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

Scale and the Long Tail

I am a Midwestern suburbanite, visiting the big cities of the East Coast this week. Walking through Time Square, I reflected that it was a lot like home, only bigger, more of everything crammed together. Which is of course wrong, because at larger scales more is different, which in many ways has become the point of the internet.

Before modern travel and communication, your community was the 150 people nearest you, and you had little say in the matter. Now you can go online and pick your community from 100,000,000 people (as well as the people physically near you). And things that could never be sustained in a small community can find a home once you can unite across those wide numbers.

An economist’s blog post (that I can’t find today) remembered his first time seeing pizza for sale by the slice. You need some population concentration for that, otherwise there is not enough of a market to make the economics work.

When Ravious and I met in 2002, it was in A Tale in the Desert. About a thousand people in the English-speaking world thought it would be super fun to come together and digitally pretend to live in ancient Egypt, doing things like making bricks by hand and pushing limestone blocks for the pyramids. (The game is still going in its latest incarnation.) A smaller subset around a dozen thought it would be fun essentially to form a crafters’ commune, which we did under the name “Southren Star Guild.” (Old typo, adopted as a permanent name.) After joining, I saw the guild forums, where existing members thought no one would sign onto a guild charter that more or less said, “You own nothing, we work together as a guild and everything belongs to the guild.” Which, funny enough, is more or less exactly the community I was looking for in an ancient Egypt digital simulation.

One of my online communities recently overlapped with someone who explained that they had taught classes on erotic Colonial America roleplay. (Someone out there just laughed and then remembered that he cybers with elves.) Because there is a market for that, and not necessarily just in America, if only you can find that percent of a percent.

So in New York City, we saw a musical on Broadway. Broadway shows and others tour through our hometown, but Broadway is not just the same thing scaled up for 73 times the population. A population of 8.5 million can support niche shows that will never tour, and it is the proving grounds for what is worth touring. 8.5 million people is fewer than 100 million, but it is certainly large enough to let you pick your own community, if only you can find them.

Celebrate every time you find some weird corner of the internet where people argue passionately about rarepair shipping, substandard copper ingots, or what counts as a grilled cheese sandwich. It took a lot to bring us all together.

: Zubon


The game I’m trying this week is Turmoil, an economic sim about the US oil rush. Buy land, drill well, sell oil. I have had the game for a while, but I was finally prompted to play it by the release of the The Heat Is On DLC (full disclosure: I got a free DLC code).

Turmoil is a straightforward economic sim with time management. You get so long in your oil field. Your goal is to pull all the oil out and sell it at the highest price possible in the time available. Later levels add more complications to the maps (rocks, diamonds, natural gas), and a campaign provides advancement and upgrades. The goal is to make as much money as possible, in the long run buying the mayorship. The expansion brings natural gas in as a factor earlier in the game and adds treasures and magma, along with some new subsystems.

Turmoil is enjoyable in small doses. I should be the target audience for this, but I did not enjoy trying to sit down and binge play. It is too repetitive for that. There is very little difference between levels, and each stage of the campaign has you going through that sort of map 10 times. You can quickly burn through a couple of drilling days at a sitting, and that is enjoyable enough for casual play.

I am enjoying it enough to finish the campaign, but probably not enough to recommend it. People who like this sort of thing may like this sort of thing. I usually like this sort of thing, but it lacks depth and variety. On a sale or in a Humble Bundle, it would be worth the time to play.

: 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

Project: Gorgon on Steam Early Access

Project: Gorgon is now on Steam and currently on sale. Those of you who have heard us talk about this boutique MMO over the years may be excited about this prospect. Those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about may want to pursue the link or our archives in that category.

I am not sure I will ever pick up another MMO, but this is the top prospect for bringing me back to the genre.

: Zubon