RDBG #10: Hand of Fate 2 (2017)

Released on November 7th, 2017, Hand of Fate 2 is the first direct sequel we’ve seen to something covered here. Unbeknownst to me at the time of writing about the first game, it is also Australian dev Defiant Development’s final game – the company went defunct in July 2019. Founder Morgan Jaffit has chalked their closure up to a failure to adapt to the changing nature of the game market and the risks taken in making their games. Ultimately, it sounds like the games weren’t selling enough to recoup what they were spending on making them. This is deeply unfortunate, because the Hand of Fate games are some of the most polished and graphically impressive things we’re likely to see in this genre, and the refinements made to the game’s formula make it easy to recommend over its already enjoyable predecessor.

Premise and Gameplay

Largely being an enhancement of the first Hand of Fate’s formula, I will not go back over much of the background in my post on the first game. In brief, the Dealer, having suffered his first loss at your hands in the first game, returns to narrate your traversal through “22 paths of wisdom and despair”. As before, you navigate your way around a card-based game board, managing resources and equipment as you make choose-your-own-adventure style story decisions and fight enemies in real-time action rather than turn-based card combat. Rather than collecting and playing cards during a run, you select a pool of cards you may or may not come across during the run, affecting the equipment and scenarios you will encounter.

He’s back, and he’s not best pleased. He will, however, let you choose to be a woman this time around.

The biggest modification is the expansion of the concept from simply surviving a run to taking risks through exploration. The object of the original game was to endure movement around the board long enough to get to the next floor, eventually reaching and defeating a boss. Exploration is now encouraged by walling off access to the boss until certain criteria are met. There are different extents to which runs can be completed, as well. Many will deem you successful if you rout the boss, but extra rewards can be obtained for completing all the objectives.

You aren’t adventuring alone anymore, either: you can have a companion alongside you. Companions offer a variety of support, such as using ranged magic or acting as a secondary melee attacker to draw enemy attention while you focus on walloping someone else. Enemies now have different resistances and weaknesses to certain equipment, and you can even unlock further benefits from your weapons by using them a set number of times in a specific way. This helps to mitigate a problem with the previous game where equipment choice was almost always a no-brainer exercise in sticking to the weapons and armour with the highest stats.

New enemies, bosses, and even your own character when you enter a fight with new equipment trigger a splash screen with a few details.

Combat is still melee focused and feels a little more responsive this time around. Little icons appear if an enemy can be hit with a special or finishing move, which I’m grateful for because it used to be easy to forget to ever use them and just hammer the normal attack button if things got hairy. You will likely still do a lot of that anyway, but with the greater variety in enemy types, you are encouraged to at least think about changing your approach from time to time. Your character still does the thing where they will ‘slide’ toward the nearest enemy in range if you press attack but you aren’t close to anyone, as though ice skating in their direction, but it isn’t as egregiously obvious. I don’t think it does anything particularly innovative or exciting to sell you on this style of combat if you aren’t already a fan of it, but I think credit should be given that this is still a novel form of engagement for this early in the genre.

Other improvements may not be apparent unless you played the original. A big one for me was the moment I noticed that travelling over previous-visited spaces no longer consumes food, enabling exploration greatly. You can now camp at any time to restore health and trade for items, but the risk of running out of food and starving remains. On the whole, a greater amount of important decision-making is on offer at any one time, and that’s usually a good thing.

Hilariously, the ONLY way to defeat gnomes is to kick them in the face.

Randomised Elements

Not a whole lot new on this front, but there are two things I deem worth bringing up here. The first game had a bit of a difficulty issue whereby 85% of the campaign missions could be fairly easily blasted through on your first try if you were good enough at the action combat and were careful with your equipment, until the last two or three missions stonewalled you by making you likelier to come across bad cards that sapped your health and resources, leaving you in poor stead for the boss fight. This has been addressed by rebalancing the difficulty curve. I started getting game overs around the 5-6 mission mark, but these were rarely things that couldn’t be overcome without a little more thought about rebuilding my deck and a second try. By endgame, you are spending a good bit of time before a run choosing exactly what you hope to come across in your deck instead of just hitting the ‘Recommend’ button and hoping for good RNG, as it now makes more of a difference.

