5 Blockchain Games: What Works and What Doesn’t

Crypto as a whole is, I think, at something of an inflection point. With the recent “bull run” either on hold or cut short with prices below 2021 highs, the mounting crypto-speculative mania of the past decade seems to have settled down. That puts a premium on products that deliver, instead of just making big promises.

That includes blockchain-backed gaming, which has been on the horizon since the announcement of Ethereum, and which I’m happy to report is actually becoming a Real Thing. In the past, “blockchain games” have often been hasty cash-ins designed to entice speculators rather than players. But, as an embarrassingly experienced gamer who spent my childhood loading Doom from a DOS command line, I’m happy to report that blockchain games are now emerging fully-cooked: that is, many are at least as enjoyable as games that have nothing to do with crypto.

What follows is a lightning-round of quick reviews of a selection of blockchain games. Each game is judged on standard metrics of gameplay and graphics. But unlike more conventional games, blockchain games should also be evaluated for their onboarding experience and tokenomics.

Onboarding is significant because games are great ways to attract people without crypto experience, and hitting them with a laundry list of complicated tasks before they can play is a great way to lose their interest immediately. And tokenomics matter because they’re hard to get right, and the temptation for developers to be shortsighted and self-interested is strong.

Also worth noting: The reviews below are mostly based on fairly short play time (and few if any of these games are deep enough to demand more.) The reviews are also based on the current state of these games: Roadmaps and projections are all well and good, given the financial stakes, this is a “verify, don’t trust” situation.

Note: I had also planned on reviewing Nifty Island and My Pet Hooligan. But Nifty Island was offline for maintenance when I tried to log in. While My Pet Hooligan (which is in Early Access) looks and feels great offline, it’s a PVP shooter, and the game’s few servers weren’t cooperating when I tried to play.

Hamster Kombat (Mobile/Telegram)

Onboarding: AGameplay: DGraphics: ATokenomics: D

It’s new, it’s hot, it’s incredibly effective at what it was designed for – but Hamster Kombat isn’t really “a game.” At present, the only ‘gameplay’ proper is clicking one object for points, then spending those points to earn more points. If there’s any actual “Kombat,” it’s completely opaque to me as a new player. Instead, Hamster Kombat, where you play the role of a growth-minded CEO of a crypto exchange, gamifies social engagement, offering in-game “gold” for things like following and promoting the game’s X/Twitter account, or recruiting friends.

The scammy vibes of this pyramid-built-on-nothing element are impossible to ignore, but one thing can’t be denied – it’s working, driving the “game” to huge popularity (see Jeff Wilser’s recent feature on the growth of Hamster Kombat and other TON-based games. The tiny bit of gameplay is impressively addictive (I’m clicking right now …). And, in most other respects, Hamster Kombat is top-tier, with a flawlessly smooth interface and, most impressive of all, a truly effortless onboarding experience that’s integrated directly into Telegram. That both mutes the impression of scamminess, and leads one to believe promises that a real game will emerge from beneath this perpetual self-promotion machine.

Unfortunately, though, gameplay evolution seems to be a low priority for the devs for the moment. The Hamster Kombat roadmap includes gameplay upgrades like “Squad Kombat,” but by far the most focus is on an upcoming airdrop, with a token that is promised to be integrated into gameplay. It seems iffy to release your token before anything resembling an actual game, so between that and the fact that the financial tease is probably leading to a lot of people wasting their lives clicking on a phone, the hamsters get a “D” on tokenomics.

Pixels (Web Browser)

Onboarding: CGameplay: AGraphics: A+Tokenomics: A

Proof that low-hanging fruit can be delicious. Pixels is a resource-gathering and building game, a bit like Farmville, but with a lot more style. Even the writing is good, in its cutesy way, which is really notable. There are also promised and plausible extensions into more active forms of gameplay, such as dungeons, but the simple harvest-cooking-sale loop is already satisfying in itself. There are definitely periods of downtime in the early game, but that’s what you’re signing up for – this is a game you can run in the background and check in on every once in a while (I’m making Popberry Jam while I write this).

The graphics and overall vibes of the game are also excellent. The game is designed in a nostalgic 8-bit style, one seeming reason that Pixels actually has NFT imports. You can play as your Pudgy Penguin or Bored Ape, and the Pixels team has guidelines that allow any collection to submit game versions of PFPs. This unambiguously rocks, increasing the value of the entire Web3 space, and reflecting what seems to be the team’s more general deep alignment with crypto ideas and values. At the same time, there’s an outright downplaying of the possibility of massive growth in token prices, which is equally refreshing.

