RDBG #6: Frost (2016)

From here on out, we’re going to see the pace of game releases pick up speed. Slay the Spire is just over a year out from early access at this point, and there’s already something in the water among western devs taking inspiration from card game classics. Frost, released for PC on July 5th, 2016, comes to us by way of French developer Jérôme Bodin’s studio Le Studio des Ténèbres, and wears its influences on its Steam page: “Dominion, Ascension, etc”. Its narrative hook is tied very heavily to its gameplay systems, something quite special this early on among the games we’ve seen.

Premise and Gameplay

A deadly storm that reduces all in its wake to dust torments a band of wanderers who seek the ‘Refuge’, a place of safety where the storm, which they call the ‘Frost’, will not be able to reach them. It’s that simple. It works, too. We know next to nothing about our characters except their suffering. You can read as much or as little into it as you wish. 

A small touch I like: moving your mouse during cutscenes will ’tilt’ the character and background elements a little.

The gameplay of Frost is a little difficult to explain in writing without coming across like a tutorial. In brief: you draw a hand of resources every turn: food, material, and survivors. These can be played to either traverse a region and move onto the next ‘stage’, or they can be played to gain items or alternate resources if you didn’t already draw enough to finish the stage. Survivor cards, for example, can be gambled in the hopes they will hunt and come back with food or materials, which you may need more of to get through the current region. If you don’t have the cards you need in your initial hand, you can rest for a day and draw a new hand, but this brings the looming danger of the Frost nearer, which must be constantly outrun. The goal is to get to the Refuge before running out of resources, getting killed by dangers along the way, or indeed, freezing to death.

Combat isn’t a key focus of the game in the way we’ve seen it in previous entries here. Certain stages will pit you against a wolf, cannibals, or another threat that you can craft weapons to deal with. However, it is often equally viable to just refuse to fight and take the damage if you don’t want to waste the time or cards. These encounters can threaten your run, but not as imposingly as the Frost itself. Functionally, the Frost is just a time limit on the number of times you can draw new hands before a Game Over, but it always puts a slight pit in your stomach when you throw away your cards for a new hand, watch the Frost approach, and still don’t get the cards you were hoping for. This makes me curious about what came first in Frost’s development, its narrative hook or its gameplay mechanics. I can see it having taken shape having been led by either one.

Here’s what it looks like with the Frost one turn away. Thanks to this food card, we can press on, but not without getting bitten by this wolf we can’t kill.

You can ‘beat’ Frost very quickly. I won a run on my second try within 35 minutes of installing it, including the 5-10 minutes I spent with its tutorial. (Reminder: I am not good at video games.) I did this without engaging with or really understanding its deeper mechanics, such as the fact that most cards have secondary functions if another card is sacrificed when playing them. However, it’s worth sticking with for a good number of hours after this point, because you unlock more entertaining modes and classes that modify the challenge. Frost’s equivalent of character classes are ‘scenarios’, which are runs with alternative win conditions or different decks. The Leader, for example, immediately loses the run if anything happens to the survivor cards that represent his family, so you can’t risk sending them off to gather resources or literally throw them to the wolves to save yourself. The Meditator doesn’t have to worry about the Frost catching up, but has to survive for 50 stages, roughly 2.5 times the length of a regular run. Once completed, the scenario characters become playable in the game’s ‘main’ mode, which can be adjusted for different difficulties and play features as desired.

Randomised Elements

There’s a lot of information to consider every time a new round begins. The required cards to beat the round, the items you can craft, and the features or encounters in the current area are all random. Fundamentally, Frost is a game of transactions: if you don’t have the cards you need to progress in your hand, how quickly and effectively can you get rid of them for cards you do need? You can fairly quickly reach a zoned-out state of play where you’re not really ‘reading’ the cards, more just glancing over the icons for their costs and making snap judgements about if you need them or not. I think this is the feeling I always look for in a good deck-builder; the moment when the abstractions of the gameplay fall away and you can feel the flow of its systems working effortlessly. It feels like being able to decipher the code in the Matrix for fun, or something.

Every card can be right-clicked for lots of detail on how it functions.

Despite this, it did strike me that I rarely came across any new non-starting card during a run that felt like a true gamechanger. Whatever struggles your chosen class face in the early to midgame will likely be the same struggles they’ll face by the endgame, assuming you’ve found a way to mitigate them. It is nice that almost every card you start with maintains a degree of usefulness (except Fatigue cards that just clutter up your hand), but it also means the thrill of finding a card that sounds really useful if you can combine it with other things is missing. Because every card feels fairly disposable, the deck lacks that push-pull satisfaction as it get built. Instead of being good at dealing with one type or threat well or potentially being weak to another, your deck is always either adequate or subpar, and it’s very hard to get a losing deck back on track once it starts going pear-shaped. Given the theme, though, perhaps this is part of the design?

My only real gripe is that one major thing seems dependent on randomisation that really shouldn’t be: unlocking more features. Unless I’m missing something, I believe the only way to unlock new scenarios is to obtain all the unlockable cards for the scenarios you already have. These are earned randomly when completing runs. Sometimes they are earned even if you fail a run. Sometimes you won’t earn anything when finishing a run, and there is no indication of how far along you are until your next unlockable, not that earning them seems like linear progress anyway. An ‘XP to next unlockable’ or redeemable point system between runs would have eliminated this arbitrary frustration. Again, given the game’s tone, perhaps such systems would feel thematically inappropriate. I would argue that unless it’s intended as an art piece before any other concern, a game that sacrifices playability for the preservation of atmosphere may have its priorities mixed up, but with Frost I have no conclusive evidence this is really the case, anyway.

Hilariously, you can turn on a ‘night mode’ that literally just inverts the colours, which looks a bit silly but may save some eyestrain.

Presentation

The game’s About page on Steam describes itself as having “sloppy but graceful unique artwork”, which is pretty spot-on. Almost all the character and card art is rendered in heavy navy linework, with colour only being used to highlight certain facial features and soft grey shadow work doing the rest. I love it when an indie game is able to invest everything it has into honing a particular tone, and Frost nails its own: this place is really cold and dangerous, and you will die if you don’t act. It’s figuratively cold besides feeling literally cold, too. The game is very matter-of-fact about the grim reality its travellers sometimes face, such as playing the Cannibalism card. You lose a survivor and receive two food cards that work like any other, but instead of the usual picture of fruit on the cards, they are represented by slabs of slightly bloodied meat to remind you of what you had to do to get it. Probably the most affecting bit of art design is how the Frost affects the field of play the closer it draws near. When you only have one turn left to survive, black lines start flashing and fragmenting the field of play, with an undercurrent of white noise starting up in the background, perhaps to simulate the terror of oncoming frostbite. Your eyes may not thank you for staring at so much white for extended periods of time, but it builds a good atmosphere. There is very little music, most of it somber chanting and what sounds like horns so distant you’re only hearing the echo of them from far away. Like the visuals, the sound design is intentionally sparse and all the stronger for it.