The tone of the first game remains in tact – equal parts grim and grimly funny.

Another feature that I think may be more controversial is the addition of more purely luck-based minigames on top of the random success-failure cards from the first game (which also make a return appearance here). The most curious of these is a dice game, where you roll three dice and must beat a certain number for a positive outcome. This is novel the first time you play it, but because the only action you can take if you fail is to reroll one dice, it quickly becomes uninvolving. I can think of an easy way that this could have been improved: have the Dealer roll against you (perhaps within a certain range) and have the result of his roll hidden until you make your own, not unlike rolling against your DM in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Perhaps there was a development reason they wanted these instances to have a definite hard-set number you must pass, but as it stands, there’s little engagement to it, especially as you can’t quit partway through.


It’s hard to tell in static screenshots, but a lot of care has been taken to liven up enemy encounters and locations. Enemy typing is a lot more diverse now, and I’m happy to notice that the lighting has better direction now, meaning you can get a much better look at the models now. Your own character’s appearance and clothing is now even partly customisable. The font is less ye-olde-traditional looking, but it is much more immediately readable, which is definitely the right call to make for a text-heavy game.

It gives me great pleasure to report that the last enemy defeated in a fight will still ragdoll away from you in slo-mo, now accompanied by VERY over-the-top victory music.

The vocal performance of Anthony George Skordi as the Dealer is once again the standout here. I honestly think the HoF games would only be half of what they are without this character, and that’s very unusual for a genre that lives or dies by its gameplay mechanics. HoF2 is a great example of how a little bit of good writing goes a long way to keeping someone coming back to a game, and the Dealer’s voice samples invite you to consider the worldview of the game beyond what’s simply written on the cards. At times aloof and condescending while always waxing philosophical, he seems to equally delight and despair when you overcome his challenges. Lines like “I never understood the duel. If you’re at war, use every tool at your disposal. If you’re not, let things lie” give you a bit of a window into his mindset but he’s every bit the enigma he was in the first game. I also noticed a bit less repetition in his voice clips between runs, which greatly helps his credibility as a ringleader overseeing your whole journey.

Jeff van Dyck returns on the OST, doing a spectacular job staying within the tone and motifs of the first game while expanding on the instrumentation. Voices, wind instruments and acoustic guitars get more of a look in here. Surprisingly, some of the tracks border on Zimmeresque bombast. Defeating any encounter brings with it an almost deafening celebratory blast of synthy horns. I’m personally delighted that winning a run brings with it a new but equally exciting guitar piece while you pore over the spoils you can carry into future runs. I’m going to make a point of looking into other games purely on the basis of his scores.

RNG minigames return with greater variety, if varying quality.

Closing Remarks

It saddens me to think that this is perhaps the last we’ll see from Hand of Fate as a series. I think 2 came very close to perfecting its formula. Having said that, given how hyper-competitive the indie space is, perhaps we should be grateful it even got a sequel with this much love and refinement to begin with. There’s three packs of DLC I have yet to dive into. Quite honestly, I actually would like to keep them to one side as a treat. I know that it’s only a matter of time before I will get the itch to challenge the Dealer once again.

Standout Cards

Cards in HoF2 are significantly more involved than their predecessor. As such, the compendium doesn’t offer up full details of a card’s dialogue or functions – those surprises are saved for the game itself. The compendium simply shows how cards can affect a run mechanically.

Unrest in Ironpeak probably demonstrates this best. I’ve kept it in my deck every run I’ve been on and still haven’t unlocked its ‘completion’ token. As you can see, if can confer up four different boons and one literal curse, but in order to see everything this card does, you would need to satisfy four different requirements in four different runs.
Companions are a new addition to HoF2. Keturah of The Hunter card is my favourite. Not only can she fire at things from a cooldown, but her bullets also pierce through multiple enemies, which is great if you can line them up.
Even with the action combat, there is no one universally ‘good’ weapon. Different enemies carry different resistances, and while there’s a lot of smaller, nimbler things you’ll come across that can handily evade Hretha’s Ire here, the shockwave and fast it can smash through things that give most other weapons a lot of bother is very satisfying.

