Hello and welcome to the first of our Clash of Fans write-ups. This week we’ll be getting together in pairs (virtually) and forcing each other to play a beloved game. Then we’ll chat about what we made of it all. First up is Spintires and Thronebreaker!
Chris: I have sort of fallen off of collectible card games over the last few years, and in the back of my mind I think they’ve all become variations on Hearthstone. This is wrong, obviously, but it’s taken Thronebreaker to remind me of that. For the first ten minutes I was filtering everything through the question of – how does Hearthstone handle this? But very quickly that ceases to be meaningful.
A few initial observations – there is so much here beyond the cards. The overworld map, the resources and all that jazz, the camps. And the writing. God, so much storytelling all over the place. I am a story-skipper by nature, and you can just about do that here, but it’s clear the care and pride that’s involved in bedding this card game into the Witcher world.
Two more things – the animated cards are absolutely dreamy. I love the lighting and sense of caricature – huge hands and golden light. Then there’s the board. I get the sense that you could almost play this on a pub table with the grain of the wood standing in for the different rows. There’s a lovely sense of a game that has emerged from the stuff you find in a tavern, the stuff that’s lying around.
Bertie: Can I just say I am so glad you’re playing this. Thronebreaker didn’t really make much of an impression the first time around and I’ve always thought that was a great shame. It wasn’t a spectacle like The Witcher 3 and that hurt it. But actually it’s a really indulgent, um, experiment I guess, and you can feel that quality as you explore. I actually think it draws characters as vividly as The Witcher 3 and tells some stories as powerfully, and the way it plays around with the rules of Gwent to keep the combat experience interesting – particularly in the puzzles – is masterful. There’s a lot of love and care in this game.
Chris: It’s definitely got that thing I love about card games in that it feels like as much as you’re making a hand you’re designing and programming a little machine to do in the enemy for you. I also love that the battles themselves really do a good job of making you feel like you’re moving an army around and dealing with lots of units on a battlefield.
Overall I prefer the puzzley battles to the main events. There’s something really gripping about dealing with boulders falling towards you in the first one of these I played. I love that this game is about tweaking the rules of a game that’s already established. I think I would get a lot more out of it if I’d encountered Gwent in The Witcher 3. Just that opening up of the potential of something, that messing around with the boundaries that have been established.
What I’m left with most is what you mentioned – the care and enthusiasm that has gone into this. I appreciate the game itself and I can imagine wanting to really learn it and understand all the nuances. But more than that, I am moved by how much the developers clearly love what they’re doing. Thronebreaker feels like a game that’s been over-delivered in the best way. They couldn’t stop adding story or little flourishes or little puzzles that momentarily turn everything on its head. In that respect it’s properly a game that comes from the best places: love and enthusiasm, a developer that can’t help itself, that’s properly under the spell of its own work. You know this team – do I have that understanding of the game right, do you think?
Bertie: Over-delivered is a wonderful way of putting it – that’s exactly what it feels like! And I’m glad you clicked with the puzzles because they’re my favourite. They’re like riddles in how they give you everything you need to solve them but you need to work your brain to get to the solution. I love that feeling, especially when you eventually nail it.
I don’t know if you’ll have time to get to it but a few hours in the game takes a wonderful turn. I remember feeling a bit nonplussed by Thronebreaker. I mean, it was nice but I wasn’t bowled over. Maybe it’s because I had trouble relating to a monarch’s storyline. But then it all changed.
A major story event at the end of the first main area flips everything on its head, and your Queen Meve suddenly finds herself vulnerable and exposed. The story gets personal. She’s stripped of the power she had and has to rebuild from scratch, recruiting people she considered enemies moments before. This is a great idea because not only do you know them very well from the fights you’ve had so far, you’ve built up an enmity towards them, which fuels the dialogue and story to come.
It’s here the game really begins.
