Game Analysis of Lucadian Chronicles
Introduction: Lucadian Semiotics
The folk heroes of the Mirkwood, a region of vast primeval forests, are called together to repel invaders from a neighboring kingdom. Janika the Green and her brother, Rob the Bandit, join Ulthur – The Bulwark – to defend their land from the predations of King Rigar, his son Prince Valko, and their undead allies. This familiar story of a plucky rebel band going to war against an evil king, echoing the story of Robin Hood, sets the stage for Lucadian Chronicles, a card-based strategy game from Dark Roast Games.
In Lucadian Chronicles, the player assembles an army of cards and uses those cards to build teams, which are then played against opposing teams.
The semiotics of Lucadian Chronicles rely on a long history of similar card-based strategy games, including Magic: The Gathering. The cards come in five colors, which are connected with five elements (earth, fire, water, air, and void). The elements bear certain “affinities,” or connections to other elements. In a hand, a green card (forest) can not be adjacent to a black (void) or a red (fire) card.
Learning to Play: Incremental and Just-in-Time
The player starts the game with three green cards, and all of the other card types are the enemy (particularly red and black). The player begins with cards for Janika, Rob, and a Mounted Scout, and practices playing with these characters, building knowledge for incremental learning of the game’s central strategy (Gee pg. 141). With just these three cards in hand, the player has the opportunity to explore the basic mechanics of the game, including hard order, turn-taking, and combat, without experiencing the cognitive overload of playing with the eighty-nine cards that will eventually be available. Through active engagement with the first chapter, the player learns about positioning, special abilities, attack, defense, and health, all of which are indicated on each card or on the field.
At the beginning of the game, each concept is briefly explained as it is needed, just in time for it to be used (Gee pg. 142).
There is a tutorial in the home screen that can be referenced in play, but the basics are easily explained in the first of five “acts,” with each subsequent act building on that knowledge and requiring a deeper engagement with the more strategic elements of the game, what Gee would call concentrated, incremental learning (pg. 142). A player who has experience with card-based games might recognize the semiotics: a sword or bow to represent attack, a shield to represent defense, a heart to represent heath, and eventually a book to represent magic. Explicit explanation is unnecessary, however: when the first character is hit, the number in the heart decreases. The first combat involves a single opponent, to make it easier to learn about the cards from the bottom up, as they are played (Gee pg. 142). Each successful encounter is rewarded with coins for victory (coins which are, eventually, used to “purchase” additional cads).
Other systems and semiotic interactions are added incrementally: elements, hand size, additional abilities, and spells. As these new game elements are added, secondary victory conditions are included, to encourage experimentation. These goals might include “win with a hand of three different colors” (a goal that teaches players about how the card colors interact in a hand) or “win within 5 rounds” (an opportunity to practice strategy).
Ongoing Learning within a Regime of Competence
In keeping with Gee’s “regime of competence” and “ongoing learning” principles, the game gets progressively harder, as enemies eventually gain healing and the ability to rise from the dead if a battle drags on, but not until the player has mastered the basics (pg. 68). The more the game is played, the more cards a player has to work with, making the game easier. A better player can finish more quickly, with fewer cards, and try for more difficult achievements – earning Steam badges like “Perfect Act 2,” but a less accomplished player can compete in drafts and collect enough powerful cards to, eventually, finish the game.
During play, a player cannot impact a battle in progress, but must watch and figure out how battles progress (often by losing a few times), then integrate that knowledge into your choices the next time, win or lose. That seems frustrating, at first, but it is Gee’s probing principle in action: winning is not simply a matter of fighting the fight; it is about watching, learning, and applying those lessons the next time. It is not enough to simply be good at combat, the abilities of and interrelationships between the cards must be considered before, during, and after a battle, as the same hand of cards in the same order will win one battle but might lose the next, no matter how powerful they are. Sometimes, simply moving one card from one side of the hand to the other is enough to change the outcome, but without probing the situated meanings and interactions between the various cards and abilities, a player may never find the best combination.
Cultural Models about the Lucadian World
As play progresses, Lucadian Chronicles challenges cultural models about the world (Gee pg. 176). The game starts with this dialogue between Janika and Rob:
A player used to playing games with single protagonists, the vast majority of role-playing and first-person shooter games (such as Halo, Tomb Raider, and Final Fantasy) will expect to follow one or all of these characters. Rob and Janika, in particular, seem to be the “main characters,” or heroes of the story. In other words, a player with a traditional Western outlook on narrative will connect with one of these heroes, connecting them to heroic archetypes in Western culture, and expecting to follow their progress through the game.