Closing Remarks

Frost is one of the earliest examples of a roguelike deck-builder that seems to have put as much care put into the tone it wants to convey as it has put into its gameplay systems. Unlockables could be a little less opaque, and the singular, dark setting alongside a lack of card diversity means that it probably isn’t a deck-builder you’re going to come back to for the world or its systems. That said, the speed with which you will likely get a handle on its mechanics is extremely satisfying, and even a little time spent with Frost is likely to stick in your memory.

Standout Cards

As mentioned earlier, few cards in Frost are significantly powerful in all instances. Cards increase and drop in value round to round depending on which ones you need or what you can trade them for.

Idea cards trigger an effect or earn you a resource for a cost. The Assegai is normally handy to have one of somewhere in your deck. For a relatively cheap 1 material, you can do 2 damage to enemies, usually enough to kill them and let you progress without taking damage. However, if the current area has no enemies, it’s a waste of a drawn card.
Event cards are ones that you can choose to engage with or not – a random one is given every new area you move to. Like Idea cards, they usually allow you to manipulate your resources, but they don’t fill up your deck with things you potentially don’t want. Viewpoint here is cheap (1 material) and gives you some control over what the next Event card or resource requirements will be for the next area – a little peace of mind if the Frost is at your heels.
Enemy encounters are also considered Event cards. Cannibals, despite the distressing artwork, are probably one of the better encounters you can hope for. They can be placated with 2 food cards or killed by 2 damage, and you’re fairly likely to draw one or the other by the time you come across them.

RDBG #5: Solitairica (2016)

Solitairica, a name I can never type properly, came to us courtesy of Canadian developers Righteous Hammer Games. MobyGames tells me it came out on PC on May 31st, 2016, followed later in the year by mobile and Mac releases. Solitairica barely made the cut for an entry here. It isn’t particularly rogue-like in its randomisation and your actual cards are just numbers, leaving it up to collectible spells to represent your ‘hand’ of actions. Regardless, it gives me a good excuse to talk about what randomness represents for this genre and the delicate tightrope it walks when keeping players invested with luck-based gameplay systems.

Premise and Gameplay

The evil Emperor Stuck has stolen the hearts of all in the land of Myrriod. It is up to you to engage his evil hordes through… solitaire? Well, a heavily-altered, pared-down variant of it, anyway. Your route to the emperor is blocked by 18 rounds of combat. However, the player is the only one matching numbered cards. The enemy, instead, will hit you with RPG-esque attacks and spells that deal direct damage to your hit points, manipulate the field of play, or otherwise interfere with your ability to match your card to one of a number higher or lower than the current card in your hand. You win if you match all the cards, and the enemy wins if they kill you. 

Ghostly jester Kismet teaches you the gameplay basics, and sounds like Midna from Twilight Princess when speaking.

You have some magic at your disposal, and here’s where the game actually qualifies for a post here. Instead of suits, most cards are associated with one of four types of magic – attack, defense, agility, and willpower. Matching an attack card will stockpile one attack energy, which can be saved up and spent on attack spells, which do things like match any one card regardless of what number you currently have, remove all cards of a particular number, and so on. However, you can only have six spells at a time, with new ones being a big drain on the coins you win between rounds, and this is where the bulk of strategy lies. Losing a run loses you everything, except for some gems that can be redeemed to unlock new ‘classes’ (really just different spell type focuses), or extra passive abilities and items for classes you already have.

Randomised Elements

Hmmm. In some regards, this is about as random as these games can get before strategy stops factoring into the outcome at all – that’s inherent to the design of solitaire, though. On the other hand, your runs, or at least the first several battles, will start feeling familiar fast. Surprisingly, the order in which the 17 enemies are presented to you before the final boss doesn’t change. This is presumably done to stop anyone getting too frustrated by getting wiped out before they’ve put a real dent in the run, but after about the fifth encounter or so, you will be at least partly at the mercy of some good luck regardless of your build, and shifting some enemies around would have gone a long way to giving each run its own identity. 

Enemies are introduced with a little bit of description before combat so you can prepare your spell loadout.

Items and spells stocked in the shops are different every time you visit between battles. There aren’t a ton of them in the first place, so you will likely be seeing several of the same ones repeatedly on most runs. On the one hand, this is good because it means you won’t have to play the game too many times before getting a handle on the spells that enable your preferred playstyle. On the other hand, it isn’t much longer after getting that handle you will realise that many spells are just too niche to be consistently useful or worth their energy cost. Your spells’ ability to turn the tide of a losing game back in your favour, much like your enemies and their capacity to turn it against you, ultimately matter little in the face of the number one solitaire concern – ‘can I match my current card with anything?’ Saving spells for the optimal moment when you run out of matchables and being able to get another streak going is a thrill, certainly, but I never felt that it was down to a strategic masterstroke on my part. How much you care about this will be the biggest factor in whether or not Solitairica clicks with you.

Shop wares are randomised and expensive, but you can pay to have something reserved for the next time you visit if you don’t have enough money right now.

This gives me a chance to talk about random number generation. It’s something I haven’t brought up in these posts yet, but given that all of these games are at least partially unified in the luck-based aspect of ‘drawing’ actions, it was only a matter of time. You will often hear ‘RNG’ in derogatory terms online, where it’s often used as a shorthand for ‘luck’. Things like “I got RNG-screwed” or “the game is over-reliant on RNG”. (Looking up the Steam reviews for this very game will get you some examples.) Some randomisation must exist for this genre to work at all, but it’s safe to say that most people don’t like it when the hand of RNG is felt too frequently, or that a run ended prematurely because of factors beyond their control. Solitairica is an interesting case, then, because I don’t think anyone would start a game of real solitaire (or certain variants) or many other card games if they didn’t expect to be fully conscious of the luck involved at all times. That’s what makes these games gambleable, after all; the element of luck keeps them from becoming ‘solved’ games. Whether or not Solitairica works for you, I reckon, depends on how much you mind your games laying bare this simple fact. The cards you needed didn’t come up and you lost, that’s just how it is sometimes, the game seems to say – but here’s some gems that unlock stuff for your time and effort. Whether or not that turns you off or keeps you coming back is up to your tolerance for games of luck where the odds are withheld.

Enemies can mess with the cards in numerous ways, such as these bombs. As you can see, there’s no 2 or K that I can match my A with, so I’ll just have to pass my turn.

Presentation

A very clean and crisp looking game. The sides of the screen have a lot of negative space to hold UI elements – presumably this is just a side effect of the game being built for vertical mobile displays alongside PC. Character and enemy design may not blow you away, but should at least get a smile or two here and there. Several spells come with a little bit of animation and flair once triggered. These don’t slow down proceedings, and are just enough to give you some satisfying feedback when a skill you saved up pops off. As for music, there’s not a whole lot of it to go around. Combat itself is silent except for some nice sound effects, so you’ll want to be supplying your own background distraction. All in all, the land of Myrriod is hardly one that’s so compelling that you’ll be thinking about it when you’re not playing, but everything looks and feels functional. Not to damn it with faint praise, but it clears the minimum requirements it needs to, and sometimes that’s fine.

