Roguebook interview: Rewriting the Slay to Spire formula

Abrakam Entertainment enjoys tweaking existing game genres. You can see this in Faeria, its collectible card game that mixes in board game mechanics. And it’s a hallmark of the studio’s second game, Roguebook.

Roguebook takes inspiration from titles such as Slay the Spire, Dicey Dungeons, Gordian Quest, or Monster Train (one of my favorite games of 2020). It’s a deck-building roguelike, but instead of giving you branching paths, you explore a map and figure out your own road to the chapter boss. And you use brushes and ink to reveal hexes on the map, which ties in well with how Abrakam frames the game through a book.

It takes some time playing around with Roguebook’s mechanics to get used to it. You aren’t fighting alone — you get a companion and allied spirits — but you’re often outnumbered in battle. Healing is rare, and armor is fleeting. The pace of combat is different than what you find in other deck-building roguelikes. Yet this helps Roguebook stand out in an increasingly crowded genre.

I recently spoke with Gary Morris, a game designer and community manager at Abrakam Entertainment. We delved into how Roguebook came about, its framing, and the mechanics that make it distinctive from the likes of Slay the Spire.

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This is an edited transcript of our interview.

Story time

GamesBeat: Why frame Roguebook through a book?

Gary Morris: We ended up deciding on a book because we we wanted to find a way to connect this game to our other game, which was Faeria. We said, OK, we’ll make a new game, a brand-new type of game. How do we connect these two things? We ended up with this concept of a book that, long story short, absorbs the world around it. It takes in things around it. If you put it in a room, it’ll start absorbing things from the room. It’ll take a cup or a painting off the wall or even eventually a person. It’ll start taking people. There’s this book that starts getting a will of its own. It wasn’t always this way, but it has this will of its own, and it starts sucking things into it and creating its own universe inside of it, its own unique story, a never-ending story kind of thing.

The idea was to have a place where we could have a reason to have all these Faeria characters in one place, working together and teaming up when they normally wouldn’t, because you have good guys and bad guys working together. When you’re in battle you’re fighting things that would normally be “good guys.” So really, the book ended up as the solution for that goal, for getting ourselves into the same universe but a different story.

GamesBeat: All the monsters, characters, items, and areas inside the book have been sucked in by the book or written by the book’s author with the magic. The book itself doesn’t create these things?

Morris: No. The book doesn’t know how to create things. It can only take from the world around it. It’s kind of cursed in that way. It wants to take more and more so it can tell more and more stories. It has this insatiable urge to continue to tell more stories. It started learning how to create, I guess I could say, because I will say that the character Nadin, who’s basically your guide, the tutorial in the game, the little furry guy who walks around — he is not from the world of Faeria. He was created by the book itself. He’s a very unique case.

GamesBeat: Are you fighting the person who made it, or are you fighting the book itself?

Morris: You’re fighting the book itself, the spirit of the book. Right now there’s two forms it can take. There’s two end bosses. We call the Avatar of Greed and Avatar of Mist. But it takes a different form each time you play, each time you do a run. It’s kind of like the spirit of the book.

Mapping their own lane

Above: Brushes and ink reveal spaces on Roguebook’s map.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: Why use an open map? You can take different branches, as opposed to Slay the Spire, where you take one branch and then take another branch.

Morris: That was one of the ways we wanted to innovate. We wanted to make a game in this genre, this roguelike deckbuilder genre. I think it’s really awesome. Of course we played a lot of Slay the Spire. But where can we push? Where can we innovate? The overworld, we’re actually really proud of where we ended up, but it was one of the scariest things to develop. Because you’re right: We could just do the branching path thing that Slay does, but we wanted something more. We experimented a lot. We wanted an overworld. We want you to explore a map. That was basically where we started.

