On November the 1st Contention games launched their Kickstarter for a Slay the Spire, collaborative, deck building board game. Previously, Contention released Imperium; Contention, another deck building and a 4x game where you capture territory and do general 4x Stelaris style stuff. I assume all of this because I haven’t actually played the game, there’s not a lot of coverage, and I’m not super familiar with physical deck builders because they can be very expensive.
The lowest tier of the Kickstarter that gets you the game will set you back one hundred dollars. This gets you the game, as well as a deck of the Defects claw cards, which you will want a lot of if you want claws to scale well. Pay double, and you also receive the beta art cards, which if they’re anything like the beta art cards in the videogame, do exactly the same thing as their base game counterpart but have either temp art or alternate art depending on the character. The Ironclads beta art variants are frequently charmingly rough, with basic drawings to take the place of the eventual art by the games “Card Portraits and Event” artist Anailis Dorta, but as you get to the Watcher far more of the designs feel less like placeholders and more like alternate art that was at one point meant to be used, but was changed for whatever reason. My favorite is the card that’s just “chill vibes to Slay the Spire to”.
I have played countless hours of Slay, I have every achievement and even went through the painful process of beating every run on Ascension 20. This was an accomplishment that wasn’t required for achievement completion, I only had to go through the 20 ranks once with one character. But no, I went through the ranks four times, for a total of 80 victories because once I beat the Silents 20 runs I thought “yeah, 3 more lots of carefully planned runs ruined on occasion by RNG won’t hurt!” This process took me weeks and eventually led to me having maybe the least visible bragging right in a game ever, but I’m proud of it.
I am something of a hardcore fan, so when I first heard about a board game adaptation, I was ecstatic, then mortified that I might have to climb up ascension ranks again, then intrigued as to how close of an adaptation it would be. From the early material, it seems to be a pretty direct one. Having looked at some of the available cards, it’s not just the art style and names that have been converted, but also in every case I’ve seen the core mechanics have been transplanted too. This shouldn’t surprise me, as at its core Slay could be directly converted from digital to physical with a few reference cards and a lot of patience it would be adequate. Although this might be at cost of length and mechanical depth.
With such a fundamental change in medium inevitably come changes in mechanics, presentation of information, and scale. The numbers are smaller, with most attacks that used to do maybe 6 damage as default, now doing 1 or 2 to accommodate a simplified health system. that’s down from health bars ranging in the 70s for most characters to 80 for the Ironclad. Almost every card has seen at the least changes in text, with the descriptive information on what it does either being shortened or replaced with a symbol to suggest things. This can be like how many targets the card can hit, if it applies status effects and how much damage it does.
The core use case of some cards have been retained, however while some mechanics and functions have been converted as directly as possible, some cards are almost brand new to account for the scaling down of the game. This includes some enemy attacks being triggered by a dice roll or having perfect information, where you know what they’ll do on each of their turns by reading the card. Of the changes I noticed, one that struck me was the alteration of Anger, which no longer duplicates itself placing the duplicate in the discard, with it now returning to the top of the draw pile. While I haven’t seen every card, from the ones I have, an effort seems to have been made to retain the spirit of the original design instead of directly remaking the game for a table-top. This goes beyond the cards as well, including how encounters work to account for cooperative play, with both characters taking up a different space in a row of encounter spaces, with enemies placed alongside these spaces to attack whoever sits within them.
Take “Apparition” for example, which I personally never do because when in an event you also lose quite a bit of your max health, then requiring a very specific kind of play to keep going without dying very quickly. In the videogame this card grants you 1 Intangible, a status effect that makes it so that all damage done to you changes to 1 instead of whatever number it was before. This card has exhaust, which means it is destroyed once played, as well as Ethereal, which also exhausts the card if it isn’t played. So, it’s a card that either you play for one energy to gain a beneficial status effect, or you lose it till the next fight. Its cost and tendency to show up when not needed which means it exhausts without being useful and costs you a better suited card in your hand makes it a card that encourages a risk and reward playstyle I often cautiously avoid.
Looking at the card in some Kickstarter material it still contains those two conditions, however between the two terms the card no longer reads “gain 1 intangible”, it spells out the effect which has changed from not being able to take more than one attack per each attack, to only being able to take 1 damage for that turn. The other two effects are not defined on the card itself, as these definitions are within the rule book that can already be downloaded for free on Kickstarter.