Closing Remarks

I’m definite that Solitarica is one of the more polarising games I’ll cover here. I’m not interested in reducing the games written up here down to a yay-or-nay. People put a lot of effort into making these with (usually) good intentions, and they are often dirt cheap compared to most modern games, so I fully encourage trying these out for yourself. That said, I wouldn’t blame anyone for totally bouncing off of Solitairica. I can take or leave solitaire myself, so for all I know this may not even be your bag even if you are into the genre. Like Guild of Dungeoneering and Hand of Fate before it, the game seems to steer you toward beating its campaign rather than engaging with it for the intrinsic satisfaction of the gameplay. Novelty value alone certainly carried me for a good several hours with it, but I dropped off long before I got around to unlocking the majority of alternate decks. I wonder what a sequel could actually do to refine it further. There isn’t much that it does wrong that isn’t simply a side-effect of the intended gameplay, and giving the player better spells and greater agency could quickly make the game too easy. Food for thought…

The game certainly isn’t hurting for character names, at the least. (Again, I can’t play my 6 here – Pass!)

Almost irrelevant aside that doesn’t fit elsewhere

There was a 3DS game called Pocket Card Jockey (released in the west a month before Solitairica, funnily enough, with a mobile sequel out… literally eight days ago), developed by Pokémon dev Game Freak. In brief, you race horses, and to make them go faster, you have to solve solitaire hands as fast as possible. I bring it up because the solitaire gameplay was simply an engine for the greater goal of placing higher in the horse race. You could be bad at the solitaire and still finish the race, although probably not very well. It makes me curious if a version of Solitairica where the solitaire supplements combat based on the spells could work. Good solitaire luck/skill could get more spells out quicker, and perhaps your health wouldn’t replenish between fights, and that’s your incentive to play smarter and faster. Of course, this loses the original’s sedate turn-based nature, which isn’t for everyone, but I’m just thinking aloud at this point.

Standout Cards Spells

Well… this is an odd one. The game uses a +1/-1 solitaire playing card system, albeit without suits. What am I going to do, tell you that the 6 is OP or that they need to nerf the queen and jack synergies? Rather than the actual cards, I think I’ll use this space to talk about a few good purchasable spells I found handy, since they more closely resemble the functions of cards in other roguelike deck-builders.

Requiring a fairly cheap 5 attack energy, Intimidate is handy for those awful moments when you’re staring a bunch of cards with the same number that you can’t match turn after turn. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s nice not to have to worry about it when it does.
Shadow Stalk costs 5 agility energy and requires some careful thought. Triggered at the right time, it could set you on a matching streak that easily puts it among the most valuable spells in the game, but I’m always second-guessing myself on when to use it and missing my chance.
Arcane Missiles is much more my speed. 6 willpower energy, three random cards gone, no questions asked. The added bonus here is that willpower energy is often just used for healing and the like, so if you’re blocking well or stockpiling health, you’ve probably got a fairly ready supply of it incoming to pop this off when you can’t match anything.

RDBG #4: Guild of Dungeoneering Ultimate Edition (2015)

Guild of Dungeoneering was developed by Irish developer Gambrinous on July 14th, 2015. Here, I’m going to be looking at the updated ‘Ultimate Edition’, which comes with a long list of extra features. Having not played the original base game, I’m not sure how representative this will be for anyone who played it back then. I should note that these retrospectives will typically cover the latest updates and DLC available for each game at the time of writing.

Premise and Gameplay

GoD starts out with you making a character and putting them in a tiny starting base. You go on short dungeon crawls with a view to returning alive with new goodies with which to expand the base. This unlocks new ‘dungeoneers’ of various classes, new loot to be found in dungeons, and new boons to give you advantages early in each dungeon run. There is some light and slight story to be had: your adventurer, having been deemed too incompetent to hack it at the Ivory League of Explorers, is setting up their own rival faction on an adventure that sees them taking on such threats as pirates, the Dwarven Mining Conglomerate, and monks guarding an ice cream formula.

Setting the tone right out the gate…

Combat plays out with the familiar turns being taken between you and an enemy to play cards. However, it has some peculiarities unique to its design. First, unless you have a card or equipment with the Quick feature, enemies will always go first each round, something that transformed the aggressive way I normally like playing these games, forcing me to think much more defensively through my first several runs. Secondly, damage and health numbers are much lower than in similar games. The most powerful damage dealing cards you’ll see in an early to mid-game run will likely only do around 3 points of damage at once, and a fully-levelled dungeoneer or end-of-run boss will likely only have just over 10 health points maximum. With such low numbers and blocking, physical, and magical actions being available, combat begins to resemble something like a version of rock-paper-scissors where you know what move is coming, but you can only play two of the three choices in any one round. This keeps battles and runs themselves very short and sweet; rare is the run that will take you longer than 20 minutes.

GoD’s twist on the roguelike deck-builder is that cards are not only played in combat, but also played to construct the dungeons around you as you explore. Entering a dungeon will give you a handful of often-unconnected rooms. Between battles, you can place three cards to alter both the layout of the dungeon and how your character moves around it. You don’t directly chart your adventurers’ paths – they will quite happily automatically run into a foe that outlevels them unless you divert their path by luring them elsewhere with loot. There’s almost zero depth to it, but it does provide a bit more agency and puzzle solving than just clicking on a map waypoint.

It’s generally always a good idea to place enemies the same level as you to level-up faster.

Your incentive to minimise run losses is a pseudo-permadeath whereby fallen adventurers are gone for good, and you may have to wait a further run or two for another dungeoneer of that class to sign up at your guild. This highlights a flaw in the gameplay loop: dungeoneers who survive enough runs will gain passive traits that make future runs easier, but the game can never throw anything at you that would fully engage these traits because it can’t assume that you actually have any of them. Conversely, the longer a dungeoneer survives and accumulates more and more traits, the less likely anything can kill them unless they have some bad late-game luck.

What character classes have we got on offer this time? There’s 15 to the base game and an added 6 to the Ultimate Edition, and they’re a wacky bunch. The Mime’s playstyle, for example, revolves around forcing the opponent to replay cards that they may not want to play multiple times. The Yodeller has a completely broken mechanic whereby unplayed cards become more powerful when they get reshuffled and redrawn from your deck, meaning your victory is only a matter of time unless you encounter something that outlevels you early on. Class balance doesn’t seem to have been much of a concern: some dungeoneers just won’t stand a chance in certain runs, while others trivialise most of the game (the Ultra Chump comes to mind). Unfortunately, this means that the game’s only real way of upping the difficulty in later dungeons is to put you up against harder enemies sooner, which can put you in a loop of losing several dungeoneers and just cycling through different classes until landing on one that has an easier time of it. This difficulty imbalance means the game is almost always just that little bit too easy or too annoying, with skilled play rarely being the difference that keeps you in the sweet spot.

