The Gamefather: Video Games to Play with Your Kids — Slay the Spire

June 4, 2019
Also on: PS4, Switch

The Gamefather is an occasional column from JDR's papa-in-gaming, giving his opinion on titles you might want to play with your children. He has a nine-year-old son who is far better at gaming than he is.

Happy New Year!

Sorry.  That's probably how this article would have started had I written it when I said I would. It feels a little off, putting it there now. Never mind, I'll change it later, before it goes live. (Note to self: don't forget to change that first line). (Don't worry, we'll definitely sort it - Ed)

The main reason I wanted to write it is because I thought an occasional article about the opinions of someone other than the hardcore gamer might be of interest to others in the same position, as opposed to all these experts, posting up their thoughtful reviews from a position of knowledge and informed context, and other buzzwords. How about those of us who could complete Mutant Monty blindfold, but have only ever vaguely heard of Fortnite? Don’t you want to know our opinion on games too?

Hey wait, come back!

Basically, this article comes from the point of view of “there must be others like me”. I haven’t heard of most modern games, despite the huge advertising efforts of every major games manufacturer, but I do still play games sometimes, so which are the games that have somehow found me, despite me playing hard to get, and what do I think of them? Think of me living in a kind of womb, protected from the outside world of gaming gossip and constant adverts.  Which games have managed to invade that womb, like, um, well, I guess like sperm? And… and, well I guess they’ve, um, well, the ones that I end up playing loads, and loving enough to write an article about them, well, I guess they’ve, um, got me preg-

OK, look, that analogy didn’t end up going where I thought it would. Let’s just move on.  My point was that the world of games seems a full-time one for young people only, and it can be a confusing one if you have been away, and you aren’t young any more. Which games are worth checking out when the last game you remember playing was Championship Manager 97/98?  What games are fun for a parent to play with their kids? That’s going to be the general theme of this occasional column.

I used to be a hardcore gamer, back when today’s hardcore gamers weren’t even a pixel in their daddy’s eye. When it came to staying up all night on the Amstrad CPC 464, pushing blocky blocks round blocky screens in order to get a block of a different colour without getting caught by those other blocks, well I was your man. Or small spotty boy, anyway.

Back when you had to keep playing a game even after you were sick of it, because you’d waited ten minutes for it to load.

Now, I’m more the ex-enthusiastic gamer who, abandoning his Amiga when university and alcohol came along, bought a PS2 and then PS3 with some vague notion of “getting back into it”, justifying the ridiculous expense with “it’ll save me money in the long run ‘cos I won’t go out,” only to keep going out, use the PS3 exclusively for Blu-rays, and lose even more money by stockpiling games in the corner with the idea that “it’s just that THAT game wasn’t really for me – THIS one will turn me into the hermit that my crippling financial situation demands.”

Things changed nearly a decade ago, when I somehow became father to a kid who, suddenly and without warning, turned from a baby into a young excitable lad who loves games as much as I ever did, and now I HAVE to reconnect with games because it's a far less exhausting way of bonding with my son than trying to think of new and adventurous things to do.

The other reason I wanted to write an article is also, ironically, the same reason I haven’t gotten around to writing it until now. You see, Slay the Spire (or StS, as the cool kids are calling it) is so good that it’s prevented me from writing about how good it is.

StS has infected me, possessed me in fact. It is a callback to the times when I DID used to play games a lot. Even since I’ve been playing games again, it’s mainly only been playing with him. I’ve rarely sat there playing on my own, like in the old days. But it has happened occasionally.

Even then, there haven’t been many games that have kept me having just one more go at three in the morning, when I have work to get up for next day. Not since SWOS and Cannon Fodder in my Amiga days (and then it was only school I was getting up for, and who cares about that? You can’t get fired from school), or Championship Manager on the PC (and that was university, and I’d generally only be turning the PC on at about 3 in the morning, often in a state where I couldn’t work out which monitor to look at, and I only had one).

Look at that sliding tackle, nowhere near the ball. Must be Stoke.

In terms of being a fully functioning adult, then (or as close as I get), there have only been two games in the last couple of decades that have affected me like this. The first was XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and the second is Slay the Spire. So you can just jolly well nod your head appreciatively in accepting that this is a rare thing for me to say about a game, when I say that Slay the Spire is a PROPER game, the kind that old people like me croak doesn’t get made any more. It turns out they do get made, um, any more. Us old moaners just stopped looking for them.

