Game Review: Roguebook a digital deck-building roguelike from Magic the Gathering designer Richard Garfield

As soon as I read the first press release for Roguebook, a digital game with strong tabletop roots, that stated that Richard Garfield was working on a digital deck-building game I jumped at the chance to check it out.

Roguebook is a PC game and App (soon coming to consoles as well) that is a digital deck-building game. It’s a roguelike, a style of game where you play through the game multiple times improving slightly after each play and hopefully delving deeper into the dungeon each time.

Disclosure: Nacom games provided me with an early access demo version of Roguebook for this review. Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What is Roguebook, the digital card game?

Roguebook was developed by Abrakam Entertainment, the team behind Faeria, who paired up with Richard Garfield to create this game. Now Richard Garfield is a name that all hobby board game fans should recognize as the man behind Robo Rally and The Great Dalmuti, two of my all-time favourite games. Okay, maybe that’s just me? Where most people are probably going to know Richard Garfield from is as the man behind Magic the Gathering.

Roguebook is currently up for preorder at Humble Bundle and is expected to enter full release in April. If you pre-order now you’ll get access to the demo version of the game which is what I’ve been playing. The demo version limits you to one specific hero pair, doesn’t allow persistent progression through the skill tree, and limits everything to the first six levels.

Roguebook Start of the GameRoguebook bills itself as a deck-building Roguelike and that’s exactly what it is. You start off each game at level one with your chosen hero. You then go recruit a companion to journey with (in this demo you are limited to one specific hero and companion combo) you unlock the main gates on the map and start exploring.

The world you are exploring in Roguebook is made up of a hex map, only part of which you can see. You get to see the starting area and then after the gate is opened the game draws the path to a tower and the first boss monsters. Note I said draws, this is where the whole “book” part of the theme comes in. The entire idea here is that you are exploring a book and you are playing the game in the book. A big part of this exploration system is using ink to reveal the map.

Using Ink in RoguebookYou start the game with five pots of ink which can be used to draw in the hexes surrounding your character. When you use ink to reveal more of the map you may find all kinds of things, such as Monsters to battle, Gold sitting on the ground, Vaults of Wisdom that let you trade a small amount of gold for a new card (you get three random cards to pick from), Wandering Merchants that let you buy cards, Items and Gems Stones which provide Gems (more about those in a bit), Towers that reveal a large area of the map areas around them, Runes of Sight that show you some interesting item somewhere that hasn’t been revealed yet on the map, Alchemists that let you transform your cards (The only way to replace your original cards with better ones), and Hearts that heal your characters.

When you win a battle you will get some gold as well as one or more other rewards including new cards, items, or gems. Each battle will also reward you with one pot of special ink. These special inks work similar to your regular ink but will reveal parts of the map in different patterns. For example, one type reveals a straight line of five hexes in a row and another reveals three hexes in a row on opposite sides of your character. One of the best special inks uses up your regular ink too but reveals hexes in all directions at a range of three.

So what does all of this stuff you can find do?

Upgrading cards in Roguebook uses Gems.I’ve already mentioned ink, which reveals the map. Gold is used at the Merchants, Vaults and Alchemists to get new cards and improve your existing cards. Then there are Gems, which are used for card improvement. Each card in Roguebook has one or more sockets on them that can hold gems. When added to a card a gem makes a permanent improvement to that card. I’ve noticed these improvements aren’t little things. These are not small bonuses like do +1 damage. The improvements that gems make to cards are substantial things like do +14 damage to the closest enemy, or draw an additional card after playing this one, and more.

Items you find get equipped onto one of your two characters and give them some kind of bonus during fights (additional damage, starting with specific cards in hand, healing, etc). Every map starts with four random items on it, in the four far corners of the map. Note that there is no way you are going to be able to get to all four of these. If you want a specific item you are going to have to use your ink wisely to make sure you get to it.

Next, I want to give a brief overview of the combat system in Roguebook. As I noted earlier, this is a deck building card game. One big difference here from other deck builders, both physical and digital, is that you are playing two characters and your deck is mixed with cards from both of these characters. When battling, each combat starts with one of your two characters in front of the other and this positioning matters. With the two starter characters provided in the demo being in front at the end of each combat round gives a bonus to that character. One of the characters gets a defence bonus and the other gets an attack bonus.