RDBG #9: Monster Slayers (2017)

Monster Slayers has a little history that goes beyond even the earliest-released game we’ve looked at on this blog. Its roots lie in a 2010 browser game on Kongregate with the same name, which you can play for yourself here. Mechanically, this 2017 overhaul (released on March 23rd) doesn’t have a lot to do with that earlier game, despite some surface resemblances. While it does share a good deal of that Newgrounds-era Flash charm in its character designs, the original had none of the deckbuilding, so I’m not going to be making any further comparisons between the two. Both were developed by Malaysian one-man-studio Nerdook Productions. We’ve seen a good few small-team games in this chronological series already, but in terms of raw features and content, Monster Slayers is fairly staggering in its scope.

Premise and Gameplay

Monster Slayers isn’t too big on story, as you may be able to surmise from its rather plain title. (I don’t want to rag on it too much, but as game names go, my eyes just slide over the words Monster Slayers and they do not stick in my brain.) Start a file, choose a class for your character and a handful of cosmetic elements affecting their appearance, and away you go to clobber evildoers and explore dungeons. In addition to the roguelike deck-building, the game also wants to give you the added gradual joy of developing a character, not unlike how you would in classic dungeon crawlers like Wizardry. Your character can come across bits of equipment, level up, and gain companions with abilities you can trigger to help your party leader out of tight spots by drawing new cards, blocking incoming damage, and so on.

Being able to redraw your initial hand if you don’t like it is still something you don’t come across often in this genre.

Strengthening your character is as key to your chances of surviving a run as the cards you gather. Similar to Dream Quest (which openly receives an acknowledgement in the title screen), the dungeon maps show you a few locations around where you currently are, allowing you to plan the order that you take on enemies. You can fight things of similar or lower level for safer battles, or you can take on something higher level to get more experience points and level up sooner. Levelling up also restores all of your health, which doesn’t automatically regenerate between fights, so this can be something fairly integral to consider. You will take on three dungeons before fighting the final boss, so even choosing the order you want to clear the maps is important. For example, if you have a fire-based card or two, it’s probably in your interests to do the ice dungeon sooner than others because the enemies are more likely to be vulnerable to those attacks. Your main character is likely to be strong against a handful of enemy types and weak against certain others, so developing a sense of which enemies your class is going to struggle against over multiple runs also becomes part of the strategy.

In perhaps another nod to Dream Quest, you get a random bit of intro text upon starting a new run.

Combat? Take turns choosing the best possible cards from your hand and hope it’s not you who stops moving first. There’s a lot of plates to keep spinning that you need to keep an eye on. Besides health and blocking points, there are two major energies to keep track of, mana and ‘action points’, which are required to play magic and action cards respectively. Wizards will be more reliant on stockpiling the former rather than the latter, whereas clerics may want to balance both so that they have access to various spells and standard attack cards. There are a lot of classes here, too: 14 of them, with 6 being ‘base’ classes, 6 being ‘advanced’ unlockable variants of those 6, and then a further 2 that come with the Fire and Steel DLC pack. In fact, you can even pay to unlock the advanced classes if you so desire, but doing so could rob you of one of the largest incentives to beat the game in the first place. Further to this is weaponry and armour that not only change your character’s damage resistances and output, but even the cards in your deck. If you like your deck-builders to be fairly granular in their systems, this is probably the most involving one we’ve looked at yet.

Ah, yes, Pot of Greed.

