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Tackling deckbuilding and roguelite design in Abrakam's Roguebook

"Typically it's always going to help to give the player control over the amount of risk they take. This way at least they can find motivation in their next run: taking less silly risks. "

There have been a lot of roguelite card games lately. Not long ago we talked with the makers of Poker Quest. Here we have a very interesting example, a deckbuilding game called Roguebook, which is doing pretty well on Steam and recently debuted on consoles. As a deckbuilder, a lot of the game is about earning good cards and not junking up your deck too much, which happens by gaining “wound” cards after one of your characters gets incapacitated in battle.

All in all, it makes for an interesting concept for both a deckbuilder and a roguelike. It's the second card game developed by the team at Abrakam, following after their 2017 PvE and PvP strategy card game Faeria. Set in the same universe, Roguebook aims to offer a single-player take on a deckbuilding roguelite, flavored with the lore of its predecessor.

Aiming to explore what makes Roguebook shine, Game Developer sat down with Jean-Michel Vilain, CEO and creative director at Abrakam, to discuss designing for game longevity, the charm of digital deckbuilder games, and more.

Game Developer: As opposed to a "constructed deck" game like Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone, Roguebook is a "deck building" game, something like Dominion or Ascension, where you begin a "run" with a small deck of basic cards and, through play, obtain more cards that go into that deck, which is cycled and dealt to you many times. What does this mean for how players build their party in Roguebook?

Vilain: You start by choosing the two heroes you want to associate for this run, there are four to choose from, with a fifth soon to be released. [Ed. Note: That fifth character, Fugoro, is now out.]

Each hero has its own starter of 5 cards, so you'll have 10 cards for your first fight, but that number is going to grow quickly. Roguebook is a game of drafting cards, where improvising is always the key to improving your strategy and increasing your chance of survival. Surviving is the other key aspect of roguelike deckbuilders, damage taken persist between battles and defeating a boss fully heals your two heroes so that you get a breath of fresh air for the next chapter.

Roguebook is full of cycles: there is the overall game, in which the player goes through many runs, each of which containing many combats, and in each of those the player's deck can be passed through repeatedly. In board game circles, coming up with a good system of mechanical elements that work together successfully is sometimes called an engine. What do you think about that analogy? Is engine construction a positive or negative aspect of this kind of game?

Deckbuilders and games like Roguebook are systemic games for sure, so probably comparable to an engine. This is really what we are passionate about at Abrakam, creating systems that can surpass us, surprise us, while not getting totally out of control if possible. To me this is the highest motivation and challenge I could find in design, creating games that I can then enjoy myself. And that challenge can be achieved by nesting gameplay loops properly, or nested cycles as you call them. But it can be achieved in other ways, to me Magic: the Gathering, Starcraft or Chess are examples of games where you have a lower amount of nested gameplay loops, and these games do really great in terms of surpassing their creators' expectations. Our first game, Faeria, is closer to Chess and Magic and I think we achieved our goal with less nested loops.

Beneath the surface, the cards and numbers of this kind of game are pretty dry. It's the job of the story, the images, the animations, sound effects and voices to distract from that, which is different from real-world card games which don't have the benefit of those things. Are they necessary? What does Roguebook gain from being a computer game over being a physical card game?

This is almost like comparing books to movies. Being a computer game lets the designer take control of so many things that you can't when designing a physical game. Spending time on a board game is just so different as an experience. Waiting for other players to play, think. Making jokes while sharing a beer. Adapting the rules if needed. Doing meta diplomacy. But also keeping track of the board state manually, having to move counters to keep track of life, or gold etc. Consider only that last point. If Roguebook were a physical deckbuilder, a lot of the cards and enemies would play differently, because a lot of them create temporary statuses. The game also has a ton of passive abilities with small effects. All of that would be a pain to manage manually. And lastly, being a computer game lets us make a captivating single-player experience, while board games shine in PvP, not single-player.

