App Reviewed on: iPhone XR
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It's rare for a mobile game to really feel like a hidden gem these days. Most notable releases now are ports of successful games on other platforms, Apple Arcade exclusives, or premium titles from experienced mobile developers. This is what makes my discovery of Nova Island all the more special, though. This truly free multiplayer card game came out of nowhere, and its unique mechanics and charming aesthetic make it one of the most charming surprises I've come across in years.
Nova Island is a 1v1 online multiplayer card game where the objective--refreshingly--isn't to destroy your opponent. Instead, you play as "professionals" who are all competing for territory as they collect a valuable resource known as Novas. It's unclear why Novas are so sought after, but that's totally fine. It's mostly a setup for a game that revolves around controlling a board to try and collect 20 Novas before your opponent does.
Your tools for collecting Novas come in the form of your deck of cards, which contain a mix of "friends" (i.e. friendly units you can place on the board to collect Novas) and powers, which can do all sorts of things like deal damage to units, apply status effects, or even move cards around the board. No matter what combos you build into a deck, the key of Nova Island is territory control, as the game board is divided into a grid, with each square on it having its own probability stat for units placed there to harvest Novas each turn. It's safe to say that if you control more high probability squares than your opponent by the end of each turn, your chances to win are pretty good.
The power of probability
Since different places on Nova Island's board have varying chances of giving you what are essentially the game's points, this creates an additional layer of probability on top of the traditional randomness that comes from drawing from a deck of cards. This might sound frustrating, but it's also what helps make the game so thrilling and strategic. You can't always rely on a specific combination of cards even if you engineer a deck to consistently give it to you. You always have to be on your toes and be prepared for your opponent to hit big on low probability spots while you miss on what should be easy points.
To keep any of this probability from getting too out of control, each player's "professional" comes equipped with special powers that you gain to your hand as your opponent reaches certain score amounts. These powers are super... well, powerful, and can change the course of a match, especially if you have other cards waiting in hand to tilt the board even further in your favor. Between deck constructing, professional pairing, and the board probability, there's a ton to dig into in every match in a way that keeps every encounter feeling fresh.
Free for all
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Nova Island is all of its card battling action is completely free. When I say this I mean it's not like Hearthstone or many other "free-to-play" card games. I mean it is not only free to download, but there is literally no way to spend money on the game, and there are no blind packs, ads, or any monetizing anything present in it at all. To own every professional and every card to use in Ranked mode, you do have to grind out and spend a Nova currency, but you can pick directly which things you want to buy with it and it should only take a week or two of semi-regular play to unlock everything you want.
If you don't want to wait to try out new cards and professionals, Nova Island also has a mode for that, and it's arguably the most fun I have with the game whenever I play. This draft mode lets you pick any professional (even ones you haven't unlocked) and then build a deck by picking between two random cards (even cards you haven't unlocked) until you have a full set. Your opponent does the same, and you both try your best with the new creations you've put together. On a final note, I'm just blown away by how polished all of this free card battling is, as well. Nova Island has some really bright and fun art, kickin' tunes, and a great variety of modes and features that do not tend to come with games at this price tag.
The bottom line
Simply put, there is no reason not to play Nova Island. This isn't a trick. It's a great card game and all it wants you to do is play and have fun with it. Go ahead and try it. If you do, I think there's a good chance you'll be as charmed by it as I am.