Easy Access

Last week, I had a crash while playing Slay the Spire, the sort where you need to hard boot. I called it a night. Playing the next day, my save file was gone. Wow, ugly crash. Google led me to forums led me to where save files are kept. Okay, the backup save was gone too, and I probably just overwrote the cloud save with a newly created save file when I started the game. And it looked like I only lost the save file for the Ironclad, which would normally gate access to everything else but the other save files were there once I did whatever for re-unlocks on the Ironclad.

This led to the discovery that the save files are plain text. Well, that makes recovery really easy when I can just copy the text from one file to another. My statistics are broken, but then they were broken when I lost the first file. That is also a handy thing if you want to see later Ascensions or something; just edit yourself to Ascension 15 and now they are all unlocked. I have yet to exit mid-run and see if that opens interesting opportunities, but the leaderboards suggest that people have already found plenty of ways to cheat.

: Zubon


One thing I like about Slay the Spire is that it explains the consequences of your actions. Maybe folks consider hidden information to be Explorer content, but in a fairly difficult game with permadeath, consistent but limited information comes to “fail and die until you try every option and memorize it” or “read the wiki.”

For example, when you start a run (assuming you made it to the first boss), you get a choice of bonuses, some with tradeoffs. Many roguelikes would have you pick one of four doors with vague descriptions like, “the red door smells of blood and gold.” Slay the Spire just says explicitly, “start with half health and 250 gold.” Similarly, events in Slay the Spire tell you what your choices mean. For example, when an event offers you a choice between a banana, donut, or box, you are told the implications. There is no obvious reason why a banana would heal and a donut would add permanent hit points, so it would be just a blind pick without the info, until you memorized the outcomes of the event. Or read the wiki.

Perhaps what I am getting at is that many games punish you for not reading the wiki, and it seems like bad design to drive players to the wiki rather than putting the relevant information in the game. Yes, you could count that as a spoiler or learning the game, but given that the penalty for failure is starting over from the very beginning, hidden information is closer to Fake Longevity than Explorer content. And I’m saying that as an Explorer; don’t do that for me, I hate it.

: Zubon

A Tired Developer

I enjoyed Pixoji this weekend. It is a puzzle game like Pixelo with a bit of Minesweeper, which makes sense coming from the maker of Mine of Sight, which I also enjoyed.

An aspect of being a puzzle developer I had not considered is how tiresome it must be to deal with players, especially when achievements on a free-to-play site encourage everyone to try the game. Click through to Pixoji and expand the instructions. This is a very tired person.

No guesses are needed, every level has only 1 solution (feel free to prove me wrong with an actual screenshot).

I’ve had to simplify a few levels so that certain players will stop complaining about ‘guessing’.

It’s not a matter of opinion. The levels are solvable.

Again. If I’m wrong, it would be very easy to prove me wrong with a screenshot. A comment is not a screenshot.

If you fill/grey the whole level it will highlight ONE unsatisfied hint (or else you win). Please try this before declaring that it didn’t accept your solution.

And then there are several more variations on “please stop complaining, the game is not broken, you’re just not good at it.”

I have been reading the Slay the Spire discussions on Steam, and that is more or less a recurring theme. “This game is pure random crap!” “Really, I have an 80% win ratio on Ascension 15.” “Getting past the second boss is impossible!” I have begun to sympathize with “git gud,” because I started doing much better once I got gud.

: Zubon

Slay the Spire Ascension

Ascension in Slay the Spire is more or less the opposite of ascension in Kingdom of Loathing. In KoL, ascension is New Game+, where you start over with more power and options. In Slay the Spire, ascension is a progressive hard mode, where you start over with less power and increased difficulty.

Ascension has the merits in game design. It adds an optional hard mode, which is great for players who have mastered the base game and are looking for increased difficulty. It is progressive, with 15 increments of difficulty that are cumulative. You need not play at the highest difficulty level you have unlocked, although that is the only way to unlock the next one. Ascension progress is not lost on failure; you can try that level again.

The downside is that not all the difficulty increases add more fun. Players tend to like dishing out bigger numbers, but they rarely seem excited about being hit with them. Six of the fifteen ascension levels are increasing numbers (damage, health) on the enemies (regular, elite, boss), plus shifting the odds of negative outcomes on events. Three of the difficulty changes are lowering your health (start damaged, heal less after bosses, lower max health). Three are reducing your resources (less gold, fewer upgrades, weaker potions). The other two are adding a curse (dead card) to your deck and increasing the number of elites.

