Friday feelings: Deck-building online, done right (Slay the Spire)

I’ve been playing Slay the Spire – a deck-building card game on Steam – since it was gifted to me (thanks Janne!) before Christmas. I tend to shy away from, or get bored quickly, of online card games – but this has really taken my fancy. As it went into full release this week, I thought I’d give it a plug (and there are plans to release it on Nintendo Switch later in the year, if you’re into such new-fangled gadgetry).

This is a single-player, rogue-like, fantasy-themed deck-builder. You’re an adventurer trying to defeat the residents of an ominous tower, attempting to explore through around 50 locations on your way to facing the big boss. A full run will take about two hours, but don’t expect that on your first few plays – and you can save a run anytime and come back to it later (even if it is a daily map – see below).

Each location will either be a battle (50% or more), random encounter, merchant or camp. Camp lets you rest and regain health or, if you’re doing OK, you can skip that sissy stuff and upgrade one of your cards. The merchant lets you buy/sell cards, alongside picking up potions (one-shot effects) and artefacts (permanent benefits).

One of Slay the Spire’s strengths is its world. You won’t find typical tired fantasy tropes here: both the character/deck classes (there are currently three) and the creatures you face are unique, with an art style leaning strongly towards the strange and surreal – while also being cartoony and fun. Nowhere is this highlighted better than random encounters. These are meetings with weird and wonderful creatures and devices, which can often help but sometimes hinder your progress. Some offer push-your-luck situations, others trade-offs, but they’re always well written and beautifully illustrated.

But without a good deck-building/combat system, all this would be for nought – and Slay the Spire delivers. You usually start with a 15-card deck, drawing 5 cards per turn (discarding any you don’t use). Most cost 0-3 power to use, and you start each turn with 3 (again, losing any you don’t use). Basic cards tend to either give armour for the round, or deal damage – but that really is just the tip of the iceberg. Each of the game’s three character types has a unique trait which shapes its style, but within each there are many more directions in which to try and mould your deck.

These deck-building decisions are often influenced by artefacts you pick up as you go. Perhaps one rewards you for going through your deck a lot (time to start thinning!); or lets you get extra power each round (suddenly those power-hungry cards you were ignoring look more tempting). Add in a plethora of crazy creatures with every kind of special ability you can think of, from special damage types to loads of temporary and long-term effects, and it really does have it all.

But of course, this is a rogue-like game. At the end of your run, win or lose, you start next time with the basics (although on most runs you’ll unlock new artefacts and cards that will now be available next time) – or do you? One of my favourite aspects of the game are daily runs. Every day, a weird random combo of starting effects is put together and everyone can see how they cope with it. Maybe you start with 50 cards, or draft your deck, or have one of each rare card; maybe you lose max 1HP per round, or start with three artefacts, of can’t upgrade cards. It means every day has a unique challenge – and yes, there is a score board to see how you’re doing against your peers.

But I’m going to leave it here, simply because one of the real joys of Slay the Spire is discovering all its strange delights for yourself. The game is less than £20, has ‘overwhelmingly positive’ (96% at time of writing) reviews on Steam, and is comfortably the best casual single-player card game I’ve played on PC.

Frost: A solo deck-building PC game on Steam

FrostI’m pretty wary of computer games that mimic ideas from the board and card game world.

It’s very rare they manage to capture the subtlety required to make a truly great tactical or strategic game, focusing more on visual bells and whistles and (usually) adding too many luck elements to hold the interest for long. Unless they’re a direct port from an existing tabletop game, they rarely seem designed for gamers.

So it was with some trepidation I approached ‘Frost‘, a game found via Steam’s auto recommendations and described as, “a survival solo card game inspired by deck-building board games like Dominion, Ascension and the like”. While I’m no Ascension fan, the fact the designer was name-checking ‘proper’ games gave me hope this may be a winner.

Style

Frost introBut the first thing that struck me was the game’s visual style, which I find absolutely beautiful.