Apparition has gone from a card that means you take maybe 5 damage from five enemies attacking you in a round, to a card where you would take only 1 damage. As said previously the spirit, the use case for the card is the same, it’s just been adapted to make it more approachable as a board game a person has to run, not a computer. I’m curious to see how cards like the Watchers “Pressure Points” and other builds that rely on scaling damage to the point of doing full 80 hit health bars in one go are handled. Pressure Points and other cards have more chunky mechanics that stack and increase damage in massive combos, but if the games playable characters and enemies have less health, are massive combos of damage that are such a staple in the genre going to translate as smoothly as Intangible does when scaled?
This leaves me to my core worry. Board games are expensive. A lot of physical deck builders stay around that 80-100 dollar price point, whereas Slay the Spire itself is usually around 10 dollars and is on Game Pass. The game isn’t exactly a direct translation, but it offers something of an adaptation of the Slay experience, with added Co-op, which is something you can mod onto Slay on PC. At the lowest tier the box contains almost 200 flippable (to allow for upgrading) character cards for the games 4 playable characters alone, not including colorless cards that any character can take, relic and monster cards, physical coins and tokens. The games 730+ cards cannot be cheap to produce.
But as the same is sticking somewhat to the source material, with no new characters, monsters or strictly new cards, then what is in it for someone like me? Videogame Deck Builders are a niche genre with Slay being the only Roguelike in the space to gain mainstream attention at release, and all this time later every game since is still inevitably compared to and rated by how much it stacks up to Slay, for better or worse. If you want to try good alternatives like Griftlands or Monster Train or Knowhere Prophet, all of which iterate on the genre while bringing something new to the table, at most you’re spending 20 dollars to pick them up, less during a sale. If you want to go with something abstract or experimental like Signs of the Sojourner, Dicey Dungeons or Inscryption then the same applies, they are all very affordable games. For returning fans like me, how easy is it to justify the price to just have the physical cards and play a physical version? Is it that easy to justify the cost of the experience when you can get a digital version that is critically acclaimed and so dense with replayability already? I’m not sure, as someone not familiar with Deck Building card games outside of the digital space, that I would have the space in my home or patience to play the board game version nearly as much as I do the one I can just launch on my Xbox or Switch.
(We could possibly link out to any games on this list that were reviewed on the site? I think Signs was by someone else, and I reviewed the Switch port of Monster Train)
With Slay on PC there are free mods made by fans you can install to deepen and extend the experience. While it is possible expansion is in Slay The Spire: The Board Games future, there are no public stretch goals announced as of writing, so this is currently uncertain. I’m excited because I adore this game, but will the board game community and folks with no familiarity care about the game enough to justify its existence? Because if this is just being made for fans of the game already, someone like me, I have a much more affordable and less prep and math heavy way to play. I love how Slay the Spire constantly surprised me when I first played, but as a returning player of the game coming to this version of it, I’m curious how much this version will replicate that feeling.
The Kickstarter is still ongoing, and perhaps I’ll be surprised by what is in store, but to be honest what I’ve come to in writing this, is that the most important audience for the game might not be someone like me. Perhaps the real reason this needs to exist isn’t to appeal to people who are already fans, though the fact they raised 1 million dollars in a single day almost certainly suggests returning players are excited, instead they should be coveting new fans who haven’t dipped their toe in the video games inspired by a board game staple. I really hope that this game is a strong enough conversion that it attracts people of a different yet connected hobby to the game. Deck Builders owe a lot of their design language to, in Slay the Spires case specifically Net Runner, but also games such as fantasy flights Arkham Horror. Perhaps fans of physical cards will put down their dice and their archaic pencils and tokens and come visit us in digital land.
Though perhaps the reverse is also true. After all, I need to put this interest somewhere and the Slay the Spire Board game doesn’t release until possibly December next year according to the Kickstarter delivery date. It’s possible I need to find something to pass the time until then and, after all, “Indie Game” as a category is one I am very willing to stretch.
Watch this space.
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Joseph began playing games with Sonic Adventure 2 and hasn't stopped talking about them since. Doctors are still amazed that his voice has not given out. Joseph has put over 1000 hours into Slay the Spire and has more Amiibo than he knows what to do with. His favorite game is probably FTL and he's become a little obsessed with deck builders in the past year or so.