5th Cell, the developer best known for creating the Scribblenauts series, has simultaneously announced and released its next game: Castlehold, a tactics card game now in Early Access with a characteristically eclectic theme that pits pirates, ninjas, cowboys, and more against each other. It’s a smaller-scale take on a familiar (and frankly somewhat foreboding) genre, but one that brings along plenty of fresh ideas.
Castlehold is set in a world where a cataclysmic event has mixed different eras of history, bringing all of humanity onto floating islands in the Astral Sea. What that means practically is that basically anything goes when it comes to theme, with different eras essentially acting as synergistic card groups similar to Magic: The Gathering’s different colors. You can cram pirates alongside cowboys in the same deck, but some might gain benefits based on certain types of units you play – or even the type of terrain you pick as your home turf, like grass or snow.
The idea of a tactics card game hybrid is far from a new one, twisting the usual CCG setup by having players build a deck of troops that they then summon onto a grid-based board to move around and do battle. The vibrant Faeria from developer Abrakam has been around since 2017, while others like Caller’s Bane (originally called Scrolls, which Bethesda sued over) from Minecraft developer Mojang and Duelyst from Godfall developer Counterplay have been defunct for years.
But that’s not to over-compare, as Castlehold sets itself apart from that not-entirely-comforting company in a number of ways. It still has you summoning units onto a relatively small, hexagonal board, but the pacing and strategy feel extremely different from something like Faeria or even Hearthstone. Instead of using a traditional mana system, Castlehold has more in common with a game like Advance Wars, with five capturable villages on the board that allow you to summon stronger units or activate a special ability when you hold enough of them.
And perhaps most notably for any card game fan sick of the usual collection grind, your deck only has a total of 10 cards in it. That small size has a number of effects, from potentially making strategies more consistent as you’re more likely to draw what you want, to reducing the investment building a strong deck might take in the first place since you need fewer cards overall. Additionally, it makes losing a unit mid-match a bigger deal, and turns Castlehold into something almost akin to chess, with both players cautiously holding the line until the opportune moment to trade blows, retreat back, or make a decisive strike.
Castlehold is initially launching on Steam in Early Access, with 5th Cell using this period to work on balance, add cards (and potentially modes), and listen to feedback from the community. While there’s certainly plenty of room for it to grow past its initial pool of 150 unique cards, it’s already fairly polished compared to some Early Access launches I’ve seen, even including ranked play from the get-go. How well other things like the card collecting work, which forgoes duplicate cards or a crafting system in favor of making a only a couple specific cards available for purchase with in-game currency that rotate daily (alongside the usual randomized packs), is something we’ll only really be able to tell over time.
This also marks an interesting and somewhat unexpected return for 5th Cell, with Castlehold being the developer’s first major, self-published game since facing significant layoffs in 2016 after publisher Warner Bros. cancelled Scribblenauts: Fighting Words. The studio hasn’t been idle since then, but development on Castlehold has only been underway for about a year now with an internal team of just 10 people, not including contractors.
Castlehold Gameplay Screenshots
Whether or not Castlehold will be a triumphant comeback for 5th Cell remains to be seen. While I certainly enjoyed the handful of games I played ahead of release, the digital card game space is one that’s notoriously hard to find a foothold in nowadays – and the low survival rate of tactics card games in particular, many of which have also been quite enjoyable in their own right, isn’t exactly encouraging for this scrappy new one made by a small team.
Even though I’m not exactly crazy about its historical grab bag theme, ultimately feeling more like it lacks any specific style rather than having a mix of them, Castlehold’s more intimate playstyle and smaller deck sizes have found a niche that certainly sets it apart from others like it. A game doesn’t necessarily need to be a “Hearthstone Killer” to find an audience that enjoys and supports it, and while it could be an uphill battle, Castlehold at least has the potential to do just that.
Tom Marks is IGN’s Deputy Reviews Editor and resident pie maker. You can follow him on Twitter.