The drawings are stark and simple, which perfectly fits the theme, while the dark, brooding and tribal soundtrack brings a strong sense of foreboding.

The premise here is you’re a small group of survivors trying to find your way to a fabled safe refuge through a harsh winter landscape and relentless storm. It has a post apocalypse feel, but long after it rather just after: we’re talking finding fruit and making sticks into spears here; not finding cars and shooting guns.

The intros are really nice (but thankfully skip-able once you’ve been through them once ot twice) and the screen often fades out to pure white, helping to hold the mood of perpetual snow and of not knowing what could be around the next corner.

Substance

Frost in playAs with most deck-builders you start the game with a deck of 10 cards (in this case usually four survivors, two food, two (building) materials and two fatigue) and draw a hand of five.

There is a frost meter at the top of the screen that starts on 8: it will drop by one each turn in which you don’t complete a Region card, and go up one (to a max of 8) on turns that you do. If you drop below 1, the frost has gotten the better of you and it’s game over.

You need to travel a certain distance (usually 25) to win the game, with the number equalling the amount of Region cards you need to complete. These cards come out at random and will need a varying mix of food, survivors and materials to move past.

Each location will also have a random Event which stays until the location is passed. These can be a potential benefit (letting you trade items, for example) or a hazard (an enemy to overcome). Hazards should be dealt with before you leave the Region (some can be bribed with food, others need to be killed with a spear); as if you don’t you’ll take damage as you leave (you only have four health points).

Deck building works in two ways – using survivors in your hand to search, or by buying Idea cards that become available (one at a time) each time you draw a new hand. Cards bought usually cost resources (which go out of the game) but are upgrades on the base cards: everything from cards that generate resources, to weapons, to cards allowing you to draw more cards, discard some fatigue, or look at upcoming cards (and sometimes choose the one you want).

Using survivors from your hand is risky, as they may die (out of the game) or add a fatigue to your deck; but equally they may find extra food or materials cards (which are added to your hand, while the survivor goes in your discard pile). This almost always seems worth the risk, but equally has a nice tension and can end in some nasty situations.

Fatigue works in the same way as curse cards in Dominion, or similar cards in every deck-builder: they clog up your hand. Certain advanced cards let you deal with them, or if you draw a really crap hand you can discard all of the fatigue in it out of the game – but the rest of your hand is discarded and the frost counter moves on one too.

Replay value

Frost in play 2Beyond the (useful and nicely done) tutorial the game has two main modes; ‘classic’ and ‘scenario’.

When you start, classic is broken down into ‘easy’ and ‘medium’ options – with ‘hard’ and ‘endless’ modes opening up after you’ve beaten the game once on medium level.

There is a noticeable step up in difficulty to medium, but more interestingly it also opens extra win conditions you can meet rather than the simple ‘survive 25 Regions’. You get two random options each time, which may need you to discard a bunch of resources, win a certain number of fights or discard a certain amount of fatigue.

On ‘Hard’ mode you have to complete two of the three available objectives you’d get on medium level (but still by the time you make it through 25 Regions), while ‘Endless’ – as you’ve probably guessed – just lets you see how long you can survive.

Winning games can also open up scenarios (there are four right now, with the designer hoping to add more later). These again open up interesting twists on the base rules, as well as having their own nice little intro sequences and characters.

(Minor) niggles

This is a small game from an indie publisher, so you have to expect a few little problems to sneak in. None that I’ve come across have been game-breakers, but some are definitely worth flagging up.

My biggest issue is that when playing on anything above ‘easy’ level the game removes the handy ‘resources’ window that lets you know what you currently have in your deck (in terms of basic resources). This feels to me like the only time the designer slips from knowing what gamers are really about: generally we like to plan and to calculate, not be thrown a memory element as an extra ‘challenge’.