Randomised Elements

Monster Slayers has randomness for days: the enemies you can encounter, the rewards you can choose upon levelling up, the cards, items and upgrades that healers offer, and the order you take on the dungeons… all these and more are different every time. Given the genre, it’s redundant to trot out the ‘no-two-runs-the-same’ selling-point line, but certainly we’ve seen games that feel very similar run-to-run even if they’re not literally repeating themselves on a move-for-move basis. Monster Slayers can feel radically different every run. This is good, because I don’t find it an easy game, so having the variety between runs kick in early stopped me from getting bored fighting my way back to the point my previous run ended. Obviously, different classes lend themselves to alternative playstyles. If you enjoy playing as a Wizard, for example, you may find that the big ‘kill’ card in your deck is different each time and needs to have certain elements in place to be triggered: enough mana, an enemy with certain weaknesses, and so on. Physical attackers like the Barbarian won’t be waiting around for certain cards because all of their attacks will do heavy damage – unless, of course, an enemy resists physical, which will require a backup plan of some sort.

Equippables aren’t always straight upgrades to your stats – they may add an extra card to your deck that you might not want.

A little credit I want to give in an area where randomness is noticeably absent: the player themselves has a good bit of input in the rewards they unlock between runs. Upon a run’s end, players gain ‘fame’ points based on how far they progressed and how many enemies they fought. (This also functions as a placement system for players to participate in an online leaderboard.) These can be spent on unlocking things like new cards, equipment, and passive advantages for future runs. The nice thing is that you choose each reward yourself. If you prefer to play as the Knight, then you need only buy perks that affect the Knight or all the classes in general, rather than being rewarded with boons for classes you aren’t as interested in.

Lots on offer to fit your playstyle and shape future runs.


Definitely another one of those games that you will know immediately from a few screenshots whether or not it is something you can put up with looking at for several hours. I’m old enough to remember spending afternoons after school watching Flash animations on Newgrounds that looked a lot like this. I look at this and it gives me a little nostalgia that I appreciate won’t be the case for everyone. Most of the characters look like souped-up stickpeople – take them for what you will.

The UI puts a lot of the information you may need in front of you at all times. It’s a little cluttered, and the font sizes are a bit small, but because combat turns play out very quickly (not a bad thing from a time-saving perspective) you may need access to all this information at any moment. Another minor irritant is that it doesn’t always tell you what cards do in every context. For example, if you visit an altar, you may be able to gain a powerful card in exchange for some downside, like enemies being buffed. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what the card does until you pick it up. Hovering over the name of the card won’t provide you with a tooltip or anything. Sadly, this means I’m almost never inclined to take these exchanges because not having access to the information you need to come to a decision makes it too random to be worth doing.

Altars also offer hints about the next boss’ weaknesses or resistances.

In my time with the game, I would say that I heard roughly 10 or so minutes of original music in it. With dozens of hours of gameplay if it gets its hooks into you, you may want to switch it out with your own after a while. It’s faux-orchestral bombastic fare; thematically fitting as background noise but not melodious enough to lodge in the memory. Something about the synthetic quality of the music in combination with the hand-drawn art certainly does add to the general uncanny sense that you’re playing an extremely well-developed Flash game, despite obviously being far more mechanically complex than anything Flash could run. It feels like I should be using a proxy site to get around an URL blocker on the school computers just to access it. Good times.

Closing Remarks

I have an inkling that, years from now, when this project is a few dozen or so posts deep and I start winding down on it, Monster Slayers is one of the games that I’ll come back to first so I can more fully take in the enormity of its depth. I found myself taking too much time thinking about each round, but that’s on me. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is maximising your chances of drawing your best cards as often as possible and always having the requisite resources to play them. However, because there is a lot of minutiae you can take advantage of, I sometimes lost sight of that and would get paralysed by my own decision-making process. Still, that’s hardly the game’s fault, and I look forward to coming back for the many stones I’ve still left unturned.

Standout Cards

Choosing just three cards isn’t easy, as there are four major card types (attack, support, magic, and interrupt) and many are upgradeable, but hopefully these three provide a taste of the level of depth going on here.

Interrupt cards are ‘trap’ cards’: they remain unplayed in your hand and are triggered on the enemy’s turn. Enough! essentially places a hard limit on the enemy’s turn and puts you in better stead on your own.

