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Are You Ready to Get Altered at Gen Con 2024?

by W. Eric Martin

I’ve already talked about Disney Lorcana (how to play, the Gen Con 2023 experience) and Star Wars: Unlimited (first announcement, how to play), so now it’s time to talk about Altered, the third trading card game (TCG) that was highlighted at Gen Con 2023.

Admittedly that description is somewhat misleading because while lines for Lorcana were visible throughout the Indianapolis Convention Center and SW:U occupied a decent number of tables in the event hall, Altered was shown only to press and potential business partners in a single suite in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Why talk about Altered then? Because of who’s involved, how the game works, and what they plan to do that differs from other TCGs.

To start, Altered is the brainchild of Régis Bonnessée, who founded French publisher Libellud in 2008, launching the company with Jean-Louis Roubira‘s Dixit, which won As d’Or in 2009 and Spiel des Jahres in 2010 and which has now sold twelve million copies and which established the look of a Libellud title. (That look should be immediately apparent in the Altered promotional image at right.)

Bonnessée is also a game designer, and his creations include Seasons, Dice Forge, and Lords of Xidit, a reworking of his 2002 title Himalaya.

In 2020, Bonnessée sold Libellud to Asmodee, and the press release announcing the deal includes this line: “Régis Bonnessée is leaving Libellud to develop other entrepreneurial projects.”

Altered is the first such entrepreneurial project, coming from new publisher Equinox, which Bonnessée founded in 2021.

The world of Altered carries the Libellud DNA, with the setting being one in which human existence has merged with the realms of imagination, an event called the Tumult. The world is inclusive and optimistic, with its inhabitants eager to explore the possibilities of what’s around them. (Equinox notes that it is working with consultants to be sensitive to concerns about the representation of a culture within its game.)

This exploration is at the heart of Altered’s gameplay. Each player in a two-player game has two tokens that lie at opposite ends of an exploration path made of cards. The cards in the center of the path are shuffled and placed face down. (We used three cards in our demo game, but I imagine you could use more or fewer cards to adjust the length of a game.)

Let me note that I’ve done the best I can in this post to present all of the material I saw and heard related to this game and will correct errors, if any, as they’re brought to my attention.

Demo materials, with Gamegenic upgrade bits

Each token’s starting location has blue, green, and brown icons, representing travel by air, ground, and underground(?). During play, you place cards in either the left or right expedition area on your side of the play space (or in both), and if at the end of a round you have more total strength in one of those colors in the left expedition than your opponent does, you advance your token on the left side of the path. If you advance to a card that hasn’t yet been revealed, you flip that card over and place your token on the closest half of that card. The icon (or icons) on that half of the card show in which colors you need to have strength in order to advance that token again next turn. (You then do the same with the right expedition area.)

In essence, your tokens — your summoner and your companion — are exploring the land, discovering what they need to advance, and trying to meet one another to share their experiences. If your tokens meet before the other player’s tokens do, you win.

That’s the high-level view of gameplay and what you’re trying to achieve. As for the gameplay, you start with a hero in play and a deck of cards, and heroes and cards belong to one of six factions:

• Muna, the Druids, who focus on nature and persisting

• Ordis, the Ideologists, who advocate for order

• Yzmir, the Wizards, who study the Tumult

• Axiom, the Engineers, who use science to create robots, cybernetics, and other tools

• Lyra, the Artists, who celebrate the beauty of the changed world

• Bravos, the Adventurers, who push their limits to show off strength

Sample Axiom cards, with a hero at the upper left; apologies for the glare!

You start with a hand of cards, then choose two cards to start face down as resources.

During a round, players take turns back and forth until both pass, at which point you compare expedition strengths to see whether any tokens advance. On a turn, you can spend resources to put cards into play from your hand or from your memory. Cards stay in play only a single turn unless effects or powers anchor them to the world, and when they leave play, they go to your memory; unfortunately, your memory is tiny and can hold only two cards, so beyond that limit cards are discarded.

The effect of a card might take place only if played from the hand or from memory. In the image above, you can see that most effects happen only when the card is played from hand, whereas Kelon Elemental gains an ability only if it’s in memory. In compensation, the resource cost of most cards is lower when played from memory. (Note that the hero shown here, Sierra & Senka, allows you to gain the effect of one card played from memory each turn.)

Permanents go into a non-expedition zone and affect your entire playing area, and spells have a one-time effect, then go to your memory (should you have room) from which they can be played again.

Yzmir cards, once again overpowered by glare

Note that all the heroes shown so far have a tiny reminder under the image showing “Memory (two card icons) Permanents (two card icons)”, so I imagine that other heroes will have higher or lower limits.

