Hellbringer is a rogue-like card game that is obviously inspired by games like Diablo. You choose a character, build a dungeon out of cards, and then battle your way through four levels of that dungeon in an attempt to reach the demon at the end and defeat it.
The designer of Hellbringer calls it a solo-cooperative game as it was primarily designed for single player play but can also be played cooperatively with a bigger group.
Disclosure: Thanks Max Gautier for sending us a prototype of this game to check out. Links in this post may be affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and helps support this blog and our podcast.
What is Hellbringer the game all about?
Before I get going I need to stress that the copy of Hellbringer I played is a prototype. The art is not finalized, design elements may change, and, most importantly, the rules are still being tweaked and modified. Please be aware that this article is a preview and not a review and anything I mention below could change before the final game is released.
Hellbringer is designed by fellow Canadian Maxime (Max) Gauthier and will be published by his production company Les Éditions Smash after what he hopes will be a successful Kickstarter later this year. Hellbringer is designed primarily as a solo experience but can be played with groups of up to four players (our prototype copy only went up to three, but Max has already added in rules for four players). Each game of Hellbringer lasts at most two hours but potentially much less if you die early into the game.
Hellbringer is a card driven, dungeon crawler where your character has to progress through four levels of a dungeon starting from the Graveyard and then into the Crypt and all the way to the Tomb of the Demon. On your trip ever deeper you will encounter monsters, find much needed equipment, learn new skills, and improve your character. Combat in Hellbringer features a unique line of sight system that represents the dungeon getting darker as you go deeper.
Can you defeat the demon at the bottom of the dungeon or will you be overcome by them and their minions?
Normally this is where I would share a link to an unboxing video on YouTube but since my copy of Hellbringer is a prototype and not finished we did not record an unboxing. That said, so far the card design, the iconography, and the artwork we did get to see all looked good. The game boards included were functional and I really liked the dry erase portion of the player boards where you track your stats while playing.
Where things weren’t so great for us was the rulebook and included campaign book. Physically the books looked good and were well laid out with lots of white space, and other solid design elements. Unfortunately, the organization, lack of index and translation issues in these books made them very difficult to learn the game from.
I don’t want to harp on the rules too much at this point since the game is still in development, and I have to thank Max for being very accessible during all of our plays of Hellbringer. He had an answer for all of our questions, which was great, and with his help, we were able to figure out and play Hellbringer. I can also confirm that the rules have already been re-written and improved since we played the game. You can find an updated set of rules on the Hellbringer website.
How to play Hellbringer the card game:
You start a game of Hellbringer by building your dungeon deck. This involves taking all of the Core cards, shuffling them, and dealing out four stacks of cards with the number of cards in each stack based on your player count. To each of these stacks, you add a number of combat cards and a story card. Each deck is then shuffled on its own and a location card is then added to the bottom of each shuffled stack. These stacks are then put back on top of the rest of the Core cards in order so that the Crypt stack is followed by the Cave stack, then the Hell stack and finally the Tomb stack.
The Monster deck is built next which involves shuffling the two monster decks (beginner monsters and regular monsters) separately and placing a set number of random Beginner Monsters on top of the Standard Monster deck. Again the number of beginner monsters used is based on the number of players.
Next, you pick a scenario to play. Every scenario in Hellbringer has a normal mode and a more difficult mode. For the normal mode of play, all of the heroes are available to use and there are no special rules. The only thing that changes is the story and which demon you face on the final level. On the more difficult level, the choice of characters is restricted and there is at least one special rule in play for your entire game. These special rules include things like adding more damage dice to the opponents, your character losing skill levels as they delve deeper, making the boss fight more difficult, etc.
When I played Hellbringer, the game included nine scenarios plus a tutorial which uses a smaller deck with only two locations in it (we found this tutorial to be great for learning how to play).