On the tech side, the game can open on the wrong monitor if you have a two-monitor setup (this will be fixed later), which is super annoying; but you can hold down ‘shift’ as the game loads to change this (and also to choose to play in windowed mode). But this really needs to be available in the standard options menu.

Finally, another (due to be fixed) problem is you can be set an impossible win condition on medium and hard modes. Random advanced cards are unlocked as you play more games, which is a nice system; unless important ones aren’t. A case in point is the ‘lose 12 health on a journey’ condition – impossible to complete unless you’ve unlocked a healing card. However, as there are always two win conditions (plus the standard survive 25 regions option) this again doesn’t break the game (and you can simply restart).

Final thoughts

Frost endgameFrost can be fairly compared to Friedemann Friese’s solitaire deck-builder Friday; a game I enjoyed for several plays but didn’t buy.

While Friday is a clever and tough solo game, it just lacked that level of variety to make me want to invest.

Frost is a similar game in some respects, but there’s so much more replay value here – and at around a fiver on Steam it is an absolute bargain. I’d actually like to see this made into a ‘proper’ card game, as while some of the elements may be a little fiddly to pull off I think it would quickly find an audience.

If you like deck-building games and are looking for a digital solo game, I can’t recommend Frost highly enough – especially at this price. I just hope enough people invest so that designer Jerome Bodin can put in the extra work he clearly wants to on the project, as there is so much more that this system could have to offer. A fantastic achievement.

* I would like to thank Studio des Ténèbres for giving me a review key on request.

Shameless board game podcast self promotion ahoy!

me me meThis is a tad overdue, but I’ve been on a couple of podcasts over recent months that I really should’ve given a plug – so here goes.

First up was my début appearance on The Game Pit, A UK show all about board games, card games and tabletop gaming.

It’s a great podcast which I hope to be on again in the not too distant future. I was on ‘Episode 40 – Council Chamber Mega Review of 2014‘ in February with hosts Sean and Ronan, plus contributors Teri, Nathan and Paul. We all picked our board gaming highs and lows of last year and I thought it all turned out pretty well.

Also in February I was honoured to be the first ‘special guest’ on relatively new podcast The Cardboard Console. I expect the fact I met hosts Matt and Andrew at my local game group probably helped, but it doesn’t take away from the fact its a really good show.

The usual format sees them cover both computer and board/card games, as well as a section on anything from TV shows to apps to weird fighting disciplines I’ve never heard of. Episode 15 was largely about the design and publication process of Empire Engine, but I did get to witter on about Deus, Divinity: Original Sin and Person of Interest too.

Both shows are on iTunes and if you like board game podcasts you should certainly check them out; its really nice to hear a growing podcast voice from the UK. Both shows are also covered in my ‘Guide to board game podcasts‘, which covers all the best shows out there (and some crappy ones too, just for balance).

If you’ve got your own podcast I’d love the chance to spout off on it. I’ve got the interwebs, Audacity installed, a reasonable mic and an opinion on everything – you know where I am!

Game design: In search of a half decent football (‘soccer’) game concept, Part 1

SubbuteoBeyond the flicking genius of Subbuteo (pictured), the collective game design minds of the world have so far failed to create a compelling football game. But it must be possible.

The reason oft trotted out is that its impossible to emulate the excitement and energy of a team sport in which so much individual flair and energy is played out; while retaining the higher level of strategic thought that pre-match planning and management bring to each match.

But computer games have got around both of these issues, making either football management sims or fast-paced action games such as FIFA. But we have nothing of either that have made a splash in the board and card game arena. And what about skirmish board games and battle card games? How are they not emulating an exciting tactical situation with an underlying strategic edge?

Then there are commercial concerns. Hobby gamers have for years been earmarked as nerds and geeks only interested in basement games of fantasy battles and space ship combat. But the hobby is throwing off those shackles at a pretty decent rate now; surely there would be a big publisher ready to take a punt on a game with such huge crossover potential into the mainstream?

Football simulation problems: The pitch

sensible soccerAny sensible (pun intended) design conversation needs to start with the ground itself.

