The Dead Man’s Hand
Cards stand with board games and physical sports as some of the earliest forms of Gamification in recorded history. From their first mention during the Tang Dynasty to their proliferation throughout Europe in the middle ages, they have always had a significant presence in our lives. Old sayings factor them into their wisdom, many famous memes utilize their symbolism, and even the rare person who has never played a game of Poker or Blackjack is bound to have a basic grasp on how to play through Cultural Osmosis alone.
Gaining prominence in the 17th Century and developing parallel were Tarot Cards. People claiming Divination utilized these to tell futures, over time becoming synonymous with fate. Given this background it makes sense that cards feature so prominently in the subconscious of humanity, as making the most of the hands we are dealt in life encapsulates the human experience. It was Socrates who famously said that Luck is Opportunity plus Preparation, but what happens to those who cannot manage to bridge the two? And what impact would these repeated failures have on the individual forced to endure them?
Slay the Spire puts you in such a situation. It’s gives you all the information you need to make the decisions that would result in your success, yet often denies you the tools to make it happen. It’s a card game that you’ll come back to over and over again, teasing you with the possibility of that perfect run, only to knock you down to the base of the tower to start anew. Through the crucible of struggle, it will make you mindful for what you are given, yet also painfully aware of what you are not. Most of these runs will inevitably end in failure. With this in mind, what does that say about thi game’s system? And what does our response say about us?
A Good Run of Bad Luck
My experience with cards started with illustrated decks for Old Maid and Go Fish that I would play with my family. As time went on and we upgraded to a standard deck of playing cards, new games were played; War, Bullshit, and Poker chief among them. I got pretty good at such games, enjoyed having a single set of cards that all draw from. As research shows that engagement with games is a chief socializing factor in children, this fairness is an important and often overlooked distinction, but one with a deception built into it. That being that most games aren’t fair at all.
Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering were my first lessons in this. I loved the vibrant art style and complex rules of these card games, and the wealth of strategic opportunities that they provided. I remember getting Pojo’s Magazine and looking through the wealth of Cards, brainstorming decks and writing them down on lists my mom still has. The problem is none of those decks ever came to be realized as in order to build a 60 Card Pokémon Deck, you needed to purchase Booster Packs, far too expensive than our finances afforded at the time.
Lacking the finances to spend hundreds of dollars on deck-crafting, and not having the money to go to the comic store and buy the often expensive single cards needed, hard reality set in. A couple of my decks were used by some of my friends, with a Rainbow Haymaker I developed even going to regionals. It was an early lesson that knowing the rules of the game only got you so far. Fast forward years later, and I hear about this Procedurally-generated fantasy card game for $30.00 Dollars. I was hesitant, given my background with cards thus far, but having heard nothing but praise for the game ultimately led to a purchase. “Maybe my luck would be different this time?”
I stepped up to the table and advised them to deal me in.
Slay The Spire’s premise is lightning quick-If you blink you’ll miss it. You are an adventurer that has arrived from a faraway land on a quest to defeat some force that lies at the top of a Spire. Through playing the game you can potentially learn the backstory of each character archetype, and there are some unifying details for those who pay attention (Automatons, a Strange Bird Cult, and Eldritch horrors aplenty). Despite this, in my numerous runs I was unable to grasp any real story. Not that this is a bad thing: it’s an excuse plot to justify you being here.
In pursuit of this goal, you will choose between three (four once you unlock them) different characters, each with an entirely different playstyle and set of cards. The Ironclad is a Warrior with the ability to regenerate health every turn and cards focused on Damage Dealing and Defense. The Silent is a Rogue who can draw more cards and has an emphasis on debilitation and poison stacking. The Defect is a Mage that can be played a number of ways and easily has the most challenging mechanics of the three. Once you choose your Hero, it’s off to plan your route through the first of three maps that represent your ascent up the spire.
Stages are randomly generated each time you start a new run, and are full of potential pitstops in between the battles with Weak and Elite Enemies. Question marks signify special events that can grant various boons or harms. Campfires where you can either upgrade your cards or restore some Health (one of the few ways you can reliably do this). Stores allow you to purchase or remove cards using gold won in battles and events, or buy potions and Relics that add abilities to your character. Finally there are are Chests that announce a free relic upon landing there. Properly charting a course through these events will make or break your run.