We tried so many different things that failed, to be frank. There was a time when you could only move so many spaces, and then there was a night and day cycle. We had the boss chasing you. We went through a lot of iterations that just weren’t working. We were really afraid. Are we gonna dead-end ourselves? Do we have to fall back on a branching path? But somehow, by some miracle, we ended up with this idea of revealing tiles as an economy, that sort of thing. Putting values in tiles and revealing them. We have a painting. We’re painting the book around this. We originally had this as torches, a torch system. You had to light the world around you. But wait, we’re in a book. Why don’t we make it about inks and brushes? Long story short, we ended up there because we wanted to make something new and interesting, something fun and unique. I think we did it. I’m really proud of it.

I think to me, if you ask me what the hardest battle of making this game was, it was getting the overworld right, because there were so many opportunities to do it incorrectly.

GamesBeat: Was the overworld something that was part of your first design doc? Or was it more of a goal, and you had a fallback plan in case it didn’t work?

Morris: The very first iteration of Roguebook was a prototype based on the Faeria engine. We took Faeria, and we took the bare bones of it, and we made a game, a barely functioning roguelike deckbuilder. Because Faeria has a boat, has lands on it, we used that. You walked on a board. It was a very boring board, but it was a functional board. The first iterations were close to the branching thing you were talking about, but we eventually expanded it from there into a world. I wouldn’t say from the very beginning we were going to have an overworld. It naturally evolved from the nature of Faeria having a board. That turned into Roguebook having an overworld.

GamesBeat: Why did you settle on having a hex map? Was that something you felt was going to best way to do this idea, or did you go through squares or other ideas first?

Morris: Again, it’s because of Faeria. Faeria is hex-based, the engine is hex-based. Hexagons are just the perfect thing for that layout when you want to do stuff like that. It really came from Faeria again. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess is the answer.

GamesBeat: You said you experimented with a day/night cycle. How would that have worked?

Morris: Oh, gosh, let me try to remember. You’re talking about a year ago. The way it worked is you had a set number of turns you could do. Let’s say the entire map is revealed to you — well, no, it wasn’t that. There was fog of war. But you could move, let’s say, 30 times. Once you moved 30 times, and that includes moving to a shop, moving to a fight, picking up gold, whatever, after you moved 30 times it switched to nighttime. When nighttime triggers, different things happen. We had shops that would only appear at night. I think we had certain narratives that appeared only at night. But most important, this is when the boss unlocked. The boss would reveal himself on the map somewhere, and you would see him, and each turn you moved now, he would run toward you. Once you’re in night cycle, you had a limited amount of turns before the boss would catch up with you and you would fight.

GamesBeat: That sounds like an idea worth revisiting in some sort of expansion.

Morris: There’s a lot of problems with it. Specifically, the economy of movement isn’t particularly fun in a lot of scenarios. You ended up in situations where you would explore the map down a long path, and then you’d be at the end of it, trapped, but to get out you had to spend movement. That felt really bad. We started iterating with an idea where you could move to anywhere you’d already explored for free, without counting down the timer. But that introduced other problems. It led to gameplay where it didn’t feel like you were exploring a world at all. Why even have an overworld at that point?

Eventually, we came to the solution of, what if you chose what to reveal and how much to reveal at a time? Really the brush system came from that day-night cycle concept, where we believed that we ended up with the best possible version of that. Even though it doesn’t sound the same, it’s the logical conclusion of where we went with the day-night cycle.

GamesBeat: About the brushes and ink: Are y’all a bunch of painters, or did this idea of using brushes and inks just bubble up from something else?

Morris: No, we’re not painters. We have some great artists, though. But no, it came from the idea of a book. From the very beginning this concept of being inside a book, being trapped inside a book — if you’re inside a book and you’re revealing the world around you, how would you do that? What would make sense to do? And like I said, at first we had torches, but we thought what would be cooler is — you’re in a black void, and you’d use torches. But no, what if you’re actually playing on a book? If you play Roguebook, if you look at the borders, the borders are the edges of a book. There’s paper all around you. So yeah, you’re using brushes and ink to create the world around you. The idea is it doesn’t exist until you use your ink and brush.

