Cabals, the fascinating mess of a card game that nobody played

I really like Cabals, but I'm not sure Cabals reciprocates the sentiment. Even after years of playing, I feel I barely know this game—partly because, I suspect, Cabals itself doesn't know what it wants to be. It's a good game that came out at the wrong time, and its attempts at finding its audience since have ranged from 'well-intentioned' to 'eye-rolling'.

The pre-Hearthstone era was a meager time for collectible card game enthusiasts. There wasn't even a good Magic: The Gathering adaptation back then, the only way to play it seriously online was through open-source virtual tabletop Cockatrice.

And then Cabals came out in 2011 for PC and mobile devices, with a premise familiar to Magic players: an all-out war between magical cabals, each one with a distinctive playstyle. There's the Bearclaw Brotherhood, grouping together figures from Slavic folklore like mad monks, grizzled shamans, and Baba Yagas. Their signature ability is Toughness, which helps them survive lethal blows. Then there are the members of the Vril Society, half wizards and half mad scientists: their specialty is blowing stuff up from a distance. Add Faeries, Chinese dragons, and Egyptian mummies to the mix, and you basically have a fascinating, post-WWI version of The Secret World.

The similarities with Magic end here, though. Despite calling itself the "Finest Online Trading Card Game", Cabals is more akin to a board game. It's very similar to Duelyst, the deliciously pixelated card/board hybrid—but where Duelyst's board is a simple grid, Cabals employs a wide range of boards of different shapes and sizes.

It's exhausting but it's satisfying, and it utterly failed to convince players.

Players start with a handful of cards and a stronghold. The goal is to reach the opponent’s stronghold, or to conquer as many board tiles as possible and accumulate Domination Points.

Some tiles have special rules: the ones with the arrows work as additional deployment gates, while the starred ones give you more mana points to play cards with. Creature cards get placed on the board, while spells have instant effects. 

Matches are dirty wars of attrition, and can often feel unfair. Spells might mess with your carefully placed units, paralyzing them or obliging you to take them back in your hand. Near-victories easily get overturned by a single card.

Cabals is not well-balanced, but that means it manages to catch a feeling so rarely expressed in games about wizards throwing spells around—the idea that unknown magic might be scary, strange and unexpected, and doesn't just mean "more damage". Magic will mess you up. 

It's exhausting but it's satisfying, and it utterly failed to convince players. Perhaps Cabals was a bit too ahead of its time; perhaps its apparent randomness made some people feel more frustration than fun. It didn't really matter anyway, because Hearthstone was released just two years later. It's difficult not to feel a bit sorry for Cabals.  

After Hearthstone's launch, Cabals' developers turned to Kickstarter, hoping to transform their digital board game into a physical one. They didn’t reach their goal. Nonplussed, the team relaunched the campaign, only to see it fail a second time. The prototype looked fine, but poor reach and a confusing marketing campaign doomed it from the start. The project was shelved, its fate lamented in a candid post-mortem.

You know the situation is bad when the screens on the store page all display scantily clad ladies.

For years, Cabals survived on mobile only, the old PC version discontinued and forgotten. But with a new wave of CCGs coming to Steam, Cabals made a comeback last year. Only it wasn't really Cabals.

Cabals: Card Blitz is a Frankensteinian abomination, a rotten-smelling corpse wearing the skin of the old Cabals (by which I mean its art assets, only with less clothes on). Gone is the delicious mix of card game and board game mechanics, replaced by automatic battles with minimal player interaction. You make a deck, start a battle, and watch your cards fight with the opponent's. That's all. With no way to even influence the card order, it's reduced to luck and prayers.

You know the situation is bad when the screens on the store page all display scantily clad ladies. Battle Blitz is a game made of micro-transactions and sadness, that screams "mobile port" and offers nothing apart from mindless grinding and bitterness. And yet it probably helped the team stay afloat and finally try again.

The original Cabals finally came to Steam this February, but with an Early Access version that feels somehow inferior to the 2011 version I remember—slower, clunkier, buggier, stripped of important features like friends lists and leveling. 

Some cards have been rebalanced, additional factions have been added, and the game is still a fun mess to play with. But with few players and a practice mode that offers no rewards, victories feel hollow. I don't know if cross-platform playing is working yet, but I struggled to find opponents both on Steam and on the mobile version. It also saddens me to see no attempts at fleshing out the game's backstory. Cabal's setting is still fantastic, and ripe with untold stories and exciting possibilities. 

It's nice to see Cabals come back for real, and yet this doesn't feel like a good time to start playing. Has a good time ever existed, I wonder? I don't know. I still want to hope. I'll stick around for now, because I still love this game to bits. I only wish Cabals would love me back.