The Heart of the Cards
This is because your battles will ultimately be determined by the strength of your deck and the tools you have uncovered during your journey through the Spire. Each character starts with a basic deck of four strikes, four defends, and two class cards as well as three turns to use those cards. Everything else is gained or lost during the run and nothing carries over from previous attempts. You must Slay the Spire in one go with what you have.
This is done through battles with an assortment of enemies using a brilliant Intent system. Your foes telegraph whether they are going to defend, buff/debuff, or attack, as well as how much damage they are going to deal, giving you opportunity to plan your turn in a way that minimizes damage while getting in hits when you can. Provided you have the hand to do it. Encounters start relatively easy before ramping up quickly, and by Act 2 you will be expected to make the most of every opportunity to build a deck, gather tools, and Properly read your foes in order to succeed. Victory over weak foes grants you a choice of a new card. Triumphing over Strong foes will net you a relic. It is this risk/reward dichotomy makes Spire such an addictive experience. Do I rest some health back or go into the boss fight hurt but with an key upgraded card? Do I take the Defensive Card or the one that hits all enemies? Go to the store or roll the dice on a special event? You will die, but the next run is a button press away, and every time you enter the Spire, you will have more foresight than you did last time.
It can take some time, but when it finally all comes together these victories are exhilarating. The Ironclad Monster that was easily doing over 200 damage in a single blow as he stacked Strength and handed out vulnerabilities in massive amounts. The Impregnable Ice Defect that could stack 60 defense while whittling enemies down with attrition. Every run promises to be the next one of these, and while most are not, it happens often enough to make for a game that is honestly very hard to put down. On top of that, the game allows custom runs that have a massive amount of tailoring options for you to choose from. Want to build your perfect Starter Deck out of 30 cards? Or build a Chimera Deck from all characters during a run? Want to make the game harder? Custom runs allow you to tweak these and more for a nearly unlimited level of play.
The Aesthetics of Chance
Visually the game is solid, with a special emphasis on the art design. Everything is hand-drawn, with little to no animation to speak of. Actions are conveyed through special effects, like a flame powering you up or a line blasting through enemies. Character design delivers compelling twists on fantasy stalwarts, blending fantasy with Lovecraftian horror. And the cards themselves are well-illustrated with fitting imagery to their effects.
In terms of the soundtrack, I would say that it is also solid, and while there are no earworm tracks that I can’t get out of my head, it conveys the mystery and the danger of the Spire clearly enough. Sound effects are a real standout, delivering impactful blows with gusto. I winced visibly at times when an enemy broke my guard in a spectacular fashion, and felt it when a fatal wound was dealt to an enemy. This contributes to the satisfying nature of the gameplay loop and is the unsung hero in this department.
Technically the game has very little hiccups, which is to be expected from a hand-drawn indie game. There is nothing really demanding going on here behind the scenes, and the game was snappy and responsive, with a particular nod to the short loading times. The algorithm that builds the world seems to be competent as well, delivering a fair if challenging experience filled with enough opportunities that most runs will be viable. I only experienced one run where I felt it was entirely unfair, running into an enemy in the third act I have only seen once; this foe, who I am convinced is some kind of random superboss, dealt close to 100 damage and was not appreciated.
Ace of Spades
Few Jokers aside, Slay the Spire is a compulsive experience that I am certain to return to over and over again. It is a Roguelike that deserves to be spoken of in the same hushed tones as greats like Binding of Isaac, Hades, and Dead Cells. It is a game that I could easily see me sinking dozens of hours into, with enough depth, complexity, and customization to make just about anybody who is even remotely interested in a quality card game interested. As of today, you can score a copy of this game for 25 Dollars, and at that price this is difficult not to recommend.
It is a quality reminder of the power of videogames to bring experiences that can be prohibitively expensive to people in a digital format. Going back to my Pokémon Cards for a second, and interesting observation comes to mind. While I was never able to put the finances together to build a dream deck for real, Nintendo managed to put out a Pokémon Trading Card Game for the Game boy which contained the ability to get all the cards from the first three sets. I loved that game, and will never forget the Moltres Wildfire Deck I was able to build and utilize in that game. Give the Spire a visit and enjoy the climb!