It was inevitable, really. Richard Garfield, card-gaming’s biggest name, was – at some point – going to spot the burgeoning ‘deckbuilding roguelike’ genre and fancy a go at it. And it’s a hell of a pitch for nerds like me: “Magic: The Gathering designer does Slay the Spire” is enough for us to drop any qualms we had about too-many-copycats in the genre, and jump at the opportunity to review it.
One of the things that makes us a Richard Garfield fan is that he’s aware of card gaming’s hang-ups and cliches, and often tries to explore in other directions. He’s not afraid to try new things. And it’s exactly what the deckbuilder could benefit from: it feels like a genre that’s looking for a ‘what’s next?’.
Garfield has teamed up with developers Abrakam Entertainment to produce Roguebook, and it’s a dream match-up. Abrakam are probably best known for deckbuilder Faeria, which was gorgeous in its execution, but lacked the big ideas to truly make a statement. In Richard Garfield, they have found their remaining puzzle piece.
That Faeria gorgeousness is here in spades. Everything blooms with a bioluminescent glow, from the pyrotechnic attacks to the lush backgrounds. Enemies are drawn from an endlessly creative mind, sometimes grotesque, but mostly Jim-Henson-like in their overblown character. There’s no higher praise than that. Slovenly kings throw out animated dinner plates to attack; cat-rats climb over a siege engine in an attempt to lob fireballs. Unlike other games in the genre, there’s not much demonic grimness here.
And as you would expect from Richard Garfield, much stays the same, but an awful lot changes. Introductions to Roguebook are familiar: choose your character, and then choose a second as your sidekick. That’s not too unusual: games like Monster Train and The Amazing American Circus have dabbled in multiple characters, each bringing their own cards to the deck. With them chosen, you set off on a rogue-like journey to see how far you can get. So far, so familiar, but it doesn’t take long for the cogs of innovation to start whirring.
Once you hop out of your safe haven and into the world of Roguebook, you’d be forgiven for being completely daunted. This is a world of hexagons, sprawling out as far as you can see, like an old ‘80s war board game. They represent the world, and they come in two states: revealed and unrevealed. You can travel over the revealed hexagons – in fact, Breath of the Wild-style, you could head right to the castle from the start and have a pop if you fancy it, but much like Nintendo’s game, that would be suicide.
It’s a fog of war, effectively, and that fog is lifted in the most surprising way. You carry paintbrushes, and you can stand in an area, press Y, and ‘paint’ all of the hexagons around you. By painting them, you reveal what was beneath them, from enemies to treasures to events to gold and much, much more besides. Less powerful but similar are ink pots, which let you reveal individual hexes or a few in a line.
It rips up the Slay the Spire template of having a chain of nodes with miniscule choice between paths, and offers up something that could have been a game unto itself. It’s sensational and works regardless of how you want to approach it. Want to race through? Sure you can: beeline to the castle, taking in a couple of elite enemies who give the best rewards. Want to optimise your deck before you head in? Sure, you can do that too, and exploration becomes a game of risk-reward, as you balance the risk of battle versus the paint pots they give you. Want to explore the entire map? It’s going to be challenging, but it can be done: it’s a highwire act of finding and using the paint and ink in an optimal manner.
At some point we’re going to have to review the combat, but we can’t but help getting excited about the exploration, because it is so indelibly tied to the quality of your deck. Find gold and you can buy things in a shop – always there, never denied by bad luck – which offers truly transformative benefits. There are artefacts, which can be socketed in either of your heroes, and they do much the same as Slay the Spire’s relics. There are cards to buy too, as you would expect. But the second nugget of genius comes in the form of gems.
These gems have very specific benefits, like doubling damage, or adding a ‘Draw a card’ tag. But you apply them to the card you want, bolting them on and multiplying or even completely changing the mechanics. It’s a tinkerer’s dream, and we found ourselves laughing maniacally as we applied ridiculously overblow benefits. At one point, we gained a 12-cost ally, which is near-impossible to play in normal combat. But with ‘This card’s cost is reduced to 0’ and ‘Draw this card in your opening hand’ gems, we were able to make it a turn-one nuclear bomb. The single-player, roguelike framework allows you to be completely imbalanced, and Richard Garfield and Abkram Entertainment have thoroughly gone to town with how overpowered you can become.
Combat is a little more familiar, and we suspect it might be too familiar for some. Squint and you could be playing Slay the Spire, as it’s heroes on the left, enemies on the right, and turns are taken to do attacks or perform blocks in an effort to preserve your life points while enemies lose theirs. On one hand, it’s a shame to find the combat so rote: we’d have loved to see Richard Garfield off the leash, looking to disrupt things as much as he has done with the exploration and deck upgrading. But on the other hand, we wonder whether Roguebook would have been too unfamiliar, too befuddling, if combat also upturned the cart.
And it’s not as if the combat is tame. There is a switching mechanic that makes cards more powerful dependent on where your character is positioned. And as with the best deckbuilders, it’s possible to create decks that barely let the opponent have a go. You can unleash ridiculous damage and then multiply it for kicks. You can have swathes of allies, performing attacks every turn, and barely have to do anything yourself. It opts for overpoweredness and revels in it. When your deck achieves that state, you can feel unbeatable.
Finishing a run gives you pages that can be used to unlock permanent benefits. It’s the final nugget of genius. Rather than make your character more powerful, effectively locking off the best decks until you’ve played for hundreds of hours, it simply makes your map more rewarding. It means that there are more opportunities to find something special in the wilderness, and that feels like a correct balance: plus, it makes future runs more fun. Complete the three worlds of Roguebook and you can apply handicaps for the prospect of more pages, and there are four characters to unlock. These are all the reasons that you need to return.
Enticing Richard Garfield to the Slay the Spire deckbuilder was Roguebook’s first act of brilliance, but many others follow. In the hex-based exploration it’s taken the genre’s dullest moments and made them the most engaging. In the deck-optimisation, it has fully handed the keys to the player and said ‘let’s see what you can make’. The possibilities, as the adage goes, are endless, and it gives Roguebook a truly infinite feel. We can’t wait to pull a chair under the workbench and construct something new.
Roguebook: it’s one hell of a page-turner.
You can buy Roguebook from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S