Once all of your decks are set up everyone picks a character to play, of which there are six to choose from, Warrior, Hunter, Paladin, Druid, Monk and Sorcerer. Everyone takes the appropriate character card and places it in the centre of their player board then finds the starter card for that character. This starting card is added to a starting hand of four cards drawn from the bottom of the dungeon deck. Everyone looks at their cards and then one player has the option to swap one of these cards for a starter potion.
The bottom, dry erase, part of the player boards is filled out based on the stats on your character card. These stats include Heath, Armour, Vision, Action Points, Skills and Hand Limit. The reason you use dry erase here is due to the fact that these numbers will fluctuate a lot during play.
Once everyone has their characters ready you read off the starting location and story cards, which are pre-printed on the board. These story cards will tell you to read off the appropriate story in the campaign book.
The starting location of the Graveyard will have you reveal a number of monsters equal to the number of players +1.
Now you are ready for the first player turn.
On your turn, you can take a number of actions equal to your character’s action points. These actions include attacking monsters in play, using an ability on a card, learning new skills, assigning a companion, equipping items or enchantments, using a potion or defense card, or trading cards (in co-op play only).
Each card in the game shows how many actions they take to use. Many cards you play will go on or next to your player board and remain in play and can be activated every turn. The various card types you will come across include the following:
Location cards, which represent you getting deeper into the dungeon. These will spawn new enemies and make existing enemies harder to see.
Story cards, which advance the story which you read out of the Adventure Book. Each of these cards will also give the heroes some form of benefit. At the higher difficulty level these cards can also trigger negative events.
Combat cards, which, when drawn, will have you spawn a new monster that is drawn off of the monster deck.
Potions cards can be used at any time and don’t take any action points.
Defense cards are played during the enemy turn and can save you from a quick death.
Item cards, which are placed on your player board where you have four specific colour coded slots. The type of item has to match the slot and there is even some equipment that takes up more than one slot. Pretty much every piece of equipment is going to increase your basic stats, while weapons will also give you new attack options. As noted earlier, all of these improvements are tracked in dry erase marker at the bottom portion of your character board.
Enchantment cards are attached to item cards you have already equipped and give you a bonus as long as you keep that item equipped. Note each item can only hold one Enchantment.
Skill cards are the most complex. Many of the Skill cards are related to one of the six classes in the game. While anyone can use any Skill card once, using a skill that matches your class lets you keep it in play beside your player board so you can use it again and again. Your Skill stat determines how many of these skills you can have in play at once. Note once you have a skill in play, you still have to pay for it each time you want to use it.
Companion cards are placed into a specific spot above your player board and remain there until they are defeated by an enemy. In general, you can only have one Companion in play at a time (the Druid character makes an exception to this rule). You only have to pay for Companions once, when in play they will do the action on their card every round for free.
Hellbringer has a rather unique combat system which features some pretty cool line of sight rules. Every character has a Sight attribute and every monster has a Visibility stat. A character can only attack a monster if their sight meets or beats the mob’s visibility. A central player board is provided to track this. It is divided into three areas, a row for mobs visible to everyone, a row for mobs visible to at least one character and a row for mobs that can’t be seen.
Actual attacks are done by rolling a number of custom six sided dice. There are two types of dice. The first are red attack dice that feature fives, tens, and blanks on them. The second are green poison dice that feature only fives and blanks. When attacking you choose which monster to attack and which item or skill to attack with. Then you roll all of your dice in one big pool. If the total on your dice meets or beats the target’s Health plus Armour it is defeated. If not, nothing happens. Note there’s no tracking of hit points here. Every attack is all or nothing. You either kill your target or you don’t.
If your first attack doesn’t kill a monster, you can stack a second attack onto that as long as it’s the same type, or you can use any additional attacks to target a different enemy. Due to the way all attacks are all or nothing, you are usually way better off concentrating on one monster at a time.
As expected with a card driven game like this. there are of course a few more things to take into account including skills and items that modify this basic system, monster abilities, attacks that ignore armour, skills that let you re-roll dice, etc.
When you do manage to defeat a Monster you get to take its card and use it to improve your character. There are spots on the side of each player board that list most of your character stats. You get to choose where to slot your defeated monsters and slotted cards cause the associated stat to go up. This is how you get more actions, more health, more slots for skills, better vision, etc.
Once you have used all of your action points, you re-fill your hand with cards from the dungeon deck. Drawing cards from the dungeon deck represents delving deeper into the dungeon. Most cards you draw will be added to your hand to be used the next round but the deck also includes the Combat, Story and Location cards that I described above.
One important note, any monster cards that are added when you are drawing will potentially attack that round and you don’t get to draw extra cards to your hand when you draw any of these special cards.
Once all characters have acted, the monsters take a turn and what they do is determined by another custom six sided die. A roll of this die will indicate that the monsters attack your companions, or they attack you, or they attack you and your companions or they take up defensive positions (which just causes you to discard two cards). If the mobs are attacking companions and you don’t have one, you get attacked instead.
When the monsters attack, unlike the heroes, they don’t worry about line of sight. Each round, all monsters attack all at once using one giant dice pool. You add up all of the attack dice (red and green) on all monsters in play, roll the lot of them and then apply the results to everyone as indicated on the monster action roll.
Just like when the heroes attack, this roll is all or nothing. If the monster’s total damage is higher than your (or your companion’s) combined health and armour, you are dead, that is unless you have a defense card or a potion you can play. We found this takes a bit to get used to as there are no hit points to track. In this game you either survive or you die, there’s nothing to track damage between combat rounds.
This system means that Hellbringer is all about planning ahead. You have to keep an eye on the maximum the enemy can do, and hopefully have options to mitigate some of the damage or else.
If your character dies in a solo game that’s it, game over man. If your character dies in a cooperative game there’s a chance you could come back to life. To show you are dead you flip your character card over and then let the other players loot your stuff. While dead you don’t interact with the game and aren’t affected by any card draws. You just sit back and cheer the other players on while hoping for a resurrection card to come up. There are a few of these in the deck but not a lot. One saving grace is that if you can get deep enough into the dungeon there is an opportunity to resurrect any dead characters once you get to the fourth story card.
The game continues until you get to the last location card which will have you reveal the Demon. Which Demon you use is set by the scenario chosen. The demon will be a particularly badass monster that’s going to take a lot of damage, done at all once, to take down. If you, and your group if playing cooperatively, manage to kill this Demon you win.
Congratulations! Now rebuild the dungeon deck, pick a different scenario and go dungeon delving again. Also, remember that if you are finding things too easy every scenario has a more difficult mode of play to try.
Why should you care about Hellbringer?
So I have to start by saying the prototype copy of Hellbringer I received was a bit of a hot mess. Thankfully the designer, Max, was very easy to reach and very forthcoming with clarifications and advice for all of our problems. That combined with a pretty good actual play on the Hellbringer website was the only reason we can even sit here and talk about this game. I also found an excellent how to play video on the Hellbringer website that helped me make sense of everything.
All of this talking to the designer made one thing very clear, in the state we got it in Hellbringer was not done. This game is still in the middle of the development process and still being playtested.
I admit that I found this a bit frustrating and that I much prefer reviewing completed games. That said, the big takeaway we all had with Hellbringer is that it shows a lot of promise and having a designer that is willing to listen to feedback is going to be good for the final product.
Hellbringer was designed to be a rogue-like card game and it really does have that rogue-like feel. When I’m talking rogue-like here I’m talking about the old school Rogue, the original rogue-like that I played on my dad’s Amiga.
The way that each game you build a random dungeon that is filled with some timing cards that progress the story and spawn monsters really did remind me of playing that old school dungeon delver. Discovering a monster that you can’t even see yet it keeps poking at you every turn, or a very powerful item early in the game that makes the first few floors feel easy, are very much Rogue-style experiences and I enjoyed finding them here in Hellbringer.
