Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Rogue redux

I've been playing some Card Crawl on my iPad. As the "crawl" in the name suggests there is a faint relation to a rogue-like dungeon crawl game. Only there is no dungeon. Instead the experience is simulated by going through a deck of 54 cards, roughly half of which are monsters that cost you health, and the other half being equipment items that prevent health loss or heal you. Only 5 cards in the deck are variable, and over time you get a selection of cards which you can put into those 5 slots. The game is played by the dealer revealing the top 4 cards of the deck, and you having to deal with 3 of them before he deals the next cards. You have 3 slots on your character where you can store positive cards, or you can sell them for gold, but negative cards need to be neutralized with positive cards or you need to take the health loss.

I'm not quite sure why the game got so good reviews. To me the optimal strategy of the game became quite obvious rather early. And once you got the strategy, whether you win or lose is simply a matter of luck. If you get good and bad cards more or less in alternation, you win. If you get a cluster of bad cards (you can lose first turn by drawing 4 non-trivial monsters) you lose. If you get a cluster of good cards, you run out of storage slots for them, need to sell them, and the fine balance of the game means that then you'll inevitably get too many bad cards later and lose. The most interesting thing about that is that there are actually rogue-like dungeon crawl games which work basically on the same principle: There are random events which can be either good or bad, and if you get by pure chance a cluster of bad events, you lose. So Card Crawl is a game of rogue redux.

I am not opposed to randomness in games. I play tabletop role-playing games where throwing dice is an essential part of playing. But a good DM would never have a situation in a game of D&D where a bad roll of the dice means everybody loses and goes home. The fun of randomness is that it adds an element of uncertainty to your strategy / tactics with which the players have to deal. But the macroscopic success or failure should rest on the decisions that the players make, and not be simply a matter of luck. This is also why I prefer the longer fights of 4th edition Dungeon & Dragon, where you roll a lot of dice in each fight and deal with the ups and downs, to the new 5th edition D&D combat where you can die from a single critical hit before you even acted once.

An important aspect there is what the penalty for bad luck is. If bad luck can cause you a minor setback, I don't mind. If by bad luck and no fault of your own you lose a game where the only option is to start over from the very beginning, I find that annoying. I prefer games where good luck or bad luck is a random factor that determines what the optimal strategy / tactic is, forcing me to adjust to events. If it's "bad luck, you lose, start over", then I'm not all that interested.

Sounds a lot like a game that recently came out on Steam called Hand of Fate. You have a deck of equipment cards, event cards, health/food/money cards, and you travel from event card to event card until you reach the dungeon boss.

Part of the point of the game is getting to and beating the boss, but also you want to be unlocking new cards by doing events in certain ways. Even if you get bad luck on card draws to the point where you won't be able to win, you can still progress by succeeding at events and enhancing your deck. There's a balance between adding difficult events to your deck (to unlock new cards for better equipment and even harder events) or adding easier events so that you will be stronger for the boss fight.

Not the sort of game you'll be playing for months and months, but it's a fun and cheap card game worth a play through.
Speaking of roguelikes, this week's Humble Bundle is all 'roguelikes', though there's not a classic rogue among them! I bought it for Road Not Taken - in game play it's a cross between NetHack and Triple Town - and I'm happy I got my money's worth already.

Road Not Taken is the only one I've played so far, but there's a 3D roguelike as well that looks interesting.
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