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 (I did a search; shout out to @spacetown for recommending it in a couple posts I clearly glossed over).