An aside: Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: The Gathering, has noted that when you create some aspect of gameplay in a TCG, you should give yourself room to tweak it in the future, even if you have no immediate plans to do so. Here’s an excerpt from a 2004 column about the “cycling” ability on cards that initially allowed you to spend 2 mana, discard the card with the ability, and draw a new card:

Didn’t anything [related to cycling] cost something other than 2? Didn’t R&D experiment with alternate mana costs? Not really. We liked the idea that the new mechanic was consistent so players would always know what to expect. In fact, cycling was almost keyworded without a number. Since we wanted to keep the cost consistently at two, we talked about just making the ability always cost two. Luckily, we convinced ourselves that we should keep our options open. Our currently philosophy tries to keep keywords open whenever possible. Threshold, for example, if first printed today would be Threshold – 7.

You might also notice that every card carries a QR code. Once the game is live, when you scan these QR codes, you’ll discover a tiny biography or story (150-200 words) about the character, permanent, or spell. The QR code has other uses that I’ll get to soon.

Dressed to kill, they’re killing me, but heaven knows their recipe

The rarity system for Altered works differently from other TCGs. Each card exists in a common form, two rare forms, and unique forms. You can see examples of the paired common and rare cards in the two images above with Tesla/Tesla, Genius Inventor and Snow Princess/Snow Queen. The artwork on the two cards are similar, but the rare cards have artwork that bleeds to the edges of the card and their stats or effects differ. Tesla lets you place a card in memory and draw a card only if the placed card is a permanent, whereas Tesla, Genius Inventor has you draw a card no matter what type of card you place. Snow Queen has an effect that isn’t present on Snow Princess. (The cards also include the word “rare” or “common” underneath the name.)

I mentioned above that two types of rare exist for each card. One type of rare has the card within its normal faction, and the other places it in a different faction, which allows for varied deck building.

Mock-ups showing the graphic approach to common, rare, and unique cards

Unique cards are just that: a unique version of a normal card that features even more elaborate artwork and altered stats or effects that won’t exist on any other card printed. Just as KeyForge has unique decks, Altered will have unique cards, giving you something from that world of (algorithmically generated) imagination that no one else will have.

Altered will be sold in starter decks and booster packs, with the latter costing US$4 and containing 9 commons (one of them being a hero), 3 rares (with one in eight packs containing a unique and 2 rares), and a thirteenth card that will be either a token or a “digital joker”, a phrase that will make sense a few paragraphs from now.

Mock-ups at Gen Con 2023

Six starter decks will exist, one for each faction, with this US$15 item containing a 40-card deck — a hero and three copies of thirteen cards, with each card having two commons and one rare — a folded playmat, a token punchboard, and a quick player guide.

Deck-construction guidelines for tournaments will require a 40-card deck with a limit on the number of unique and rare cards included in that deck.

Equinox will release an app for iOS and Android to correspond with the debut of Altered, and when you scan the QR codes on the cards, those cards will be registered in the app as being owned by you. (The publisher showed a video of the cards in a booster being scanned and registered in less than ten seconds, so the process should not be onerous. If you are a streamer, you should not open packs of Altered on air without a delay as someone could register the freshly opened cards as their own by scanning your stream!)

The app will include a deck-building function so that you can assemble a deck within the app, then submit it to a tournament organizer digitally. At the tournament itself, the organizer can scan your deck — again, ideally at a rapid pace — to verify that the cards in the deck match the submitted list. (Matches don’t necessarily have to be exact. If you own Tesla, but the Tesla included in your deck is a different copy of Tesla, that’s okay. If you list a unique Tesla, however, you need to have that exact card in your deck.)

Altered seems ripe for cosplay opportunities…

The app will include a ranking system for players who participate in tournaments, and the game will have rules for how to play in different formats: sealed, draft, and constructed, whether 1v1 or multi-player.

Equinox states that you will be able to find players, events, and retail stores through the app, and you will be able to sell and buy individual cards through an online marketplace with other players from around the world, no matter the language they speak. (Altered will debut with English, French, and Italian editions. Other languages might be added to the launch prior to August 2024.)

People have been selling individual Magic: The Gathering cards online for decades, so embedding this function in an app isn’t surprising.

What is surprising, however, is how this process will work. When I buy your card through the app, I will take digital ownership of that card, but the physical card remains in your hands. You can still play with that card as you like outside of tournaments.

Through the app, I can show ownership of that card and place an order with Carta Mundi for them to print a new copy of the card, in my choice of the languages that exist within the system, then ship that card to me. The current estimated cost for printing and shipping a single card to someone in the U.S. is US$1, with the price per card dropping if you order multiple cards at the same time.

