If someone asks me what one game they should play, my answer is Slay the Spire. It’s an amazing game, and with it now out for every platform including mobile phones, the only reason not to play is concern that you won’t know when to stop.
I’ve also played a lot of other rogue deckbuilders. In my rank order, there’s Monster Train (Tier 2), Dream Quest (Tier 3), Monster Slayers (Tier 4) and Dicey Dungeons (Tier 4). Even when they’re not the best, especially in staying power, they’re almost always great fun to explore. I can’t objectively recommend Monster Slayers or Dicey Dungeons, but did I have fun for a bunch of hours and get my money’s worth? Absolutely.
Thus, when I learned on its release day about Roguebook, a rogue deckbuilder from a team including Richard Garfield that was clearly at least a spiritual successor, it was clear what I would be doing with my free time that weekend. I was super excited to see what Richard could do, and hope he’d take his usual big swings.
Review takes place in 3 stages: Pure (1 bit of info), Almost Pure (3 bits of info) and then Overview (analysis of big picture stuff).
Pure Spoiler-Free Review (e.g. the 1 bit you actually need, whether this is at least Tier 3)
Almost Pure Spoiler-Free Review (e.g. 3 bits of information, what tier this is)
2. It’s very good, and better than I initially gave it credit for. If you loved Slay the Spire and/or liked Monster Train, and want more, this is your game. If you weren’t impressed by Slay the Spire, unless your issue was the art style, this is unlikely to change your mind, and this isn’t as good as its predecessor, but it’s a worthy addition to the genre. Roguebook has a 79 on Metacritic, and while initially I thought that was about right, on reflection I’d have it up around 90. Whereas Slay the Spire has an 89 and I’d flip that to 98.
Overview (Spoilers minimized)
Roguebook is fun. Its big drawback is that it doesn’t swing for the fences enough. Instead, it specializes in giving you the experience of powering up, doing ludicrous things and breaking the game in half.
The game is good at giving you the ‘good stuff’ feeling of finding powerful things and doing powerful things, and there are several powerful things that can get you where you need to go. It felt to me as if there were a number of things the game was trying to make happen that were never going to happen, resulting in cards that seem like you should never consider them, but there’s still enough for multiple unique builds for most or all hero pairs. You can also get a ‘good stuff’ feeling from the ink on the map. And the game’s flavor is delightful.
It’s a good time while you’re still figuring things out, if a bit slow, and then you get to be the all-powerful God deck if you enjoy that sort of thing. There’s an entire hero pairing that’s all about going infinite in various ways. Often you’ll have two or more super powerful things going on that would be good enough on their own.
Now, the downsides. Roguebook’s main innovations, having two heroes, the hex map with inks that uncover it and perks for deck sizes, disappointed. There is also a major structural error in its progression, both within a run and overall, that results in the outcome often not being in doubt.
The hex map and inks are new, but they do not fundamentally change what you are doing that much. You do need to make choices, and I’ve definitely punted a lot of value making them wrong while learning, but I prefer the ‘clean’ choices of Slay the Spire’s branching paths. There’s also almost always an incentive to sandbag as many resources as possible.
Having two heroes that are flipping positions lets you mix and match heroes, but the position swapping mechanic doesn’t lead to that many interesting decisions. It’s mostly about understanding the rules enough to play cards in the right order. The overall level of distinctiveness over all the pairs of the four heroes felt similar to that of Slay the Spire’s four classes. There’s six pairs, but not six that feel fully distinct to me.
The game gives you a ‘deck size perk’ every four cards you add. It’s a good idea. They can be quite good, and did push me towards adding cards I would not have otherwise added, but due to having access to gems that boost your best cards and rapidly being powerful enough that a bad early draw was the way one would lose games, I never felt much temptation to go big. I’d finish with 18 or 22 cards most games, and never seriously considered going beyond 26 except the time I took a handicap that didn’t give me a choice – and promptly died to a bad draw. I’ve never been in the final phase of a game where I wasn’t almost always skipping on card drafts whenever possible.
