'Slay the Spire' Taught Me Friction Can Make a Game Easier in the Long Run

When a game feels so effortless you forget you need to make one.
January 28, 2021, 2:00pm
Sneko
'Slay the Spire' screenshots courtesy of Mega Crit Games

My second game of Slay the Spire was absurdly easy: I breezed through my run thanks to my character's (the poison-wielding assassin, "The Silent") ability to burn through my deck and give me more than 10 choices per turn about what cards you want to play, plus some nice luck with the items I picked up on my journey.

I barely had to play the hand I was dealt each turn because I had so many ways to pull cards until I got ones that were directly useful to my situation. But that experience, coupled with the beautiful and addictive frictionlessness of Slay the Spire's design, may have ruined me for the game: I never realize when I need to pay attention, until it's too late.

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This is me and a lot of run-based games, but Slay the Spire highlights the problem. Once you roughly know how the game works and what its various player-characters and enemies do, the first half of a run is pretty easy and forgiving. Almost dull. You smash through lower-level enemies and build up your deck and itemization, going from having a rather simplistic set of attack and defense cards to having a sophisticated arsenal of interlocking abilities and effects. During the second half of the game, when I put together a really powerful onslaught or cleverly parry an enemy's devastating attack, I feel like a genius.

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For the most part, I would say three-quarters of the time I spend with the game, Slay the Spire is happy to indulge and encourage the Dunning-Kruger effect. Most of the time it's not that hard, and if you play a bit inefficiently at times, you'll probably be able to heal before you take too much damage to safely continue. In a game where you rarely have more than 50 HP, it's certainly scary when you see an enemy winding up to do 46 points of damage in a turn, but by then you should have a the right mix of cards of your deck to either kill them before their turn or mitigate their damage so that you absorb only a small fraction of that potential damage.

The thing is, of course, that the difficulty spikes very fast toward the end of the run. I tend to be in trouble before I even realize it. A couple encounters where I took 10 HP more damage than I should have will come back to haunt me. Or I'll be fighting one of the late game bosses or elite enemies and suddenly realize how quickly their damage is scaling as the fight drags on, and what I thought was efficient defensiveness has become catastrophic tardiness.

It's not that Slay the Spire hides this info. If I made a habit of taking a minute to read all my cards carefully and look at the list of buffs and abilities that the enemy has active, I'd avoid most of the traps I fall into. The problem is that because Slay the Spire feels so good and snappy, I start playing faster and faster. Who cares about the cards in my hand, I want to see the next hand.

It's not that I play terribly, but I make simple mistakes that cost efficiency. I forget that one of my cards makes an enemy vulnerable, which will amplify the damage of every other card I play this turn. By the time I remember that, I've already played a couple of my better free attacks. A lapse like that probably means the fight will last a turn longer than it should. A few more mistakes like that, and I'll probably come up just short at the every end of the run.

To be clear, this isn't a problem with games like Slay the Spire, but I do think it hints at a tension in game design. I fully admit I tend to prefer it when games sand and polish most of the friction out of an experience, and I probably tend to spend more time with games where almost everything can be read at-a-glance. But games that go too far in his direction can start to feel boring or shallow, and I'll fall off them. Meanwhile, games like Slay the Spire that hide their nuances (or make engaging with them semi-optional at times) lull me into a really maddening sense of false security and complacency that predictably bites me as I face its late-game challenges. It's avoidable if I just take more time to focus on every turn and optimize my order-of-play… but that's hard to do when it so often feels like a really good idle game. It's very good at getting me to sit down and play it when I don't want to think or work that hard. The trouble comes when it reminds me that it's still dangerous, and the all those little mistakes add up in the end.