Griftlands, and the trouble with everything being a card game now

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.