If you frequent any Trading Card Game circles you’ve probably already heard of Force of Will. You’ve probably already lost a couple of players to Force of Will. So what exactly is this relatively new game that seems to be rapidly growing? Force of Will is a Japanese trading card game created by Eiji Shishido in 2012. The English version has been around since 2014 in Australia and new sets currently enjoy simultaneous releases in both languages. Force of Will borrows a lot of elements from established trading card games, namely Magic: The Gathering. Now, I don’t mean that as a detriment, as if its some kind of ‘rip off’. As far as I am concerned it’s perfectly fine for card games to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ by borrowing elements from tried and true successful TCGs, especially since Force of Will combines a lot of these borrowed mechanics with their own brand of design philosophy to forge a unique feel and identity.
Force of Will is played with each player using a ruler card, a magic stone deck and a normal deck. The players take turns summoning resonators (creatures) and playing spells with the aim of reducing your opponent’s life points to zero. The ruler card is analogous to a commander in the titular Magic: The Gathering format or the identity card in Netrunner. It represents a character that is the leader and lynchpin of your deck. It’s usually a two sided card which you can ‘j-activate’ and flip to the ‘j-ruler’ side, usually adorned with powerful abilities and able to enter the fray directly. The addition of the j-ruler opens the game up to some unique design options and makes deck-building more interesting since Force of Will doesn’t seem to shy away from giving them unconventional and powerful abilities.
Magic stones are Force of Will’s equivalent to land from MtG, in that they can be rested (like ‘tapping’ in MtG) to create resources, called ‘will’ in Force of Will, for playing cards. Each player is required to have a deck of 10 – 20 magic stone cards separate from the main deck. This system completely eliminates the annoyance of being ‘mana starved or swamped’ like you find yourself in MtG, or any other games where your hand will sometimes be flooded with resource cards instead of playable ones. Now this doesn’t mean it has the very simplified Hearthstone-style system of uniform incremental increase of resources, because you do not automatically draw a card from your magic stone deck every turn. Instead, once every turn, you have the option of resting your ruler or j-ruler to put the top card of your magic stone deck into play. So instead of relying on luck to draw the right amount of resources, a player has to make the strategic choice between j-activating, attacking with your j-ruler, or increasing your resource pool. This also opens up a lot of deck building options and play styles, with some decks relying on j-activating as soon as you can to thrust their j-ruler into the fray and some turtling up until they have a massive amount of stones before j-activating to seal the deal.
In your magic stone deck you can include any number of normal stones and 4 copies each of any special stones.
The main deck can be 40 or more cards and is made out of resonators, spells, additions, and regalias. Resonators are your creatures and attacking with them is the main way in which you will be lowering your opponent’s health points. Additions can be likened to enchantments from MtG and can be described as a ‘non-creature permanent’. Additions with the sub type ‘field’ can be played into the field and remain until an effect removes it. Some subtypes of additions specifically indicate that they can be played onto resonators, rulers, or j-rulers and will be discarded if the attached card is removed or is no longer the eligible type. Regalias are newly introduced and powerful card types that are supposed to represent legendary items in the lore of Force of Will. Most of them are 0 cost and they come with multiple abilities you can choose to activate. The majority of them are also designed with a particular ruler/j-ruler in mind and will give you more benefits if you are playing that particular ruler/j-ruler.
Now spells are your usual one use cards played from your hand except for the ‘standby’ subtype which are more like trap cards from Yu-Gi-Oh. In Force of Will, any cards can be played from your hand into the standby zone face down for 2 will of any colours. Provided you weren’t bluffing, and it actually was a ‘spell: chant-standby’ card you played into the zone, it can be activated from your standby zone for no cost when the trigger condition stated on the card is met, for powerful effects. Now, the rules also allow these standby spells to be played straight from your hand at instant speed (more on that later) for the printed cost if the trigger condition is met. At first I didn’t like this little concession as I felt it went back on an interesting mechanic. After closer inspection though, I feel like it gives players more options as there are benefits and drawbacks for both ways of playing standby spells. When you play it face down into the standby zones the fear of it being any particular standby spell might be enough to force the opponent to play defensively or slow down. However, the down side is that standby spells cannot be activated the turn they are played. Playing it straight from the hand can catch the opponent completely by surprise but you will have to pay the full printed cost instead of the 2 colourless. So it comes down to a risk-reward analysis of exactly how to play these spell:chant-standby cards in a particular situation.
Saying ‘You have activated my trap card’ is not required but can be immensely satisfying.
Other non-standby types of spells can currently be divided into ‘spell: chant’ and ‘spell: chant – instant’, and the difference between them is that normal spells can only be played on your turn but instant spells can be played during either player’s turn. Another thing that makes instant spells more powerful is that they are the only cards that can be played out of hand into a ‘chase’. A chase is quite similar to ‘the stack’ in MtG and begins whenever the player whose turn it is takes certain actions, like play a card, or activate an ability. That card or ability goes into a shared ‘chase area’ waiting to resolve, and the active player has the ability to play as many instant speed cards and abilities as he can onto the chase before passing initiative to the other player. The other player then has the option to add as many cards and abilities as they want into the chase area before passing again. This goes back and forth until both players pass in a row without adding anything into the chase area. At that point every card and ability in the chase area resolves starting from the latest one added. Now this is just a brief overview of the chase as to detail the complete ins and outs of it would be complex and lengthy. In my opinion, the chase is one of the things that makes Force of Will so exciting, forcing a high level of interaction between the players. Watching the chase in top tier games can be downright exhilarating, and yes I realise I am talking about a card game. However, the steepest part of the learning curve in Force of Will is fully comprehending the chase. Being able to utilise it properly to your best advantage is what will separate great players from merely good ones.