One of the most interesting things about Monster Slayers is that it lets you choose to do the math on incoming damage to block it or use cards like Dodge for a percentage chance of avoiding damage entirely. Certain classes lean into one type of damage reduction more than the other, but a combination of both is also feasible.
Some support cards are Swiss army knives. For 3 action points, Versatility provides one of three radically different effects. You may prefer a thinner deck with multi-effect cards like this, or a bigger deck with stronger individual effects.

RDBG #8: Card Quest (2017)

This one required a little digging to find its earliest availability. Even as a fairly young medium, video games are notoriously poorly archived, compared to books or film. Modern accessibility for older titles is one thing, but even just getting a solid date on the earliest release for an indie game that is only 6 years old at the time of writing isn’t always as easy as you may assume. According to Mobygames and Steam itself, Card Quest was released on November 7th, 2017. However, early tweets from two-man developer WinterSpring Games link to reviews that received early copies of the game. One such review states that it was available through early access on Steam from January 20th, 2017. The reason I’m posting in order of these early access release dates is because I would bet that the majority of the traction for these indie games came as soon as they were out (regardless of how ‘complete’ they were), especially during the immediate post-Slay the Spire boom we will soon reach. After all, Slay the Spire itself received over a year of hype between its early access and ‘official’ releases, so I’m going to extend that consideration to other games, too.

Premise and Gameplay

Card Quest actually has multiple settings. There are three scenarios, all loosely bound by a fantasy theming. The first, City of the Undead, sees you trying to rout a zombie plague that has taken hold of some villages over a single night. The second, Dwarven Mountains, has the player helming a throne reclamation attempt on behalf of an exiled dwarven prince. Lastly, ‘Enchanted Forest’ is a hunt for a legendary beast through a forest maze. Each of these little scenarios is played out with a class of your choice. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you can choose from a rogue, a wizard, a fighter, or a hunter. As usual, class choice largely dictates what kind of deck you’ll be running around with. Rather than altering your deck as you progress or unlocking new cards between runs, you make direct changes to your character’s loadout and background (here called a ‘school’), a little like you would with a Dungeons & Dragons character. For example, at the start, your Fighter class can only come from a ‘Guardian School’ background, which revolves around blocking as much damage as possible. Later, you can unlock things like the high-risk-high-reward Berserker School or the dodge-focused Paladin School, each of which adds a new set of special cards that interact differently with the class’ base cards.

They may be pixelated, but there is a surprising amount of grotesquery in the enemy sprites.

Each class has an individual tutorial that plays out not unlike a series of puzzles. They tend to only have one intended solution as a means of introducing you to the unique mechanics of the class you’re currently using, but it can become pure trial-and-error if the trick isn’t immediately clear. I question their value as tutorials because unlike actual runs, you instantly fail them for not adhering to a very narrow range of accepted moves, but I suppose they do force you to solve them in a way that makes you aware of unique ways to deal or block damage. They are still worth completing because they unlock additional trinkets that provide effects in combat, as well as a little bit of dialogue from a mentor figure. We know very well by now that this isn’t a genre particularly held back by a lack of worldbuilding, but it’s nice to get a little whenever you can find it.

By the strictest possible definition, the game barely qualifies as a ‘deck-builder’. You can only change up your cards if you take up one of the few mid-run opportunities to change your class school, as described earlier. On the one hand, this does mean you never spend any time worrying that your deck is too thin or thick. Many cards allow you to draw more cards as a secondary effect, so there is fun to be had in getting a cycle going, keeping space in your hand, drawing new cards, and balancing the energy (here called ‘stamina’) needed to play them. 

Clearing an area after winning several battles will net you a bit of text setting up the next part of the story. Very adventure gamey.

There are two major elements to Card Quest’s gameplay that distinguish it from other games we’ve seen so far. The first is that individual cards are extremely powerful right from the start, and are not upgraded in any typical way. Whereas most deck-building games keep their cards relatively simple, only performing one or two actions simultaneously, Card Quest’s cards are relatively complex, with many providing a varied mix of damage dealing, blocking, dodging, resource building, card drawing, etc. Unless you change your class background mid-run, you will be using the same slim deck of cards throughout the whole run, with multiple copies of several of them. The second standout is the ‘chain’ mechanic. Many cards behave differently if you play them after another card in the same turn. For instance, the Hunter’s ‘Move Away’ card usually just allows you to dodge one incoming attack for a cost of 3 stamina. However, if you have already played a card that turn, its additional chain effect is triggered, reducing its stamina cost to 2, pushing enemies back one row, and allowing you to draw an extra card. Such powerful secondary effects compel you to think carefully about the best way to manage your hand. 

