Dream Quest (and other deck builders)

I’ve recently had deck building games on my mind. I’ve been playing Clank! at a friend’s house the past couple weeks, Slay the Spire seems to be fairly popular on Twitch, and I had a friend at work tell me he’s been playing Meteorfall on his phone (unfortunately I don’t think it’s a very good game).

I’ve spent way too much time playing roguelikes, and I generally like deckbuilding (although adding cards to everything is probably a net-negative trend), so I starting looking into games in that intersection. Out of the dozen-or-so deckbuilding roguelikes on Steam, a particular one piqued my interest:

Dream Quest was released in 2014 to iOS and the Steam release came much later (the former is less expensive, but I can’t vouch for the interface on an iPhone because I don’t own one). It was created by Peter Whalen, who apparently now works at Blizzard on the Hearthstone team.

Dream Quest is certainly not a pretty game, but the graphics can have an endearing quality to them. The sound design, however, is probably irredeemable; I only had it on for a couple minutes before I muted it permanently.

DQ is most simply described as Desktop Dungeons + deck building + card battles, but to do that would significantly downplay the design work that went into it. Most of its core conceits are certainly borrowed from other roguelikes or deck building games, but here these disparate elements combine into something that seems simple and obvious. There’s a purity to the design that I’m sort of enamored with!

On first launch the game lets you choose between 4 characters: Priest, Thief, Warrior, and Wizard. Each of these characters centers around specific card types: prayers, actions, attacks, and spells respectively. Your character choice affects your starting deck, your initial stats, level-up rewards, in-map & in-battle abilities, and the distribution of cards randomly available to your character (through shops, chests, and other mechanisms). Through in-game achievements there are 10 other unlockable characters. Most of these combine the 4 base classes, either as hybrids or by emphasizing card types differently, but they also have unique abilities that can change how you approach the game.

The Warrior is conceptually the simplest class; her starting deck consists entirely of attack cards and a single equipment card. Attack cards aren’t tied to any resource system, so you can play as many of them in a turn as you like. Likewise, equipment is free to play, and will stay equipped for the rest of the battle and have some lasting effect (unless destroyed by some other effect). Many attack cards can be upgraded throughout the game through blacksmiths scattered around the dungeon, or as rewards for leveling up. As a warrior, you might buy an inexpensive but low attack card with the expectation that you’ll upgrade it later. (An unlockable class, the Paladin, emphasizes this further by automatically upgrading an attack every two battles.)

The Wizard class revolves around spells, which require a resource, mana, to play. His starting deck contains spells that cost mana, and cards that gain mana. To build an efficient mage deck, it’s important to find a sort of balance between mana-generating cards and mana-spending cards. This is complicated by a character’s mana stat (which dictates how much mana you start a battle with) and the Wizard’s ability, which allows him to gain 10 mana once every two battles. Perhaps you have enough starting mana to win most fights, but a fight that goes on too long might strain your mana supply and prevent you from playing the spells you want to play.

The Thief class revolves around action cards, which are limited by your action stat. Most characters can only play one action card per turn, but that stat can increase, and some cards have effects that can give you additional actions in a turn. Making a good Thief deck requires you to balance your actions limit against the number of action cards you’re drawing a turn, and hopefully make an engine that draws cards and can chain actions together.

Finally, the Priest class relies on healing spells and prayers. Prayers are essentially timed effects; you play them and select a number of turns (1-5), and after those turns have passed the effect takes place. The effect typically gets stronger the longer you pray, so the tension is between getting the strongest effect, and how long you can afford to wait for that effect. A good priest deck involves healing and other defensive cards to help him survive until his prayers are answered.

The map screen is where the Desktop Dungeons influence is the most obvious. The map is the framing device for the card battles, and where a lot of the high-level strategy takes place. The map allows the player to have some choice in what order they fight the monsters. The map is revealed as the player moves, so you don’t always have perfect information; if a monster blocks your way you won’t know what’s on the other side. Most characters have some sort of map ability to mitigate this (the warrior can knock down walls, the priest can reveal hidden tiles from afar). These abilities recharge after a certain number of fights. As you fight monsters you gain gold that can be used at various map features to add cards to your deck, remove cards, upgrade cards, and change your character’s stats.

The map screen also allows you identify the type of monster you’re fighting and their level. The enemy types are extremely varied and can require completely different strategies to defeat. An Urssurai Tracker counters the first card you play every turn, Medusa adds useless curses to your deck to clog up your hand, and a Ghoul is completely invincible but dies naturally in 6 turns. As an enemies level increases, their stats increase and their decks get stronger.