The flexible way in which Force of Will’s main phase is structured is an example of the unique design strategy of the game. In a lot of games, the main phase, the phase in which the active player takes the majority of their actions, is usually divided into rigid sub phases. This is not so in Force of Will as you are allowed to take any of your available actions in any order you want including initiating a battle. Furthermore, in Force of Will, your resonators attack one at a time and you can attack either the opposing player or any of their rested resonators. The opponent can then declare any one of their non-rested resonators as a defender and the attack resolves. You can then take any other actions you want before initiating another battle with another resonator or end the turn all together. This flexibility may not seems like much at first glance but it opens up many opportunities for combos, bluffs, and complex player interaction. For example, if your opponent opened battle with a lot of their mana stones still unrested, then you are forced to question if they are trying to make sure your defenders are exhausted to make them targetable by a particular spell or before they play a big creature that can attack immediately or if they are bluffing hoping that this fear will result in you letting their attacks through. This is just one of the many examples in which the open nature of the main phase can keep the game exciting and reward higher skilled players with deeper knowledge of card interactions.
Something about Force of Will that could turn off some players is that the game is very combo heavy. Individual cards that already seem great by themselves can turn out to be straight up super powerful in combination with other cards. Now, Japanese card games, like Yu-Gi-Oh and Vanguard, already tend to be more combo focused than their western counterparts but Force of Will in particular seems to have a higher number of cards designed with combo plays in mind. With certain card games, like Pokemon, it can feel frustrating and helpless when playing against a combo deck that’s going off. However, the high level of interactivity, particularly facilitated by the chase, means that in Force of Will there are a lot more opportunities to interrupt and punish combos as well. This means in most Force of Will games, it turns into a back and forth of delaying and disrupting the opponent’s particular combo strategies while you inch closer to your own. This makes for a fun game in my opinion but might deter certain players that simply hate combos.
The downside of this combo-heavy design is that, while learning to play is easy, learning to play very well can be hard as it will require you to have a lot of knowledge of the meta and card interactions, so you can be prepared to counter or disrupt common combos. The combo-heavy meta also makes the ‘control’ play style a lot more important in Force of Will. That is not to say control is the only archetype. It’s just that no matter what other common strategies you are employing, be it ‘aggro’ or ‘rush’, you will still need to bring a strong control toolkit to be competitive.
J-activating Shion when Celestial Wing Seraph is on top of your Deck and placing it into play will allow you to also go grab a Lucifer and force the opponent to banish a resonator. What a combo!
Now all of these strong combos, increased player interaction, and flexible turn structure indicates that Force of Will’s design strategy is to focus on the fun of playing powerful, almost broken, cards. What that means is that the game is balanced, not by making sure no cards are too powerful, but by making sure all the cards are very powerful so it becomes a mad dash to the finish line. This makes the games quick,with most lasting less than 20 mins. This design philosophy of making cards super powerful can backfire though, since when there’s a balance issue, which happens in every card game at some point, it tends to be a big one. You can see this in the controversial ruler card, Reflect and Refrain, which is still very powerful even after a quick errata, because it is essentially a complete control toolbox in one card. Now, I am not saying Reflect and Refrain is completely broken, especially since they have released many hard counters in the sets since, but the card still remains powerful enough to shape the meta, in that every top tier needs to arm themselves with ways to beat it.
The infamous Reflect and Refrain
Another reason that might drive you to play Force of Will is that it is very cheap to get into, especially in comparison to other TCGs. Any of the starter decks are good value for money and they all make the basis for solid decks for that ruler and colour. Slowly updating your starter deck is actually a viable way into the game without your deck being completely under powered. Building a competitive deck is reasonably cheap as well. I managed to come sixth out of sixteen at my first ever tournament last weekend and my deck was worth less than $80 AUD overall. Even looking to build some of the most popular top tier decks, it would cost no more than $200 AUD currently with certain decks costing a lot less. If you are not chasing foil or special promo versions, even the most expensive card in the game fluctuates between $35-$40 AUD currently.
What will be a draw to certain types of gamers is that this game also has beautiful art. Being a Japanese game, the art understandably has a lot of anime influence. The card layout itself maximises and emphasises the art and the inclusion of full art cards as another grade of foil in booster packs means that those who enjoy the art will find that it is given a lot of the lime light in Force of Will. I do have to admit though that the design of some of the female characters can be quite sexualised and male gazey, and I can empathise that it might be a turn off to some players. However, if it is any consolation, their male characters seems to be just as sexualised so at least the game is an equal-opportunity objectifier.
So if what I outlined here sounds appealing to you, you owe it to yourself to check out Force of Will. It’s a fun and frantic game that is apparently quickly growing in size, being ranked 4th most sold card game in ICV2’s hobby channel. If you want to see more coverage on this game, keep an eye on atgn.com.au and our youtube channel for upcoming reviews of the starter packs and unboxing of the latest set. As I add Force of Will to the list of my cardboard addictions, you will be sure to see a lot more of the game here.