A battle in Roguebook the deck-building card game.During each round of combat, you will get a hand of five cards but only three mana to use them. All of the cards you start with only cost one mana each to use but later cards can range from being free to play to costing more than one. The most expensive card I’ve seen so far cost five mana but that cost went down every time you used a different card from the same character. This mana limit of three a turn can be modified by card play, talent unlocks and items.

In each fight, you will be facing off against one or more enemies and here the order of the enemies matters just like the order of your characters does. Most cards in your deck are split between attack and defence cards. Basic attack cards do damage to a specific enemy that you pick, you may also find attack cards that affect multiple enemies. Defence cards move the defending character to the front and then give you a number of shield points. Each shield point blocks one point of attack.

Along with this basic attack and defence system, there are a ton of other cards that do other things, all using a bunch of keywords. There are status effects, buffs, de-buffs, cards combining attack and defence, position change cards and more. The two keywords I enjoyed using the most were Charge, which does extra damage but moves that character to the front, and Missile which was cheaper if used by a character in the back. One of the most unique card types is Allies. Allies are cards that once played stay in play and have their effect go off each round. There is a countdown on each ally that determines how long they stay in play. Some allies also have abilities that can be used each round. One of the better items I found had one of my characters start with a number of allies in play at the beginning of the battle. 

Wound cards are wasted space in your deck in RoguebookEach character and monster has a number of hit points, once you get rid of those that creature or character dies. Character death in Roguebook is worth noting. When one of your characters dies, you get two Wound cards into your deck. These are useless cards that just take up space. Then the next time you draw a hand all of the cards belonging to that character will have changed over to Revive cards which cost three mana each. Once you manage to play three Revive cards (which doesn’t have to be in one round) that character gets back up. They get a handful of health back and their cards return to normal.

If at any point both of your characters are knocked out your game ends.

Gaining Talents is how you level up in game in Roguebook a roguelike deck building game.While playing through a session of Roguebook your characters will also improve through gaining Talents. Once you get to fourteen cards in your deck, you unlock a new Talent for your heroes. You will also unlock more Talents at eighteen, twenty-two and finally twenty-six cards. At each unlock you pick an ability for one of your characters, or a team ability that will affect both of them. Talents randomize each game and are different for each character. I’m not sure if the team talents change up depending on your hero pair or not as I’ve only played the game with the two demo heroes. 

In summary, you go around exploring the map using your ink and trying to improve your deck. Eventually, you will run out of ink and be forced to take on the boss monster. If you are able to beat them (and they aren’t easy) you move on to the next floor.

Once you inevitably end up dying, since this is a roguelike that means you start over at the beginning of the game. You will find yourself back on floor one again, once again picking which characters to use and opening the gate to floor one. This is what it means to be playing a roguelike. 

The Perk Tree is a form of permanent advancement in RoguebookWhile playing you should have found one or more Pages. I think these are meant to be the pages of the book you are exploring as part of the rather odd theme of this game. These pages seldom show up on the map but you do get them for some battles, and you earn one for beating each floor. Between games, you use pages to progress through a Perk Tree. Perks are permanent unlocks that affect all of your future games. They start off cheap, with the first two only costing one page each. However, the Perks at the next tier require ten or thirty pages. The demo version of Roguebook I played only has the top two tiers of this tree unlocked but there will be six levels to the Perk tree in the full game.

Experience is another form of permanence in Roguebook the roguelikeIn addition to this form of progression, every time you use a character for a run, at the end of that run they earn experience points. Plus you also earn experience points for your team. Earn enough points and your team or individual characters level up. When that happens you get to add new and better cards to your deck. This is another form of permanent progression as you will have these new better cards every game going forward.

What all of this leads to is what’s known as the grind. Roguebook is all about grinding and very gradual progression, You play it over and over and over again, making small incremental improvements to your heroes and decks hoping that each time you get further and further into the Roguebook.  This is the essence of a roguelike and it’s what Roguebook is all about.

Is Roguebook worth playing?

Floor two in RoguebookOverall, I had a lot of fun playing around with Roguebook. It is a very well-designed game. It looks great and I didn’t see any technical flaws or glitches while I played. While I was a bit disappointed to find out that my review copy was just the pre-order demo, there was plenty of content here to keep me busy and let me experience what the game has to offer.

I found Roguebook quite fun and a great time killer. While I’ve never spent an entire evening playing round after round, I did find it a good distraction at the end of a day of blogging or sharing deals. I would play through one run, then go do something else, and then possibly return hours later to do another run.

