Here’s a promising card game bound for the Nintendo Switch in 2021. Griftlands, currently in Early Access on Steam, is a roguelite deckbuilder. It will appeal to Slay the Spire fans and card game lovers but, I believe, will also find a wider audience.
This new title from Klei Entertainment—maker of Don’t Starve, Oxygen Not Included—looks like a Star Wars cartoon, which is a good thing. Feels like a throwback to an animated film I saw in my tweenage days (Titan A.E., whose protagonist’s name sounds like a vegetable). But it isn’t merely the Star-Warzy “used universe” aesthetic that draws me to Griftlands. I’m intrigued by how the game adds a unique social element to the deckbuilder genre.
Everybody Loves Sal (No, They Don’t)
The game keeps track of what characters think of you: they can Love, Like, Dislike, or Hate your guts. Getting a character to Love you unlocks a “social boon” specific to that character, such as gaining extra defense points in battle. On the other hand, being Hated unlocks a “social bane” specific to that character, such as being automatically disliked by all new civilian characters. So, you must not only decide which cards will make a stronger deck, but you also make choices that either please or cheese people off.
This social element adds a new layer to decision-making which I haven’t encountered in a card game. It’s reminiscent of a Dungeons & Dragons RPG, in which your reputation determines people’s friendliness or hostility towards you. Griftlands did, in fact, start off as an open-world RPG—until the game’s design was overhauled and streamlined to focus on deckbuilding.
Not One, But Two Decks
Now here’s another unique thing about Griftlands. You manage not only one deck of cards but two: a Battle deck and a Negotiation deck.
These represent two different ways you can resolve a conflict or achieve a goal. Sometimes, negotiating with a stubborn old chap—instead of beating him over the head—will solve a quest peaceably, with benefits to everyone involved.
Or, you could just beat him over the head. Then he’ll hate your guts and, if he’s a merchant, will sell you goods at jacked-up, impossible prices. Provided you didn’t accidentally kill him in the heat of battle, which would earn you an unsavory reputation and future repercussions.
But either way, negotiations play out very much like battles, just with a different deck. In battles, you hammer at the enemy until their health is low enough to make them surrender. In negotiations, you hammer at enemies verbally, until you’ve destroyed their resolve (a mental version of hit-points).
At the end of successful battles and negotiations, you’re rewarded with new cards. Cards can, in turn, be upgraded into more powerful versions if you play them often enough to level ’em up.
The full game will offer three playable protagonists, much in the vein of Slay the Spire, another deckbuilder I can’t help comparing this game to. The demo only lets you play as Sal, a human bounty hunter out for revenge after 10 years in slave labor. In the demo, you experience Day 1 of Sal’s five-day campaign, which amounts to a few quests and encounters, plus a boss battle.
These encounters occur as you move around the map, talking to people and choosing between quests or limited-time events. They aren’t predetermined but, rather, randomly selected from a pool of potential encounters.
Between all the cards, items, quests, events, and social alliances/enmities to choose from, there’s a good deal of decision-making going on—which is what makes the demo fun and replayable, brief as it is (about 1 hour). I played the demo three times and found a reasonable amount of fresh content alongside repeated content.
The Write Stuff
But what I appreciate most about Griftlands so far is the writing. I wasn’t expecting much, given that my favorite deckbuilder (Slay the Spire) has virtually no plot and no conversations. Griftlands has plenty of dialogue (fast-forwardable, though, so fear not). And it’s excellent writing, evocative and witty.
I’m interested to learn more about the different factions and their idiosyncracies. Like the Cult of Hesh who worship a “god of the abyss” believed to dwell in the ocean deep, or the Spark Barons who excavate technology from a bygone spacefaring age. I also want to see how Sal’s quest for revenge plays out. I’m curious to play a game that’s like Slay the Spire in battle mechanics but has so much more going on in terms of gameplay, plus a real story to boot.
So far, Griftlands strikes me as an easier game at the outset than Slay the Spire, even on normal difficulty. Gamers who aren’t familiar with deckbuilders of this sort will welcome Story Mode, an even easier difficulty.
On the downside, Griftlands’ card descriptions take a wee bit more brainwork to digest. The Negotiation deck, in particular, is chock-full of unfamiliar terms. For instance, what’s called “defense” in battles is called “composure” in negotiations. Negotiation mechanics aren’t actually that complicated, but it took me awhile to get the terminology down and remember what’s what.
But other than this initial confusion over card terms, everything is looking great so far. Overall, the developer does a great job of condensing information into handy tool-tips to explain cards, jargon, and lore.
I’m so tempted to play the current (incomplete) version of Griftlands, rather than wait for the full release! Unfortunately, only partial support is offered for controllers at the moment, so I’ll have to be content with a keyboard-and-mouse.
If the full version for PC (Steam and Epic Games Store) launches this year as promised, we may yet see the Switch port in 2021.