Griftlands has been making noise lately as the next big deck-building roguelike, following in the footsteps of Slay the Spire and Monster Train. I played it and was left a little underwhelmed. Part of that it that I don’t find roguelikes particularly compelling, but I think most of it had to do with the design of the world map.
To put it simply, there’s no direction. You’re given the map of a town, and then you’re thrust into it at a certain point, and then proceed to move from randomly determined point to randomly determine point a number of times until you’ve done it enough ascertain number of times and the game decides that enough time has passed for you to get a plot-relevant encounter.
My big issue with the game is that it lacks a sense of momentum, everything you do feels like wasting time and spinning the wheels until you’re allowed to actually do anything interesting. You could argue that the enjoyment of the world is it’s own reward, but the setting isn’t compelling enough to warrant that kind of exploration, and scenes tend to be filtered through combat/bargaining encounters or other mechanically-centered choices that affect the gameplay, rather than allowing you to actually interact or explore the world on your own terms.
In contrast there’s Slay the Spire, which makes the player constantly travel upwards as they proceed, forcing them to choose between branching paths as they make their way onwards. Similarly to Griftlands the gameplay is divided into acts with a boss at the end of each one, but the difference is that in Slay the Spire you can see the area ahead of you and plan a route through the challenges ahead. You know where you’re going, and what it’s going to take to get there, and there is a satisfaction in following the route you’ve plotted room by room, or in taking too much damage in an encounter and having to go off your planned route to find a campfire. The upwards movement of the player is matched by a steady increase in difficulty and player strength, and gives a player who may not be aware of the game’s strategies and meta, a clear sense of progress, structure, and satisfaction.
Another good example is Into The Breach. While that game doesn’t have explicitly branching paths in the way that Slay the Spire does, it instead has an incredibly intuitive map system. For those uninitiated (and I highly recommend you get initiated because this game fucking whips), the game is divided into between 3 and 5 different islands, each having it’s own mechanics that come up during play. Once you’ve selected which Island you’re taking on next, you get a map of the island and the different regions/missions that take place on that island. There’s no inherent direction given to you, but the different rewards for each area present an implicit choice. Do you make a beeline for the high risk high reward regions in the hopes of getting more cores, or has your grid taken a lot of damage forcing you to take an easier region in the hopes of more manageable combats?
It’s not an integral part of the game, but it allows you to make a choice and have that choice clearly reflected for the rest of that island. The map is also clearly colour-coded, with areas under enemy control in red and the areas that you’ve liberated in green. It’s obvious, but there’s a certain joy in watching each island turn green piece by piece as you continue.
In roguelikes, where the conditions of each run can be vastly different and success is often a matter of luck, it’s helpful to have a sense of structure and purpose in the user interface. When you can see the game laid out before you and decide how you’re going to tackle it it feels a lot more empowering than having events appear on a map and moving back and forth across town like a murderous uber-eats driver.