It’s hard to attach value to a subjective experience. Now more than ever are the concepts of playtime and replayability important factors considered in-game purchases. Board games are no stranger to these issues. As most tabletop games run at least the cost of a AAA title, designers have had to figure out ways to give players the most bang for their buck. MegaCrit Games, the creators of Slay the Spire, draw inspiration from both the digital and tabletop worlds.
The devs have taken the best of the deckbuilding and roguelike genres to craft an immensely deep, frustrating, and gratifying experience. Slay the Spire is a perfect example of “easy to learn, hard to master”. You’ll enter the Spire as a neophyte pawing at cards and items that confuse and overwhelm you. Only by learning, adapting, and taking risks can you emerge victorious.
Ascending the Spire
Like many games where mechanics are at the forefront, Slay the Spire’s narrative is simple and broad but effective for what it needs. The title says it all: you are a champion tasked with slaying the Spire. You must reach the top and overcome anything and everything in between. Along the way, you will encounter traps, treasures, and a host of enemies eager to kill you. The game is divided into three distinct levels, each boasting several different branching floor options.
The genius of the game’s modularity is readily apparent in the way the narrative unfolds. No two runs are the same, thanks to well-placed instances of RNG. Like many other roguelike games, (e.g. FTL, Binding of Isaac, Risk of Rain), the narrative develops in tandem with your progression. In one run, you may be a rampaging berserker who deals out massive damage at the cost of his own health. In another, you may be a crafty rogue dancing around your opponents while they wither away from poison damage. The overwhelmingly diverse combinations of items, cards, and events make every run unique.
A Delightfully Morbid Blend of Gothic and Cartoony
For such morose subject matter, Slay the Spire features a vivid color palette, fun enemy designs, and cartoonishly gothic visual designs. The graphic design of the game makes use of morbid subject matters but presents them in a fairly lighthearted tone. In addition to the painted, colorful quality that suffuses the visual art, Slay the Spire’s implementation of stylized graphics and animation deepens that dichotomy. The slightly stilted unit movements and cartoony visuals play on this notion of suggestive storytelling. It’s up to the player to fill in the gaps.
The world of Slay the Spire acts a context for the mechanics to function in. However, that’s not to say that it takes a backseat. Like FTL, Mario, and the Binding of Isaac, the narrative is there to provide flavor and explanations, both of which feed off each other. Larger, more imposing enemies will be animated slower and appear more threatening, with equally devastating skills to back them up. On the other hand, smaller enemies like slimes and imps will be tiny, skitterish, and comparatively harmless. Every enemy has a unique skillset that corresponds to their appropriate flavor: thieves can mug you for gold, winged enemies can fly and avoid damage, while automatons can shrug off debuffs.
Likewise, the cards and items in the game follow a similar philosophy of form tied to function. As in other card games, flavor, art, and the card’s effect are all closely tied together. Every card in Slay the Spire has unique art that effectively encapsulates the central idea to said card’s function. After a few runs have gone by, you start to recognize cards based purely on the visuals alone.
This seems small at first, but there’s quite a bit of tactile learning that goes into playing the game. With each run, you grow more familiar with the enemies, cards, and items to the point where you’re spending less time figuring things out and can focus more on developing effective strategies. UX was an important aspect of the game that the devs paid close attention. In a game that makes heavy use of iconography to convey meaning (cards, items, map symbols, etc.), it’s easy for the player to get lost if the information is not readily apparent or available. Slay the Spire has no such problem.
A Sturdy House of Cards
Any tabletop gamer will tell you that learning how to play a board game is probably the worst part. Especially with modern tabletop games, rulesets can quickly become overwhelming. By striving for deeper strategy and gameplay, more mechanics need to be established and placed into systems that make sense. What this means for the player is that the game requires both an intimate understanding of the rules and how to effectively enforce and play by them. Not the most elegant solution, but RPG rulesets with dozens of volumes are proof that humans are more than up to the task.
In recent years, however, designers have experimented with different ways to bridge the gap between digital and tabletop gameplay. Rather than strictly residing in either camp, taking the middle of the road approach and use the best that each medium has to offer. Tabletop mechanics augmented by technology create a smoother experience while still preserving the spirit of board games.
Slay the Spire epitomizes this design philosophy by taking mechanics from a number of other games and re-purposing them for greater depth and synergy. There are three distinct systems to manage: cards, relics, and the map. All three systems play into each other, offering variation through randomized encounters and loot. Fortunately, the RNG is such that while it can still give negative results, the player has a healthy amount of options to mitigate that risk.
Ascending the Spire functions much the same as FTL‘s map and event systems. From an initial node, the progression goes through subsequent nodes that branch out. If you are feeling particularly confident, you can try to tackle an Elite enemy or head straight for a campfire if you’re not. Specific encounters and events will be randomized, but most of the time you can plot out a safe path if caution is a greater priority.
The two currently available classes possess uniquely different sets of cards that further open up variety in playstyles and strategy. The Ironclad is a bit more straightforward and focuses on mechanics like heavy damage, blocking, and health management. The Silent, on the other hand, is more of a rogue or assassin archetype. She boasts tech-intensive playstyles that can either deal heavy bursts of damage or whittle the enemy down with poison and debuffs.
A full run will take you across three different levels, each with their own enemy pools and end with a random boss. The boss fights act as a good benchmark for how your deck will perform. If you struggle against a boss, chances are you won’t make it very far to the next level. Your performance depends highly on the items and cards you obtain. Fortunately, the game is generous with how many of both you can find and pick up.
Upgrades come in the form of relics with unique passive abilities, similar to Binding of Isaac‘s and Risk of Rain‘s powerups. The relics are large in number and varied in effects: some will heal or damage, some will change mechanics, and all of them open up unique strategies. Most apparent, however, is where Slay the Spire draws inspiration from card games. Hearthstone, Magic, Dominion, Netrunner, and a plethora of other card games manifest in Slay the Spire’s mechanics.
The combat is fairly straightforward: a random assortment of enemies spawn while the player draws their opening hand. Energy, like mana in Hearthstone or Magic is the resource used to play cards. In the first few fights, you’ll have a small assortment of abilities to play and only three Energy to spend each turn. But as you progress up the Spire, you can find a variety of different cards with different mechanics based on keywords. Managing their effects, costs, and synergy is key to success.
The cards’ keywords make for interesting combat, as the developers have created the framework for a number of creative strategies to develop. You may want to focus on a milling deck that draws and discards to create optimal plays. Another run, you may instead choose to play it slower with a control deck and poke holes in the enemy’s defense. The game encourages experimentation but also demands improvisation, a design philosophy that permeates its design.
Wide as an Ocean and Just as Deep
Slay the Spire’ is an addictive, challenging, and gratifying game that combines the best of “deckbuilding” and “roguelikes” into one tight package. There are so many different systems and mechanics in place that play off of each other in consistently surprising ways. In many respects, it’s a lot like Dwarf Fortress. Even when you do lose, the game does an excellent job of turning frustration into motivation. In your run, you’ll see cards you haven’t really used before and wonder how they work. When you eventually try it out, it’s readily apparent that the card is good, it just doesn’t work with your particular build.
Pretty soon it’s 3 AM and you’ve finally made your deck work. You understand the intricacies of how all the mechanics play into each other, you’ve accounted for its deficiencies, and you’re at the final boss of the game.
Yet somehow, you still manage to die.
But that doesn’t stop you.
You go back into the Spire, confident in this run and your ability to make it further.
You will hate your enemies. You will hate your deck. You will hate this game. But for those brief moments of strategic glory, for the serendipitous card draws and satisfying combos, you will come back.
The Spire calls and you must answer.