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Inscryption nails the deckbuilding difficulty curve

You won’t get cabin fever playing this one.

Besides being a digital escape room game that traps the player in a cabin with their kidnapper, Inscryption is also a deckbuilding game. Deckbuilding is a genre of card game that has its own unique kind of difficulty curve that forces players to adapt to new challenges – a difficulty curve that Inscryption nails, completely.

As one of the kidnapper’s many victims, the player is tasked with progressing through an imaginary card game that takes place on a table within the virtual cabin. In the card game, the player’s pawn moves along a route of intersecting paths that are littered with various encounters and card battles, each one ascending in difficulty and complexity. Card battles involve the player laying down cards from their hand in order to score enough hits on their opponent to win. Each hit to an opponent is recorded by a golden tooth being added to a set of scales, with the aim being to tip those scales entirely towards your kidnapper.

Needing to tip a set of scales, instead of just dealing a set amount of damage to your opponent, means that gaining and holding the upper hand in battles is more important than just doling out as much damage as you can in one turn. Even after laying down a massive hit, your opponent could still be a few points of damage away from success themselves.

A screenshot from the board from Inscryption.
Each level in Inscryption have card battles that will feature similar card types with similar mechanics that players can prepare for.

It doesn’t take much damage to win or lose, which is why there’s a much greater emphasis on defence than many other card games like it. When you consider that your in-game character is literally battling for their life, it makes a lot of sense that Inscryption is played more defensively.

Whenever a player character loses all their lives, it is implied that their kidnapper takes them away to be murdered. The player, meanwhile, gets to try again with the same starter deck their previous character began their doomed playthrough with. However, this time they have all the knowledge and experience granted by the previous playthrough to help them.

Coming back to a level with a newly crafted deck gives players a better chance at succeeding.

Playing any deckbuilding game multiple times will always help with improving performance, but Inscryption is unique in that aspect. Whilst playing against a human opponent will always be unpredictable, the kidnapper is an artificial opponent who isn’t capable of growing beyond a series of set actions and behaviours.

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Every level in Inscryption is themed around a similar set of gameplay mechanics. For example, the kidnapper’s deck in the wetlands always contains flying and submerged enemies. This means that players are able to anticipate and, eventually, learn how to overcome them. Bosses are a very similar case, with each one having their own specific gameplay mechanics that players can learn to beat through experience.

This aspect of Inscryption’s card game works exceptionally well with its deckbuilding structure, as players are able to prepare their decks in anticipation of each level and boss encounter. Players don’t just get better at playing the card battles, they also learn how to better cultivate their deck for every potential battle and boss encounter. As Inscryption progresses, the player unlocks new cards that open up fresh strategies to implement in their decks, giving them tools to overcome those battles that were too difficult last time.

Being able to prepare for the challenges you’re familiar with and learn from those you aren’t makes for the perfect approach to deckbuilding.

There are card battles in Inscryption with such a sudden learning curve, I don’t think you’re supposed to win them the first time. While this is partly down to how quickly battles can swing between success and failure, the sudden difficulty spike feels entirely intentional. You need to lose battles to begin building a new deck from scratch, with all the knowledge, experience and fresh cards you have access to. Coming back to a level or boss encounter that you previously died to with a newly crafted deck gives players a better chance at succeeding.

A screenshot from the Angler fight in Inscryption.
The Angler has a nasty fishing ability that will steal your cards, but there is a strategy that will turn this power against the boss.

Deckbuilding games are an excellent genre to experiment with difficulty curves in because they’re designed around adapting. Unlike trading card games like Magic: The Gathering, deckbuilding games allow players to add or remove cards from the deck during the game itself. Inscryption’s unique elements – its AI opponent, multiple restarts and unlockable cards – means that the video game takes even more advantage of the adaptability of the deckbuilding genre. Being able to prepare for the challenges you’re familiar with and learn from those you aren’t makes for the perfect approach to deckbuilding.

Inscryption should be remembered for more than its escape-room aspects, as the card game you play to progress through those aspects absolutely nails the natural deckbuilding difficulty curve.

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Alex Meehan avatar
Alex Meehan: After writing for Kotaku UK, Waypoint and Official Xbox Magazine, Alex became a member of the Dicebreaker editorial family. Having been producing news, features, previews and opinion pieces for Dicebreaker for the past three years, Alex has had plenty of opportunity to indulge in her love of meaty strategy board games and gothic RPGS. Besides writing, Alex appears in Dicebreaker’s D&D actual play series Storybreakers and haunts the occasional stream on the Dicebreaker YouTube channel.

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