In contrast to Slay the Spire, the enemies in this game (for the most part) follow the same rules that you do. They have a deck like you, and they have the same health, mana, action, and hand size stats that you do. Sure, most have unique abilities and they have access to cards that you don’t, but they’re playing the same card game. I think this is a very important part of the design, because it lets the player interact naturally with them. If you’re about to fight a strong Thief-like enemy, it may be a good idea to pick up the card that discards actions. But that same card would be useless against an enemy that only plays attacks. The symmetry between player and monster forces you to think about how your deck interacts with the opponent’s deck and vice-versa, and not just the opponent’s innate abilities.

When you defeat an enemy you gain experience equal to their level. Normally you won’t heal after a battle ends, so a lot of the strategy is around when to time level ups to get full heals. As the game progresses, level ups get less common so you’ll probably need to supplement your deck with healing or damage mitigation to survive successive fights (or just have such an overwhelming offense that enemies don’t get a chance to hit you).

The game teeters on a sort of hairpin balance; I’ve played 15+ hours (with 40+ runs) and I’ve only won once. To be successful is to walk a tightrope. The enemies you encounter are extremely varied and some may require completely different decks or strategies to be successful against. There’s a constant tension between focusing on your character’s strong suit, and having enough breadth to handle monsters that directly counter your strategy. While the game is brutal, there are so many tiny decisions that you can make on a strategic level (what monster to fight next, what cards to buy when, when to use other map resources) and decisions on the tactical level (card order, when to use abilities, what to hold or play or discard) that it’s hard to say for sure if it’s truly unfair. I always have a doubt that I didn’t play it perfectly or made some minor mistake that resulted in my demise, and that keeps me playing and trying to improve.

Finally, some caveats: the game’s interface isn’t perfect. Sometimes the opponent’s cards animate too fast to see what exactly happened. You can usually look at the cards in their discard pile to figure it out, but some sort of turn log would be nice. I also wish you could click an enemy to see it’s description. A bestiary does exist in the game (it’s hidden in the quit menu), but you have to find the monster in it manually and it won’t show up there until you’ve fought it once. Likewise, altars (a map feature I glossed over) won’t list their effects until you’ve used them once.

Additionally, as you play the game you unlock cards, level-up rewards, and get minor stat boosts to your characters. The net result of all of this is that the game is extremely unfriendly to new players. Not only are your options limited and your stats slightly worse, but there’s a large knowledge gap that the game does not attempt to bridge. You will die many times to monsters that you weren’t prepared for and didn’t understand. If this bothers you, I would suggest you spoil yourself and look up the monsters before fighting them, but also you’ll need to take it in stride, because an inexperienced player won’t be able to prepare for everything the game can throw at them. I did see one player in the Steam reviews suggest using Cheat Engine to unlock content, so that’s a decent idea if you’re frustrated by the content gating.

If you’re interested in roguelikes or deck building games, please try this game out! I think it’s very good! And if ya’ll knew about it already, you should have told me :frowning: (I did a search; shout out to @spacetown for recommending it in a couple posts I clearly glossed over).

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this is absolutely the reason I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time on this game as opposed to other “deck building” games

and it’s not even so much that they follow the same rules as you do (although they do) as it is the game making it evident that your opponents are doing so, which is incredibly incredibly important to establishing the concept of deck building digitally

a lot of games that have called themselves deck builders don’t really understand that the fantasy around deck building (at least to me) is not just that you are able to add things but that your opponents are adding things at the same time, which frames your decisions in terms that your opponents understand and vice versa. deck building requires a synchronicity of interaction with the board that digital games often neglect - it creates the stakes that are necessary for the deck building mechanics to feel vital instead of feeling like a rhetorical crutch for the rest of the game to hang on (especially considering that “adding to your skills” in digital games is just “leveling up”)

in board games it’s really easy to create this framing because there are physical cards that everyone will be playing with. there’s no real mental work needed on the players’ behalf to understand that yes, I will be putting cards in my deck and you will be putting cards in your deck. but a lot of digital deck building games take this for granted and think by framing actions in terms of “cards” they can get away with it (but they can’t they never can please stop pls)

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I’ve won twice more! One last night and one over lunch. I think my post above helped solidify my thoughts on how to best approach the game (although my dry mechanics explanation is probably a bit tedious to read in retrospect, despite my enthusiasm).

This will probably be my go-to roguelike for a while; it’s filled with good tension, there are lots of classes and strategies to try, and it plays fairly quickly (although certain decks can take much longer than others).

I’ve been playing Slay the Spire over the past week. I was getting nowhere until I realized that maybe I should

  • Not always take a new card when offered one.
  • Be more aggressive about removing cards so that my deck is focused.
  • Remember to use a potion at least once before dying, rather than just always discarding them to make room for new ones.

