Dice & Fold splash screen featuring the game's heroes.
Screenshot by Pro Game Guides

7 Best Deckbuilders we’re keeping an eye on after Steam NextFest

Trust in the heart of the cards. Sometimes.

Steam’s Next Fest from June of 2024 has shown off hundreds of brand new games for the summer, all of which have entirely free demos. I took the opportunity to demo as many indie deckbuilders as I could get my hands on, and to show you which ones absolutely need playing.

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Deckbuilders are typically card-based battlers where players gather new cards to add to their deck, aiming to create the best hands for each battle. As these games show, though, when the genre is not constrained by cards, it can make for some uniquely engaging experiences.

I can't put down Dice & Fold

Dice & Fold battle gameplay. Playing as the king and with companion healer.
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In Dice & Fold, the core mechanic is rolling a set number of dice and choosing where to place them. Enemies are defeated by fulfilling the requirements on their card, such as needing to roll exactly a 1 or needing to pile on dice until you’ve met a total 15 damage. The damage system is quick and intuitive, but it’s constantly at war with all the other things you want to use your dice for. Your chosen character, such as the Jack or Queen, has a unique skill that requires certain rolls to activate. You quickly receive a companion that has their own unique skill as well, and in case that isn’t enough, on the side of the game board you have a full suite of 1 to 6 that needs to be filled out to gain extra gold.

Adding in purchased items and more rolls as you delve deeper into the run makes for even more complexity. The systems in Dice & Fold are recursive and logical, creating a perfectly breezy game that encourages multiple runs even on the limited demo. This is easily my favorite game of Next Fest and the one I find the hardest to put down.

Dungeons and Degenerate Gamblers is a moody delight

Dungeons & Degenerate Gamblers gameplay. Two players in Blackjack but their cards include a scratch ticket and a Charizard card.
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When you first start a run in Dungeons & Degenerate Gamblers, the concept seems simple: play Blackjack against an opponent. You can see when your opponent will ‘stay’ and plan accordingly. Whoever gets the higher total without going bust wins, and the difference in totals is used as an attack against the loser. Then your standard deck of playing cards is joined by anything from a computer’s SD card to a credit card, and is that queen secretly an assassin?

The titular degenerate gamblers serve as your opponents going through the game’s different locales, and in spite of the name, this cast is treated with a level of empathy. Even without a sprawling narrative, this bizarre deckbuilder managers to evoke the feeling of being trapped in the eternal spiral of gambling, whether you’re facing an off-duty teacher or a habitual gambler who can’t seem to leave. After all, you can’t leave either.

Dungeon Clawler hones those claw machine skills

Dungeon Clawler gameplay. A battle takes place below a claw machine filled with attacks and shields.
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You’ve seen decks of dice and cards, but how about a claw machine? Dungeon Clawler has incredibly clever mechanics that are easy to grasp even for someone like me who doesn’t touch claw machines in real life. Every turn, you position a claw over a pit of various items: knives damage your opponents, shields boost the damage you can take the turn before your health suffers, bombs will sit on you for three turns before dealing damage to all enemies, and so on. Your turn is determined by what you manage to pull from the machine, and they’re small enough to grab several each round.

The deckbuilding aspect comes into play when you choose what new items to add to the claw machine. They’re balanced by size as well as negative effects, such as heavy-hitting items frequently hurting your own health as well. There’s a great sense of depth to the systems that isn’t too difficult but doesn’t let you get away with bad decisions. My first run ended due to relying on too many self-damaging items, but I never once felt unfairly punished.

The complex mechanics of Demon's Mirror shine

Demon's Mirror gameplay. A hand of cards at the bottom of the screen, and a match game on the right.
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In our next round of unique mechanics, Demon’s Mirror is a deckbuilder that uses cards along with a match three style board. Demon’s Mirror’s demo provides just a taste of the deep mechanical complexity it promises, but that taste is delicious. This game provides a generous tutorial that doesn’t feel overbearing, and has helpful hover-text whenever you need a refresher. Battles see you use the cards in your deck which you build appropriately over time, or spending that card-playing energy to draw attacks, shields, and energy from the match board instead.