I didn’t realise how poorly I’d slapped together my guild’s base until I took this screenshot. For shame!

Randomised Elements

The game is actually fairly light on the randomised stuff. If you fail a run, the pre-set dungeon tiles and enemies will be the same, but you can choose a different path through it. While you can develop your deck by picking up equippable armour and weapons for your hero, you can’t alter the deck that you shape your dungeon path with. You straight up never get or lose cards for this purpose. It’s understandable why you can’t, as it would likely make the game so easy as to strip the dungeon-shaping of all purpose, but it’s rarely fun when you draw a hand of room tiles that don’t fit anywhere you want to steer your hero and just have to wait for the next turn.

Fallen dungeoneers’ gravestones are sized according to how many dungeon runs they survived. Poor Yers here will not be one for the history books.

This is less of a problem with the randomness in combat, because decks are extremely small and individual cards usually only do one of six things (physical/magical attack, physical/magical block, heal, status effect) or some combination thereof. Here’s the key difference between DoG and something like Slay the Spire. The latter is infinitely playable because you’re playing for the enjoyment of engaging with the systems more than finishing the game. Guild’s 30 or so dungeons subdivided into three runs each make it very much a single-player campaign that you are playing because there is a beatable end-point to be reached. There’s nothing wrong with that, either: like Hand of Fate, it’s simply a different set of decisions on the part of the developers in where the game’s fun lies. An upside to this lack of depth, I found, is that I was almost never struck with ‘hand paralysis’ like I so often am in StS, where I have multiple viable plays at my disposal but the stakes are so high I spend far longer thinking about them than I would sometimes like. Whether or not you think this is a worthwhile tradeoff is up to you, but it is a bit of an apples-and-oranges situation in the first place.

Presentation

As you’ve likely noticed from the screenshots, the whole thing is put together with this wonderful pen-and-paper artstyle. Playing your room cards and seeing them manifest on the large graph-paper backing is charming and sometimes even oddly touching – I wonder if the developers have memories of charting maps on paper if they played Wizardry-style dungeon crawlers or using physical maps for Dungeons & Dragons. It feels too well-realised an aesthetic to simply be a throwaway visual gimmick. The handwriting-style font, the limited hand-drawn assets to make new characters from, and the humour added to most of the speech and story means that DoG really knocks it out of the park on effort if the tone clicks with you.

Defeated enemies have the ‘paper’ they are drawn on ripped to shreds – one of those authentic ‘we, the makers, care deeply’ touches that warms the heart.

Another thing that struck me is the surprising frequency of music with vocals – winning a run or unlocking new dungeons tends to bring with it a burst of bardsong accompanied by a riff on the main theme. I enjoyed it for the first half hour, but you get hit with one of these every single time you win a run, lose a run, unlock a hero, sneeze on your keyboard, anything. It started to drive me a bit mad long after it had stopped being funny. The singer pokes fun at your dungeoneers being unreliable novices, but once you’ve amassed a handful who’ve survived a few dozen runs where nothing they killed could hope to threaten them, it just comes across as being irrelevant and condescending. It’s the only part of the presentation that lets the side down, because otherwise it looks cute, has the occasional laugh, and handles very nicely with either a mouse or a controller.

Closing Remarks

Dungeoneering is not a game you will stick with for its deep gameplay or replayability, but you will quite easily get your money’s worth. I think there’s a real place for a roguelike deck-builder that is on the less mentally-taxing side with its strategy. This one was a real joy to pick up and blast through a dungeon or four after a long day at work. When I’m tired, I don’t always have the galaxy-brain energy to have a go at some of the more challenging (if better-rounded) games in this genre. Sadly, its difficulty and class balancing problems will keep it from being a genre stand-out, but there’s good, simple fun to be had and none of the transparent cynicism behind its creation from the average Slay the Spire quick-buck clone we’ll be seeing soon enough.

Standout Cards

The funny thing about DoG’s cards is that they are often really basic, and several don’t even have words – simply icons representing common actions like healing, attacking before opponents, and so on. This makes cards extremely quick and easy to read in gameplay, but a little harder to choose standouts. The obvious thing to do would just be to fill this section with the ones with the biggest damage or blocking numbers, but where’s the fun in that?

Dealing two physical damage before the enemy does anything may not seem particularly fantastic, but Eyes Closed Punch has won more fights than any other card I think I used the whole game. Finishing off something nasty quickly, even if it can block for one damage, is always worth keeping in your back pocket.
Two unblockable magic damage is already great, but trapping your opponent in a card they don’t really want to play twice in a row? Priceless.
Fourth-tier cards are generally all ridiculously good, but blocking all physical damage while adding an extra two damage to your next physical attack makes this a no-brainer to pick every time you come across it.

RDBG #3: Hand of Fate (2015)

The third entry to meet my criteria is already one of the more unique: it is as much an action RPG as it is a roguelike deck-builder. Released through Steam Early Access on July 7th, 2014 and receiving a finished build on February 17th, 2015, Hand of Fate was crowdfunded by its Australian developer Defiant Development. It received a sequel in 2017, and its use of reflex-dependent combat makes it a take on deck-building that still feels special in 2022.

Premise and Gameplay

Hand of Fate pits the player against ‘The Dealer’, a mysterious cloaked figure who serves as antagonist, opponent and narrator. Upon starting a run, the player and the Dealer mix together cards of their own choosing to form a deck that serves as both a game board and resource system for the third-person combat encounters (think of a very stripped down Arkham Asylum or Bayonetta). With a number of these cards set face down on the table, the player chooses a path from card to card, turning them over and triggering choose-your-own-adventure-style events, traps, rewards and encounters in the hopes of finding the one that allows them to exit the area and progress to the next one until either the boss or player is defeated.

The Dealer in the midst of mixing an upsetting number of encounters into the shared deck.

The choose-your-own-adventure comparison is apt. You don’t play cards against each other. Rather, each card you choose will outline a scenario your adventurer finds themselves in and then present you with choices (often luck-based to resolve) to decide the outcome. For example, the Hero’s Remains card sees you coming across a funeral for another adventurer and you are asked to return their sword and shield to their hometown. Your options include using them for yourself or returning them to their rightful place for a different reward – both options will curse you if you don’t reach their hometown card quickly enough. Resolving a card’s scenario in a certain way often unlocks ‘sequel’ cards that build on the scenario or its relevant characters if you add them to your deck for future runs. Given this piecemeal approach to narrative, you won’t learn a lot about the totality of Hand of Fate’s world by the time you finish, but the vignette approach always keeps you wondering what’s waiting behind your next step.

Card scenarios oscillate between darkly humourous to… just dark.

