February 25, 2015 6:00 AM | Lena LeRay
Thoughtshelter Games' first offering, A Druid's Duel, is a fast-paced, turn-based strategy game. It has simple rules with no randomness; all players in the game have the same set of tools to use. Between small map sizes, one-hit kills, and player and unit abilities that allow for the creation and destruction of map spaces, the arena is in constant flux and players must be able to adapt quickly. The story-light single-player campaign with over 130 levels is accompanied by asynchronous multiplayer capabilities that extend the game's playability immensely. It's a really cool game with a lot to recommend it if you don't mind some annoying things about the game client.
The goal in any match of A Druid's Duel is be the only player who owns any spaces on the board. A space is taken by moving a unit into it and produces a certain amount of mana, dependent upon its type, each turn. Mana doesn't carry over into the following turn and can be used to summon units, turn units into animal forms with special abilities, or manipulate the landscape. Bridges can be built at any time and don't count as spaces that can be captured to produce mana or win the game, but they do expand tactical possibilities. Destroying or creating squares of actual land can only be done by the most expensive of the four unit types, the Waywalkers. During a player's turn, they choose how to use all of their units and mana before handing the board off to the other player (or the AI).
Each unit type has both a druid form and an animal form. The two forms have completely different attack and movement capabilities. A Guardian is cheap and although it can only move one space in its druid form, it can move up to four spaces in its wolf form as long as all of those spaces are empty. It cannot attack and kill a unit in wolf form, which is what would happen if it moved into an enemy-occupied square. Wind Riders are archers in druid form, capable of attacking anything that is exactly two squares away. When they turn into eagles, they can fly to anywhere within six spaces, a devastating range that can be used to snipe dangerous enemy units. The second-most expensive units are the Snarlclaws, which can move up to two spaces as long as the first movement isn't an attack when in druid form, but turn into awesome rampaging bears. As a bear, a snarlclaw can move three spaces and attack every time, destroying anything in their path. The aforementioned Waywalkers can manipulate the land in druid form or turn into stationary turtles that can only be harmed by bears.
That's pretty much all there is to the rules. A Druid's Duel is one of those games that's easy to get into and hard to master. Diagonal movement counts as a single move, making Wind Riders and Snarlclaws exceptionally dangerous, and learning to accurately visualize the full range of possibilities takes some practice. Once the abilities that change the layout of the map are taken into consideration, the possibility space expands once again.
Although the user interface in combat is perfectly fine (in fact, the gameplay is very tight), there are some things about the game client which are annoying or downright weird. The only supported resolutions all have an aspect ratio of 4:3. Alt-tabbing when the game is in fullscreen mode changes it to windowed mode and fullscreen can't be restored without restarting the program altogether. These examples are the kind of minor annoyances that won't stop players who enjoy the game from playing. However, as far as I can tell there's no way to resign a multiplayer match or to stop email notifications designed to tell you when it's your turn in multiplayer. Those two things could demotivate players who want to engage in multiplayer matches, which is a shame because the game is otherwise set up so well for it.
On the accessibility front, the game is entirely playable by mouse. Although units are distinguished by color alone, the colors are red, blue, yellow, and white. Markers to show who owns which green spaces, however, will be difficult for some colorblind players to distinguish.
In spite of its flaws, A Druid's Duel is really a very fun strategy game. It releases today for Windows, Mac, and Linux at the price of $9.99. It can be purchased on Steam or directly from the developer via Humble Widget.