To draw an example from another game... a neat trick one can pull off in the deck-building card game Dominion is to "trash" every card in your deck, except a very small number of powerful cards that work well together, so that you can be sure of your hand each turn. Does Roguebook contain the potential for weird strategies like that? Are you concerned with how unbalanced they may be? What do you think of players searching for unusual strategies like that?

You're typically not going to find that sort of strategy in Roguebook. We've decided to go in the exact opposite direction: design the game so that the player has enough motivation to usually end up with large decks of cards. This way players have to improvise more often, since they rarely have to deal with the same hand of cards twice.

Card play in Roguebook uses a concept from games like Magic where their cards can bear one or more keywords with specific meanings, that are both used as a shorthand for specific properties, and as a "hook" that other card text can refer to. While very useful for experienced players to grasp what a card does rapidly, do you find that it makes it more difficult for new players to learn how to play?

Keywords have now become a widespread standard. They are great because they 1) Can attach flavor to a mechanic, 2) Make card texts shorter and can help with mnemotechnics, and 3) Create classes of cards, i.e. cards with the same keyword belong to a class, which can then be referred to by other cards. So, no, I don't think that they make the games more difficult to learn.

A crafting screen in Roguebook allows players to expand their in-game card decks.

Ultimately these kinds of games are about card synergy, finding cards with properties that work well together. Discovering these combinations is a lot of the fun of this kind of game, but brings up the issue of how to properly present the game so that it can be enjoyed both by casual players (who just want to get through) and power gamers (who delight in finding clever tricks and optimal strategies). How do you cater to both audiences, or can you?

We try to casualise what we can, and there are different techniques for that. One is to distill the game mechanics and complexity through a sound learning and difficulty curve. Another is to rely on lenticular designs, which means that we try to design components which look simple on the surface but actually reveal depth and subtlety the more you play with them. It's a difficult but rewarding thing to do, as a designer.

A thing about roguelikes and roguelites is when a player gets demoralized after a failed run. Maybe they had a particularly bad game, or maybe they had a really good game that still wasn't good enough. How do you keep players playing after a failed run?

Usually players will drop after a failed run if they have no clue on how they lost, and no idea on how they could do better next time. That can also happen if they feel that the game was unfair to them. So we try to avoid those events in the player experience. Typically it's always going to help to give the player control over the amount of risk they take. This way at least they can find motivation in their next run: taking less silly risks. Trying to go too fast is one classic example of risk, but one that you'd more typically take if you were playing a platformer.

One of Roguebook's signature play elements is the idea of character position. The player's party consists of two characters, with one in the lead and one in back. Some abilities are more useful when used in one or the other position. Some cards swap player positions as part of their function. Position (it seems to me) is not essential to the basic concept of the game, but gives the player that little extra to juggle, as an opportunity to demonstrate, and be rewarded for, skill. How did you come up with it, and what does it add to the play?

We were looking at having the legendary characters of Faeria team up in this game. It is really important to us to let players combine things in general. In Magic you can decide to play "white green" or "white blue", which are two totally different experiences while the white color is involved in each deck. We like that elements, or characters in our case, can be multifaceted because it gives richness and depth to our world.

Often "roguelite" games use a meta-progression: effectively, play is divided into "runs," and while the player's state is mostly reset at the start of a run, some advantages gained on a run may persist to affect later runs. This can be taken to extremes, where a run is only realistically possible after many past runs. This suggests the question of how "fair" should the player's first attempt be? If they play perfectly, should it be able to win the overall game on the first run?

Of course, some players complete the game on their first attempt. The possibility to unlock perks is great because it extends the game longevity and lets us put more content into the game. Also giving perks to players as they perform runs is a way for us to make sure that they get to see the more complex mechanics later, and also give a hand to those who have troubles with the game but keep playing. Nobody should be intimated to get his hands on Roguebook I think, even if the game can look a little daunting for those who are not into card games.

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