Further variation is added by choosing a ‘fate’ before the run – functionally a character class, but with the potential to run into unique scenarios or cards. The Wildcard DLC pack adds an additional 9 fates, with some really out-there variations. One of my favourites is Iron Hunger, who eats equipment instead of food, a resource needed for movement and healing. I got through a significant chunk of the game with your bog-standard adventurer, but whoever you choose, it isn’t going to transform the experience of combat as significantly as choosing a different class in Slay the Spire or Dream Quest does. You will still be whacking a lot of things in real-time.

Let’s talk about that action combat a bit. It’s not the deepest of its type, but I would argue that you probably do not want to overcomplicate the twitch combat when the card gameplay is having such an impact on how you take and receive damage. When a fight starts, you will be put up against a number of foes. Options include dodging, deflecting projectiles, and using artefacts gained from cards that create effects like calling lightning onto enemies or temporarily repelling damage. Incoming attacks can sometimes be dodged or countered with a well-timed button press, but when you’re getting properly ganged up on by six or more enemies, it’s often better to try to split them up and defeat them one-on-one. End-of-run boss fights are decently challenging, but late game battles can get a bit frustrating if you stumble across enemies before you’ve had much chance to gain adequate equipment.

Defeating the last enemy in an encounter triggers a ludicrous slo-mo effect as their body ragdolls in reaction to whatever you last did to them. Hilarious.

Randomised Elements

This is the first game we’ve seen that lets you have some direct selection of what cards may show up over a run before it begins. These runs are not totally random every time. If you choose the same ‘chapter’ multiple times, you will gain a sense of what cards The Dealer is going to shuffle in, and as such get an idea of what threats you will come across and prepare your portion of the deck accordingly. The main story takes place over twelve of these chapters, and I was having a reasonably easy time until the final three chapters, at which point the The Dealer takes the gloves off and shuffles in some real beasts to ruin your day. Even if you know they’re coming, you just hope that they come your way in such an order that you can pick up some good resources first.

Herein lies the key weakness to HoF’s deck-building, which is that you rarely need to do any deck-building of your own. Completing a run will usually unlock a handful of new cards for future runs, and it wasn’t until multiple run failures near the end of the game that I started trying to actually make my own decks. Before then, I was more than happy to hit the ‘Recommend’ button and just have the game rotate in the new, often strictly-better ‘sequels’ of cards that I’d just used from my previous run. Because there’s rarely much headscratching to be had over composing your deck, this makes it all the more apparent that you are at the mercy of luck in later runs – if I’m already outfitted with both what I and the game think are my best cards, why is there such disparity in how far I get before getting crushed in multiple runs of the same late-game chapter? It could be that I’m not particularly good at the combat, but I’ve been playing action games a lot longer than I have deck-builders, and it wasn’t until the end of the game that I started needing multiple runs to beat chapters. The game gets a lot harsher with health and resource penalties and throwing up inopportune encounters that you’re in no state to fight. Patience becomes a greater asset than skill at this point.

The artwork is wonderful. Even though I didn’t do a lot of deck-building, I found myself here a lot just to admire the cards.

Presentation

Seven years down the line, you can still crank the settings on Hand of Fate and have it looking very nice. Some odd lighting decisions oversaturate bosses and darken their surroundings during their intros, which is a shame as they represent some of the game’s more interesting visual design. Great care has clearly been taken to have the game feel like a one-on-one with a mysterious opponent who only gives you glimpses of their personality and worldview as time goes on, helped in no small part by the wonderful voice acting of Anthony Skordi. Seams begin to show the longer you play. The Dealer will start repeating his clips of dialogue sooner or later, and while it doesn’t break immersion it may become a little wearing to hear a repeated observation on your fifth or sixth attempt of a late-game run. Lastly, I have nowhere else suitable to add this, but I insist on drawing attention to it: upon defeating the Queen of Rats, The Dealer warns you that “a million half-orphaned rats will fall upon you like a tide of horror”. What an excellent quote. I dream of quitting a job with a line like that at the ready.

The Jack of Skulls does in fact have a face, you just wouldn’t know it from his intro, where he’s apparently in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

I’d also like to give credit to Jeff van Dyck’s score, exciting and understated in equal measure. It does a great job of adding tension to fights but also knows when and how far to take its foot off the tempo for a hint of ambience when you’re simply choosing your next path. One bit of cinematic flair that I find never stops being thrilling is the shuffling of your deck together with The Dealer’s upon starting a new run, which is accompanied by a galloping bit of acoustic guitar work. Like a good TV intro, it really gets the hype going for another instalment.

Closing Remarks

Hand of Fate is worth your time if you want a more visceral interaction with your deck-builder. In particular, its early to mid-game, when it still has a lot of new events and equipment for you to try out, makes for compulsive playing. However, it is strange for a game in this genre to feel this apparently mechanically shallow or offer this little replay value. Beyond beating story mode, assuming one has the patience to power through several unlucky endgame runs, all that remains is Endless mode if you really like the experience on offer, and that’s about it. The DLC classes offer some interesting twists, but I think the game’s world and tone would really have to click with you personally to keep you coming back after beating it. I’m very much looking forward to seeing which of these rougher edges the 2017 sequel rounds off. With some further refinement, I think there’s a real winner of a concept to be found here.

Standout Cards

Mister Lionel becomes a recurring character throughout many of the game’s cards, often making dangerous propositions in the hopes of mutual gain. This one often shows up early in runs, providing a basic reward and a little levity. We never get the whole story behind Mister Lionel, but we don’t need it – it just makes for good flavour.
Several other cards hint that the game’s world is grim, populated largely by the doomed. The Lonely Bard is a follow-up to The Lovers and Angry Guild Master cards. He has become an alcoholic after the woman you helped him escape town with abandoned him. Fail to pay him coin and he plays a song so bad it lowers your maximum health.
Maze of Traps is quite special because it triggers mazes that must be navigated via the combat engine. They can be a tad overdesigned, but they demonstrate an initiative for using gameplay mechanics in ways other than their basic intent, which is to be applauded.

RDBG #2: Dream Quest (2014)

Our first game to explicitly use actual cards in its deck-building is Dream Quest, a largely one-man project by Peter Whalen originally released as a mobile game on iOS in 2014. Today we’re looking at its PC port, released on May 14th, 2014, according to Steam (I have no date for the iOS release). Having to click an X to close boxes and not being able to use arrow keys for movement betray its touchscreen origins, but it’s playable enough with a mouse. Having the UI elements spread out over a high resolution display partly makes up for the slightly rough edges retained in the transition from mobile.

Premise and Gameplay

Players must descend through three levels of grid-based dungeons, encountering enemies, shopping at stores that provide cards or alter your deck, and other such interactions. If you’ve played Slay the Spire – an assumption I feel fairly safe in making if you’re reading these posts – you may be very surprised just how similar it is. There’s not a lot going on plotwise, other than an amusing little bit of between-floor flavour text that randomises some of its adjectives and nouns every run.