The progression error in the macro scale is that the game goes through a very easy period. Once you win once, you move into the ‘epilogue’ and are asked to play again while taking on various handicaps. The problem is you can only add one handicap each time you play, and each time you win at that new rank the game showers you with pages, which are used to unlock advantages. And for a while, those advantages are a bigger deal than the disadvantages. At least, they felt that way when combined with getting to know the game. Thus, while I lost the first game in act 2 and the second game in act 3 (of 3), after I won my third I was never seriously challenged in my next four games.
Slay the Spire has a similar issue where you develop skill faster than ascension raises the difficulty level – and ascension one is actively easier than ascension zero, so it’s not an entirely new problem, but actively giving me extra advantages made it feel worse.
It’s not all a cakewalk. Some of the downsides they give you are indeed major downsides, far more substantial changes than those from Slay the Spire’s ascension levels. There are hero combinations that really don’t want to face one or two of the drawbacks. The problem is that the disadvantages are not cumulative within each category, and of the 12 (of the 15 total) drawbacks I’ve played with, only 2 of them are all that scary. Of the two categories (out of 3) that I’ve finished, neither’s biggest challenge was its 4th or 5th level handicap (out of 5).
Thus, things got easier, then briefly got harder, then got easier again because the ‘more valuable’ handicaps weren’t that bad and at that point you were loaded with embellishments, plus I had more of an idea what mattered.
There’s also a more micro-progression error within each run. Early on, once you’ve got a few embellishments, you’re not in danger. If you get off the ground and you’re not in deep trouble, you by default end up with a deck that is so runaway powerful by the midgame that everything is easy, and a lot of the major mechanics never come up because your characters almost never even take damage. When things aren’t easy, death usually comes for you quickly, and often you die outright in a basic battle within a few turns. It’s very feast or famine, and grows more so as you rank up.
The times that I died during the epilogue were (as best I can recall) a pair of games in which I never got offered anything powerful and didn’t get off the ground on damage, a pair in which I played the combination of characters that don’t have a good way to block and was never offered a way to block slash didn’t realize what I needed to be doing (the pair has a much smaller win rate than other pairs by the dev’s statistics), and one game in which I took on a battle in a random event that I assumed would be scaled to being in Act 1 and that totally wasn’t and killed me. Whoops. And then there’s the times I tried to beat the two actually hard restrictions, which killed me a few times. I won more times than I lost, and once I got to Act 3 I almost always won.
As a final note, there aren’t enough different enemies, slash those that are there don’t feel different enough from each other. They addressed this a bit with some day 1 additions (that started out as DLC but quickly became free when they realized how that looked) but it’s still short on distinctiveness. This is especially true for the final boss, where there are only two options, neither of which is much of a challenge most of the time.
I’ll get more detailed in the next section.
Games where you do well take much longer than games where you do poorly, even more so than usual for the genre, so if you are any good you’ll spend most of your time in games where you’re a big favorite to win the run, and trying to either make things as absurd as possible or minimize the chance something goes actually wrong, depending on where your head and mood are at. So the question is, is that something that is fun?
My conclusion in the end, after reading some dev notes and thinkin about it, was that yes, that was something that was fun, at least for a while. And it’s intentional. That’s what the game is about, breaking the systems in half and doing absurd things. Things don’t usually drag out too long once things get ridiculous, with the exception of one deck that actually went infinite quite early but didn’t have a way to quickly kill for a while.
In the pantheon of roguelike deckbuilders, this is clearly behind Slay the Spire and Monster Train. I’m moving it to a low Tier 2, and ahead of everything else I know in the genre. I feel bad putting it above Dream Quest, and the True Rogue Gamer should likely still prefer Dream Quest, but one must acknowledge the reality that accessibility and presentation matter.
My intention is to follow this up with another post diving more into the spoilerific weeds. Experience says such follow-ups often don’t get written, but I have hope.