Interestingly, finding all three keys (by taking alternate paths in different runs) will allow you to start the run further in. I can’t tell if presenting the removal of the early stages to the player as a reward is a good thing or not. Doesn’t this suggest that there isn’t much to the early game that can shape your run?

Randomised Elements

Honestly, there isn’t a whole ton of randomness between runs. You can chart your usual path to the boss from an overworld map, and these let you know what types of enemies you are likely to encounter through several back-to-back fights in that area. The greatest randomness you are ever at the mercy of is trying to work out how far you are from drawing the cards you need. Cards in your hand are retained between turns, but you can only have five at any one time, so discarding what you don’t need in the hopes of seeing it again in a couple of turns when you do need it becomes part of the strategy. Enemies, particularly bosses, can be quite fiendish, with multiple attacks and defensive strategies. Several have passive dodge abilities, meaning they can’t even be hit unless you have certain cards. It is hard to feel like you have bad luck when you have so few types of card in your deck to worry about, but it does mean you will be wanting to switch up your class and school often to keep things fresh.

Choose your path to the final boss, complete with warnings about what you may face along the way.


By 2017, pixel-art nostalgia was definitely back in full force among indie games, but a number of them tripped up where it mattered, failing to maintain readability of action and information. Fortunately, Card Quest doesn’t trip over its shoelaces here in its pursuit of looking like an RPG running on an Amiga. The use of windows to partition enemies, resources, and other parts of the UI bring to mind things like Dungeon Master. Enemies inhabit the screen’s top half and your hand occupies the bottom. Critically, given how mechanically busy the cards are, the pixel font is legible and of a decent size, so you’re never squinting to make out what something does. Likewise, the card art is well done, but more importantly, distinctive enough in colour and design for you to choose things at a glance without mistaking them for something else, assuming you remember what they do. To nitpick, animations can’t be sped up, and they can take a second or so longer than you’d really like. That adds up over the course of a run, especially when you’re in the pocket and your brain is a card or two ahead of the strategy you’re trying to put in place, but you’re still waiting for that archer to just hurry up and shoot you.

Changing your school of training or equipment will change your cards. Trinkets and bag items can be triggered for an effect like health or stamina replenishment, but have cooldown periods.

The music probably gave me the fastest laugh I’ve ever had out of a videogame. This won’t matter to anyone except myself, but I cracked up when I booted the game and was immediately met with “Five Armies” by royalty-free music legend Kevin MacLeod, a song that I have associated with the mad competitive eating challenges of LA Beast for at least 10 years now. That’s neither here nor there, but when else am I going to bring that up? All the music and sound effects seem to be from free libraries, and besides the aforementioned novelty of whatever associations you may carry from hearing them elsewhere, they’re completely serviceable and unobtrusive.

Closing Remarks

Card Quest initially seems deceptively simple and narrow in its range of cards and gameplay styles, but it offers one of the most immediately compelling ‘flow’ states that I’m always searching for in a gameplay loop when I start up a new roguelike deck-builder. When I’m playing the Fighter class (my personal favourite), I’m able to get into an almost solitaire-like zone – discarding things I don’t need to keep space in my hand to draw more cards that will allow me to dodge instead of block which will allow me to save more stamina which will allow me to draw more cards… you know this feeling. A post on the game’s Steam community made by the developers last month says that a remaster of Card Quest has been in development for around two years, but is currently on hiatus. I wish them the best and look forward to whatever the next entry may look like whenever it happens. The core of the game is already very solid, and there’s relatively little that needs to be ‘fixed’ for it to be as good as possible.