Actually, these provide some hints about what the floor boss is – so not that random!

Engage an enemy in combat and you will take turns drawing and playing cards collected throughout the dungeon until one of you dies. There’s several things to keep track of, but it isn’t overwhelming. Are you playing enough mana to be able to use powerful spells? Are you focusing on passive abilities granted by equippables, or do you prefer card effects themselves? Are you building your deck around blocking and healing damage, or are you trying to raise your chances of dodging it outright? 

Your run begins with you choosing one of four starting classes (but there’s many more to unlock): Priest, Wizard, Thief, and Warrior, each with their own unique gameplay twists. Priests and Wizards are fragile but are able to use powerful mana-limited healing or attacking spells, while Thieves and Warriors focus more on the quantity or power of their attacking cards. Further to this are class-specific talents which, once used, need to be recharged after a number of encounters. Warriors can ‘smash’ one tile of dungeon walls to potentially open new paths, while Priests can illuminate dangers and treasures anywhere in the dungeon. With over 300 unique cards, there is a lot of scope for different builds with different classes. The catch is that the learning curve for a sense of what those builds may actually be is steep and can take several runs. If the gameplay gets its hooks into you, then that’s no problem, but without a tutorial or suggestions for what directions to take certain characters in, unpeeling the onion with trial and error will either engage or frustrate you. Regardless of what strategy or class you go with, I found it best to try to choose it early and stick with it. Bosses and elites are punishing and have passive abilities that can come down hard on an unprepared deck. I must give credit that many enemies have elemental resistances, an added consideration when collecting cards and something I’ve yet to see in any other roguelike deck-builder. With card draw and hand size being so limited early on, it is better to have a deck that does one or two things well rather than just picking up every powerful card that comes your way.

Randomised Elements

Randomised elements include the positions of enemies, card drops, and the layouts of each dungeon floor, which is obscured in a ‘fog of war’ that hides potentially dangerous encounters. Your character’s name is also randomised each time, which is amusing.

The whole thing has a very homebrew feel to it, but with gameplay depth that would humble a lot of current-gen triple-A stuff.

At times, it’s a game where you definitely feel the forces of luck, but I found it to giveth and taketh in fairly equal measure. My more fruitful runs were usually those wherein the first or second floors had more than one healing monastery or upgrade spot. Your first heal or upgrade is free, but subsequent patronage costs gold. However, if there are multiples of the same kind of location on the same floor, you can bounce between both and save money. Likewise, some runs will grant you a powerful card or two early on that you can really anchor the rest of your deck around. When playing as the Warrior, I will generally look for something that will increase deck draw – you can play as many action cards as you like without resource restrictions, and there’s something really enjoyable about cards doing additional damage because you’ve just played so damn many of them.

On the other hand, several runs ended before having a realistic shot of getting off the ground due to having no real direction in the deck, or getting stuck fighting an enemy that you’re just plain underleveled for or have nothing in your deck to target their weaknesses with. The bosses do not mess around and there will be times you get forced into a fight you feel a good level or two away from standing a good shot of winning. The wizard has the ability to teleport around the map, but doing so risks putting him in areas he can’t escape unless through opponents that significantly outlevel him. Generally however, enemy encounters feel well designed, and the game gives you plenty of those exciting sat-upright ‘how-am-I-gonna-get-outta-this’ moments when something shows up with a surprising attack or passive ability. Even your worst run will have you feeling like it was partly your own fault for not having made better decisions, and you do take away spendable points, so your time is rarely wasted. In fact, you can even use a ton of these points to restart your run from the start of the floor you died on, so even when your run ends, there’s still interesting decision-making to be had. 

Death comes for us all, just for me more often than most.

Presentation

Unfortunately, no mention of Dream Quest can get around the topic of its artwork. I don’t want to harp on about it, but I think it’s safe to say it is probably the deciding factor that truly held back its chances to be a breakout indie hit before Slay the Spire came along. Even in 2014, indie games lived or died by their ability to get a viral foot in the door. The sketch-like character portraits (suggested by online commenters to have been done by Peter Whalen’s daughter; I could not find a source for this) and stickman card art (by Whalen himself) essentially guaranteed the game would not be looked at twice by many. 

More’s the pity, really, because several of them, like Choke here, are very funny.

A lesser whinged-about element of its presentation, funnily, is the music. The limited selection of tracks here are either merely suitable at best or curiously inappropriate (the ‘cloud’ area music comes to mind). Anyone who watches too much YouTube may recognise one or two of Kevin MacLeod’s royalty-free bangers putting in some work. There are no sound effects at all, save for a rather satisfying level-up fanfare. You will be wanting your own background noise after the first few hours, really. Nevertheless, let your eyes get used to your first run or three, and you will soon stop caring about the cosmetics. Indeed, the MS Paint-esque card art actually has a minimalist purity to it – the majority are basic stickmen or weapons that convey what they are at a glance. 

Closing Remarks

Go into Dream Quest with reasonably adjusted expectations and I think you may be surprised how fully-featured it is. By this, I mean that in spite of its appearances, it already features a surprising number of the gameplay elements that we take for granted in more modern examples from the genre. Most nouns and verbs that have particular terminology definitions have clickable tooltips explaining what they mean. Passive abilities and new cards are unlocked upon losing a run (play on harder difficulties to speed this up). ‘Elite’ enemies and optional events are hidden around the maps; a risk-reward staple of the genre. Dream Quest lacks the presentational or mechanical onboarding it needed to get curious people or genre newcomers through the door in its own time, but to see so many of the staple elements of the genre present and accounted for at such an early stage makes it no harder to enjoy now than it was then. It’s no less rich an experience than playing Slay the Spire with beta art.

Standout Cards

The Priest can play Prayer cards, which let you choose how many turns later you want its effect to kick in, becoming more powerful the longer you wait. It’s quite a unique gameplay mechanic, and you can build viable decks around several of these with other cards that trigger them early. 

There’s a lot of cards in the game that focus on card draw, but Rallying Stroke’s 2-cards-2-damage always make it a welcome sight. Attack cards don’t cost any resource to play, and whittling an enemy down by drawing and playing card after card is great fun.

I mean, look at it. It’s Wrath of God. You may not like this art, but there is a certain humour in its simplicity. These stickmen go through some pretty awful stuff!


RDBG #1: Coin Crypt (2013)

There isn’t a ton of material out there making claims as to what the ‘first’ roguelike deck-builder may be. This Verge article points to Peter Whalen’s 2014 mobile game Dream Quest (as “the “watershed” moment for the modern iteration of the genre”. Likewise, Joshua Byer’s Game Design Deep Dives: Roguelikes submits that “Dream Quest is viewed by many as the progenitor for deck-building roguelikes.” As an original game that explicitly combines card deck-building with randomised adventure elements, it seems fairly sound to call Dream Quest the first of its kind. We’ll be looking at it in the next post. However, it isn’t isn’t quite the oldest game that meets my criteria

According to data trawlers SteamDB and Steamspy, the earliest released game with the tag ‘Roguelike Deckbuilder’ is a game called Coin Crypt, developed by Greg Lobanov and released through Steam Early Access on November 18th, 2013. There may yet be something before this that meets my rules and either didn’t receive a Steam release or slipped through the cracks of my search engine hunt. Nevertheless, I feel fairly confident in taking Coin Crypt as a starting point and will happily entertain debate on alternatives. (Not to get into the weeds here, but sometimes I wonder how many hobbyist prototypes, unfinished demos, or notebook ideas of things we would now recognise as a roguelike deck-builder may be out there that predate Coin Crypt.)

