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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: