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August 2018

On Deckbuilding Games and Slay the Spire

Deckbuilding is a genre of games where players start with a (usually) standard deck of cards and then improve it over the course of the game. This can involve acquiring new cards that are usually more powerful than the initial set of cards and/or synergise in better ways, upgrading existing cards, or even removing cards that are weaker or less relevant so that one is more likely to draw the (better) remaining cards.

These games typically offer some replayability because the sequence of decisions one may have on how one can improve one’s deck differs from game to game; what it means for a deck to be successful can also vary depending on what the other players are doing.

Slay the Spire is a player-versus-environment RPG where combat is driven by a deckbuilding mechanic; players start with simple offensive (Strike) and defensive (Defend) moves plus possibly a few class-specific cards. The combat is turn-based. On a player’s turn, the player draws 5 cards. Cards have an energy cost, and players initially have three energy per turn to play as many cards from their hand as they want. Of course, there are cards and other mechanics that can be leveraged to obtain additional card draws or energy. Players are also shown their opponents’ next moves, which allows for some degree of planning; a simple example of this could be deciding to eliminate a specific monster in a group, because it is about to attack.

In terms of gameplay, the start of the game does feel relatively rudimentary as the player always has the same or a similar deck. However, each time a player defeats a group of monsters, he is given the option (but not the obligation) to add one of three cards to his deck.

The options that come up in the first few rounds will typically shape how the deck develops. For example, while most cards can be upgraded once only, there is a specific card called Searing Blow that may be upgraded multiple times; eventually, it can develop into a card that costs 2 energy but yet deals far more damage than Bludgeon, a 3 cost card that deals pure single-target damage. It is a viable strategy to build a deck around this, eliminating other cards from the deck so that one draws it on every turn; there are cards like Double Tap (which, for 1 cost, doubles another attack) that can further enhance this type of deck.

Conversely, I frequently play in a style which relies on combining cards that give a constant strength bonus to all attacks along with cards that attack multiple times for small amounts of energy. That said, some degree of flexibility is important, as the choices given to the player will be different on different plays; being wedded to a single strategy can be dangerous, as specific key cards may not be available.

Players can also acquire relics which further influence game mechanics; these can simply provide boosts (such as “every 10th attack does double damage”), make certain styles of gameplay more attractive (“the third Attack card you play each turn boosts your Dexterity by 1 for the rest of the combat”) or even significantly change game mechanics (“retain your hand rather than discarding it” or “if you empty your hand, draw 1 card”). These are random (and apart from at the shop / rewards from winning boss battles, players aren’t really given options here) so, as before, planning on specific relics becoming available is also typically not a good solution.

Winning the game unlocks a new-game-plus mode called ascension; players start at Ascension 1, which increases the rate at which elite enemies spawn. Winning the game on Ascension 1 unlocks Ascension 2, which applies the restrictions of Ascension 1 and makes normal enemies do more damage. This increases incrementally up to Ascension 20. I’ve got up to 16 on one of the characters. At high levels there’s not very much room for error; I have had a 10 win-streak without Ascensions, but struggle with high Ascensions quite a bit. I think I tend to force my deck to fit a certain mold perhaps too early on; this can get scuppered if I subsequently am unlucky.

Another challenge a player can take on, as with many other games, is speed-running, or attempting to win quickly. Playing fast (as shown in the screenshot above) limits one’s time for decision making. For example, I normally plan my entire route through the map for each level at the beginning of the level, but that of course takes a bit of time. A normal, more relaxed game can easily take 30-40 minutes, especially if I’m playing with a relatively less aggressive build.

I’ve played the game for about thirty hours or so. It has been enjoyable, and the Defect character (an automaton that manipulates a queue of orbs) is particularly fun, if difficult to use. In terms of educational value I think the game demands a decent intuition of probability, as well as understanding how cards may work together. There are some synergies that are explicit or clear, but others are often less obvious and require some thought/experimentation.

Travelling Songs

For a recent Palantir event, I was asked to state a song that I enjoy listening to whilst travelling. I had a few candidates in mind, but went with This Town by Niall Horan. I didn’t have to justify my choice – but I had several reasons in mind.

Most of my travel for work is done solo. This makes sense for going on-site, but even for larger company events and conventions I find that I end up travelling on my own fairly often. Also, quite a lot of my travel requires flying; even when it is not long-haul, the overhead of going through airports and ensuring that I am on time already adds quite a bit of travel time. I thus find that I have a fair chunk of time where I spend time thinking and reflecting on how things have been going. I thus picked a quieter, more downbeat song which gives me enough space to maintain a thread of reflective thought. That said, interestingly the other songs I had in mind were unlikely to be as conducive to that!

I should count myself fortunate to have travelled quite a fair amount for work (that said I’m sure there must be people who are sick of excessive travel). One “class” of songs that might be relevant for some would be a sense of adventure and anticipation; for me personally on work trips that is a bit less relevant. Many trips are to places I’ve already been to (I guess the company only has a few major offices) – in the past three years I think I have visited Palo Alto about eight times. Of course, that may change with university on-site recruiting picking up; I first visited both Denmark and Croatia on these trips, and I did enjoy those travels a fair bit.

I think of myself as fairly ambitious. There are often more things I like to do than have the time to execute on (and hence metaphorically “words I never got to say the first time around”). In some ways, this is especially true of my travels to Singapore, as I’m there only about three to four weeks a year out of 52. Separately, work trips often involve very intense iteration (that tends to be what motivates the trip in the first place), leaving little time to explore the place I’m in.

Thinking about it, the song does also mention the act of travelling (“drive highways and byways to be there with you”). I didn’t pick the song for that reason, though – identifying work as the thing one is always chasing is dangerous.

The other songs I had in mind included Fury of the Storm by DragonForce; that follows the “sense of adventure” theme. That song also brings back memories of my first internship at Palantir, which involved a decent amount of travel. I’m not sure I could imagine listening to metal for ten straight hours or so, though. I also considered James Arthur’s Back from the Edge which I featured in a review about a year and a half ago; travel certainly doesn’t provide a clean or blank slate, but it does provide a temporal boundary for how I categorise things, I think.

During the event, nine other engineers volunteered their choices. There was a fairly broad range of picks, ranging from rather bubbly dance pop (Elastic Heart by Sia) to harder rock picks, and a couple of alternative choices I was completely unfamiliar with. It was nice to see this variety, though.