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Artifact is an online multiplayer card game from Valve, set for release in November. (Valve Image)

There are only a few companies in the video game industry that have attained Valve Software’s position, where it can pretty much do whatever the hell it wants. Most first- and third-party developers have to be surprisingly careful about their projects, as every new game is a multi-million-dollar gamble. It forces even big companies to be surprisingly conservative about what they do and do not do, which is why a lot of the bigger names in the games industry tend to ride so hard on their go-to franchises.

Valve, conversely, built a business empire on the backs of games like Half-Life, Left 4 Dead and Portal. Half-Life, thanks to the mod scene, led to Counter-Strike; Counter-Strike indirectly gave rise to the Steam digital storefront, as Steam began as an automatic patching service for Valve games; and Steam, as it is a virtually uncontrollable money geyser, has allowed Valve’s internal games development to slow to a relative crawl. Most other companies in the video games industry, if they had an intellectual property with the popularity and mainstream penetration of Half-Life, would be on the ninth sequel, second reboot, and at least one likely-disastrous attempt at a Hollywood film franchise by now, but Valve clearly feels no similar compulsion. It releases a game now and again, such as Defense of the Ancients 2, and Team Fortress 2 is still going strong, but Valve, as ever, works on its own peculiar internal schedule.

I’m only bringing this up because whenever I’ve talked to a video games enthusiast and mentioned that I’m writing about a new Valve game, they invariably ask if it’s the long-delayed, possibly nonexistent third chapter to Half-Life 2, which ended on a cliffhanger back in 2007. When I say no, it’s a card game set in the DOTA2 universe, everyone gets really quiet.

That reaction is a bit of a shame, really. Artifact is a new project from Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering, who brought it to Valve because he wanted to build something from the ground up that was intended for a digital platform. It’s been in the works at Valve and elsewhere for four years, and actually only became a DOTA2 spin-off relatively late in its development process, when they were looking for a world to set it in. It’s a colorful, animated game that’s a lot easier to learn than it looks like it should be. It’s not the new Half-Life, however, so it’s already facing an uphill PR battle. (Expect a lot of annoyed forum posts/blogs/snarky op-eds about how “Artifact is [x], but where’s Episode 3?“)

I sat down in front of Artifact on the first day of PAX West, the giant game convention taking place this weekend in Seattle. I started a new game, thinking I could figure it out as I went, but I soon realized that would not be happening. Artifact, at first glance, looks insane, like what would happen if you threw a deck of Magic cards in a blender with a MOBA and a backgammon set. I ended up getting walked through my first game by Bruno Carlucci, a software engineer at Valve and a well-known DOTA2 esports commentator.

How it works

At the start of a game of Artifact, you and your opponent have three boards between you, or lanes. Each of your lanes has a tower at the end of it with 40 health. You can win the game by destroying two out of your opponent’s three towers. Once a tower’s been destroyed, you can directly attack your opponent’s Ancient, which has 80 health, and destroying that will also give you the win.

One of the playable cards in Valve’s Artifact. (Valve Image)

You can defend those towers by setting up blockades of friendly units in each of your lanes. You begin the game with five heroes, and can initially deploy three of them. Both players also receive a steady supply of expendable basic units, or “creeps,” just as in DOTA2. You can position your heroes and creeps however you like in each lane, to block the progress of your opponent towards your tower.

You also receive a supply of mana at the start of each turn with which to employ various special effects from cards. You begin the game with 3 mana, and gain one more for every passing turn, with no upper limit; therefore, cards with a higher casting cost, such as Mystic Flare (see left) are meant to turn the tide in the late game.

Both heroes and cards come in one of four colors: blue, red, black, or green. You can only play a card in a given lane if you’ve got a hero in that lane with a matching color, and cards only affect the lane in which they were cast, unless the card specifies otherwise.

A given turn works like this: you and your opponent get to play cards in each lane in order to try to swing the game in your favor, by dealing direct damage to enemy units, deploying more of your own units (a lot of the cards I saw involved whistling up a few extra creeps), buffing your team, or equipping heroes with new weapons, armor, or accessories. Once both you and your opponent have exhausted what you want to do in a given lane, you end the turn, and combat immediately takes place. Each opposing card inflicts damage to whatever’s in front of it, whether it’s an enemy hero, a creep, or if its path isn’t blocked, the tower behind them.

You repeat that process for each of the three lanes. At the end of the turn, you get some gold depending on what you’ve managed to accomplish; killing a creep is worth 1 gold, while a dead enemy hero is worth 5. You can spend that gold in the between-turns “shopping phase,” where you can buy consumable cards with no mana cost, such as healing potions or new equipment for your heroes.

Unlike Magic, any damage that you inflict sticks around for the next unless it’s healed. Also unlike Magic, there’s no “graveyard”; a hero that dies in combat is simply put out of play for a turn, and can be redeployed afterward. It’s got a lot of that MOBA feel to it, where every combat phase is a bloody exchange of fire that usually ends in multiple casualties, but the heroes just respawn and the creeps don’t really matter, so it stays explosive right up until the end.

What Artifact says about Valve

Rereading this, I’m making it sound more complex than it is. Once you’ve actually got your hands on Artifact, it’s reasonably straightforward. The biggest problem it’s got for a beginner is much the same as Magic, where there are a lot of passive and active abilities that are there to deliberately break even the most fundamental rules of the game. Heroes respawn after one turn… unless they’ve got a particular passive ability which lets them pop right back up. You can only play cards in one lane at a time… unless they’ve got a specific ability that says they’ll affect the entire board. If you’re a veteran of the CCG scene, you’re going to feel right at home, and if you’re already familiar with MOBA games, like DOTA2, Heroes of the Storm, or League of Legends, you’ll be on surprisingly familiar territory from the beginning. Even so, expect a learning curve.

Artifact is slated to be released Nov. 28 for $19.99, with 280 cards to start with. It offers the ability to play against an AI or human opponent out of the box, and according to Carlucci, features a lot of incidental exploration — mostly through voice lines and flavor text — of the lore behind the DOTA2 universe. PAX attendees who make it through the line to play Artifact on the show floor will receive a swag bag that includes two codes granting access to Artifact‘s beta in October.

What it really signals, however, in conjunction with Valve’s recent big moves in Linux gaming, is that there’s really no way to tell what Valve’s going to end up doing next. Gordon Freeman could spend another few years dangling off that cliffhanger, or Valve could announce a release tomorrow. Carlucci mentioned to me as we were wrapping up my first game of Artifact that Valve never stopped developing anything, so whatever you’re hoping it might do next is probably already in the works. It’s just a question of when it’ll let the rest of us know.

Editor’s Note: Half-Life 2 time frame corrected since publication.

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