How one of gaming’s most intimidating genres spawned a legion of hits

For the uninitiated, the roguelike deckbuilder can be an intimidating prospect. It’s the love child of two famously hardcore archetypes: the deckbuilder, in which you gradually compile a deck of cards, and the roguelike, in which you move across a procedurally generated map rendered anew every time you die. Strategy and challenge combine in a manner that is more cerebral than the most popular roguelikes, such as the hack-and-slash Hades, but faster paced than classic deckbuilders like Magic: The Gathering. As a result, you might think the hybrid genre’s audience would be limited. On the contrary, it’s exploded in recent years, with the likes of Slay The Spire and Monster Train popularizing the seemingly niche form.

Bending a card game around combat, the verbs of most roguelike deckbuilders are the same as many other games: attack, defend, unleash a special ability — that kind of thing. But rather than demanding the player lean on twitchy reflexes or gratuitous amounts of free time to grind their way to progression, the genre asks players to simply slow down and take a moment to think. In this way, the genre resonates with a broader turn to mechanical complexity in recent years. (The renewed popularity of JRPGs — games with deep turn-based combat — is perhaps indicative of such shifting tastes.)

The magic of any roguelike deckbuilder worth its salt is found in the complex interplay between cards. On any given run, you’ll likely have a good idea of what you’ll draw, if not the order, and so these games quickly become about synergy and probability, risk and reward. The mind flutters with the possibilities of the virtual on-screen deck.

Dream Quest.

With such a specific mix of styles comes a history less contested than other genres. Of course, you can trace things back to the origins of its constituent parts: the randomly generated dungeons of 1980’s Rogue and the seminal collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. But, generally speaking, there’s a handful of titles that game makers, including Magic’s legendary designer Richard Garfield, point to as crucial to the genre’s development. The 1997 video game spinoff of Magic is one, colloquially referred to as Shandalar, after the fantasy realm within which the classic card game took place. Another is the 2008 paper card game Dominion, which made building a deck — the adding and discarding of cards to construct a so-called “engine” that propelled the player through the game — a major focus of gameplay.

That said, according to Garfield, the “watershed” moment for the modern iteration of the genre came in 2014 with Peter Whalen’s Dream Quest. Whalen’s “packaging of a smaller, tighter experience really did a lot for the genre,” Garfield says over Zoom. Remarkably, he continues, the game remains “virtually unknown” beyond a few dedicated students of the field.

Playing Dream Quest in 2022 is an almost uncanny experience. It’s only eight years old, but the lo-fi artwork makes the game feel more like an unearthed homebrew gem from the late 1990s. The writing is charmingly self-aware, filled with run-of-the-mill fantasy tropes and quirky details. (You purchase cards at a gingerbread house called Gouda’s Gummy Goodness.) In the same way you might play Mario 64 today and recognize the entire blueprint of the 3D platformer genre, Dream Quest features nearly every element players have come to expect from the roguelike deckbuilder. You adventure across a randomly generated dungeon adding cards to your deck, all while carefully considering the relationship between them. Whalen’s game lacks big-budget production values (the now ubiquitous rustling of cards that unfurl across the screen, for example), yet it still feels great to play — events playing out at breakneck speed. The pull of one more battle against the game’s crude stick people is unshakeable.

Dream Quest’s inspiration can be found in Whalen’s childhood. As a seven-year-old, he played Magic with older friends (“incorrectly,” he stresses over Zoom), attracted by the cards’ stirring artwork and the possibilities they embodied. At an even younger age, Whalen’s father created DIY paper dungeons for him to explore, their labyrinthine corridors drawn using invisible ink. As if by magic, the path was revealed as the youngster colored the paper in. “I don’t have many memories from when I was four, but I remember that,” enthuses Whalen.

While Dream Quest didn’t make a splash commercially (the game still only has 249 reviews on Steam compared to genre kingpin Slay The Spire’s 95,000), the wider industry took note. Garfield reached out to Blizzard, imploring them to play the game. And then, just a few months later, Whalen, a recent graduate from Georgia Institute of Technology, got a job working at the studio on its hit card game Hearthstone.

A few years later, in 2017, Slay The Spire took the fundamentals of Dream Quest and gave it a lick of handsome art-directed paint. The crudely drawn characters of Whalen’s game make way for a melange of decidedly strange creatures pulling on steampunk, traditional fantasy, and more. There’s a similar absurdist streak to the writing (each run begins with a three-eyed talking whale) as well as the items you encounter (a mummified hand, for example). Most importantly, the card playing is tight, encouraging the strategic discarding of cards in order to craft a deck of fine-tuned precision. For newbies, this can seem illogical, but it’s helpful to think of building out your deck in relation to finding gear in the roguelikes and RPGs that inspired it. You’d never attempt to use everything in those kinds of games, so why do it here?

As much as the acquiring cards evoke a loot grind, Slay The Spire designer Anthony Giovannetti points to the ways his game resonates with the so-called “draft” that occurs at the start of a game of Magic. In this scenario, players sit around a table and open up three booster packs, passing each card to the left until all the cards are drafted. They then play a mini tournament. “When I played a lot of Magic, that was always the most fun part. Instead of playing against a net deck, you’re always playing against something different and unique,” says Giovannetti. “Slay The Spire always gets to be a draft experience because, in a roguelike, you have that excuse to try new stuff.” This resonates with a design philosophy Giovannetti holds dear — namely Sid Meier’s contention that a “game is a series of interesting choices.” Committed to this approach, Slay The Spire doles out deck-altering decisions every couple of minutes.

Slay the Spire.