Brain-breaking screenshot from the Gen Con 2023 presentation

This concept was a record scratch moment for me in the Equinox presentation. I asked, so I can sell or give ownership status of cards to my friend, and they can print their own copy of these cards, then return ownership to me? Eric Dieulangard, head of marketing at Equinox, answered, Absolutely!

What’s more, Equinox also intends to set up the app so that you can lend cards to someone for a fixed amount of time. Let’s say you have a friend in Boston who has a tournament in two weeks, while you live somewhere else. You can lend them your Altered deck, then they’ll print their own copy, submit their decklist online, and play in the tournament, losing digital ownership of the cards when it returns to you automatically while still holding on to the print-on-demand cards they’ve bought.

As the screenshot above suggests, if you damage cards and you still have digital ownership of them, you can print new ones. If you go to a tournament with a valuable deck — or lend a valuable deck to a friend — you don’t have to worry as much about someone keeping an eye on the deck every second. If someone steals the cards, they have not stolen ownership of the cards, and you can print out a new deck — which is annoying, yes, but a far smaller negative than losing the deck entirely, as has happened to many Magic players with decks worth hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Promotional artwork at Gen Con 2023

And the thief has gained cards they can use only in non-tournament settings, cards they will likely have a hard time reselling since they can’t transfer ownership on the app. Similarly, counterfeit cards will be meaningless since they will have no digital ownership attached to them — and why buy counterfeits when you can print your own?

If you want a proxy of a hard-to-find card, you have three possibilities of getting one within the Altered environment. First, you can buy the card outright. Second, you can find someone who will lend you the card, possibly for a price. Third, you can trade a digital joker that you acquired in a booster pack for a card of your choice. (I forget whether the digital joker will work for unique cards, but assume it will not until you hear otherwise.) In all three cases, you’d then pay to have the card printed and shipped to you.

Sample Lyra cards, with two examples of common/rare differences

Dieulangard told our group that initially all Altered cards will be printed at Carta Mundi facilities in Belgium, with the manufacturer being ready to scale up as needed and with printing and shipping services eventually being available in other locations.

As you might expect, Equinox will earn money every time a card is printed and shipped, so it has no problem with friends passing around ownership of cards so that they can all print their own copies.

Equinox has been working on and testing this game for two years, and those tests will continue in the months ahead. The publisher plans to run “demo roadshow” events in the EU and U.S. in the final months of 2023 as it prepares for a Kickstarter campaign of the game in February 2024. Altered will be distributed exclusively by Asmodee, and the publisher has already worked with Gamegenic, an Asmodee company, to create playmats, expedition card holders, tokens, and more, so expect to see lots of that bling in the KS campaign.

Sample summoner and companion tokens from Gamegenic

Altered will launch at Gen Con 2024 in August, with Equinox planning to release a new expansion for the game every four months and introduce a new theme to its organized play program every month.

How was the gameplay, by the way? Interesting and different, although I’m sure I made dumb moves that would make no sense to someone who knows the game well.

The cards being fleeting added a challenging element to what you wanted to play when. In each expedition, you are trying to have a higher value in whatever icon(s) you need, while also topping the opponent in the same expedition so that they can’t advance. The best case, of course, if that you advance and they don’t, but no matter what happens, those played cards are (mostly) heading to memory or the discard pile, and now you have to figure out what to do next. You’re not building an army of forces to overwhelm the opponent, but rather ideally doing just enough to advance relative to their progress — then you’re doing it again. It feels like a very Eurogame approach to a TCG.

What’s more, the exploration element is a great twist on the (normally) destructive goals of a TCG: eliminating the opponent’s life, destroying their deck, conquering something they have. Disney Lorcana takes a similar approach, with players trying to use their characters to quest for lore, but Altered felt more interesting, probably because I’m indifferent to Disney and not nostalgic for the characters or movies. The same is true for Star Wars. I just feel done with those universes and like the idea of exploring something new and unfamiliar.

That concept also drove Bonnessée and the Equinox team to create Altered in its current form. Instead of adopting all the customary habits of a TCG, they studied each element to see whether it makes sense to do something different. Gameplay focuses on exploration and discovery, not combat; unique cards can give you the surprise element you want to see in a booster pack; the marketplace and digital jokers allow you to get exactly the cards you want, then print your own; and digital ownership prevents theft from being an issue (assuming you keep your account secure, that is).

I have no idea whether the player base and support for organized play will develop to match their grand plans, but I wish them well and am encouraged by the spirit of their efforts and the thought they exhibited in their presentation. We’ll see what happens when the Tumult hits Indianapolis in August 2024…


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