For people who are familiar with competitive card games, Richard Garfield is an icon. In addition to his work on Roguebook – and front and center positioning in the indie deckbuilder’s marketing – Garfield is also the godfather of Magic The Gathering and Netrunner, and also had a hand in both Keyforge and Valve’s recent misfire Artefact.
In Roguebook Garfield is relying on a computer to manage the many, many variables underlying the design. Chief amongst these is the twist that you go into battle as a pair of characters, with the position in battle (front or back) introducing another layer of strategy, as certain attacks can only be triggered from a certain position, but whoever is out in front will take the brunt of the damage.
Roguebook is one of a growing number of roguelike deckbuilders, a popular genre that houses within it the masterpiece that is Slay The Spire, as well as Monster Train, Ring Of Pain, Tainted Grail, and many more. Combat is simulated by playing a deck of cards you build up over time in turn based combat against a range of foes. Die, and you get dumped back to the main menu with little more than some meta-progression and a vague feeling you might have made a mistake somewhere.
The game’s dual character hook is interesting and fresh, and initially presents a realm of possibilities, whilst still cleaving close to established ideas of “colours” which originate in Magic: The Gathering. In Magic, red cards would mean aggression, low cost cards, high damage with a tradeoff, whereas green would mean slow building with buffing units to nigh unassailable power levels.
Characters work similarly to this, each having their own pools of cards to work with, and a passive that partly defines their role. Block cards soak up damage but also often swap you to the front, and Sorocco often gains benefits if he is at the front: his passive ensures he gets two Block if he is at the front and his deck is easily filled with plenty of cards that gain bonuses if he is in the front line.
Shanara wants to be in front for a different reason: she gains a buff in the front line, and many of her attacking cards have the keyword Charge – meaning she dashes forward to the front. The trade off is she has less health than Sorocco, so deciding when to swap is key. There are two other characters to discover, giving players six combinations.
Without spoiling much, my favourite was the third, not just because of his Rage mechanic (which lets him power his cards after he has taken a certain amount of damage) but because his cards focus on summoning and empowering allies, letting you work towards a turn where your allies would overwhelm your opponent in a flurry of attacks.
Like most games of this type, there are a lot of cards, and a lot of equipable relics which you can discover to change the way you play over time. Enemy types are varied and require you to keep your deck relatively balanced as you progress – being able to block, dish out decent damage, deal with strong single targets that scale, and mobs that drown you with numbers.,
Certain combos can often feel broken, but that’s all part of the fun of a good deckbuilder: figuring out the way certain ideas overlap in ways that allow you to steamroll. One fun run I had involved hitting enemies for an unblockable damage over time bleed effect that equaled half the damage of my first attack. Coupled with a relic that inflicted bleed to every opponent, a card which grew in power for every card I had in my deck, and a card that doubled the inflicted bleed, the last boss lasted a handful of turns. Tasty.
Another interesting wrinkle is that the game incentives bigger decks, by rewarding you with a choice of three talents as you increase your card pool, dishing out , meaning there is a fine balance to be found between efficiency and utility. Cards can also be upgraded by slotting a variety of gems in them that trigger effects as simple as extra damage and extra block, to copying the card into your hand, or discarding other cards to reduce its price. These gems are found via shops, and through the map, the latter being the area where Roguebook stumbles.
Rather than the linear progression of most deckbuilders, Roguebook tasks you with exploring a hex based map, inside the titular book. This seems to be a hangover from 2016’s Faeria, the game which Roguebook takes its lore and world from. In exploring the map, you use ink to fill in hexes. You start with four brushes, which reveal an area which. Hexes can hold battles, gold, card vaults (where you pay gold to draft from three cards), health pick-ups, and more.
Two towers on each of the three stages promise to open up an even wider range, and battles reward players with different ink types, or single use ink bottles that reveal lines or single spaces. There’s definitely a puzzle element to figuring out where best to use your ink. Sight Runes dotted around reveal random points of interest that you can path towards, and maximising your reveals versus making a bee-line for specific items that have been uncovered is a nice trade off.
Where it falls down is the lack of predictability as found in Slay The Spire and Monster Train, and the fact that the game’s overarching progress makes exploring feel a slog at first. Like many roguelike games, as you win and lose, you collect a currency (pages) which let you improve aspects of the game, from giving you more health, to improving the frequency that items appear on the map, giving you more gold per pile, better cards at the start of the run, and so on. It detracts from the purity of the experience, and even though after winning you can up the difficulty in a manner reminiscent of Hades’ heat, which will spit out more pages, it can easily feel like winning once or twice gives you the momentum to just carry on succeeding.
As well as improving with pages, new relics and gems are added to the pool as gain experience, characters get more cards as you play – there’s a kind of stupefying momentum to everything that makes winning feel like a given, and that one victory begets another by virtue of the inducements you get over time. There is likely a point where the negatives you can add outweigh the positives, but so far my current experience suggests that the game lacks the finely tuned nuance of Slay The Spire, although that is a lofty high to aim for.
A final point to note as well is that the game’s art style is quite garish. Everything is very big, bold and rounded, but card text and UI feel stark and clinical against the children’s pop-up book feel of the rest of the game. It definitely isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and the polish also appears to affect the performance at times, as I got multiple hangs on card use, and regularly found the game’s UI to be a bit sticky compared to the slickness found in most other deckbuilders.
After all of these negatives, Roguebook is still a good game. So far my time has found that it is a fun power fantasy deckbuilder, letting you get away with silly combinations, gleefully stringing together double digit card plays thanks to some clever rules interactions. Sadly, it just lacks the magic associated you’d expect thanks to Garfield’s involvement.
Roguebook is available for the PC right now. We reviewed the PC version, but Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 versions will be available at a later date.
Roguebook layers lots of complex systems on top of each other, which is sadly a double-edged sword as you feel simultaneously powerful and also completely out of control. It’s a classic case of adding a few too many ideas into an already stuffed experience, until the experience is more akin to a buffet than a tightly presented three course meal.
- Lots of novel ideas all mix together to make your first 20 or so hours a fun learning experience
- Clever card keywords encourage an over the top playstyle
- Character combinations, relics, and gems add a lot of customization
- Hex based map is interesting at first, but feels like unnecessary set dressing
- All of these mechanics together make it very hard to feel like your successes are hard earned
- The art style is divisive at best