Minds immediately turn to hexes or quadrants, with each player represented with a meeple, card, detailed plastic minis (Kickstarted, natch) etc.

And so we run into our first problem: 22 players on the pitch. Controlling 11 people seems too many – especially when you take into consideration that only two or maybe three people will ever be directly affecting play. Positioning will become way too much of the game, making this very much a manager-level sim and losing too much of that all important feeling of energy.

Designers have of course gotten around this but tend to do so in one of two ways (and often both); which I have dubbed the Nintendo and Dilithium approaches:

  • The Nintendo way: Chibify the game, set it in the ‘street’ or the jungle or a school playground, and make it five-a-side – immediately alienating the vast majority of your original target audience and losing any semblance of ‘proper’ football in the process.
  • The Dilithium way: Give them swords! Make them robots! We can set it in the future or the past to get around those awkward offside rules and allow full body contact to make it exciting!! And then add EVEN MORE EXCITEMENT!!!

Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing these things – it’s just not football.

In my mind, this situation harkens back to my original analogy of squad combat. That tends to have fewer than 11 pieces per side, and they can of course interact with each other far more often: that damnable ball is the problem. For me, this rules out the idea of a pitch, or board, or minis – sorry (we shall briefly pause to let the Kickstarter publishers slope out of the room).

Football simulation problems: The players vs the manager

BergkampThe real joy of football – as with many team sports – is that while both teams head out onto the pitch with a plan, set out by the manager and coaches, this needs to be executed by human beings: and with another bunch of human being trying to stop them.

Football is a chaotic sporting mash up of strategy and tactics defined by flawed individuals: and fans have an opinion on every single one of them. Players have strengths and weaknesses, both physical and mental, which are the absolute essence of the game. You can’t have a ‘proper’ football game without them.

It’s not easy to create a game system where 22 individuals will be different enough on paper to have a significantly varied effect on the outcome of the game. Where do you draw the line with stats? You can have attack, defence, midfield, goalkeeping – but what about stamina, temperament, ‘special powers’ – free kicks, penalties, leadership, flair…?

And that’s just two teams. Any football game worth its salt will want a good 8 teams to start with – and if things went well, more like 20+. That’s more than 200 players now. And what about referees, linesmen, pitch conditions, the effect of the fans?

And of course the manager. Beyond picking the team the manager should be having an effect on the pitch – will they encourage long ball, wing play, 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 – and what about substitutions, or reshaping the team after a sending off, or an injury? Oh yeah, I forgot about injuries. And can we really give up on the pitch idea completely?

Football simulation ideas (so far)

Brady top trumpA card game seems the obvious way forward. While dice feel like a good idea, the idea of random on top of random always turns me off in a game that should be at least 30 minutes long – and I feel a proper football game should go that distance or more.

To take it one more step, a collectible/living card game again seems obvious. Building a deck of 11 players chosen from a larger pool (perhaps 20 for a squad) would give the individuality required. Attack and defence stats may well be enough, with individual player ‘powers’ adding the all-important individuality.

These player cards would be bolstered with manager cards: tactics and special plays learnt on the training ground. And finally there can be situation cards, used to represent those moments you just can’t legislate for: the terrible tackle, the ‘bobble’, the amazing drive from 30 yards. And of course those contentious refereeing decisions.

I’m aware these three types of card are falling easily into stereotypes made so popular by the hugely successful Magic: The Gathering card game: the players are the ‘creatures’, manager cards the ‘enchantments’ and situation cards the ‘instants’. Frankly I’m comfortable with that, as I feel there will be divergence enough from this starting point.

The real challenge will be the elephant in the room: that bloody pitch. I’m thinking it could be represented by a single card or play matt, split into three simple areas – the two ends and midfield. A marker will show where the game is currently being played, with each turn ending with a battle for supremacy in the current area: a midfield or defensive win moves you forwards, while a win at your opponent’s end results in a chance.