GamesBeat: While you don’t have the lanes as you do in a Slay the Spire or other games like this, it certainly feels like the limited amount of ink is pushing you to explore one side of the map or another, but not both.

Morris: That’s something we struggled with, getting the right amount of exploration. We don’t want the player exploring the entire map every game. That would eliminate the purpose of exploration. We want there to be value in that. The way we ended up solving the problem where — because how you control how much the player explores, so they have the right power level, so they see the right number of things, so that by the time they get to Chapter 3 they can fight the boss and — we could be comfortable knowing that the player has had enough opportunities to power themselves up, so to speak.

In Slay, where you see the branching trees and everything, from the beginning you can look at that, and as a player you say, I’m gonna do this and this and I’ll have this and this. You can’t do that in Roguebook, or not as easily, because you can’t guarantee what you’ll find. But what you can do is go to points of interest. We created points of interest on the map. This was something that took a while to arrive at the right version of, too.

But we have those sky towers. That was one of the earliest things we had, these sky towers. You can see them popping up in the distance. If you get to them, there’s a big reward. You do a big reveal. There’s always a certain amount of rewards in those towers. You go to the towers on each run and that guarantees something. We reveal every single battle on the map. Battles are important because they give you more ink. In some cases — the normal battles give you ink. You almost always want to have an ink before you use your brush. The whole exploration system is built on, OK, you can just use your brush and reveal some tiles, but if you pick up this ink, it’s designed in a way that will make the brush more effective. Specifically, you can shoot a line of ink out three spaces ahead of you, and if you move into that space and use the brush, all of a sudden you reveal a ton of spaces. You’re incentivized to fight the battles to get the ink and explore more.

Above: Faeries like this one grant you loot — if you can defeat them before they run away.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

We have some other incentives, too. There are treasures on the map you can see and go find. There’s a revealed boss path with an elite fight, and the elite fight will give you ink. But the idea is that the player should — there should be a consistent amount of exploration per chapter because of the things we choose to reveal to the player. Naturally, you should find enough to where you have a consistently good amount of choices, but it’s not the same every run.

GamesBeat: Another way you also do this is the treasures you put on each side, trying to drive a player one way, right?

Morris: Yeah, yeah. There’s two treasures. They appear on the left and right. You can’t always get both of them, but you can look and see what they are. Which one is going to be better for me at this point in time? We also have things you can find on the map that are not revealed, that can help give you bonuses, but we try to make it so that you can look at a map and plan out in your head, OK, I want to hit this, then I want to hit that, and along the way you’ll find some bonuses. That’s the general idea.

GamesBeat: During your playtesting, did you get any feedback from people like me, who love playing strategy games or RPGs, but have this compulsion to see the whole map?

Morris: Well, we had a lot of feedback from a lot of different types of players. For someone who wants to see the whole map, we never got specific feedback in that direction because the game was never built in a way where that would make sense. Well, I will say, it was like that, kind of, back when we go back to the day-night cycle. I’m not sure we ever had a version where it was completely revealed, but you could do a version where it was completely revealed and you had a certain number of steps to take.

But again, that whole concept breaks down when you start having paths that you can walk to, because now you have to backtrack and that costs your movement economy to do that. You end up making this flat map that might as well just be a tree, a Slay the Spire tree, because you’re just making a more complicated version of a branching path, I would say.

GamesBeat: Do you think that players will figure out, after a few runs, that you don’t want to try to reveal the whole map?

Morris: Well, they can’t. They want to. Players would love to reveal the whole map, because then you have everything, but it’s very unlikely. We’ve tuned it to where you only get so many brushes, so many fights. Revealing the entire map is impossible.

The Garfield influence

GamesBeat: Where did you get the idea of the spirits that help you in combat?