This last seems the most interesting. Increasing elites is usually a good thing. Better players with stronger decks seek out elites, because beating one gives you a relic, which then gives you more chances for synergy and higher power. If your deck cannot beat elites consistently, it is going to have real trouble beating the boss. I am not yet to the highest levels of ascension, but I am led to believe the pendulum swings the other way later, when the increased damage from number-boosted everything means you cannot afford to fight as many elites as in the base game.

That also becomes a point where increasing numbers cross a threshold and do something more interesting than just increased numbers. You want more elites because you want more relics, so power yields more power. Once you cannot spare the hit points for the elites, that synergy goes in the other direction, less power yields even less power. That is an interesting and elegant outcome from a straightforward shift, although it seems like a lot of tweaking of numbers to get there.

I am gradually making my way through ascension mode on the two available characters because it is the progress and “something new” available right now, other than the daily challenge. As I am getting into “we take away your resource” levels, I am not really having more fun. Sometimes making decisions under increased restraints is fun because of the intellectual puzzle involved, but sometimes that just restricts the range of options to the few strongest, which narrows the game rather than adding anything new.

The daily challenge mode provides a window into how ascension could be handled differently over time. By mixing in some negative modifiers from that mode, ascension runs could be different instead of just having different numbers.

: Zubon

Slay the Spire Characters

The Ironclad is the warrior archetype, and he is more consistent. The three build paths are strength, block, and exhaust. The first two are both gradual accumulation approaches, via a few powers and skills. The last is the higher risk path, burning through resources for bigger impact. The Ironclad’s best approaches involve growth, concluding with explosive impact. For example, you might use Demon Form or Limit Break to build up strength, then hit hard with Heavy Blade (which has a strength multiplier), or you might use Barricade to build up block, then hit hard with Body Slam (which does damage based on block).

The Silent is the rogue archetype, and she is more combo-based. The three build paths are shivs, poison, and discard. Discard effects tend to be weaker than exhaust, but they are reusable. The Silent is more explosive, and to my mind more fun, but depends more strongly on having combos come together. The final bosses tend to punish the Silent’s approaches more than the Ironclad’s, partly because of needing the combo to come together, and the bosses punish using lots of powers or lots of cards. The Silent’s best approaches involve quick, overwhelming bursts. For example, you might use Accuracy and one of several shiv-generating cards to make lots of quick, cheap attacks that are not so weak after the buffs, or you might use the many poison cards then shoot that up to hundreds of damage per round with Catalyst and either Burst or Nightmare. You do not need much starting poison to kill anything when you can multiply it by 81.

I enjoy the Silent more because I am a great lover of combos and synergy. When it works, it works. I would normally be more about the Ironclad’s gradual accumulation of overwhelming power, but that resets each fight, and you will get a better return on a flurry of shivs than on waiting for strength to build up for a one-shot attack. But the Silent’s inconsistency means that some games it never comes together (you lose) or it might fail to gel on a big fight (you lose), so you get fun moments with a higher risk of disappointment. Playing lots of cards is fun, and the Silent gets to do that more often. That is also why I have come to love the Dead Branch on either character, because an exhaust deck that keeps serving up new options each round is a hoot, especially on the Silent where you can turn that into a cycle with Storm of Steel.

I find myself wanting to combine the fun of explosive synergy with the needed consistency for success. Maybe I need to be more militant about keeping the Silent’s deck small, but then I am gambling on ever finding the cards I need instead of hedging bets with a deck that carries more options.

: Zubon

Slay the Spire Daily Challenge

I was initially hesitant about the Daily Challenge mode added to Slay the Spire a few weeks ago, but I have been enjoying it a lot. I would not say that all the modifiers are fun, but when the daily combo works, it is a hoot. Today’s combination of tripled cards and starting strength adds value to the 2-energy attacks (Heavy Blade, Perfected Strike) that I often find difficult to fit into my deck; today, I just took as many as possible and laughed my way through fights one-shotting things. Yesterday was a beautiful cacophony of shivs that got me the achievement for killing a boss on the first turn.

Daily Challenge mode is sometimes a challenge, but it is often just different in ways that change the normal balance of the game. For example, one of today’s modifiers adds +3 strength to you and every enemy. That normally seems like a bad bargain, but you act first, so if you can destroy everything quickly, it is almost pure profit. One modifier gives you fewer cards and more relics, a trade I like. Another makes curses a resource and encourages you to take more of them.

I am above 50 successful runs, so the added variety is nice as is the chance to play with more and different toys. Adding modifiers can make cards you always skip into must-haves. My previous Slay the Spire post talked about the joys of embracing randomization a day that was a good approach. Some modifier combos just make it harder, which I can already do with Ascension mode, but the real fun comes in trying to turn the day’s disadvantage into an advantage by shifting your min-max approach.

