“Slay the Spire” is a game for masochists. That isn’t a criticism or complaint. It’s just the nature of the beast.
It’s both a collectible card game and a “roguelike”: a dungeon crawler that procedurally generates its maps. (The “Rogue” in “roguelike” is a 1980 computer role-playing game for Unix, which has inspired dozens of similar games since then.) You play the part of an adventurer exploring the titular “Spire,” which is different every time you play it, and have to slap together an effective strategy from whatever you’re able to find, even as the monsters you run into are getting more and more powerful.
“Slay the Spire” is currently available on Steam Early Access, with plans to port it to the Nintendo Switch and mobile devices once it reaches a full release. It was developed by Seattle’s Mega Crit Games, one of the founders of which, Anthony Giovannetti, also runs StimHack, the largest online community for fans of the “Netrunner” card game.
Each fight you get into in “Slay the Spire” is represented, as you might expect from Giovannetti’s pedigree, by a card game. Defensive cards give you points of armor, which enemies have to break in order to reach your actual health; offensive cards do the same to your opponents. You have a limited amount of energy to spend on cards in a given turn, and each card has a specific listed cost thereof. You also begin with a single relic, which gives you a permanent passive ability such as health regeneration, and can find more in treasure rooms or as drops from elite monsters.
Win a fight, and you receive a new card for your deck; lose, and in the best roguelike tradition, your run is over. You’re sent back to the title screen to start almost from scratch. Fortunately, the game plays very quickly, so dying usually only sets you back about half an hour, and whatever progress you did make is counted as progress towards a series of increasingly powerful unlocks, which are then added into the pool of possible drops for future runs.
The more cards you get, the more your arsenal opens up. “Slay the Spire,” like any good CCG, sets up its basic rules early on so it can then introduce dozens of ways to stretch or break them. You can lessen or remove cards’ costs, boost your energy pool, trade life points for energy, or inflict an array of ailments or buffs. Conversely, your enemies can weigh down your deck with useless “unplayable” cards, which just take up space in your hand, and most of them are fond of limiting your defenses, attack potential, or both at once.
The two currently playable characters both have multiple effective strategies that can develop as you progress, but the trick is in figuring out what you can make work with the cards you’ve managed to find. You may end up with a different strategy than you’d prefer, or what amounts to no real strategy at all, but that’s part of the risk you run.
Right now, I’m finding my luck is a lot better with the Silent, a huntress with a skull on her head, who mostly specializes in indirect damage; with a few well-placed poison cards, I can turtle up and avoid all incoming attacks while my damage-over-time effects slowly whittle my enemies down.
On the other hand, the Ironclad, a demonically enhanced mercenary, is all about the direct damage. I’m having my best runs with him using Body Slam decks, where I stack armor to the moon in order to turn it into a powerful attack, but there are a couple of encounters that are stacked against him. The Silent’s poisons ignore armor, but the Ironclad just has to cowboy up and blow through it. It also seems like his best decks are really slim, or at least depend heavily on burning cards for temporary advantages. There may be something I’m missing, though. The experiments continue.
The version of “Slay the Spire” that you can play right now on Steam is a surprisingly complete, polished product, although it still has a few incomplete features. I cannot stress enough that it’s not a game for people with a low frustration threshold, however; even if you find all the cards and relics you want, you could still get screwed over by a bad hand at a bad time. It’s a game about learning from and adapting to failure, over and over again, and it’s perfect for something to fire up when you need to kill an hour.