Morris: Allies, yeah, this is where we leveraged the assets from Faeria. We wanted something permanent on the field. Richard Garfield had a lot of input on this. We initially had them and they were kind of weak. They’d basically just do damage every once in a while. Richard, who worked with us on this, he pushed the idea to really have some permanent, significant, impactful allies that were with you in each fight. You could build your deck around them. We’re a small team, so in an ideal world we would have them fully animated, these creatures fighting alongside you, but there’s a lot of allies. So how do we make so many allies and set them up in battle? We came up with an idea. We’re going to use assets from Faeria. These are cards directly from Faeria. But we’re going to say that because the Roguebook is kind of outside the world of Faeria, it’s like a portal. You open a portal, like a gateway, and this ally fights alongside you. I’m not sure that’s communicated very well in-game, but that’s our idea behind it. There’s these little gateways to these allies that come and fight with you.

GamesBeat: They remind me of planeswalkers.

Morris: Yeah, speaking of Richard. It’s kind of like — in Slay the Spire you have powers, but we wanted you to feel like you had a party going, a group of adventurers that are working together and they can attack, too. They don’t just have abilities. They attack with you. We wanted that kind of feeling from it.

GamesBeat: For the places where you could draft cards, are those there to teach the player about how to build your deck, especially the dangers of adding too many cards to it?

Morris: The vaults, they are a way to provide deck rewards on the map. You can always just go to the shop. There’s a shop on every map and you can buy whatever you want, but it’s expensive. If you buy a card from the shop, it’s a lot of your net worth. But on the map we’re rewarding your exploration. You reveal a set amount of tiles and you find this vault. Now, it’s very cheap, 25 gold usually, to draft one card. You don’t have to pay to look. You can just open it up and look, and then you can see the three choices you have. You can choose to spend 25 gold, which is a very small amount, to pick whichever card you want. Now, we incentivize, or we try to, that you are comfortable picking something even if you think it’s not perfect for your deck. That’s where the talent system comes in.

That’s where the whole idea behind — the direction of this game is the idea of — this is really what Richard worked on with us, the idea of a huge deck that you could add anything you wanted to, and it was just fun to get a new card and play with it. The equivalent concept in Magic would be the Tower deck. Some people buy a bunch of booster packs, shuffle them all, 10 packs or something, and you put them all in one giant deck and that’s what you use for the play session. It’s not super-optimized. You don’t have the perfect amount of lands, this combo that goes with that combo. You have some combos and synergies in there, but it’s fun and unpredictable. You’re rewarded for building that large deck in different ways, and one of those is primarily our talent system.

That’s the purpose of the talent system, to show the player, hey, you know what? This isn’t like other games out there. You don’t have to trim your deck and build this particular meta-build that’s the best and everyone uses it. You can build your own, and each time you find a card it can be exciting for you, because you won’t feel like you can’t take it just because it will ruin your deck.

Armor all — or none?

Above: Armor lasts just for one turn, provided your foes don’t destroy it first.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: In some progression roguelikes like this, between rounds you retain your armor. But you don’t here. Was that an intentional design choice, to make you decide between combat and armor? Or was there another reason for that?

Morris: It’s funny you ask that, because originally we wanted to make a game with no block. We said, “We don’t like block.” We don’t like that play cycle for a battle, where you calculate how much block you need and then attack. What if you could just only deal damage and you had to heal afterward? You never had to worry about block. Well, eventually we walked back and obviously, no, well, you kind of need block to make this game work and not feel so bad. But as far as retaining block between battles, no.

We really tried to minimize block as much as possible in this game. Even though it might not seem like it. We want players to be attacking and doing as much damage as they can and not worrying about so much that they must protect themselves at all costs. Taking one damage is a big deal sometimes in other games, but in ours you can take some damage because you’ll get some healing. There’s healing on the map. Cards will heal you for certain heroes. It’s also important that at the end of a run, when you beat the boss, you’re fully healed and all wounds are removed from your deck. You get wounds when your hero dies. You can accumulate a lot of those, and it can feel bad if you’re carrying those forever. But you don’t. All you have to do is beat the boss and all the wounds are gone. Hero is fully healed. Fresh, clean slate.

GamesBeat: Healing is where I got the most frustrated, because I never got any cards for healing. The only healing I found on the map were the potions, and those didn’t seem to be really helpful.

