061 – Fun and Frustration in Roguelike Deckbuilding Games like Monster Train and Slay the Spire

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Hello fellow adventurers and welcome to the Nerdlab – Where we transform our gaming passion into incredible game designs and learn how to nerd like a boss. 
My name is Marvin and I am an ambitious game designer on my quest to develop a co-operative fantasy card game.
For this podcast, my vision is to take you with me on this exciting journey. Together we will explore the secrets of different game mechanics and reach the next level as a game designer.

A few weeks ago I was recommended a new game. The game I’m talking about is called Monster Train. 

The theme of the game is totally crazy. You ride a train through hell and try to prevent angels or other holy creatures from destroying a shard of the last hellfire. The game is a roguelike deck builder, which is very much like Slay the Spire. All this in combination didn’t blow me away and I would have never played the game without the direct recommendation and the very good reviews. 

Since it was recommended to me by a good friend who knows exactly what kind of games I like, I decided to have a look at it. And after only a few rounds I was hooked. And it wasn’t the theme, the story or the graphics that hooked me. It was merely the mechanics of the game. And since I had the same feeling a while ago when I played Slay the Spire, I wanted to take the time to analyze why these kinds of games are so addictive and how they manage to create these fun and challenging experiences.  

That’s why I will analyze today the genre of roguelike deckbuilding games and try to figure out a few lessons we can apply for board games as well. 

Roguelikes usually have three main aspects to them: randomized levels, permadeath, and incremental improvement. All of these effects have mass appeal, which at first glance sounds totally irrational. Why should you have fun dying over and over again because the game is too hard? Why should you have fun playing the same randomized content over and over again instead of following a beautiful story path that has been thought through by a skilled story writer?  Let’s take a look at these 3 concepts in order to find the answers for these questions. 

Randomized Levels

I think people enjoy randomized levels because they enjoy learning how to adapt to new game’s situations via improvisation. The randomized nature of these levels allow for a lot of creativity in how to solve problems, and thus constantly challenges us. Roguelikes create a new feeling with every playthrough. That creates a feeling of exploring the unexplored.

Permadeath

Why do people like permadeath? Well, this is astranger kind of enjoyment, but I believe people enjoy it because it forces you to change up your strategy every playthrough. In addition to that, permadeath can give each playthrough meaning. People enjoy that feeling of tension with games. The best example is the hardcore mode in Diablo 2 and 3. 

So, Permadeath increases tension, but on the other side, it can of course be very frustrating if you die and lose everything that you have been working for. Players can easily get the feeling of not progressing in the game. Although you may find the experience that players gain in the form of: “What monsters are there”, “What abilities do they have”, “What are the dangers in the levels”, etc. are also a form of progression. Simply because you learn how to react better to such situations in the next playthrough. But I think the form of progression or better said the learning curve is not enough for players these days to stick with a game. Especially not with a repetitive game like a roguelike. That’s why both Slay the Spire and Monster Train have a progression system that unlocks more and more content. 

Progression:

With every playthrough you unlock new, stronger, but also more complex cards, artifacts and enchantments. Sometimes you can also unlock completely new characters. 

This kind of persistent progression lasts throughout playthroughs and is achieved even if the players failed to win the game. These persistent progression mechanics instead usually serve to enhance the game experience and helps players feel like they’re making actual progress even through numerous deaths, so that they don’t quit due to sheer frustration.

That is the no 1 thing we can learn from these two games: If you want to create a complex game, please introduce the components step by step to the players. This creates long term motivation and increases replayability and removes a major barrier of entry for newer players. 

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