While playing and writing about Hellbringer I couldn’t help but think of Sanctum, another board game that also proposes to give you that Diablo-like feel. Check out my Sanctum review if you are curious to see how another game handles the theme.
What I found the most fascinating is how each of these games does a great job of highlighting different parts of Diablo. While Sanctum gives me strong asymmetry between character classes and gathering tons of different pieces of equipment and finding combos within them, Hellbringer does a better job of building tension and giving you a feel of being overwhelmed by enemies (so far at least, I think both games stand well on their own and I don’t see any reason to choose one over the other).
The other thing I enjoyed thematically with Hellbringer, was just how many monsters show up and will be defeated during the game. That feeling of battling wave after wave of monsters and the resulting tension of feeling like you are going to be overwhelmed really fits the theme.
With this of course comes the fact that sometimes you actually are overwhelmed. Hellbringer is not an easy game and you can be eliminated pretty early on. This difficulty and deadliness is going to mean that this game is not for everyone. Now personally, I found that when playing solo dying early just makes me want to re-shuffle the cards and play again.
Dying when playing cooperatively is quite different and can lead to a lot of downtime. In this game, when you die in a cooperative game you just sit there and watch everyone else play hoping someone gets something that will let you resurrect.
Even worse than being dead is having turns when you simply can’t do anything. Due to the random nature of the Dungeon Deck, it’s very possible you will get a hand of cards you can’t use. This could be due to the cards having too high a cost, only drawing skills for the other classes, or already being at your maximum skill limit. This frustration can be compounded by the fact that when you re-fill your hand you don’t get to replace any special cards you draw. Making an unplayable hand even more common is the one action on the monster die that makes you discard cards. Over multiple plays, we often had players whose turns ended up being: “I do nothing, your turn.”
Now I do know the lack of cards in hand is one of the things the designer is working on fixing, with the latest version of the rules having players draw cards from the bottom of the deck when a special card comes up, but those weren’t the rules we had or played by.
The next thing I want to talk about is the combat system as I think this is going to be a divisive mechanic for many groups.
While the all or nothing, roll a huge pool of dice and you defeat something or you don’t system is nice and quick and rolling big piles of dice feels good, I think many RPG fans are going to hate the fact that you don’t actually track hit points in this game. While it feels a bit odd when attacking enemies it feels even stranger when getting hit or when trying to defeat the big boss. Those demons can take a lot of damage and that damage has to be done all in one set of attacks to take them down.
I also feel some people aren’t going to like how armour is abstracted. In Hellbringer amour is just a number that gets added to your heath. The only time this attribute even matters is if an effect or monster in play states that armour is ignored. While I recognize these mechanics from video games I don’t know any other tabletop game that uses them, and I think there are people out there that won’t like it.
Overall, as it stands right now Hellbringer shows A LOT of promise. The card play and dice rolling is engaging and fun. The mechanics work well together and fit the theme very well. You really do get a rogue-like video game feel while playing this game.
While we did hit some stumbling blocks while trying to learn the game, those were all due to an incomplete and poorly translated set of rules. Both of these issues shouldn’t be a problem by the time the final game is produced.
If you are looking for an engaging solo dungeon crawl you are going to want to keep your eyes on Hellbringer. The game plays nice and quick solo and I found that dying in a solo game just makes me want to try again. The quick set up makes this an easy proposition.
As a co-op dungeon crawler, Hellbringer is currently pretty solid but not perfect. While mechanics for trading cards and working together are well done and do make the game easier, there can be a lot of downtime, especially if a character ends up dying. An improvement to this downtime during cooperative play is something I’m hoping the designer is able to figure out.
Where I think Hellbringer may find a market is with fantasy RPG fans looking for some way to enjoy playing through a dungeon crawl without needing other players. Hellbringer seems like a great game for a fantasy RPG fan to play when their game night is cancelled or in between sessions.
Overall, we found a lot to like in Hellbringer and I can’t wait to see how it improves as it develops further. This game is already good and it has every opportunity to become great.