The deck building and combat system in Roguebook are really solid. It’s an interesting mix of deck construction done between fights and deck building done during fights. I particularly liked the gem system for improving your cards, and the item equipping system for in-game benefits. The real highlight here though is the two-character combat system where positioning matters and how having a pair of heroes is integrated into the card combinations. 

The one thing I didn’t like about Roguebook, at least at first, is the exploration system. The problem I had was that you don’t get enough ink. Even if you fight and win every fight and hit every Tower there’s no way to reveal the entire map. I found this frustrating.

Image from the publishers of Roguebook, showing exploration.One of the things that, to me, is an important part of roguelike games, going back to the original Rogue on the Amiga, is that you make sure you explore the entire floor before diving down deeper. This is something so instilled in me that I do this in every RPG I play, roguelike or not. Heck, even when I play Dungeons & Dragons I always want to make sure we’ve explored every nook and cranny of the dungeon. You can’t do that in Roguebook and I find it annoying. I want to see the rest of the map. I want to collect all the things. I always feel like I’m being forced into the boss fight too quickly.

After many plays of Roguebook, I’ve grown to accept this aspect of the game. I will admit I still don’t like it, but it’s part of what makes Roguebook unique.

Shopping is a good way to get new cards in RoguebookOverall I thunk Roguebook is a very polished, solid, and enjoyable game. While it didn’t suck me in, to the point where I was spending hours playing through game after game, I found Roguebook to be great as a game I pop on, do a run and then go on to other things only to come back and play more later that day or the next day. It goes a good job scratching that deck-building card game itch and I enjoy the unique elements in this particular roguelike deck builder. I can definitely see the tabletop game roots in this game and the game has a lot of Richard Garfield in it, especially with the number of different card keywords and how the cards interact and combo.

If you enjoy these kinds of digital deck-building games I recommend picking up Roguebook. If you are a tabletop deck-builder fan you may also want to check this one out, especially if you are in lockdown and stuck at home with no one to deck-build with. If you don’t like deck-building, this game won’t win you over and more importantly, if you don’t like the roguelike style of play, where you play the same game over and over starting each time from scratch with just a small advantage gained over the last time, then this game won’t be for you. For me, I’m glad I got to try this one out.

How does Roguebook compare to other digital deck-building roguelike games?

A big battle late in a game of RoguebookOne thing that I think everyone is going to want to know is how does Roguebook compare to other deckbuilding roguelike games, such as Slay the Spire.

Now I personally haven’t played Slay the Spire (I know I should try it) but I will say I had more fun with Roguebook than with any other digital deckbuilding game of this type that I’ve played, such as Dungeon Tales, Rogue Adventure or Card Crusade, as well as other digital card games like Hearthstone. 

Some of the items you can find in RoguebookMy podcast co-host is actually a big fan of Slay the Spire, and he’s even more of a fan of Monster Slayers, so I asked him how Roguebook compares. His main observation is that Roguebook has taken a number of elements from other digital roguelike games and combined them into one. It’s like Richard Garfield and the Abrakam Entertainment team picked the best parts of all the other games and mashed them together. 

Concepts like deck building, repeated grinding, and keyword-based card play, can be matched to any number of other games. Even the allies which I thought were pretty unique are pretty much the same as Power in Slay the Spire. What Slay the Spire lacks completely, in comparison, is the exploration aspects of Roguebook. While you will find exploration in other games, like Monster Slayers, no game has offered the unique ink based exploration you find here in Roguebook. Other aspects, like the team-based combat system, Sean has seen in Iratus, Lord of the Dead and other games, though it’s implemented differently here. 

Some of the gems, used to upgrade cards in RoguebookAnother aspect that stood out to Sean is the gem system for upgrading cards. While many games have a way to upgrade your cards, most just offer a single upgrade option. He wasn’t aware of any that give the level of customization that Roguebook offers. 

Overall I think it’s safe to say that Roguebook is both a combination of the games that came before it, which just makes sense, and a game that features some new elements when it comes to roguelike deck-builders. Sean and I both agree, these new elements are interesting and unique enough that this game is worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre. Game Over Man!

Digital roguelike deck-building card games seem to be all the rage right now, with dozens of various games out there on the market. There are a few names that stand out from the crowd like Slay the Spire and Monster Slayers. I fully expect Roguebook to join that list once it hits full release. 

Have you played many of this genre of digital card game? I would love to hear about your personal favourite. Tell us all about it in the comments below!

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