But how will chances be resolved? Will there be some kind of cost to put cards out? And once out, how will they be removed from play – if at all? How about weather, or home advantage? All decision for another day.

Designer and critic: Does one have to give?

reality checkAs a journalist and all-round gobshite I’ve spent my career (and social life) ‘generously’ giving my opinion to anyone who would listen.

This is fine when you’re a third party; when I was reviewing music, for example, all I had to worry about after writing a scathing review was the occasional poorly spelt threat from the bass player. I wasn’t in a band, so reputation wasn’t an issue. If anything, writing something controversial was likely to get you noticed – often a good thing.

Of course nowadays I’m all about the board games. I’m 30+ reviews and lots of opinion pieces in; but now my first game design is out there, with hopefully more to come. So should I draw the line on reviews? Or what might I lose by carrying on?

Taking it on the chin

I was chatting with the Cardboard Console guys the other day (check them out of you like board and computer games) and they asked about reading the comments made about our game, Empire Engine, on Board Game Geek. They said, if it were them, bad reviews would make them super angry: did I read them all?

The truth is yes, I read them all – good and bad. and I watch the videos and listen to all the audio (which is tricky, as it might be a two-minute brush off in the middle of a poorly edited three-hour podcast). And do they make me mad? Nope, not at all.*

It would be contrary of me to criticise others for having an opinion when I’ve earned a living out of spouting mine; and having spent my working life in creative environments, I’m used to criticism. But any design process can be a hard, long and personal and its easy to see why some people find it hard to separate emotionally from that.

So lets say someone has a bad review and they’re pissed. Some will internalise it and have hurt feelings; but others will take that anger and run with it. This can take us back to our angry bass player, threatening scenarios you can just laugh off; but its the smart ones you have to worry about – especially when you’re starting to put some tentative paws into the very industry you’re biting the hand of.

There is no law

You’d think a well balanced review, explaining its reasoning while critiquing opposite opinions, would put you on safe ground. Don’t kid yourself. There are some vindictive, nasty bastards out there. I’ve seen people go on personal crusades to rubbish someone they’d heard criticise them, even if it was an unarguable truth.

One bad review can see you struck off the mailing list of a PR company or manufacturer. You’re then left with the dilemma of integrity versus acceptance; the right versus the easy way out. As a new member of the designers club, this comes even more into focus.

Let’s get hypothetical. I criticise Game A by Designer A, from publisher A – and both take vindictive exception. Designer A goes and gives all my games a 2 out of 10, writes bad reviews and starts to bad mouth me to his designer friends. Publisher A refuses any meetings with me to see my prototypes, while suggesting to other publishers I’m trouble. A bad rep can spread like wildfire in a small community; soon I’m pariah number one.

I’ve seen how friendly this industry is – and it genuinely is exceptional. But then I also listen when people have a few beers, and read between some of the 140 characters on Twitter. Yes it’s a nice industry, but the people in it are only human.

Right and wrong

So what of the moral side? Forget personal consequences – what’s the right thing to do? I mean, why would you want to upset someone in the first place? Especially your piers.

I’m probably not the right person to ask, as my moral compass has been called into question on occasion, but I believe if you think something sucks and people listen to you, you have a duty to say so. Alternatively, you can simply bow gracefully out of the game.

Personally I’m going to stick to writing nice reviews here, while writing pithy 20-word criticisms on BGG when something gets my goat. As I do about one review per month and haven’t been sent a single freebie (bastards) its hard to write a bad review – I don’t buy games blind and if I do play a crap game I tend to play it once then run for the hills.

But if free games start turning up (please!) I’d feel duty bound to review them all – and honestly. At that point, I’d have to think again; do I really want to be that guy?

* OK, maybe they do a bit; but ironically it’s only really the rating number that annoys me, not the words: every 3 or 4 rating brings the average down significantly right now and is hindering the game rising up the rankings. So stop it. Please 🙂