Nova Island for Android might be the best card battler I've played this year

Nova Island Hero
Nova Island Hero (Image credit: Thirteen Games)

October has officially ended and I suppose it's finally time to exit the haunted forest and venture back out into the wide world of non-spooky mobile games. I've been sitting on this one for a little while now, so I'm very excited to get to talk about Nova Island this week.

Fast-paced and absolutely gorgeous, Nova Island will whisk you away to a colorful world of deck building and 1v1 card battling. It can be challenging to bring new ideas into the card gaming space, especially up against titanic competitors like Slay the Spire, but Nova Island makes a noble effort to breathe some fresh air into the genre with its stunning graphics, peppy soundtrack, and unique mechanics. This one's going on the list of best card games for sure.

The first things that most players will notice about Nova Island are its lovely graphics and art direction. The UI has a sleek, simple interface and the characters and cards are, frankly, adorable. Almost like Pokémon in concept, Nova Island features a handful of Trainers, who are optional characters you can swap in and out to command your decks. Each trainer has a speciality and comes with their own set of special moves that, ideally, combo and synergize with your deck well.

Each trainer has special abilities that synergize well with certain cards and decks

For example, Flora and her decks may ideally be based around plant-like cards and feature shared keywords like "bloom," which buff your initially small friends into big, beefy Nova-collectors. Then you've got trainers like Aster, who specialize in stealing Nova right out from under your opponents' feet.

So what the heck even is Nova? They're the in-game currency that you acquire through battling and which you can then use to purchase new cards, new trainers, or unlock specific events or challenges. The goal of each match is to get to 20 Nova first or to have the most Nova by the time the match ends. This distinction actually matters, since the first person to reach 20 Nova triggers the end of the match, but may not be the one who has the most Nova once the final score is tallied up.

Nova Island Collection

Source: Rachel Mogan / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Rachel Mogan / Android Central)

You get Nova by playing Friend cards, which are all cute lil' card critters. Some Friends are like plants, others are tiny robots, some are space jellyfish and so on and so forth. Each Friend, has a designated amount of Nova that they can generate for you once played and they can lose or gain more depending on buffs and debuffs played throughout the match. They also each have a cost to play, so you have to weigh your options carefully before putting your Friends on the line.

Matches can be fast-paced or drawn out wars of attrition depending on your strategy

The general rhythm of matches ranges from super fast to a more moderate pace, depending on the strategies each combatant is using. My own matches tend to drag out a little longer, since I'm more into wars of attrition than razing the earth with fire and salt. Once you get the hang of it, the gameplay is quite fun. You can also keep things fresh by editing and creating new decks, choosing new trainers, and acquiring new cards to unlock by playing against others.

Unfortunately, as with all games, Nova Island isn't perfect and has a few flaws to consider. My main complaint against Nova Island is with the randomness that goes into battles. Whether it be versus AI or an actual person, all combatants are subject to the whims of Energize. You see, the playing field where you place your cards is actually a grid and each space on the grid has a chance to become Energized.

Nova Island Collection

Source: Rachel Mogan / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Rachel Mogan / Android Central)

At the end of each round, a little bolt of energy will zap its way from left to right in the middle of the grid and as it does so, it energizes the tiles around it — but only if you're lucky. The highest possible chance to energize is 90% with decreasing increments of five after that. This makes competing for the good spaces a fun part of each match, but it absolutely blows when you have a high value card in a high value space and then it just. doesn't. energize. because percentages said no. It feels absolutely terrible when it happens and it's been the deciding factor in my defeats more times that I would like to admit.

Unfortunately the RNG elements can feel pretty broken at times, but the overall experience is still fun

My other small complaint is that the tutorials are extremely minimal and I went into my first slew of matches still pretty much in the dark about exactly what I was supposed to do. The bare minimum basics are outlined, which some players may actually appreciate more than an overbearing tutorial, but I wouldn't have minded an optional, more advanced tutorial.

However, an interesting way to learn more about optimal ways to play the game is through the built in Spectate mode, which is a welcome touch. There's also a Practice mode versus AI and other unlockable single-player modes for those that prefer not to engage in PvP matches.

Nova Island Collection

Source: Rachel Mogan / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Rachel Mogan / Android Central)

Did I mention that Nova Island is 100% free and completely lacks ads and in-app purchases? It's a newer title from a small developer, so I can understand that they want to get their game out in front of as many players as possible, so get in on this great deal while you still can. It wouldn't surprise me if we see an update later down the line that begins to involve some sort of monetization; even game developers have to eat, after all.

All told, Nova Island is a beautifully designed deck builder with a lot of potential to be a truly great game. If I could request one thing from the development team, it would be to tweak those random percentages. Other than that, Nova Island is a fun, wholesome experience that newbies and seasoned deck-builders alike can enjoy. I would definitely recommend you give this hidden gem a try!

Nova Island Icon

Nova Island

A deck-building, 1v1 card-battling feast for the eyes, Nova Island is fun and 100% free.

Rachel Mogan
Mobile Games Writer

A lifelong gamer, Mogan has had a controller in hand since the PlayStation 1 ruled the world and Neopets seemed eternal. She loves to play new and old games alike, especially if it's something weird and charming. Puzzlers, JRPGs, adventure, and rhythm games are her favorites.