It’s easy to feel cool in Griftlands. I can be a brutal bounty hunter with a grind ax, throw cards, and take names. Or, a military veteran turned spy looking for one last score and one more card to get me there. Wherever I am and whoever I am the air is dusty and the bars are dirty and drinks are not the only things draft. Griftlands is, as you might have guessed, a card game.
Griftlands is the newest and smoothest roguelike deck-building game, and of particular interest because it comes from Klei Entertainment, the developer of the popular Oxygen Not Included and Don’t Starve games. Like Klei’s other Early Access success stories, Griftlands is fun before it’s even over, standing up to the current group of killer deck builders including Slay the Spire and Monster Train.
Griftlands’ twist on the card game genre is its dual deckbuilding: you build a deck for combat and a deck for negotiation. Depending on the situation, you can take out either bridge to fight or fight your way to a resolution. The decks are entirely separate, but their underlying mechanics echo each other. Combat and negotiation decks have identical turn phases, basic attacks, and defense moves. You can create similar concepts in both decks, like searching your library for cards or applying debuffs to your opponent. The similarities make it quite easy to grasp the basics of battle and negotiation.
Even though the different decks are color coded, building two different decks with two different objectives for two different types of combat at the same time can be confusing. On more than one occasion, I have wondered if a particular combo is in my speaking bridge or my fight platform. On the one hand, building and working with these double decks keeps me on my toes, adding to the feeling that I’m a con artist of the night, winning victories where I can. On the other hand, building two decks at once can make the experience too complicated.
I prefer negotiations over combat, although they can be a bit difficult to analyze at first. Your attacks revolve around a “central argument”, your health becomes your “resolve” and defense is renamed “composure”. You build additional arguments while playing cards and use a mixture of cards and sustained arguments to attack your opponent’s arguments and solve.
Negotiations start to look like a gamified debate class, and once your brain gets used to the swing of things, the mechanics shine. For example, adversaries of the Admiralty (space cops) can provide you with evidence. This creates both an easily exposed weakness in your arguments and a powerful sub-argument for your opponent called Questioning. As the game continues, your opponent’s Interrogation argument deals damage to your Planted Evidence, which, if destroyed, damages your base resolution. If, however, you can defend the evidence through diplomacy, domination, or manipulation, your opponent becomes angry and their attacks become weaker. This is just one of the many arguments that you may need to follow and manipulate in order to be successful in trading. Each has a series of mechanical consequences, and leaves a richly complex game system in its wake.
A card game with a story
Everything in Griftlands is flavored with the game world. This is most evident in negotiations, where Diplomacy cards favor defense and poise, while Domination cards favor aggressive attacks and intimidation. Manipulation allows you to search your deck and play with the order of the cards, with the implication that you misguide your opponent in the conversation. Cards with new keywords may appear due to your playstyle. After murdering an unsuspecting guard, for example, I gain the previous Reputation card. One of my favorite touches is that playing a card grants it XP on the way to an upgrade, so your most used cards grow as you use them.
I haven’t yet built a deck as compelling as some of the endless combos and damage machines I’ve created in Slay the Spire, but Griftlands has enough character outside of its deck building to keep it interesting. The world of Griftlands NPCs is large, and your character has a unique relationship with everyone. Most people feel neutral towards you at first, but they can come to like or hate you based on your actions. The resulting relationships create a complex web of consequences, chance encounters, friends and foes, which can lead to bizarre and interesting intersections.
Relationships play out by giving you social benefits or social curse, which act as unique combat or negotiation modifiers. Sometimes if you find yourself in an unexpected brawl or argument in a pub, friends and foes may intervene for or against you. In one case, after saving the life of a religious fanatic, I was able to use my friendship to get rid of one of their parishioners. In another case, after accidentally murdering a woman in the woods, someone publicly reported me. Whoops. I had never heard of this man before, so I didn’t think about it. A few hours later, it became clear that he was the big boss of an operation that I had to infiltrate. Double oops.
Griftlands is most successful when I feel like a cool, fast, combo-wielding thug, and so it suffers where its double-deck construction and overabundance of keywords stuns and confuses me. Overall, however, there is a lot more to love about Griftlands than not, and I’m excited to see how it develops throughout its Early Access cycle.