Standout Cards

A Rogue card, Trick Dodge has a hilarious and surprisingly deep mechanic where you can completely dodge an attack and smack another enemy with it. I love when classes get unique gameplay mechanics that lean into the particular skills of that archetype.
Defensive Stance is a Fighter card, and it’s extremely valuable. Many encounters pit you against several enemies that only do one or two points of damage, so having a 3-turn block for 2 points of damage frees you up to spend your stamina on dodging and attacking. I always try to keep one of these in my hand, even if I already have one active.
Some classes have their own unique resource besides stamina. The Ranger actually expends arrows to attack, which is a nice touch. For 3 arrows and 6 stamina, Arrow Volley is of the best examples of Card Quest’s extremely busy cards. Chain it for further madness.

RDBG #7: Cards of Cthulhu (2016)

Cards of Cthulhu, released on PC on October 11th, 2016, was developed by Brazilian team Awoker Games. A little context I’d like to couch this in before getting into the retrospective proper: its full price on Steam at the time of writing is 0.79 GBP. That’s not even a full US dollar. It’s currently on sale, too, at 71% off. 23 pence sterling, for Pete’s sake. I’m not trying to drum up sales for it – read on and draw your own conclusions. It is, by a considerable margin, the cheapest game we’ve looked at so far, and likely to remain as such for a good while longer. Worth keeping in mind.

Premise and Gameplay

Booting the game will immediately throw you into your first run. You don’t even have to click through a title screen or choose a mode. Assuming you didn’t blink, you may have caught a splash screen of Cthulhu with a woman in one hand and a beer in the other. Presumably, she has been kidnapped and you’re on your way to save her. I’m the sort of person who likes coming up with their own interpretations when things don’t explicitly tell me what’s going on, but Cards of Cthulhu doesn’t really give you even that many pieces to work with in the first place.

I know the whole point of deck-builders is to allow diverse playstyles, but am I the only one who always has to get over an irrational fear of self-damaging moves in almost every new game they play?

You choose two starting cards and get going on your bike. You add more to the deck over the course of the run, for a maximum of six. The game automatically steers you from enemy to enemy, but you are told in advance what’s coming up next – an encounter, a card drop, or a boss fight. Battles take place in real time, with you and the enemy choosing cards to chip away at one another’s health, cause status effects, and so on. The twist this time around is that the cards alone are not the only way to win. Anytime you’re not waiting for your card to activate or suffering from some sort of status effect cooldown, your motorcyclist will fire away at the enemy with a shotgun, doing a single point of damage every second. The challenge lies not just in knowing what card to play at the right time, but knowing when not to play anything at all. Letting the sawn-off finish the job is sometimes totally fine. Some encounters will pit you against multiple foes one after the other. Because cards can usually only be played once per fight, it’s entirely possible to run out of cards before you’ve beaten all the enemies, so it never becomes a simple game of clicking on cards as soon as they become available.

Blam blam blam, bzzzzz, etc. It’s difficult to express in writing, but every enemy has a pronounced wobble at the joints, like an old action figure on a string being jerked around.

A run plays out over four stages, each consisting of a handful of battles and card drops before a showdown with the great tentacled one. Beating the game unlocks two harder difficulty modes (that can’t be switched between!) and that’s your lot. For every several enemies beaten, you can unlock new cards and passive benefits such as higher maximum health for yourself or lower health for your enemies. I do wonder if it’s possible to even beat the game on your very first run. Some of these unlockable cards are so game-shatteringly overpowered that the mid to late-game enemies seem to come in larger groups or have higher health pools to compensate. You may have a deck of cards you blast through the first two stages with and then run into some real trouble on the third and fourth ones. Even so, with runs taking less than 10 minutes each and every enemy killed contributing to new unlockables, your time rarely feels wasted.

I feel like I’ve seen these words in this fashion somewhere before. Answers on a postcard.