In fact, the game has five acts, each with a different protagonist. In the first act, the protagonist seems to be Rob. Midway through the act, however, Janika is given a choice: hunt down Prince Valko with Rob or go with Ulthur to face King Rigar of Zebia and his undead allies.
Whoever Janika chooses to accompany survives, while the other character is killed by Alen of Syrine, an ally of Prince Valko. Meanwhile, Janika and her ally battle King Rigar and his vampire ally. (Rigar, himself, is betrayed by his son, who takes the throne. Even this villain is given a sympathetic moment.)
The second act is a flashback, as the player learns about Alen of Syrine and his protégé Darrius. Alen’s story, and his act of betrayal, become part of the player’s experience, and when the player chooses to either imprison Darrius or let him go free, a door is left open for Alen’s eventual redemption. The third act takes us to now-King Valko’s sister, Reya the Lioness, a barbarian warrior returning home from a campaign to find her brother on the throne and herself marked for death. While we know the Valko is the villain, she does not, and her compassion for her brother humanizes him throughout the course of the act. During the third act, the player has another choice: search for a mausoleum at the behest of Reya’s advisor, the mage Vizlav, or return home as quickly as possible. Finding the mausoleum leads to a significant boost in Vizlav’s power, making the third act easier, but it also removes a card from play in the fourth act, making those battles more difficult.
Gerrol of Arryn, leader of the disparate air tribes of the mountains, is the hero of the fourth act. If the player sought out the mausoleum in Act 3, Gerrol’s advisor, Herod, has been killed, which impacts the story of the act as well as the cards available. In this way, the player’s choices affect not only the characters and story, but the ease with which the game can be completed.
In Acts 2 and 4, the protagonist is the villain of the previous act. In Act 2, the point of view character is the very character who will kill the hero from Act 1, putting the player in an uncomfortable position: in order for the game to continue, a player has to kill one of the heroes they were just playing (with whom they learned to play the game!). The story is more important than any single character (and similar choice-points in each act either empower or remove other characters from the game, entirely).
This shifting of point-of-view serves as an exercise in challenging cultural models about the world: there are no “heroes,” only leaders trying to serve their people (even the evil king is sympathetic, and the evil prince is spares his sister’s life). The game discourages siding with any one hero in favor of seeing the whole web of interactions between the main characters. In fact, those characters’ cards aren’t necessarily the best for a given battle, challenging the “great man theory” of history.
In Act 5, all of the “heroes” come together, although (arguably) only Rob and Janika are “heroic,” in the Western sense, while all the others are warriors out of necessity: defending their country, reluctantly leading their people, or fighting to get home.
To keep playing the game, a player has to watch cut-scenes and try to keep alive the characters that they fought against in the last act (and might fight against again, in the next one). A player could undercut those characters (would making choices that weakened Alen save Rob? Is it more useful to give Vizlav power, or keep Herod available for the late-game?), but that might leave their army underpowered in the final act, making it harder to defeat the true villain.
Lucadian Chronicles challenges cultural models about semiotic domains, as well. In other card combat games, the white cards might correlate with “life,” or “good,” but here the white cards represent just another faction, no better or worse, morally speaking, than any other (except void, where the association between “black” and “evil” goes unchallenged, although it is sometimes better to have an “evil” card in your hand, in order to win. A player has to decide which is more important: winning with the best card, or winning without relying on an army of undead, as Valko does).
In the end, there is no resolution that puts a bow on the plot. The vampire is killed, but his death releases a wave of undead that my heroes will have to fight thorough. All I get to see are their individual hopes for the future, their personal resolve. What happens next doesn’t happen onscreen (believing that it happens at all, of course, is an act of identity creation, since once the credits roll the characters will act no more, except in the internal world that I have created for them).
Lucadian Chronicles is a straightforward, card-combat game that can be completed in less than 25 hours, but it engages Gee’s learning principles at every stage and, most importantly, it has the potential to make players think critically about what it means to be a “hero,” and what kinds of choices a leader has to make, including making enemies of other “heroes,” in the interest of their people. While they put aside their quarrels to save the world, Janika never forgets what Alen has done, and Gerrol and Reya’s war will be fought another day. Lucadian Chronicles is not a story about disparate heroes assembling to save the world: it is a story about accidental heroes, reluctant allies, and flawed protagonists, challenging a player’s notion of who the game is really about, but waiting to do so until the player has invested time and effort in each of the major characters.
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