It has depth, it has complexity in terms of the multitude of ways your game can go, caused by every decision you make, mingled with the joyous simplicity of how it actually feels to play (believe me, as someone who doesn’t play games much anymore, it doesn’t take much for a crowded screen full of options to make me suddenly feel a bit tired and reach for the wine instead).

In case you haven’t heard of it, Slay the Spire is a deck-building game, where you take a boring starter deck, comprising just a few attacks and blocks, and gradually turn it into the deck of your choice by adding and removing cards, until you can beat the fiercest of enemies.

You do this by plotting routes through three “Acts”, each of which has a traditional end of level boss to beat. The rest of each floor is made up of a variety of rooms, interconnected, so you can choose the route that will best benefit your character’s development. The rooms, depending on which you enter, contain monsters (with rewards for beating them), elites (tougher monsters with bigger rewards), shops, campfires, treasure, or try-it-and-see mysteries.

Warning: Take a breath if you’re reading this next bit out loud for some weird reason.

During the fights, there are other things to keep an eye on as well, such as all-powerful relics that affect all your combats without having to be played, one-off potions that can get you out of a tight spot, your all important Hit Points (zero HP equals permadeath, unless you have the relic that brings you back to life), your energy (a number that can be increased by cards or relics, that is run down by the cards you play each turn), and your money (to be spent buying new cards, potions or relics from a shop owned by someone who, when he laughs, sounds exactly like Paul Daniels, the now deceased magician who, ironically, used to force cards on unsuspecting members of the public on the BBC), which can be taken from you by thieves as you work your way through the map, if you don’t kill them in time.

Not actual in-game footage, but close enough. The lovely Debbie McGee is not featured in the game, sadly.

It doesn’t have great show-off graphics (my favourite character for instance, the Defect, looks like some strangely-muscled gymnast with rickets, in a camp leotard, with a gingerbread shield for a head), but what is there is perfect for the game, the enemies have strong and varied attacks and personalities, and everything is geared towards clarity of information and ease of gameplay. The animation of the cards and how they swish and shuffle and fly around the screen as you play them is also very pleasing and lends itself well to you fully understanding everything that is going on.

Three starting characters have three different starting decks of cards, resulting in three entirely different ways of playing the game. The Ironclad is your straight-ahead warrior, smashing everything up with powerful attacks and forming impenetrable shields, the Silent is stealthy and deals in poisons and strange arts, and the Defect is some computer screw-up, or something, who can conjure up orbs to hover above his head and inflict all sorts of damage or benefits before, during, and after his turns.

In fairness to his clothing designer, I guess he can’t wear jeans. Those thighs would just chafe straight through.

A runthrough takes about sixty to ninety minutes, and you either successfully complete the three acts, or die trying, and then your only option is to restart with the same old starter deck again (or try one of the other characters). There is sadness in starting again after having somehow come across the best deck ever, but within a few minutes different cards present themselves, and you are feverishly trying to work out how best to build on what cards come your way. There is no guarantee that even if you smash it out of the park in one run, you will ever be able to find that combination of cards again, let alone on the next run.

That’s something that really increases the replay value of this game. There is no way to learn enough to win every single time on this game. It doesn’t go that way. If I could pick my deck, then I know how to win. My best deck ever, that I’ll tell my grandkids about, didn’t drop a single hit point from near the end of Act 2! But I died the next couple of times, because I was trying for the same deck, and the cards didn’t come my way. And that’s how I learned that I should react to the cards I DID get, rather than ignoring them and trying to find the ones that had worked for me so well before. Kind of like life, eh? This game isn’t an escape from life — it IS life!

And then there are the choices! Slay the Spire excels in giving you difficult decisions that you feel could make or break your current run. "Do you want to upgrade this card to be great?" is a no-brainer, but unless you’re lucky, it’s rarely that simple. “Do you want to swap all your basic attacks for similar attacks that give a couple of HP each time you play them, but at the same time heavily reduce your maximum HP?” Hmm. That's a little more difficult. “Want to take a chance on getting a rare relic that could help win you the game, but you have to accept a curse card into your deck, just before a fight against an end of level boss, that will lose you one hit point for every card you play while it is on screen?” Argh! I don’t know! The same dilemmas hit you when choosing a route through the maze. Do you go and fight an elite enemy, knowing you will be well rewarded for a win, or do you avoid the conflict and go to heal yourself instead, thus keeping your character in good shape, but your deck unimproved?