Just now, I finally got to the end of a run. I sure had some close calls. It still seems as though you can have bad luck and end up in a hopeless situation. But at least it’s not a matter of grinding until you permanently unlock things to make the game possible/easier.

(Did it really take me two hours? It didn’t seem like that long. But I guess that’s the nature of video games.)

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Yeah, Slay the Spire is great. Steams says I’ve played 47 hours of the thing, and I have no idea how that’s possible.

I dunno about Steam but in iOS clicking the monster portrait before (or while you’re) fighting it will pop up the description fluff.

I’ve been playing Dream Quest for a while and only beat it one (Necromancer) because I’m terrible at adapting my desired plan to use the cards the RNG deigns to give.

In the Steam version I seem to only get this when I click on them:
image

But I want this:
image

Oh that’s the same as iOS. I uh never noticed before that the beastiary has protips

Extremely pleased that I cleared the dungeon as an action Paladin with an early Dancing Scimitar, a fistful of prayers (and a single Piety), a couple of poison actions, and way more Slash-type & Weakening cards than I’ve ever seen before

RMYZC-359YP-9U9QU-RTVF6

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I undervalued Prayers for a long time—why have some (effectively, over the turn investment) small damage/healing when I could use a card that did it immediately? Turns out that having a steady pipeline of certain benefit pays off when you have a couple of Prayers ready to go off in 2 & 4 turns. With Prayers of Life that’s effectively 6 healing a turn, and they thin your deck while they’re out, and they’re nigh-impossible to stop which is great if your main combat engine gets shut down by Curses/suffocation/Exhaustion/Roars.

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prayers are cool and I definitely still undervalue them a lot - they require a bit of setup for them to sit comfortably in your deck though, and I’ve gotten into situations where I’m at low health with prayers and not enough defense to withstand the 1-2 turns it takes to get them running and die while one fight away from leveling up

dancing scimitars are great! unfortunately I try to delete my normal attack cards as quickly as I can so I never really get a chance to see that weapon shine, but paladin is amazing if you luck into one

Oh Dancing Scimitar is just 3🗡 at the start of your turn. My previous best Paladin got Wrath of God & a Scimitar, which was… an easy way to play 12-16 attack cards in one turn

oh oops yeah I always mix those up

I picked up Dream Quest because I’m still waiting for my thumb to heal and I need more mouse-only games to play. Plus I’ve been totally addicted to Slay the Spire for months, so I wanted to check out the other big famous roguelike deckbuilder.

Good god, this is the ugliest game I’ve ever played! It looks like a bootleg Windows 95 Lord of the Rings fan game. If it were done a little less haphazardly, I could see a certain nostalgic appeal in this style, but it’s too inconsistent and confusing to be charming. Supposedly the developer is working on some kind of graphics overhaul though, but the game’s been out for years so who knows when that’ll happen.

I’m not sure what to think of the game mechanics so far. The UI is weird and confusing enough that I had to watch a youtube video explaining how the game is played. It starts out with an extremely small decision space. Like, every turn you draw two cards and 99% of the time you just play them both. Like, draw two attack cards, play them both, end your turn, wait to get hit. It feels like all the strategy is in the deckbuilding, not in the actual selection and playing of cards. That’s kind of boring to me!

However, I know the game unlocks tons of new stuff as you play, so perhaps it’s just easing me into it, and it’ll get more moment-to-moment interesting the more I play. The designer got hired to work on Hearthstone because of this game, so there’s got to be something there.

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Don’t do what I did… you should spend coins to unlock achievements asap instead of trying to get them while playing. Grab all the achievements that get you extra stuff on the first floor (health/coins/a talent) + Flee if you can’t wait to die 10 times, and play each run with a different goal: “I’m going to get to the boss”/“I’m going to only add action cards”/“I’m going to save 30 gold”

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The game probably does skew more towards longer term strategic decisions than StS does, but the card playing does open up as you unlock things. And even with simple decks, later enemy abilities and statuses force you to make decisions on how to play your cards.

Classes other than the Warrior tend to have to make more decisions on what to play too, and I actually find Warrior one of the harder classes to win with because of that (maybe my card selection is poor in general, or I’m missing some other subtlety?)

Also, keep in mind you’re not forced to discard your hand at the end of your turn. Sometimes it’s best to save an important card or two for the next round depending on what buffs or debuffs you or the enemy have. You can also use this to reduce variance in your deck for getting some combo, at the cost of cycling your deck more slowly.

The more homogeneous you make your deck, the easier it is to play, but that’s at the cost flexibility. I find most of my winning decks force me to make more decisions moment-to-moment.

