The genre of deck builder games is a crowded space. The early access release of Slay the Spire in 2017 set the standards for the genre: you pick a character, you draft cards that pursue a particular effective strategy for that character, and you do everything in your power to remove everything from your deck that does not embody that strategy. Then you plow through enemy encounters, accruing treasure and fortune based on your moment-to-moment play.
Roguebook, co-designed by Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield and out on Steam now, takes the exact opposite strategy when it comes to many of these design elements. It’s my new gold standard for what this genre can do.
It’s hard to say what’s so special about this, so let me work my way there via a magic show. Ricky Jay opens his 1996 show Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants with a demonstration of the power that a deck of cards holds. He talks about each of them like people. The royalty have certain desires, the common folk are like you and I. Using that deck, he goes through the exact same trick three times, with each iteration using a style of magic from a different historical and regional styles. Changing presentation models, flicking the cards here and there, Jay finds the four queens in the deck without much fuss. The crowd "oos" and "aas" in wonder. The tricks work.
The point of the act is not to show us these three maneuvers. It’s not about comparing the basic American style of simply chunking them out of the deck against the drawing room style that tells a long tale about why the queens want to find each other. Instead, it’s about making it clear that the cards are not the point. The show is the point. Shuffling a deck and producing planned results isn't what makes a card act fun for the audience; the journey changes the quality of the whole experience. Ricky Jay used a deck of cards to illustrate the possibilities of what a talented person could do with a deck of cards.
This is the best analogy that I could come up with to speak to how special Roguebook is within the deck building game genre. At its core, Roguebook is about progressing through a few randomized levels while building up a deck that allows you to fight enemies. It is impossible to make a game in this space that does not evoke comparisons to the titanic Slay the Spire and heavy hitters like Monster Train, and developer Abrakam clearly owe much of the core of this game’s design to these other major players. You battle monsters with a deck of cards, you choose more cards to add to that deck, and you slowly build toward specific strategies that allow for unique tactics for your given playable characters. But along the way, they keep inverting the logic and strategies that undergird Slay the Spire.
Roguebook’s reversals of the design ideals of the deck builder make it resonate strongly with me. It is thick in every place that Spire is thin. Instead of a direct line of encounters that are approached in a string, Roguebook plops players into large procedurally-generated levels that are navigated in roguelike fashion. You move your characters around a hex grid, uncovering the fog of war (and revealing items to pick up or new battles to have) by deploying different kinds of inks to “draw” them into existence. It doesn’t translate well to paper, but the end effect is a careful management of items that allow you to optimally reveal as many new tiles as possible. With the addition of towers that reveal more space or items that permanently upgrade your character, the game creates a small set of navigation puzzles that legitimately add to the experience.
And, of course, instead of a single powerful character with an associated deck, you have two characters whose abilities are shuffled together into one deck of cards. The game’s deck-based combat has familiar and intuitive systems for drawing and playing cards that quickly become complicated as character abilities, items, and card effects begin to stack onto each other over the course of the battle. Sometimes you might have a turn where 90% of your cards are for one hero. Other turns might present you with a hand of cards that only allow you to block, and you are forced to sequence that hand perfectly in order to get your character placement correct (many cards switch the place of the characters, meaning that sequencing is key). In practice, this means that some of the joy of Roguebook is simply “going with the flow,” of picking strategies and trying to intuit how they work within the constraints of the game’s substantial card pool.
The four playable characters (of which you can use any two in any given run) each have their own broad build paths you can go down. You can specialize Seifer the demon-possessed rat, for example, into a character who deals damage to himself to confer combat benefits. On the other hand, you could have him summon Ally cards that statically sit on the battlefield and confer benefits to your team. These choices are interesting on their own, but their complexity increases when you add in another character like Sorocco, a massive red salamander who can specialize in many strength-related tasks like building up a huge amount of blocking power each turn. The first time I beat Roguebook, it was on the sheer strength of having Sorocco make my team virtually invincible every turn while Seifer’s summoned gremlin pals needled our enemies to death.
Slay The Spire is a game about generating predictability. You want to find cards that allow you to regularly find and deploy game-winning strategies, and every decision you make in the game centers on whether or not you’re doing that. You want to get rid of the cards that don’t help you deploy that strategy. In this way, the deck building of Slay The Spire can sometimes feel simply like a game of optimization. Efficiency rules your mind during play, and it is this lightness, this thinness, this razor-sharp puzzler-battler-thinker-drafter that makes Slay scratch the itch that it does.
Roguebook reverses this design principle, replacing it with what Richard Garfield has called the “Fat Deck system,” which is centered on not removing cards from your deck. In Roguebook, you cannot whittle your deck down to your best cards and combos. When you encounter opportunities to add more cards, the most you can do is choose to skip the draft. You cannot remove extraneous cards, and that produces situations where I am more likely to lean into weird combinations I have not experimented with before. Combined with a character talenting system that gives you new tiers based on the number of cards in your deck, Roguebook strongly incentivizes you to cram your deck with experimental strategies and new cards. This means that there are more clunky hands, more odd combos, and constant moments of synergistic discovery. Rambling through Roguebook and adding new cards to my deck is the best a deck builder has felt for me.
Roguebook’s approach to “correct” design of a deck building games feels in line with Richard Garfield’s most recent major forays into the card game space. His now-closed Artifact leaned into the capabilities of cards and combat to an astonishing depth, but was hindered by an opaque and hostile economic design. Similarly, his hit Keyforge, based on physically printing random decks and asking players to hunt for their favorites, leaned very far into a deep card pool with an unthinkable number of combinations. Roguebook is similarly positioned to the point where I would call it maximalist. Like Keyforge, the game seems to be designed around creating the weirdest, biggest knot of things that can interact with each other and then letting a player grab one end of the thread and start pulling.
When Ricky Jay did his card tricks, he demonstrated that the real joy of the experience was not in finding the queens, but instead in the journey you take to find them. The robustness of the experience matters; it has qualities that are worth walking through. Roguebook does the same thing with the deck builder genre, building it out from basic principles into a broader experience that demonstrates that the scene setting, the world map exploration, and all the various subsystems can seriously add to the deck building and playing part that’s obviously a core of the genre.
What Roguebook delivers is ultimately an experiment in giving you everything. It compounds, constantly, to the point where keeping all possible interactions in your head is extremely taxing mentally. In playing it, I am forced to give a little bit over to the system, intuiting and trusting my previous choices and making tactical decisions about when to make real decisions instead of just playing forward. In my best runs, I make strong interventions when I can tell they need to be made (when uncovering fog; when sequencing attacks in difficult encounters; when choosing high-level cards). Most of my decisions are made with my gut within some defined constraints. And when that train gets chugging along, Roguebook becomes the best game of its kind that I’ve played yet.