If Slay The Spire embodies one style of deckbuilding — the idea that you pursue a particular strategy and do everything you can to remove cards that don’t adhere to said strategy — then Roguebook, released in 2021 and co-designed by Garfield alongside Belgian studio Abrakam, takes the opposite approach. The design principle underpinning Roguebook is Garfield’s “fat deck system,” which forgoes the removal of cards in order to push gameplay in a “less predictable” direction. “This was inspired by my frustration with so many deckbuilders, digital and paper, including Magic, where so much of the game is about not playing with cards,” Garfield says. “You play in a draft in Magic or Hearthstone, for example, and you get the opportunity to pick this fun and interesting card. And you’re better off just not. Even though it might be a powerful card, it’s diluting the other stuff in your deck.”

Garfield says this feels “really unnatural to people.” He first began to notice the approach in Dominion, a game in which you start with copper pieces. “If you know what you’re doing, you want to get rid of those copper pieces because you’ll have a better chance of drawing silver pieces,” says Garfield. “But that’s super black and white and confusing. Why would you want to get rid of money? That’s not how money works. There’s an artificiality there.”

As a result of the “fat deck system,” Roguebook feels far less prescriptive than Slay The Spire and more improvisatory — experimental even. You roam the game’s beautifully rendered hex grid, drawing it in using ink (not unlike how the young Whalen explored his father’s hand-drawn dungeons). As you hoover up cards, you don’t need to worry that such an approach is unfocused. In fact, the maximalist strategy will only make the game more fun.

Still, for all Roguebook’s innovation, like many other roguelike deckbuilders, it falls short of physical deckbuilding counterparts in one key regard: the so-called “meta.” In a 2000 essay on his design philosophy, Garfield characterizes the meta in notably broad terms, essentially “how a game interfaces with life.” This includes all the fun, messy bits that people bring to a game — skill, greed, interpersonal relationships — as well as the economic market that springs up around it. We bleed into the game, and the game bleeds into us. With single-player digital card games, the meta is difficult to conjure. Of course, there’s usually some kind of narrative and progression alongside online leaderboards and daily challenges, but generally, these elements fail to land like the meta of an in-person game of Magic.

Inscryption, the genre’s most recent mega hit, approaches the problem of the meta by doubling down on its horror-tinged narrative. From the game’s outset, you face off against a virtual games master: a creepy mask-wearing figure who sits in the shadows at the other end of the table. When one round finishes, you stand up and walk about a disheveled log cabin, inspecting an array of knickknacks and strange contraptions while lightly conversing with your card-dealing foe. While Inscryption’s card game is undeniably great, the greater draw is the metafictional ornamentation that surrounds the game. The abstract challenge posed by the computer in a game like Slay The Spire is personified by Inscryption’s grizzled antagonist. Beating him feels just as good as beating any friend in real life.

Monster Train.

Inscryption’s novel approach to the meta and narrative is one big innovation in a generally iterative genre. Another is what the decks in these games actually stand for. Usually, they’re metaphors for combat, each card an attack or defense of a weapon-wielding character. This is the case in Griftlands, released in early access in 2019, but the game also possesses a conversational twist. When you’re not facing off against mercenaries in its space western setting, you’re chatting with NPCs in evocatively grimy bars. As you attempt to convince characters to either help you out or down arms, the verbs of the cards transform. All of sudden you’re “fast talking” or “quick thinking,” “bragging” or “bullying” — the card-playing becoming knottier and more complicated with this seemingly straightforward shift in focus.

However, there’s still clear win-fail states to Griftland’s non-combat encounters. This is precisely what Dyala Kattan-Wright sought to avoid in Signs of the Sojourner, a game in which cards adorned with various symbols (a little like dominos) are a metaphor for conversation. If you match the symbols, the conversation will play out one way; if not, the conversation plays out another. As Kattan-Wright explains over Zoom, the system went through a number of iterations, slowly shedding its more explicitly gamified elements such as a trust bar. “In the end, that always made conversations feel like a battle to win or lose,” she says. “Players were either really focused on strategy, or they just cared about the story, and so the deckbuilding seemed overly complicated.” Ultimately, Kattan-Wright hoped to create a mechanic that could be used for “non-antagonistic conversations and social interactions” as well as adversarial ones.

Strictly speaking, Signs of the Sojourner isn’t a roguelike deckbuilder, but it’s structured like one. You embark on a journey from your hometown, talking to travelers and inhabitants along the way before returning home at the end of each run. People speak with different symbols in different parts of the map, and after each conversation, they add new symbols to your deck at the expense of old ones. This means that your ability to communicate is always changing. “The player can definitely build their deck into a corner and make it really difficult for themselves,” says Kattan-Wright, who cites both Dream Quest and Slay The Spire as influences. Even in this situation, when you’re perhaps failing to communicate with someone you’ve known for years, Signs of the Sojourner delivers. The game produces genuinely emotional, heartbreaking moments relatable to anyone who has felt a distance between them and their loved ones.

What Signs of the Sojourner demonstrates is that the possibility of the deckbuilder, roguelike or otherwise, is limited only by designers’ capacity to imagine what a card stands for. Whalen and Garfield, meanwhile, point to auto battlers — the likes of Auto Chess, Dota Underlords, and Teamfight Tactics — as a possible guide for where the genre could be headed next. There’s no cards in those games, just units with statistical characteristics that the player gradually assembles before duking it out against another player’s set. “This is exactly like a deckbuilding experience and a roguelike, but it’s competitive,” says Garfield. “I think seeing the connection between these two genres is instructive to both the game player and designer.”

Without a doubt, the next hit roguelike deckbuilder is being cooked up as you read this, be that another canny iteration on the Dream Quest and Slay The Spire formula or a wholesale revolution. When such a game arrives, there’ll hardly be an ounce of chance to its success. As in their playing, the creation of roguelike deckbuilders relies on skill and thoughtfulness, the careful aligning of probable outcomes to the point where victory is nearly inevitable.

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