: Zubon

Whether or How

I frequently rail against games where winning or losing mostly comes down to a roll of the dice, on the basis that a game is taking away players’ agency if randomness is more powerful than their decisions. But I just had a game where I enthusiastically embraced randomness and had a great time, and I may want to elaborate on an old distinction between variability and uncontrolled randomness in play. Or as I am thinking of it this morning, randomness determines how you win, not whether you win.

The classic example from that link would be games with variable powers. You get a random character, faction, whatever at the start of the game, and you plan around it. Maybe this time you are the warrior king or the kobold mercenaries, with their different playstyles or win conditions. You get variation in the field of play, and your decisions build upon it.

I played yet another round of Slay the Spire this morning, still loving it. Continue reading Whether or How

Small Units And a Sense of Success

Slay the Spire and Monster Slayers do well in giving the player a sense of progress and accomplishment within a run, even if you are objectively not any closer to victory than you would be under large units of progress.

Both games take place across three stages. Slay the Spire has a more fixed length, since you will traverse the exact same number of levels each game. Monster Slayers gives a bit more control there, letting you skip some encounters per level and still reach the level cap. Both give minor rewards after each fight.

Monster Slayers fares better on small rewards, in that you skip half the rewards in Slay the Spire but almost always want at least one of the options in Monster Slayers. Monster Slayers offers fewer card rewards, but it offers more rewards that are not cards, which is often what you want. One of the relics I always like in Slay the Spire lets you gain permanent hit points when you skip a card reward.

Contrast with Hearthstone’s dungeon run, with at most eight wins and eleven awards. The first two are free, barring outrageous fortune, so you cannot exactly feel proud of killing a Giant Rat. You also get only so much pride out of a lucky combo that leads to a big win by turn four; you do not have much time to bask in it, and you know very well that it depended on a lucky draw. One way or the other, there are not a lot of games that feel close enough for your skill to make a difference.

Slay the Spire and Monster hunters have lots of little wins. You get to see the results of your deckbuilding repeatedly as you cycle through your deck and see the effects of upgrades. You get to counter enemy attacks and have better or worse turns based on your play (and what gets dealt to you). You can choose to seek or avoid fights, to pursue risk and/or reward. The peaks are smaller, but the troughs are certainly milder, and you still have “win condition” cards that feel like really big rewards even if they are not Hearthstone’s artifacts that can be instant wins.

Losing halfway through the Spire means you beat a boss and a few elites, along with proving your deck against a dozen smaller opponents. Losing halfway through Hearthstone’s dungeon run means you beat two trash mobs, had an easy fight and a fair-ish one, then ran into a bad draw and/or a hard counter to your deck. Hearthstone’s dungeon run feels a lot more epic if you think of it as All Boss Fights!, but after the first few times, it is hard to think of those first few fights as “bosses.” Meanwhile, Monster Slayers starts using what would be boss monsters from its first two maps as regular enemies on the third.

: Zubon

Roguelike Deckbuilders

I picked up the nearest competitors to Slay the Spire: Monster Slayers and Dream Quest. If you were to put them on a spectrum from “roguelike” to “deckbuilder,” Dream Quest seems clearly the most roguelike, Slay the Spire the most of a deckbuilder. Hearthstone’s dungeon run stands beside them as a mess of randomness that has elements of the two genres without doing much coherent. I am setting it aside for this discussion.

The frustrating thing about these two other games is the need to grind to unlock things. There are unlocks in Slay the Spire, but not just 6 for each class, and they are not necessary to beat the game. Monster Slayers and Dream Quest both have many unlocks, and you need to grind to have a chance at the later maps. A skilled player could sit down to a fresh install of Slay the Spire and beat it. I do not think that is mathematically possible with Dream Quest or Monster Slayers. There are just too many upgrades that you unlock.

Dream Quest was not a lot of fun, so I set it aside after what seemed like a fair test. Bonus points for having poor stick figure graphics that show what West of Loathing is doing the right way.

Monster Slayers is a better game, but it lacks an enjoyable beginning, middle, and end. If you have not completed enough unlocks, you cannot reach the end. If you have enough upgrades to reach the end, the beginning is trivial. It shows growth across runs, but within a run, the first half or so is of trivial difficulty, and you are just seeing how your deckbuilding options fall out. I am interested in seeing how the lategame looks now that I have enough grinding under my belt to get to it. At least the grinding is once overall then once per class, rather than needing to be repeated per class. Most of the upgrades are shared across classes.

Of the four implementations I have tried, I favor Slay the Spire. Please mention if you have seen other variations on this theme or deckbuilding games making use of the options that computers bring.

: Zubon