KARDS’ Theaters of War expansion is pricey, but a great example of solo content for digital PVP card games

This summer has been a weirdly good time for abstract World War II card games. Early this month saw the release of the much-lauded deck builder Undaunted: North Africa as well as the announcement of the first expansion set for the series Undaunted: Reinforcements. The end of June also saw the release of Theaters of War, a set of single-player campaigns for KARDS – The WWII Card Game.

For the uninitiated, KARDS is a World War II-themed, free-to-play, digital card game from the relatively new indie development studio 1939 Games. It both looks and plays very much like Blizzard’s smash-hit Hearthstone, albeit with a 1940s skin. Players have a steadily increasing currency to play cards onto the three-rowed battlefield, fighting for control of the middle row (the “front line”) in order to attack and ultimately destroy the opposing player’s HQ.

Despite these superficial similarities to Hearthstone, KARDS stands on its own as a well-constructed, fast-paced, almost painfully addicting card game based around a simple premise.

Theaters of War Basics

The Theaters of War expansion introduces five solo PVE campaigns, one for each of the major nations: El Alamein for Germany; the Battle of Moscow for the Soviet Union; Fall of the Philippines for Japan; The Tunisian Campaign for Britain; and Guadalcanal for the United States. Through a series of five missions, the player is taken through each of these major campaigns, completing specific objectives based on the scenario.

Each nation has three available ‘strategies’ to choose from that augment the basic composition of the pre-made decks towards a specific focus. Germany, for example, can take either a maneuverable tank-based approach, lean on local Italian forces, or take a heavier more logistically taxing style. This flexibility adds a welcome bit of replayability to the somewhat short campaigns and makes the missions feel less prescriptive than if they had only offered a single premade deck.

Theaters of War also adds 40 new unlockable cards to the roster, with eight per major faction. Multiple copies of each can be acquired through completing missions in the campaigns. Many of these new additions are powerful on their own or synergize extremely well with existing builds and will likely make their way to the competitive meta.

A host minor cosmetic features can be unlocked as well. A (rather bland) custom card back is acquired at purchase, and completing each campaign unlocks a new themed HQ card that changes the playmat to reflect its campaign. The unlockable Manilla HQ, for example, swaps out the generic wood-table playmat for a lush, foliage-filled jungle-themed one. More HQs is a cosmetic improvement the community has been clamoring about for a while, so it’s nice to now have such a variety of available now.

Theaters of War Campaigns

The campaigns themselves are tricky open-ended tactical puzzles that give you a scenario loosely based on the historical situation and task you with competing for a series of objectives. Each mission has one main objective, which is necessary for completion, and a set of three optional (often much more difficult) side objectives, like winning or capturing the frontline in a certain number of turns. Special variable conditions and modifiers are also sometimes present and are used to add a little historical flavor to the scenario.

Remember, KARDS is an abstract game: Unlike what one might expect, it mostly eschews the kinds of hardware fetishization that would seem to be the natural angle for a CCG based around WWII. There is little salivating over the detailed minutiae of Spitfires and Panzers; instead, KARDS builds its collections around themes that capture the essence of each nation – Germany can blitz the enemy before they can build up a defense, the Soviet Union can amass armies of weak, low-cost units to wear an opponent down, Britain must rely on high defense units until it can deploy its powerful fighters and bombers.

A similar thesis undergirds 1939 Games’ approach to the single-player campaigns. Battles are abstract but reflective of some essential features of the campaign they are attempting to represent. Two illustrative examples: in the German El Alamein campaign, the objectives task you with capturing the frontline and dealing damage as quickly as possible, in an attempt to capture the feeling of the maneuverable nature of the North Africa campaign.

The Soviet Battle for Moscow campaign takes a different tack. In it, you must hold out against increasing German pressure. Side objectives task you to hold the front line for a certain number of turns or conduct a fighting retreat to save as many units as possible. Special conditions for these missions introduce things like winter attrition that damages every unit on the board each turn. The result captures the essence of the theaters, even with an abstract battlefield of only three rows of cards.

One of the more enjoyable features allows you to give a buff to one of three cards in your deck after each victory that remains for the rest of the campaign. These permanent buffs improve its damage, defense, cost, or ability, allowing you to shape your choice to the angle of the campaign. Want to have a faster deck? Lower the cost. Think you’ll be facing stiff resistance? Boost that defense.

Theaters of War Cost

The five campaigns are a bit short to justify the $30 price tag, even with the 40 new cards, but as a free-to-play game KARDS has an otherwise incredibly high ratio of dollars-per-hour-of-enjoyment. At the same time, these scenarios can also be purchased individually, both with cash ($10) and in-game currency. At 100 coins each (so, 500 coins total, for all five campaigns), the price is a bit steep. Even 100 coins would represent a few days of concerted play to obtain.

While the missions aren’t very difficult, completing all the side objectives in a single run to get a perfect score of 15 stars (three per mission) for each campaign is an interesting challenge that, if completed, will reward you with a custom emote. Card game single-player modes can be incredibly hit or miss.

They need to get increasingly creative to simulate things that other games can do as a matter of course. For the completionist looking to fill out their collection, as well as the fan of strategic puzzle, Theaters of War is an excellent example of how to create interesting PVE scenarios in a medium almost wholly driven by PVP gameplay.

The Theatres of War expansion can be bought via the in-game store.