Bertie: What on earth have you signed me up for? Trucks and hills and mud? The kind of mud you curse whenever it rains and you’re in one of those make-shift car parks in someone’s field and it gets waterlogged. You spin the wheels trying to get out only to dig yourself deeper while everyone looks on disapprovingly because you’re doing it all wrong and then the farmer has to come and tow you out, which I suppose, now I come to think of it, is what Spintires is all about.
It’s hard though isn’t it? It took me about 10 minutes to get out of my parking spot, although to be fair, I’m not much better in real life. Spintires doesn’t really explain anything, it just chucks you the keys and off you go – well, off you try to go. It’s slow going. There’s none of this barrelling along country tracks like a rally driver, no sploshing through great piles of mud, no crashing through trees and bushes and over fallen logs. All of that holds you up or breaks you.
It’s nothing at all like all the other car games I’ve played, or in games that have cards, like Grand Theft Auto, where you can off-road in a breezy, relaxed way because realism isn’t really the aim. Getting around in Spintires is hard. It’s as hard as accidentally driving in tractor tracks and getting marooned on the middle bit, wheels spinning uselessly like child’s legs dangling from an adult’s chair.
But what am I actually supposed to do?
Chris: This is definitely how my Spintires experience started too. I think what I love about this game more than anything is that I jumped into it and realised I was never going to be any good at it, so that freed me up to allowing myself to be bad at it and enjoy it. I have enjoyed making progress so incredibly slowly in this game. I got to a point where I enjoyed all the mistakes and accidents and all the times I did one stupid thing and properly screwed myself up. I hate to throw around words like zen, but Spintires can be a pretty calming experience if you don’t care about getting nowhere.
Have you had a proper close-up look at the mud yet? This is one of those games that reminds me that the best things in games as far as I am concerned is material physics. I love to zoom in close on the tires as they’re churning through the stuff. There’s such a lovely grainy feel to the mud in this game. It feels a bit like magic?
Bertie: Tractors are bloody amazing! I took out a crappy truck and failed at the first mud pile, but then I got in my tractor and oh my goodness gracious it’s a transformation, nothing can hold me back. I even went for a swim in a lake and it was fine. What a machine. Mind you, those wheels are as big as a person, and I love how the game represents them being softly inflated so as to give extra traction, which makes it look like you kind of flump along. Attention to detail!
Talking of detail: have I seen the mud? Have I seen it? I’ve wallowed in it. I’ve revelled in it. The mud is glorious! It’s like a squelchy beast undulating around you. A dirty octopus that clamps its suckers on you. I can almost feel its muddy grip through my keyboard, me fighting to get free, urging my brutish mechanical champion onwards.
There’s something so ironic about needing something so brutish to conquer such a serene landscape, my black smoke sputtering and engine grinding as I force myself on. There could be no clearer contrast between machine and nature, no clearer signal that these machines do not belong there. But it’s that which gives it its thrill, as this person-made beast conquers nature. It’s disgusting and beautiful at the same time.
Chris: Yes! Oh man, the ugly beauty of this game is off the charts, isn’t it? In a way Thronebreaker and Spintires, which are so completely different, Thronebreaker being so fully featured and sumptuous and over-delivered and Spintires which is so weird and specific and threadbare in a lot of places, in a way they come from the same place? The passion has overwhelmed the projects in both cases, and sort of defines both of them? CD Projekt could not stop embellishing this simple card game. With Spintires, the commitment to mud makes for a game that has fascinating tunnel vision?
Bertie: Singular games, that’s what they are, which makes them more fascinating to me. I reckon CD Projekt had big ideas about a suite of games like Thronebreaker, which is why it tried so hard with it, but it fell on deaf ears so the plan was abandoned and it remains an overlooked overachiever.
But who comes up with an idea like Spintires? Someone with an obsession, like you say, for sure! I wonder about them. I picture them travelling the world to find giant new machines to test drive so they can take back their experiences and program them faithfully into their game. Big-wheel hunters, they could be called. It actually sounds like quite a fun thing to do, and that’s probably why it translates so well in the game too.