. So, if you assign your first monument to fire, then you'll only be able to play fire cards.
More powerful cards require multiple monuments. You might need one fire monument and one of any other power, or, for the most powerful cards, need four monuments conjured. Because of this you're forced to start off slowly, moving about the map with a small force that gradually increases in size as you capture more monuments.
Playing a card, as you'd expect, costs power, taken from an overall pool that increases over time depending on the number of power nodes you control. Again, the most powerful units require more power. The Juggernaut, for example, requires loads of power to conjure. Even its special ability, a structure destroying stampede, requires as much power as it would to conjure a small unit.
So, while there are no restrictions on the units in your deck, the game forces you to think strategically about what's in it. You'll want a healthy number of low cost units that can be conjured with only one associated monument, in order to guarantee strength early in a match and facilitate quick reinforcements. You'll also want a healthy mix of power types so you're able to adapt when things get tough. And, of course, you'll want one or two uber units, just for fun.
It's a slightly odd, and initially bewildering, set-up. The game plays in a breezy fashion, partly because of the cartooney, almost Warcraft III-esque fantasy art style, but it's mostly down to how liberal the game is with conjuring: you're able to capture monuments and power generators as long as one unit is near them and the area is clear of enemy units, and you can conjure a unit next to any exiting unit anywhere on the battlefield. So, simply spamming the enemy with units as soon as your power allows forms much of the gameplay.
BattleForge could be considered trading card game Magic the Gathering in video game form, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Unlike other RTS games on the market, BattleForge is playable only in a persistent, MMO-esque world, where players work together to defeat "bosses" and terms like "crowd-control", "aggro" and "loot drops" are as applicable as "micro-management" and "resource gathering". Indeed since your virtual deck is saved online, an internet connection is required to play the game.