Customizable Difficulty

One feature I enjoy in Slay the Spire and Spirit Island is that both games have highly customizable difficulty, both in type and degree. This lets you pick how difficult (or easy) you want your game to be.

Slay the Spire has its base game and then Ascension. There are 20 levels of Ascension, each of which dials up the difficulty a little more, usually by adjusting a number or two. About half the levels are increasing the damage, health, and movesets of normal, elite, and boss enemies.

Slay the Spire also has custom runs, which let you pick one or many modifiers to the game. Want more control over your starting hand? Here are several options. Want more randomness? More options. Harder fights, easier fights, trading off one thing for another? Screens of options. Or try the daily mode for a random set.

Slay the Spire also supports mods now, so you can adjust the game to the limits of your competence.

Spirit Island has its base game and then adversaries. You can decide that your invaders come from one of four European nations, each of which has base modifiers and then levels 1-6 increased difficulty. The “base” difficulty of each nation varies, so the game comes with a chart showing how each adversary & level ranks on a scale of 1-10. (They considered having the “levels” just be the difficulty level, but it caused more confusion trying to explain why the numbers might be “1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10,” and then people referred to the top level as “six” anyway.) The next expansion adds more adversaries and a way to combine them for stacking difficulty. And then there are two levels of lowered difficulty (which can stack). (I should try dialing difficulty all the way up and all the way down at once.)

Spirit Island also has scenarios, which let you pick a set of modifiers to the game. Most of these make the game more difficult. All of them make the game different. One makes everything faster, one focuses on guarding the island’s center and another the island’s coast, and another adds a chance for random buffs to the spirits or invaders. Several add and remove win and loss conditions. I am particularly fond of one named “Second Wave” that lets you keep the same island after completing a game, reset some variables, then keep playing with new spirits.

Sometimes you want to try new things. Sometimes you want to challenge your limits. Sometimes you want to faceroll.

: Zubon

Mod the Spire: So Far No Good

I thought I would try the modded classes for Slay the Spire. I’m only a few in, but so far nothing has been great. All of them, even the one I’ve found that I like (the Slimebound), seem to suffer from wild swings in card quality. There are overpoweringly great cards and fairly awful cards, without a lot of “pretty good” in between. When I want a meaningful decision in selecting cards, I want tension between which option would be better for me; right now, I am only seeing that when I have multiple “I win” cards to choose from, otherwise it seems like “all crap” or “obviously pick that one.” This might average out to balanced, but at least as likely it leads to wild swings between “easy wins” and “I didn’t get any good cards.”

Player mods may not come out looking good compared to the base game, which has been tested against thousands of players for millions of hours. They may do neat things, but they have had less than scrupulous balancing applied.

Evaluating player mods is difficult and time consuming in a rogue-like. A few playthroughs is not enough to see everything, less evaluate it. Did I see only the lousy cards or the overpowered ones? Did I get the wombo combo early or never? Am I really willing to spend hours digging through poop in hopes there is a pony in there?

Special shout out to mods with cards that are straight-up better or worse versions of existing cards. The exact same effect with a different cost, or the same effect with a different number, is either an argument against the original game’s balance or a sign they didn’t even notice it. Maybe the different numbers make sense in the context of the new class, given its other mechanics and cards, but probably not.

: Zubon

Mod the Spire

As a last big thing before the official release in two weeks, Slay the Spire now supports mods. There have been mods for months, but it is now supported through Steam Workshop.

At a friend’s suggestion, I am going to start trying out mods, particularly modded characters. When you have played 400+ hours, you may need something new to keep it fresh. I expect some to be well conceived, some to be poorly balanced, and generally to enjoy fumbling around with “is this bad or am I doing it badly?” Because Slay the Spire was my first real “git gud” game.

One nice thing about mods, rather than the base game, is that they can be ridiculous and that’s OK. Like the modifiers you can add in custom mode, you can intentionally make the game much harder, easier, more random, etc. That is both adjusting the game to fit your own needs and doing something silly you might enjoy occasionally but not want every time. God mode is fun for a little while, even if it is toxic to the game in the long run.

If you have mods you like and want to recommend, the comments are open.

: Zubon

Steam Sale: Slay the Spire

The Steam winter sale is going on now. You already know this.

Slay the Spire is on sale. In January, the game is leaving Early Access and getting a permanent price increase. This is the best time to buy it unless you are going to wait for it to be 75% off the new price.

I’m a guy who waits until everything is 75% off and/or $5 or less, and half the time decides I don’t really want it by the time the price gets that low. And I bought Slay the Spire for full price. And it would have received good value for four times that.

: Zubon

Games of the Year

Computer game: Slay the Spire. There is nothing I have played or enjoyed more. It is a great rogue-like deckbuilder at an indie price, with lots of variation and replayability. It has a very high skill ceiling, and you can also dial up the randomness if you prefer that.

Board game: Spirit Island. It is a deep strategy cooperative game with variable powers and strong theming. It places you in the opposite of the usual game role, driving off the settlers. This can also be played in modes that are almost purely predictable or with increasing randomness. It also plays excellently as a solo game. I have played Spirit Island every two days since I learned the game. It is great, although difficult to introduce to large groups.

What are your top games this year?

: Zubon

Slay the Spire: The Final Act

The actual ending of Slay the Spire is now available, an unlockable 4th act. It is not much of a 4th act, but it gives you a final boss fight for the game. I don’t think it adds much except for a sense of finality. Except that you can immediately start another run, so final isn’t final.