Premise and Gameplay

Somewhere in the Pacific, the lost ruins of a ‘coin civilisation’ have been uncovered, luring ‘lootmancers’ to do battle in a bid for the ultimate treasures at their highest peaks and deepest depths. The Rogue influence is readily apparent in Coin Crypt’s overworld. In a single run, players traverse several worlds divided into three randomised stages occupied by enemies, shopkeepers, and hidden secrets. Coins are required to do almost anything – they function as your battle actions, currency, and health. Using up all your coins is a lose condition akin to ‘decking out’ in a physical CCG, immediately ending the run. Funnily enough, you can also defeat enemies like this, although doing so means you won’t win those coins as loot. Coins aren’t just single-use in battle, they’re single-use for good – so keeping your deck (purse?) topped-up while being careful not to fill it with turn-wasters is paramount.

You can see what enemy attacks are incoming, but if you’re able to regularly do that while choosing your best coin, you may have two brains or at least four eyes.

The one-on-one battles play out similarly to Active Time Battles in the Final Fantasy series – turn-based, but with factors affecting how quickly and often those turns come about for both sides. Once selected, some coins take longer for their effect to trigger than others. You can only draw a few coins from your ‘deck’ into your hand each round, and you must work out which one to play ASAP. Fast choices minimise damage and maximise loot from foes. Multiple coins can be played simultaneously if you draw more than one of the same kind, and you can forfeit a turn for a redraw if you’d rather save certain drawn coins for another time. This may sound like an awful lot to be keeping track of, but it makes for very short, addictive battles that demand good, quick decision-making that anticipates future moves or even battles.

Failed runs reward players by allowing them to redeem the total value of coins gained during their run for new character classes, and there’s a lot of them: 20 classes to the base game and 7 in the one DLC package, Sea and Sky, which also adds new overworld areas and rewards. Granted, their individual differences do not always completely transform playstyles in the way the four Slay the Spire classes are so different from one another, and the game’s difficulty is radically altered by who you pick. Still, there’s a lot of novelty and challenge to be had – I find myself drawn to the Assassin, who hits hard but can’t heal well, and the Wizard, who regains multiple copies of coins used in battle but also simultaneously loses ones at random from their deck.

New classes and coins are unlocked thick and fast, even for this genre.

An admission – I love this genre, but I’m not very good at it! It took me 10 hours to even beat the game once, and even then with a non-standard class (the Wizard) using an alternative coin bag (one that makes you likelier to pick up damage-dealing coins). In that time I unlocked every character class you can with coins from failed runs. Nevertheless, I feel it fair to say that the game is a little cryptic (ha!) about some of its mechanics. For one, you can offer coins to deities, who in return will grant you certain coins or debuff enemies. I completely ignored them for my first several runs because I was more concerned about loss by deck-out, unaware that they were buffing later enemies in anger for my lack of piety.  Shop items often seem very expensive given that coins are also your literal lifeblood. Lastly, the ‘blessing’ system, which gives you a selection of buffs that always come with a debuff, almost always felt too punitive to risk using. Which of these are balancing or difficulty curve failings and which of these are just my own ineptitude will vary by the player, of course. Whether these mechanics enrich or frustrate is one thing, but they will be a part of the decision-making in every run, so they bear mentioning.

Randomised Elements

Besides enemy and loot chest placement, the levels of Coin Crypt are made up of randomly put-together hallways and rooms. Players have some decent agency in their exploration. If you want to make a mad dash for each level’s exit, losing as few coins on the way as possible, you can do that. If you feel like your coin build benefits from fighting everything you come across, you can do that, too. If you’re able to unlock certain barriers, you can even take alternate paths to plumb the ruins’ depths rather than scale their heights, leading to different enemies, coins, bosses and so forth. On the other hand, the randomisation sometimes led to my runs ending long before they ever even got off the ground, and when a run started going south, I rarely felt able to delay failure for much longer. I’m not sure if this is an overdependence on random number generation to draw good coins or if certain classes just have a harder time building up steam than others, but it was rarely so discouraging a loss that I didn’t want to jump right back in.

Donating to deities will make certain coins more or less common as loot from these chest ghosts.

Presentation

So yes, some minor issues, but the compulsion inherent to the gameplay loop is very powerful and is reflected in the sound and visuals. There’s a palpably sweet tension in choosing a coin and hoping it pops off before the enemy’s, and the accompanying sound effects of a bunch of loot being dropped into your bag upon victory (essentially extending a time limit on your survival) brings relief. Seeing the little ‘NEW!’ tag next to a shiny coin you haven’t seen before satisfies the primate brain, as is then immediately weighing up whether or not it plays nicely with everything else you’re currently rolling with.

The colours and UI elements are bold and bright. In a world of mostly cuboid elements, the coins are a real standout – there is intrinsic satisfaction in seeing the not-actually-3D coins in your deck spinning around. The hard edges and flat colours can lose their flavour after a while, but the hand-drawn character and enemy art gives the game’s visual elements a certain unity and timelessness. Also, being able to directly WASD-key your character around RPG-style rather than simply clicking on waypoints between scenarios is very involving, especially if you really can’t afford to get into a fight when you’re bleeding coins.

An aside on the coin design. Unlike most games in this genre, taking your time with your movemaking is actively discouraged, so being able to identify what each coin does the instant it gets drawn is very important. Coin Crypt’s solution is to have the shapes, iconography and colours of the coins broadly reflect what they do. Damage-dealing coins, for example, will generally either be red in colour, have spiked edges, or feature a sword icon. Healing coins are typically blue or feature cross-shaped edges or icons. More exotic damage or healing coins may only feature one or two of these elements, but as long as you recognise one of them immediately it should give your brain the quick hint it needs to recall what it does. With 201 coins to the base game and another 100 in the DLC, they don’t all perfectly follow an internal consistency (as attested to by this ‘coin encyclopaedia’) but I rarely found myself totally stumped by what a coin did upon drawing it. Unfortunately, in the instances I did forget what a coin did in battle, I found that the reminder tooltips could sometimes get obscured by other rapidly-changing UI elements when you hover over them – not ideal in the middle of a frantic battle that could be your last. Regardless, the point I’m striving for here is that many roguelike deck-builders can consider the art that comes with their cards to be a luxury or visual afterthought to their gameplay utility. For Coin Crypt, the coin design is integral to its playability.

