It was a surprise, on booting up Griftlands - the latest from Don't Starve developer Klei Entertainment, now available in a PC early access version from the Epic store - to discover that it was a card battler. (Though I suppose you shouldn't be surprised that any game is a card battler in 2019.) From early trailers I had expected something closer to a tactical role-playing game exploring this ramshackle, piratical offworld of bounty hunters, fish people and black markets. What I found was a beautifully illustrated tale of bitter rivalries, tough friendships and hard calls - like a scruffy science-fantasy Banner Saga - blended with a randomised deck-building roguelite, clearly inspired by the excellent Slay the Spire.
Not that Klei doesn't have form for taking inspiration. The genre-hopping Vancouver studio knows not only how to skip up onto a bandwagon with style, but how to bring something of value aboard with it. Its releases have followed many an indie trend: stealth in Mark of the Ninja, crafting and survival in Don't Starve, team tactics in Invisible, Inc., colony simulation in Oxygen Not Included. But they have all distinguished themselves by bringing original ideas and cleanly designed, hard-edged systems to the mix. These games have real bite. Invisible, Inc., in particular, is a near masterpiece.
Griftlands, while a sharp piece of work even at this early stage, is different. It feels like the card system has been parachuted onto the game rather than laying the foundations of it.
The alpha presents you with one (not quite finished) storyline of an eventual three to play. This is the tale of Sal, an impetuous bounty hunter out for revenge against the crime boss who sold her into indentured toil on the oil platforms. Rather like an Invisible, Inc. campaign, the story is dictated partly by script and partly by chance, with your picks from the semi-randomised missions on offer determining the direction of your build as well as the shape of the plot, and offering chances to take on extra risk for extra reward. Plus there's permadeath, so if Sal buys it, you need to start again. It feels too crafted, meandering and long-form to be called a true roguelike, but it does have a lot in common with those games.
The most interesting thing about Griftlands is its web of personal relationships. All the colourful characters can like, dislike, love or hate you, influenced by your actions in the story and whether you make time to just buy them a drink. Love and hate come with buffs and debuffs, and characters' attitudes to you might change the flow of the story, too.
This theme is reinforced by the bifurcation of the card gameplay into two strands: battle and negotiation. Battle plays out very similarly to Slay the Spire, which is to say like a mashup of Magic the Gathering and an early Final Fantasy. You can see your opponent's intention for the next turn, so can make moves to pre-empt it or defend against it; the fun comes from finding synergy between cards to build combos, though you can only do this in a single turn and it might be a while before your deck accommodates it. You are always at the mercy of the draw. If you reduce your opponent's health below a certain point you can accept their surrender, or choose to execute them, which can have interesting consequences down the line. As in Invisible, Inc., killing is a serious business in this game.
Negotiation is a rather convoluted attempt to apply the same card system to the art of conversation, used to haggle over bounties, talk your way out of situations, or talk others into them. You and your opponent have a health equivalent known as resolve, which translates into a 'core argument' which must be attacked and reduced to zero for you to prevail. You can also set up satellite 'arguments', which have their own mini health pools, apply various buffs and effects, and can be attacked separately. There are different schools of negotiation, from diplomatic to aggressive, that play into this. It is conceptually a bit weird and hard to grasp at first - but boiled down to the basics, it's like any other card battle.
The problem is the tenuous link between the well-worn, refined mechanics of the numbers game and what is actually supposed to be happening. It is hard to get excited about 'fast talk', 'deflection', 'instinct' or 'threaten' cards when you have to do a mental leap to translate them into 'attack', 'buff defence', 'draw new cards' and so on. The problem isn't as apparent in battle, but it's still there - the card concepts are for the most part very dry. Because Griftlands, I strongly suspect, didn't start out as a card game, there's a disconnect between systems and ideas, a forced awkwardness that's like someone speaking a language they've only just learned. It's a far cry from the exquisite dance of concept and execution in Invisible, Inc., a beautiful machine for creating cyberpunk spy adventures. It's a particular shame when Grifltands' art and characters are so evocative.
This isn't just Klei's problem, mind. Even Slay the Spire, as great as it is, suffers from a lack of flavour in its cards - not how they work, but their titles, their artwork, the ideas behind them. It is easy to see why Magic's slow but implacable journey towards cool and the phenomenon that was Blizzard's Hearthstone have excited a generation of developers about the possibilities of card game design. But it turns out that crafting well-balanced decks full of synergies and tactical options is one thing, but designing exciting cards is quite another.
What these games miss - as they try to surgically separate the fascinating tactical mechanics of collectible card games from all that grubby business of opening blind packs - is that a big part of the appeal is in the collecting, which is to say that a big part of the appeal is in the cards themselves. For a card game to sing, the cards need to express thrilling ideas and to be covetable objects; you need to feel excited to see a favourite turn up in your hand. In Magic and Hearthstone, the cards are characters, and they overflow with personality in their florid illustrations and witty text, in the match between function and concept that excites the imagination. Small surprise that Blizzard, the undisputed champion of high-impact skill design, should get this right, or that others should find it so hard to match it.
Griftlands is an unusual, promising game from a supremely talented team, and there's already much to enjoy in it. Its card-game systems serve it dependably, even if they don't take flight on their own. But it's a reminder that, in the greatest card games, the deck isn't there for you to build your game world on. The game world should be built into the deck.