Slay the Spire has clearly been my game of the year, providing me with more playtime than most MMOs I have tried. It’s great, worth buying even without a sale. It feels a little anticlimactic that adding the final boss seems less significant than some of the regular weekly updates. The baseline for the game sets the bar pretty high.

: Zubon

Slay the Spire: Endless Mode

Custom mode now has one of the long-demanded options: endless mode. I think you’ll find that any deck capable of beating three bosses is capable of going quite a bit further, especially when you can pick modifiers to fuel that even further. You really should turn on blights, however, or else it really does become “endless” mode.

Blights are harsh negatives that replace boss relics. Without them, you can keep increasing your strength faster than the game itself ramps up. That gets boring. Blights make things a little spicier.

In endless mode, the importance of everything shifts: only scaling matters. Anything that is good but works by addition rather than multiplication is crap. The Defect’s Buffer card is normally pretty weak: prevent one attack. In endless mode, when enemies might do hundreds of points of damage, you might Echo-Amplify-Buffer+ to stop six attacks, which will give you enough time to win. But if you’re playing like I do, you go for the turn one win every time so damage doesn’t matter; Mind Blast or Perfected Strike with absurd numbers of cards is fun. And then you eventually hit numbers that are too big or just a really bad roll of the dice.

It can have that Civilization feel: one… more… floor…

: Zubon

Slay the Spire: Custom Mode

Congrats to Mega Crit Games and Slay the Spire: now with 3 characters, 3 modes, and 1 million copies sold. On sale for the Steam summer sale!

The 3rd mode is Custom, and it seems to subsume the daily challenge. I mean, you can still do the daily challenge, but custom mode gives you all those daily options, and more, and lets you pick from them. If you are not playing for the leaderboard, custom mode does everything you want and more.

Custom mode is what it sounds like: you can pick custom modifiers. That includes all the daily challenges, plus some that StS had recently added as special seeds, plus more to come. You can still set a seed. You can pick what character and ascension level you want. The original mode is still The Real Game, but this lets you play the game however you want.

So that’s pretty cool, even if it lets you completely upend the balance of the game (in several directions). There are a few kinks to work out, as you can select mutually exclusive modifiers. And achievements are also turned off, if that matters to you.

: Zubon

The Defect

Slay the Spire has released its third class. The Defect is a lot of fun, even if I am not very good with it yet.

The name applies in both its meanings. The Defect is a defective robot who has defected to the heroes’ side.

Slay the Spire has three kinds of cards, and each of the classes is built around one. The Ironclad is the attack-based warrior archetype. The Silent is the skill-based rogue archetype. The Defect is the power-based mage archetype. Powers are cards that you play once to gain a combat-long upgrade. I love that kind of ability, so I love powers, so I love the Defect.

The Defect builds on that by having an attack and a skill that both have a similar building effect. Claw is a 0-energy attack that does only 3 damage but also increases the damage of every Claw in your deck by 2 for the rest of the fight. If you have many Claws and/or a quick-cycling deck, you have a lot of damage, as you would with a Rampage Ironclad. The Defect also has several cards that help you get more cards, including an attack that puts every 0-cost card from you discard pile into your hand, so a good combo does a lot of damage very cheaply. There is a similar block skill that can only be used once per fight, but its value increases by 2 every time you use it. I once got it as my very first card pick, and that thing was a wall by the end of the run. And then there are cards that get cheaper as the fight goes on, so they start as expensive and strong then end as free and strong.

But the best part of the Defect is powers that build on powers. There are powers that trigger effects when you play powers. There are powers that give you powers every round. There is a power that doubles the first card(s) you play each round, so you can double those free powers, or double the power that gives you powers so you can get more doublers to double your powers… Boss fights are fun once you get your engine going. Time Eater is usually considered the hardest boss, with the fewest players having defeated him, but he is weakest against power-heavy decks that do a lot with few cards. The Defect smashes him with a song in his RAM.

The Defect also brings a unique mechanic that does not necessarily play well with the mechanics designed for the other classes. The Defect gets orbs, starting with three slots and potentially growing with abilities. Each orb slot can have one of four elements that will passively generate damage, block, energy, or building damage over time. Each orb can be evoked to cause a greater version of that effect. This creates a mini-game of cycling orbs, activating them at the right time, and using your engine to cycle through activations for massive damage and/or block. When I say that these do not play well, I mean that orb activations are not considered cards, attacks, or defenses as such, so they are unaffected by strength, dexterity, or abilities that trigger based on anything else. That is sometimes to your advantage as the player, and sometimes you miss out on advantages because your abilities circumvent them. There are drawbacks to being the defector.

Also, I do not think The Defect really comes into its own until you complete its unlocks. The class-specific relics are in the unlocks, so you do not get relics that synergize with orb effects until you have a few Defect runs. This is unfortunate. Slay the Spire has so little advancement, and what it has does not really create a sense of forward progress so much as a ramp you need to run and jump off. It’s not even that long of a ramp, just an annoyance, and you do not really want your game design to be described as “an annoyance.”

I am having fun with the new guy. I have started skipping more daily runs, because some of the existing abilities just do not look like as much fun with The Defect due to its lack of synergy with cards designed for the other two classes.

: Zubon

Resistance to Evidence

Reading Slay the Spire discussions on Steam has given me insight on resistance to updating based on evidence. I am used to this in political discussions, where people often double down when presented with counter-evidence, but seeing it in the microcosm is remarkable.

At any given time, there are usually threads on the front page arguing that (1) some element of the game is too difficult and/or impossible and (2) that the game as a whole is too difficult and/or impossible. Continue reading Resistance to Evidence