It was only five short years ago that Richard Garfield designed the first collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering. The success of that franchise spawned a horde of play-alikes. In light of this popularity, it's surprising that collectible card games are just now beginning to become available online. The first of these online-only versions was Chron X, a collectible virtual card game set in a dark future. This past summer saw the release of Sanctum, a game with plenty of the right moves but still lacking much of the accessibility of the tabletop versions.
The game system revolves around constructing decks, with a minimum of 30 cards, from a randomized selection of spells. The number of spells at your disposal is dependent on how many booster packs of cards have been purchased. The game's 228 individual spells provide a broad range of abilities for you to choose from and are categorized into 12 houses of magic representing different philosophies of spell usage. For example, the house of War spells affect your warriors' combat abilities. The house of Mind, on the other hand, uses the powers of manipulation to disrupt your opponent's strategies.
Once decks are constructed, you find opponents on Digital Addiction's online chat forum. The games begin with each player controlling a fortress (the titular Sanctum) on opposite sides of a randomly generated board, made up of terrain squares that include towns, plains, forests, mountains, and water. You then send out your minions to take control of towns and do battle against the opposing forces towards the ultimate goal of taking the enemy's Sanctum.
On a basic level, the game plays much like Heroes of Might and Magic. You take turns casting spells and moving troops across a board. The major difference is that once decisions are made for the turn, actions take place simultaneously with an initiative system deciding whose units act first. Of course, the other major difference is that you have a random hand of cards that determines your available spells. While all this works very well and is indeed very enjoyable to play, there are still some important elements lacking, reducing Sanctum to "just another good card game."
With many card games, it is necessary to play a few games against a seasoned opponent who's friendly enough to show you the ropes and point out some strategies. Unless you have some friends who have already begun playing the game, with Sanctum you're pretty much fending for yourself online. Sanctum's biggest rival, Chron X, actually has a trainer AI, which will play some trial games against you before you venture out to challenge others. Strategy in Sanctum can easily overwhelm new players, and the lack of a training feature really hurts anyone unfamiliar with card games.
The other main disappointment is the lack of multiplayer games for more than two players. This is one feature that could have made some big points for Sanctum seeing as how no other collectible card game on the PC has this. Seasoned Magic players will tell you that when more than two players get involved in a game, the gameplay moves to a different, sometimes political, level. The fact that Sanctum forges no new ground on this front also weakens its ability to impress fans who already have enough trouble keeping up with other games.
But, if you're a gamer on a budget, the main lure for Sanctum is the price. For the price of a regular computer game, Digital Addiction offers you 40 booster packs, which adds up to 600 cards in all. For the price, this is an amazing value, especially when the same number of booster packs (with the same number of cards) for Magic: The Gathering will run $120.
The bottom line is that you won't find anything extremely tantalizing about Sanctum, but it does offer some fun gameplay at a more than reasonable price. If you're new to card games and would rather try a bargain version before heading to the store to buy a tabletop card game, Sanctum is definitely a good option. However, if you're already knee-deep in collectible card games, you might try sticking to those before taking the average offerings online.