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If it’s okay to talk about a physical tabletop game in this thread, I was recently introduced to one that I think is worth mentioning. It’s called Aeon’s End, and on the surface it feels to me kind of like a combination of Dominion and the Bloodborne card game. That comparison only goes so far, though, because this game is entirely cooperative.

Aeon’s End is difficult, but I think in a good way. I’ve played it twice now and lost both times, but the second game was very close. (It came down to the randomized turn order determining whether we’d win or lose, and the monster got the next turn.) The difficulty reminds me somewhat of Xenoshyft, but maybe with a hopeful desperation rather than a hopeless desperation.

You play as a team of “breach mages,” and each game presents a different collection of gems (currency), relics, and spells that you can gradually add to your deck. One distinguishing element of this game is that you never shuffle your deck. Part of the strategy is the order that you discard things so that the best ones will come up sooner or two that interact will come up together.

Each player chooses a character and you also choose which “nemesis” (boss monster) you will go up against. The nemeses are quite different, each having its own deck and sometimes other components as well.

I probably would not have paid any attention to this game had a friend not introduced me to it. After all, what could be more boring than yet another game about wizards casting spells to defeat monsters? (That’s the attitude I might try to tell myself that I have, but it seems that I always find myself returning to fantasy books and games.)

There are several different base sets and expansions, but the one I picked up for myself after some research is this one:

war_eternal

Edit: I played my third game of Aeon’s End last night and won for the first time. I still need to try the game with four players, if I can manage to arrange that at some point.

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I lost most of my day to Monster Train today. I don’t remember what I read that convinced me to try it, but between the name and the Hearthstone-looking cards, I almost didn’t even bother redeeming it originally when I got it in a bundle.

But it’s a lot of fun. It’s like Slay the Spire combined with that Wii game My Life as a Darklord.

The monsters have decent variety, not all just generic fantasy. And I’m impressed at how the factions complement one another, making you build a strategy around the cards you’re dealt. I don’t think I’ll ever achieve a winning streak of more than one because I start over if I don’t like the random starting cards.

I think I like the Umbra the best so far. I think it’s funny to consider what the units from other factions might think of having to eat the morsel monsters when they team up with the Umbra.

My last run of the night ended up like this:

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I’ve continued to play Monster Train a lot. Too much, probably. I don’t lose nearly as often anymore, in part because I’ve learned some slightly unintuitive things that help a lot. For example:

  • The weak damage spells are sometimes good to play against your own units. To clear out small ones that have already done the helpful thing they are going to do and would now be most helpful freeing up space. Or for a unit that has Revenge.
  • The helpful spells that also do damage as part of the cost can be repurposed to clear out weak back-row enemies, since they do the damage before they apply armor or whatever.
  • Starting units out on the bottom floor is not always the best approach, as some enemies lose their enhancements as they climb and you get a chance to build yours up a little before their first fight.
  • Having played such games before I know the value of a thin deck, but I’ve started passing when offered even good cards sometimes, if they don’t really fit my current strategy. Or if I already have enough units so even good ones would be clutter.

It’s very satisfying to set up something like this:

Umbra is still my favorite. I unlocked the alternate champion that, instead of eating other units, gets eaten. There are some fun strategy options there.

The faction I have used the least so far is the candle units, in part because I think their champion looks silly in the picture. But I tried them last night and they are just as fun as the others.

I enjoyed Slay the Spire but as soon as I beat a boss once with the starting character, I was done with the game. This is a different story.

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I don’t want to clutter this thread with too much Monster Train talk, but I just reached covenant level 21. That’s the highest anyone on my Steam friend list has made it. (There are only 13 who own the game and have played it, and no one has played it recently as far as I can tell, but it was still fun to work my way up the ladder that no one else cares about.)

I’m continually impressed by the way the game offers so many effective combinations to explore. For example, I was playing Melting Remnant tonight and came across a card I’d never seen before, “Legion of Wax.” I chose it mainly because it was new to me, without paying close attention to what it was.

image

It’s a large unit that, when killed, splits into two smaller units.

image

And when that one is killed, it forms two even smaller ones.

image

Each generation inherits any stat increases you’ve put on the parent. And it’s not hard to pile those on pretty quickly.

That card would be good on its own, but I also happened to find an artifact that made all death abilities trigger twice. So each one was now splitting into four. And then I found a card that triggers a death ability without the unit actually dying.

The absolute unit limit of seven on a floor kept this from becoming totally ridiculous, but it was still fun to see it unfold (and steamroll the bosses).

And that’s just one of many examples that I’ve come across.

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