Last year there was Monster Train, before that Slay the Spire, before that Dream Quest (opens in new tab). (And before that, tabletop games like Dominion.) It feels like the digital deckbuilder genre is in the 'Doom clone' stage of its evolution, which is fine. There's room for more than one game about constructing the perfect set of cards to survive randomized battles, your ultimate victory based on finding some outrageous combo. But at the moment, most of them seem to be differentiated by their aesthetics as much as their tweaks on the formula.
Aesthetically, Roguebook is a winner. It's designed by Abrakam, responsible for the under-rated CCG Faeria (opens in new tab), with which Roguebook shares its setting as well as its visuals—part Miyazaki forest, part children's fairytale book.
Glowing orbs waft through trees, sinister beasts with antlers emerge from the undergrowth. A Disney witch crooks her finger and a louche ogre king lounges like a Skyrim jarl. There are a lot of fluffy yak creatures.
I've been defeated more than once by raccoon jerks who fling yaks out of a catapult. I've learned to fear the yakapult.
Before roguelike deckbuilders were a thing there was Shandalar, a 1997 videogame based on Magic: The Gathering where you wander the land fighting random battles to earn cards. I bring that up because the creator of Magic, Richard Garfield, is co-designer of Roguebook, bringing us full circle. You may also know him from his other work, by which I mean his masterpiece, RoboRally (opens in new tab).
While it does feel like another clone at first, Roguebook reveals some depth as you go on. It gives you control of two heroes (in this demo, which is currently available as part of the Steam Game Festival (opens in new tab), a half-ogre who specialises in blocking and a dragonslayer who is better at offence), and your deck is split into cards for each of them like colors in a Magic deck.
Some cards let heroes swap position, with the dragonslayer causing more damage when she's in front and the half-ogre gaining two points of block if he ends the turn in pole position. That suggests bringing her in to attack before bouncing him back up, which synergizes with a card called Blade Dance that does more damage the more switches you pull off. There are also cards that are cheaper if played immediately after one of the other hero's cards, or if played from the back row.
The duo share a block pool but have separate health, meaning that if one falls the other has a chance to help them back up. At zero hit points they retire to the back row, and their cards transform into songs. Sing three of them—by playing three cards—and that hero will be back on their feet, but with two useless wound cards in their deck from then on.
The difference that feels most impactful is that Roguebook doesn't reward you as much for winnowing your deck. When I goof another run at the Spire it's because I added too many cards without trimming the fat, resulting in turns where I don't get access to that one overpowered combo before being engulfed by a slime monster.
Roguebook rewards you for having more cards. When you cross deck size boundaries, you earn talents, leveling-up your heroes. The boring, safe choice of deleting cards until you're left with a perfect nub of smoothed-down efficiency is no longer the only option.
I burned out on Monster Train because of the need to plan an upgrade path and surgically remove everything that didn't fit, so a deckbuilder that encourages choosing fun options, experimenting even after finding that broken combo, might hold my interest for longer.
There's also the overworld, a land inside a magic book (hence the name), shown as a hexgrid with fog of war that's rolled back by spending the ink and brushes you earn winning battles. Areas unfurl like it's Minesweeper, and may contain shops, gold, piñata faeries to wail on for more gold, and short text adventure scenes. You might earn rewards from these like treasures that provide some significant boons, or gems that can be socketed into cards to alter how they work. Like Heroes of Might and Magic, or indeed Shandalar, the overworld puts context and a little story between the fights.
I'd like even more of that. After racking up over 100 hours in Hades, I want every roguelike to put more effort into the narrative, to make each loss feel less like a punishment and more like the beginning of the next chapter. When I die to the yakapult again I get to spend some of the book pages I found on the map unlocking a perk for the next run, but I want more than that. I want to talk to the yaks, basically.