Morris: I should say that the healing specifically is limited to the next two heroes, not the starting hero. It makes sense that you didn’t find those. But as far as finding the potions, yeah, they’re scattered throughout the map. There is some meta-progression to add more of those on. Maybe it’s undertuned where we’re not putting in enough to begin with. But ideally you’re finding enough — we even see a lot of players toward the end, as they keep playing the game — we’ve seen people go to chapter three with like nine healing potions, because they carry over from chapter to chapter. When you first begin you’ll find less until you get those early meta-progression perks, which will boost that up for you.

Faeria links

GamesBeat: Besides being in the same world, are there any other tie-ins from Faeria?

Morris: No cosmetic bonuses. We have activatable allies, of course. Sometimes they have the same abilities they do in Faeria. They’re really — as far as cosmetic stuff, we only had time to implement some hero skins and some alternate card art. We do have some card backs as well. But as far as Faeria influencing that, no. It would be cool to have something in Faeria that you can bring with you into Roguebook. That would be awesome. I wouldn’t say that’s going to happen, but I’ll say that we aren’t against it happening.

Obviously, we tied this heavily into Faeria, so we would like the two games to interact with each other, but easier said than done I guess is the answer for that.

GamesBeat: How big is the team now?

Morris: We’re pretty small on the office side. We have more devs than we do game designers. I’m just going to guess off the top of my head, but I’d say we have six or seven devs, two game designers, a lead designer. What are we up to there, 11 or 12? Then we have sound, artists. I’d say the core team, and it’s hard to say what is “core,” is 15 or so people. And then of course we have a lot of external contractors and whatnot.

GamesBeat: When did you start work on Faeria?

Morris: Faeria was all the way back in 2013. There was a Kickstarter for Faeria. Faeria was originally a browser game, played only in your browser. It got relatively popular and people really enjoyed it, so a Kickstarter was made to create it for the PC. That was successful, the Kickstarter. It took years. I think Faeria finally released — was it 2016? It was years of development to completely rebuild the game from scratch in Unity. But even before that, even before I was on the team, the founders, they had been working on Faeria for, as far as I understand it, at least 10 years as a board game. It started as a board game. They just kept working on this board game on the side.

Above: Faeria mixes board game and card game mechanics.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: I never knew Faeria started as a board game, but I can definitely see that.

Morris: Oh, yeah. They made a mockup, made the pieces and everything. They decided to get serious about it and they turned it into a Flash game. That’s when I first heard about it, their Flash version of it.

GamesBeat: And when did you start work on Roguebook?

Morris: Oh, gosh. We had a Kickstarter for Roguebook in … 2018? Again, all my years are running together. I’d say right now it’s been two to three years in production, if you count the very early prototypes and early concepts. But then actually crunching out the final version of the game, I’d say that took us a little over a year, year-and-a-half, something like that.

GamesBeat: What’s your road map from here?

Morris: Oof. We have content already in the works. We have free content, new free content coming. We’re already in production for that. Beyond that, we have some more plans, and it all depends on how release goes and so on. But we’d like to add things like a new hero into the game. If you can think of it, we’ve probably thought of it as well, and we’d like to continue updating. We have plans for at least two sets of updates. It all depends on how well the game is received. We’d love to work on it forever, as long as people keep playing it.

GamesBeat: I think one good example of the potential this has — I started it, I got frustrated, but I kept pushing through, and the first day I played it I ended up going two hours longer than I’d played.

Morris: Well, great. It sounds like we’re doing something right. There has to be some frustration, there has to be some bad to make the good feel good, right? We can’t make a game where you always win. There has to be some amount of difficulty, a reasonable amount of difficulty, where you feel like, if only I’d done this or gotten that, I could have gone a lot further. I’m going to try again. I learned this on the last run, so next time I know what I should or shouldn’t do. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find a better treasure. Finding that balance of — we don’t want to punish the player. We want the player to have enough rope to hang themselves with, I guess, is a good analogy.

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