In what will become a theme, however, I was annoyed by Pixels’ onboarding process, which frankly seems to directly contradict the care and values on display elsewhere in the game. While Metamask login is teased, it no longer works for new players, who must instead download and install a boutique wallet for Sky Mavis’ Ronin Network – an EVM chain that has its own flavor of Wrapped Ether (WETH), but otherwise seems to only handle assets on Mavis’ own Ronin Network. This is an illustration of a common misalignment of incentives in Web3 gaming: there are big incentives to use an attractive game to rope users into your niche network, instead of improving interoperability by using a more widespread public network. It’s a toxic dynamic the industry should be wary of.

Gods Unchained (PC, Mac, iOS, Android)

Onboarding: BGameplay: AGraphics: ATokenomics: B

It’s time for a horrifying confession: In 2019, I decided to spend money on Gods Unchained NFT cards instead of buying a Cryptopunk. I could have retired by now on a Punk or two, but it is illegal for anyone to make fun of me for my choices. (Mostly, buying a Punk was just incomprehensibly complex back then.)

In 2019, Gods Unchained was a concept rather than a working game, so I am ecstatic to report that not only has it become a game, it has become a really good game, with a blockchain use case that makes sense. It also has really solid user and trading metrics, with more than 200,000 holders recently trading over $250,000 worth of NFT-based cards per day. I also had great luck with matchmaking – casual queues are very short, indicating a lot of players are online actually playing, not just trading.

One possible criticism of Gods Unchained is that it’s, in essence, a copy of Hearthstone, the World of Warcraft-based CCG. Of course, there are other digital card games out there with similar-enough formats and gameplay, but GU has detailed similarities, down to the points and stats of specific (reskinned) cards. Honestly, though, there’s no real shame in that – Hearthstone is an incredible game, and, having familiar mechanics, makes GU quick to jump into.

Gods Unchained also looks and plays great, though its designs and illustrations are quite generic. Specifically, the way the game marks the rarity of cards is pretty opaque, muting one major fun part of playing a CCG.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t downsides. GU becoming part of the “Immutable Passport” ecosystem adds a seemingly pointless layer of intermediation. Why can’t I just sign in with Ethereum via Metamask, where my cards are, and which the game ultimately connects to anyway? Plus, Immutable itself uses Google or email login rather than its own wallet – which seems convenient until you remember this is an entirely superfluous step already. On the other hand, I was surprised by how smoothly I was able to connect back to my pre-Immutable GU account.

Finally, the tokenomics of Gods Unchained barely matter … and that’s great. You earn cards and packs for playing in a way that, again, will be familiar to Hearthstone players. And there are daily quests that can earn you $GODS tokens, which I would assume can be swapped for real money somehow. But, in stark contrast to Hamster Kombat, these are nice bonuses for playing a game that’s inherently rewarding – not bribes for endlessly clicking on a static image.

Guild of Guardians (iOS and Android)

Onboarding: AGameplay: FGraphics and presentation: DTokenomics: C

I’ll admit up front this is Not for Me, but somehow, this dungeon roguelite auto-battler with actual animation is less engaging than clicking a still image in Hamster Kombat. “Auto-battlers” strike me as bleak artifacts of our era, games that play themselves with the goal of producing player satisfaction without player effort or skill. In the case of Guild of Guardians, the only gameplay seems to be tapping a few heroic special abilities, if you feel like it – but you’ll “win” either way. I wrote this review while the game was playing for me, and I don’t think I missed much.

The game is also aesthetically janky as hell, from middling graphics to truly bad interface and design, and generally feels like it was built by contractors working to an investor spec rather than actual game designers. On the plus side, it was seamless to log in to, and I didn’t get a cringey crypto-based sales pitch. On the other hand, I can’t imagine any human ever caring about this game enough to connect a crypto wallet to it, and its backend tokenomics are utter boilerplate, with a vesting schedule that seems to privilege insiders.

Rumble Racing Star (PC, Mac)

Onboarding: CGameplay: DGraphics and Presentation: DTokenomics: F

One thing I noticed during these reviews is that many games built or backed in Asia still appear to be in a token-bubble mindset. The homepage of Rumble Racing Star is a good example, starting with an immediate pop-up encouraging users to spin a wheel and win obscure crypto tokens and NFT prizes. At the same time, I was unable to find any meaningful description of the game’s token design from the front page. Where you’d normally find a white paper there’s only a vague gameplay description.

Unfortunately, the game itself reflects this – it’s basic and, to be blunt, janky as hell. At its core it’s a Mario Kart knockoff with lawnmowers for carts, but the tracks, characters, and vehicles are uninspired, and worst of all, the controls are unreliable and “squishy.” This surely isn’t the last we’ll see of blockchain games that haven’t figured out that they have to be good games first – but hopefully, they’re a dying breed.


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