Closing Remarks

These retrospectives are not intended to be reviews, but I would like to encourage people to try out the ones I enjoy as I go along. Coin Crypt‘s sheer combat speed alone makes it worth seeing if it’s something you like. The compulsion to always be casting coins removes the indecision paralysis that sometimes puts people off card games. While its systems and synergies are a bit opaque for your first several runs, you will eventually find a handful of classes or strategies you enjoy that bring you closer to endgame runs if you stick with it. (Also, I’m stunned it isn’t available on mobiles – the large coins and mouse-click-navigable environments at times make it feel like it was designed from the ground-up for such a thing!)

Standout Cards

An ongoing closing feature I’ll include here will be cards (or in this case, coins) that have stuck with me for whatever reason during my time with the game. These aren’t my suggestions for the best cards, simply ones that may have served me well, are cosmetically interesting, or have some other noteworthy quality.

Healing and damage dealing at the same time makes the Bat Pence an extremely valuable spammable on any run with a class that lets you keep or duplicate coins.
A little two-for-one to display the coin design at its most intuitive (and cute). The two sharp points or cross arms denote its minimum value, while the coin’s six main edges represent its maximum. The colors and shapes suggest damage dealing and healing respectively. Again, not all coins in the game are this effortless to ‘read’, but when they do, it impresses.
Poor Jack’s 10-to-hit, 2-to-cast costing make it a standout example of the risk-reward deckbuilding. The temptation to have as little in your deck as possible except these can easily lead to doom when you skimp on shielding and healing coins to keep them strong.

Roguelike Deck-building Games – A Chronological Exploration

I enjoy retrospectives that go through a topic in chronological order, especially for video games, a medium that is nothing if not iterative. I thought I’d start off using this space to examine the young but increasingly popular roguelike deck-building subgenre, in release order (or as close as is possible to determine). 

A hasty author’s rendering of some familiar roguelike deck-building game elements using the player’s avatar of Rogue (1985), including a deck, a hand of actions, and an enemy of some sort.

To start, some criteria a game should meet to be up for consideration here: 

  1. ‘Roguelike’: The game must prominently feature randomisation in how it offers exploration, skills, combat, and so on – with the intent of encouraging multiple runs and alternative playstyles.
  2. ‘Deck-building’: The game doesn’t necessarily have to feature cards per se, but the gameplay must prominently feature a mechanic similar to managing a loadout of cards in a collectible card game. For example, you should be able to gain and lose skills as gameplay progresses; there should be limitations on how these skills are gained, deployed, etc.
  3. ‘(Video) Game’: The game must be an original video game, rather than a digital adaptation of an existing physical card or board game.

Going by these, I’m going to start with 2013’s Coin Crypt. 2013 may seem surprisingly recent, but to my knowledge Coin Crypt is the first game that meets my criteria (please get in touch if you think differently). Remove the roguelike requirement, and we would have a few original deck-builder video games from the late 1990s, such as Chron X and Sanctum. Even with the requirement for it to be an ‘original’ video game, anything I will cover here will carry some influence from Magic: The Gathering or one of its mid-late ‘90s collectible card-game progeny, such as Netrunner or the Pokemon Trading Card Game. Perhaps the key inspiration for roguelike deck-building gameplay would be the 2008 board game Dominion. While the resource management can be traced to Magic’s mana system, Dominion has players build decks from cards semi-randomly collected as play progresses. As such, the key distinction for the roguelike deck-builder is in players finding emergent deck possibilities in cards that work well together as they collect and use them, rather than having time to plan a synergistic deck before battle begins.

Ultimately, the rabbit hole on projects like this can be made ever wider, but for the sake of relevance and manageability I’m casting a fairly narrow net. Even if we went all the way back to the genre namesake of Rogue (1985), that in itself was inspired by other mainframe computer takes on Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn was inspired by tabletop wargaming, which in turn was… it can’t be ruled out that all human culture probably stems from enjoyment found in swinging sticks at one another, or somesuch.


To conclude this introductory post: rather than an attempt to divine the exact genesis of the roguelike deck-builder, the aim here is to chronicle points of interest, similarity, difference, and evolution in a subgenre that saw an explosion of popularity with the early-access release of Slay the Spire in 2017 and continues to see a fascinating degree of variation in the wake of its success, even within my fairly fixed gameplay criteria. First game to follow.

Stop, Blog and Roll

With every passing year, you could say starting a blog becomes exponentially more futile. However,  this is late 2022. Twitter feels increasingly like a death cult chanting about its own demise until it finally comes about, and with Meta spending irresponsible sums on glorified Zoom calls that take ten times more effort at incalculably more expense, who knows how much longer Meta will be about. Gradually, we are wandering back out into the wild, exploring alternatives like Cohost and returning to long-abandoned haunts like Tumblr. Me, I’m hoping this might be a good time for people, me included, to get back into non-microblogging. Macroblogging? — ah no… just blogging.

Well that’s OK, I thought. I’m sure blog-making sites are probably pretty good by now, I’ve dabbled in the past. I got a WordPress account going again. For fun, I thought I’d whack in a blogroll as a sidebar, as you do. I could not. The easy widget functionality to add such a thing is just straight-up gone. I’ve just spent an hour and can’t do it, and the infinite and immediate gratification of social media is still right there, that’s not good. I’m in danger of having my goldfish attention span and willpower gone before I’ve even made a post worth reading.

Blogrolls were great. Half the stuff I ever found online worth sticking with as a teenager were found hopping from one blogroll to another. Found a bunch of great writers, retrospectives, webcomics, and album fileshares without even really trying, and it felt like a much more social and organic means of finding new stuff without the clumsy, ever-felt hand of the algorithm driving things to you, and by the way here’s an inscrutable foreign mobile game you ought to try and seeing as you’re worried about your hair lately, try some of this VPN—

In themselves, blogrolls were the spiritual successor to webrings, and also served a similar function as a nice hat-tip to blog authors you respected. There was also a sense that your posts could well be part of someone else’s breadcrumb journey of random blog-hopping. Blogrolls were like a bookmark bar that you shared with others; you were more likely to stay on top of them more regularly than passively clicking a ‘follow’ or ‘subscribe’ button (themselves now transparently nothing more than engagement measurement tools, now that you also have to click a bell or whatever nonsense to even get them to function like how they are named). Now that you yourself were wearing a link to something like a band patch, you had a tiny stake in keeping current with it, making sure it was still great or even just updating, because someone may associate it as being something that you endorsed, or was at least in your sphere of interests.

Anyway, blogrolls: no match for recommendations made on the back of trillions of gathered impressions – but then again I’m a human being, not an advertiser. The thought that I’m nostalgically romanticising a very small part of my early internet experience isn’t lost on me. If only I could get one going again just to make sure.

Bagsy

This is a start – taking the cellophane off a new TV, so to speak. More to follow.