Randomised Elements

The only randomness that really matters are the card drops that are randomly laid out on your path. You can’t do anything to affect the order or types of enemies and bosses that come your way, so all you can do is just choose the best cards from what you’re given. There are about 10 unique enemies you can encounter, and they are even re-used as boss encounters with some minor palette-swapping. One good thing about this is that you can quite quickly get a handle on what certain enemies are likely to do and play around them a little. Guitar-playing, slug-riding demon lady is likely to heal you both to waste your cards, so you may as well not even use any until she does so. Harpy lady with some sort of mechanised hand-bra (lots of women, come to think of it) will wait until she can play a card that does a whopping 8 damage at once, so destroying it before she can trigger it is a good move. For a game you’re likely to beat in an hour or so, this is an acceptable amount of variation, but once you’ve got a handle on what it’s likely to throw at you, there’s little more it can do to surprise you.

Scimitar-cyborg-hoverboard lady? She’ll just kill you.


I’ll bring this up first because it’s probably going to be a dealbreaker for a lot of people looking at something with ‘Cthulhu’ in the name – the game isn’t really Lovecraftian in any way. For vibe, it puts me more in mind of the film Heavy Metal, or perhaps a hint of Planet Terror. The background is an unchanging plain that serves purely as a conveyor belt to wheel you to the next encounter. Enemies themselves are a sufficiently demonic bunch. My personal favourite is the chainsaw-wielding fella with several rows of teeth where his abdomen should be. He’s standing at a jaunty angle that makes it seem like he’s having a very hard time balancing his weapon over his head. The body parts of the enemies undulate and swell in a way that is reminiscent of the idiosyncrasies that come with animating multiple layers in Flash. In general, the monsters reminded me of a classmate I had who would use a ballpoint pen to draw similar mutants in his exercise books that would look at home on an old metal album cover. Many players seem to be a bit turned off by the enemies, but I can take or leave them. They’re novel in a kitsch way, but it’s a shame there’s so few of them. You’ll see the same ones repeatedly within the same run. What puts me off more is a lack of aesthetic cohesion. For example, the Cthulhu you see at boot up, the Cthulhu you fight at the end, and the Cthulhu corpse in the ending screen are all drawn by three different artists. In isolation, they all look fine (OK – maybe the boss sprite with a hairy beer gut isn’t to my taste), but are at such stylistic odds with one another that the tone comes undone, assuming one was being set up in the first place.

Uh… it’s good to have permission, I guess?

Besides an ending song, there is no music at all, just an ominous background hum, which is fairly fitting. The trailer on the Steam page has a reasonably exciting piece of BGM that doesn’t appear anywhere in-game, but I imagine if that was the only song around, it would get repetitive very quickly. The sound effects are serviceable. They exist. The gun sounds like a gun. The motorbike sounds like a bike. Moving on. I am grateful that you can mouse over your cards for tooltips on how they work, but you will have so few in your deck at any one time you will rarely need a reminder of their functions. All in all, very little about the presentation is going to stick with you after you stop playing. For an indie title, these things matter considerably to its legacy. In the previous post, we saw Frost get its world of chilly desperation just right. For that, I’m inclined to think about it from time to time. I’m not sure yet what I’ll remember about Cards of Cthulhu in a few weeks, months, or years from now.

Closing Remarks

Given the price, I went into Cards of Cthulhu with very low expectations and as such didn’t come out at all disappointed. The deck size and number of decisions you can make at any given time are quite low, and it is orders of magnitude less complex and involving than, say, Coin Crypt, with which it shares its snap-decision combat. While there isn’t anything to come back to besides higher difficulties that get progressively easier with unlockables, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the 3 or so hours I spent with it. It certainly wasn’t a waste of money, at least. Do you know what else you can buy for 79p nowadays? Nothing.

Standout Cards

Repeat is straight busted. Poison something twice and immediately. Freeze something twice and immediately. Invaluable. Almost never a reason not to pick it up.
Your deck is very limited in size, but so is your opponent’s. Stun is good because destroying a card not only stops you from getting hit by something nasty, but can also potentially reduce the enemy to just swatting at you for chip damage when they run out of things to play.
Cards are usually single-use per battle, so running out of things to play is a real concern. Mind Steal not only keeps you topped up, but also lets you know exactly what the other side has up their sleeve.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.