Last year there was a monster train, before the Spire slaughter, before that Dream Quest. (And before that, board games like Dominion.) It’s almost as if the digital deckbuilder genre is in the “Doom clone” phase of its development, which is a good thing. There is room for more than one game about creating the perfect deck of cards to survive random fights, where your ultimate victory depends on finding some terrible combo. But at the moment, most of them seem to differ in their aesthetics as much as they do with their modifications to the formula.
Aesthetically, the Roguebook is a winner. Designed by Abrakam, responsible for the lowest-rated CCG Veria, Which the Roguebook shares its surroundings with as well as its photos – part of Miyazaki Forest, and part of a children’s fairytale book.
Glowing orbs glow through the trees, and horned, evil monsters appear from the bushes. Disney witch swindling her finger and standing king ghoul ghoul like Skyrim jarl. There are a lot of fluffy yaks.
It has been defeated more than once by raccoon fools hurling yaks from their catapults. I learned to fear the yakapult.
Before roguelike deckbuilders were a thing, there was Shandalar, a 1997 video game based on Magic: The Gathering in which you roam the land and fight random battles to win cards. You brought it up because Magic author, Richard Garfield, is a co-designer for Roguebook, which has us complete the circuit. You may also know it from his other works, by which I mean his masterpiece, Rupurally.
While it looks like another clone at first, the Roguebook reveals some depth as you progress. It gives you control over two heroes (in this demo, which is currently available as part of Steam Game FestivalHalf Ogre specializes in blocking and dragons are better at attacking), and your deck is divided into cards each like the colors in the magic deck of cards.
Some cards allow heroes to switch position, with the Dragon Slayer doing more damage when in front and Half of the Ghouls gaining 2 points from the block if they finish the turn in column mode. This signals it to bring it to attack before bouncing back up, which synergizes with a card called Blade Dance that deals more damage the more keys you pull. There are also cheaper cards if they are played directly after one of the other champion’s cards, or if they are played from the back row.
The duo share a large group but are otherwise healthy, which means in the event that one falls, the other has a chance to help them back up. At ground zero, they retire to the back row, and their cards are turned into songs. The three of them sang – by playing three cards – and that hero will return to stand on their feet, but with two useless wrapped cards in their deck since.
The most influential difference is that the Roguebook doesn’t reward you much for off-putting your deck. When I fail another Spire round it’s because I added too many cards without trimming the fat, taking turns to reach for that powerful combo before a clay monster swallowed up.
Roguebook rewards you for owning you More Cards. When you exceed the limits of the size of the deck, you gain talents and level up your heroes. The tedious and safe option for deleting cards until left with a perfect set of progressive efficiencies is no longer the only option.
My Monster Train is depleted by the need to plan an upgrade path and surgically remove everything inappropriate, so a deck maker who encourages choosing fun options, and experimenting even after finding that broken combo, might interest me for a longer time.
There is also the other world, a land inside a magic book (hence the name), that appears as a hexagonal grid with the fog of war receding by spending the ink and brushes you earn in battles. Areas unfold like a minesweeper, and may contain shops, gold, and a noah piñata faeries for more golden adventure scenes and short texts. You may earn rewards from these treasures that provide some important rewards, or gems that can be inserted into cards to change the way they work. Like Heroes of Might and Magic, or indeed Shandalar, the Other World puts context and a small story between the battles.
I want more of that. After spending more than 100 hours in Hades, I want every roguelike to put more effort into narration, to make each loss look like punishment and more like the beginning of the next chapter. When I die for yakapult again, I spend some book pages that I found on the map to unlock a feature for the next round, but I want more than that. I want to talk to yak, basically.