These sort of decisions are where the game comes alive. You can sit there for a little while, if you've worked for nearly an hour to create an excellent deck, knowing that getting this decision right could make the small difference between winning and losing.

Lose a few HP with hardly any chance of reward? Hmm… Yeah, go on then...

My son and I have focused mainly on two-player co-op games, on both PC and PlayStation (PS3 at the moment. I’ll only move to PS4 when PS5 comes out — I’m so mean!) but sometimes our best co-op games are single-player, where we argue over how best to do things. Because of my love of all things retro — which has led to us watching TV shows like The A-Team and Monkey — I have tried him on many old classics. He’s played both Monkey Island games, Warcraft 2, Theme Hospital, Cannon Fodder, and more, and loved them just as much as, if not more than, most recent games we play. My definition of “recent” is a bit ropey anyway, to be honest. I think anything released this century is recent.

This one is probably the best of all the games we’ve played together though, in terms of getting us invested. We fight over the mouse at key moments, unless we’re clearly about to lose, when he’ll quickly thrust it into my hand, and take a step away, so that when our character slumps to the ground once more, it looks as though it was all my fault. Thanks, buddy.

He even, over the course of a weekend at his mum’s, deprived of the chance to play it, recreated the entire game on paper. This is a level of work and creativity that puts my best efforts to shame, and I once wanted to write an entire world simulator on an Oracle database with a Forms 6i front end. He drew a variety of monsters, both from the game and new ones he’d thought of, and created little boxes for your strength/hit points/money, and, so he could reuse them, had put a Post-it on each for every new game, so he could write and cross out the numbers as they changed (as they do multiple times in every single turn!) He used counters to replicate orbs, and created new ones, which I was pleased to see were attempting to be as well balanced and intriguing as those in the game. Water, for instance, when evoked, prevents your opponent’s next turn, and metal gives you either block or attack, depending on your current situation. His perseverance, in-game, in calculating all that needs to be calculated outweighs my own, but it does show just how complicated things are behind the scenes, and yet how effortless it feels to play (on the computer, anyway!)  Anyway, anything that drives a kid to that level of creativity has to be a positive thing, right? Who knows, that could be the first step in his journey to making the next generation’s equivalent to Slay the Spire. Then the tax on my brain from trying to do all those calculations will have been worth it!

Obsessed is the word.

I’m trying to think of things to pick on in the game, defects in The Defect, as it were, but I’m struggling. There are niggles, I suppose, but it feels churlish to actually say them, because I suspect the fault is actually with me, or just part of any card game. There’s some luck in the game, so that hits you hard when you lose, but that’s one of its appeals, and contributes to the great feeling when things come together — the high of finding the perfect card for your deck needs such luck to exist. There’s the occasional feeling of “yeah, that would be right” conspiracy, when your opponent is going to hit you for enormous damage and none of your copious block cards were drawn this turn, yet the next one, when you have a free hit, you have nothing but block, and have to hit End Turn without doing anything. But I’m sure there were many goes when just the opposite happened and I glossed over it then, because it was surely just proof of my insane Spire-Slaying skills.

Other than that, or even perhaps because of it, it’s a joy. Mega Crit appears, from my copious (well, three) minutes of research, to be a small independent game studio from Seattle, and this does have the feel of the best indie games, that little something different that, to me anyway, often feels missing from the biggest MegaBlockbuster™ franchises. They have my eternal thanks for creating such an amazing game, and my fist waving curses for stopping me working on any of my own personal pet projects, including writing this article, for so long, because I’ve been so distracted by the brilliance of their game.

I recommend it to all, but if you don’t want to pay the excellent and more than reasonable price of £19.49 that it is currently going for on Steam, maybe my son could be persuaded to make you a paper copy for £19.39, but you’d have to provide your own calculator.

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David Braga

A tired and befuddled writer in his mid-forties who, having had his gaming gene surgically removed in his early twenties, is now returning to the gaming world due to the enthusiasm of his games-mad son. He is finding the scenery much changed and very confusing, though with much quicker loading times.