The game doesn’t let you ignore either half of play, with enemies using your board as much as you do, and cards being a much-needed skillset against that danger. There’s only one character available in the demo, but even without the game saying as much, it’s obvious from the art and gameplay alike that this character has a very unique playstyle. I’m eager to get my hands on the full game and try out the other playstyles.

Play an adorable adventuring frog in Die in the Dungeon

Die in the Dungeon gameplay. A frog battles with a dice tray in the middle of the screen.
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Die in the Dungeon is not a threat, though like all roguelikes, death is an inevitability. You play as a cute stylized frog with a sword, with more characters promised to be unlocked with the full release.

The ‘deck’ you’re building is a bag full of dice, and your starting dice are all d4’s with varying sides, which you can upgrade over time by redistributing the sides, adding to them, or changing the properties of your dice. You place your attack and shield dice on the tray in front of you, and at the end of your turn all actions happen at the same time. While it’s very possible to roll 0’s on your dice, you also get special boost dice that can be maneuvered around the tray to improve your play.

This combat style is tactical and engaging, and every enemy brings some new threat to the table for you to strategize around. I had a ton of fun dealing with blocked off spaces on the board, enemies that mirrored my damage if they weren’t killed fast enough, and a duo of bosses that punished every move.

Lost For Swords emphasizes the old-school roguelike

Lost For Sword gameplay. A dungeon full of cards for enemies, weapons, and armor.
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One thing every unique deckbuilder needs is a solid tutorial that doesn’t make you want to immediately skip it. Lost For Swords could be figured out with trial and error and has clear mechanics once discovered, but the tutorial is tight and thorough in a short amount of time. You navigate a play area covered in cards drawn from your own deck and the enemy monster deck. Your goal is to pick up weapons and armor before facing any of the monsters and to eventually uncover the exit.

What makes Lost For Swords work is the emphasis on puzzle-solving. Your choices are strict which means there are a limited number of correct solutions to every level, and sometimes the correct solution is to leave without fighting every baddie on screen. The risk-reward balance of roguelikes is often shown through deckbuilders in larger choices such as the build you emphasize and cards you add to your deck, where the randomness becomes your friend or enemy. Lost For Swords brings the dungeon-delving action back into play.

Handmancers

Handmancers gameplay. A hand of cards and enemy attacks showing rock-paper-scissors.
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You’ve seen dice, claw machines, and match games; now put your hands together for rock paper scissors in Handmancers. This extremely stylish game puts an emphasis on the feeling of engaging in literal hand to hand combat. Every round your enemy will attack multiple times with either rock, paper, or scissors, and you play cards from your hand to hopefully win the individual matches and do damage. Playing a rock against a rock will negate both sides of the damage, while there’s no use playing a paper card against your opponent’s scissor attack.

The idea behind the battle system is as simple as games can get, but the cards you play have multiple upgrade slots to make them better for you than just winning rounds. To add to the challenge, drawing new cards adds hand cramps to your hand, filling up your usable cards with junk that’s far more difficult to use effectively. This additional mechanic can make longer battles, such as against bosses, feel like more of a slog than the quick snappy battles that lead to them, but the satisfaction of a win is worth the effort.

For more on Steam, check out 12 Best PS2 games on Steam here on Pro Game Guides.


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Author
Image of Howl Lindsey
Howl Lindsey
From Final Fantasy to Fire Emblem to Dungeons & Dragons, if the gameplay mostly surrounds numbers and menus, Howl's probably played it. He spends a majority of his time in Final Fantasy XIV leveling every job he can get his hands on, as well as mentoring new players. For every modern Fire Emblem game that comes out, Howl has a dozen builds to try and much more than that in character trivia. Howl has been professionally published as a writer in several projects spanning independent and collaborative work.

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7 Best Deckbuilders we’re keeping an eye on after Steam NextFest

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