One of the most difficult challenges as a game critic is finding the right set of words when something finds its voice through a collection of tiny revisions to existing genre conventions. Steady and competent genre work doesn’t leap off the page and excite a writer’s fingertips with the same intensity as Something New.
So, it’s possible that Roguebook — an upcoming roguelike deckbuilder published by Nacon — could fail to register on anyone’s radar by quietly inserting itself into one of the most popular genres of the last few years. There are no shortages of this kind of experience, and having put hundreds of hours into the heavy hitters (of which there are legion) I can personally attest that the competition is fierce.
However, after playing its pre-release demo, I can say that the high-fantasy flair of Roguebook is worth someone’s time because all of its improvements and iterations add up into something that feels like it could be truly spectacular.
It helps that the Roguebook design team has a remarkable history of card game design to tap for inspiration. Naturally, Richard Garfield is the eye-catching name on the tin and rightfully so, thanks to his genre-defining work with Magic: The Gathering and Netrunner. The developers from Abrakam Entertainment are worthy partners in crime, however, as their sharp design on the overlooked digital CCG Faeria foreshadows many of the systems here.
For instance, one of the more distinctive elements is map exploration, which feels like a natural extension of the way that Faeria players would sculpt the playfield with cards from their hand. Each page of the titular “Roguebook” represents a chapter in the run with a hexagonal map of hidden tiles that the player must navigate to reach a castle, where the chapter’s boss resides. At the beginning of the chapter, the game reveals a direct path of tiles from the entry gate to that castle, but the player can only become strong enough to survive that boss fight if they reveal more of the map to find new cards, items and money to strengthen their deck.
The map has more secrets than just treasure, of course — there are enemy encounters that can be fought to earn additional resources, which brings one of Roguebook’s most interesting tensions into play. To stand any chance against a chapter’s boss encounter, players must manage the risk of exploring the map and fighting enemy encounters without taking so much damage that it ends up tanking their run. It’s a refreshing system that gives a ‘board game’ flavor, with more to offer than simply chasing killer card combos in battle.
Of course, Roguebook has its share of deck-building combat mastery as well, with turn-based battles that focus on directing the actions of a two-character party through a shared deck of cards. The player starts the run by selecting a companion character to go with their hero, and each card in the deck has an action that corresponds to only one character. One twist is that using these cards often moves that character to the front of the party to receive attacks on the enemy’s turn.
The two characters available in the pre-order demo are a perfect combination to explore the subtleties of this system, as players will want to protect the higher damage potential of the Dragonslayer, Sharra, by covering her with defensive parries from the bruising First Mate, Sorocco. Sharra offers more combo-laden damage potential, but leaning too heavily on her will leave her vulnerable on the front line. Sorocco, on the other hand, has almost twice as much health as Sharra, so the player is encouraged to move Sorocco into harm’s way with his cards, even though many of his actions are less powerful at the start.
This dynamic ends up putting a welcome focus on card sequencing that most deckbuilders never bother to touch, and the card designs in Roguebook are carefully tuned to explore every possible angle, including bonuses for the number of times that the party members change places. That emphasis on sequencing (along with a surprising dearth of options for removing cards from the deck) makes it even more important to build a well-rounded collection of cards, rather than relying on a handful of powerful interactions between one or two cards.
All these little genre evolutions come together to make Roguebook one of the most enjoyable deckbuilders I’ve played, even as a limited pre-order demo on PC. I’ll be eager to see what the remaining pages of the Roguebook have in store when the game releases on PC and Nintendo Switch on June 24th.