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Trials of Fire mixes Slay the Spire deck-building with XCOM’s turn-based tactics

Plus, this roguelike has loot for days

The three starting character classes in Trials of Fire include a ranger, a spellslinger, and a warrior to soak up damage. Image: Whatboy
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Deck-building games are very hot right now. Hits like Gloomhaven and Slay the Spire have exposed the genre to a much wider audience, and that’s brought plenty of ambitious teams out of the woodwork to have a go at making their own. The latest is a Windows PC game, a roguelike called Trials of Fire, and I think it’s among the best of the bunch.

In a deck-building game, players work from a single stack of cards that represent their actions and abilities in combat. To become a better fighter, players must optimize that stack by drafting new, more powerful cards and discarding weaker ones. Trials of Fire gives a single player control of three different characters, each with their own individual deck of cards, and then it sends them into the forbidding ash wastes on a random quest.

A lightning bolt crashes down from off screen to deal damage on an enemy.
Three player characters go up against five enemies. Note the three decks on the left for the players, and the five on the right for enemies.
Image: Whatboy

Encounters appear randomly on the overworld map, and are opt-in as you make your way toward your ultimate destination. But, in order to keep your team fed and motivated, you’ll need to engage in those encounters on a regular basis. Not only will you find simple moral choices to make along the way, you’ll also find plenty of loot. In fact, loot is the main way that new cards enter the game.

Every piece of equipment — every sword or scrap of armor — comes with its own unique cards that you can add to a character’s deck. Think of it as an item slot in Diablo or XCOM 2: War of the Chosen. Items can be improved with resources that you gather in the world, which can boost those card stats in the process. There’s even an XCOM-style loadout screen that you can use to tailor your character builds between battles. Add in buffs that give ongoing effects over multiple rounds, and the potential complexities really begin to pile up.

A warrior, Jarrah, is level 9 and has an armor of 7. She’s carrying a spiked club and a bone sword. Her helmet looks like a lion’s jaws.
The game — including maps and menus — takes place inside an in-fiction journal. Your characters each have their own spread, with the current deck of cards displayed below. Swapping equipment swaps cards in and out of the deck.
Image: Whatboy

What puts Trials of Fire over the top, in my opinion, is its use of a hexagonal grid for tactical combat.

There are obvious advantages to keeping your characters in cover, darting out to make attacks before hiding again. Similarly, there are benefits for keeping your characters together, where they can do bonus melee damage on your turn. Either way, moving characters across the hex grid requires that you discard cards from your hand. Discard too many cards and you won’t have any attacks left to make once you get where you’re going. The result is a constant tug of war between dealing enough damage to take opponents off the board while not overextending yourself in the process.

The spellslinger lets loose a fireball on some low-level grunts.
Trials of Fire does a good job showing area of effect on spells and other abilities.
Image: Whatboy

Win or lose, sessions in Trials of Fire are fairly quick and only last about an hour or two. Replayability yields big rewards, such as unlocking new characters and new starting equipment. There are also multiple modes of play. Fixed lore missions will teach you more about the strange, post-apocalyptic world that the game is set in. The extended campaign will present a much more challenging version of the procedurally generated main game. There’s even a daily challenge option for those looking for an even faster, more puzzle-like experience.

For just $15.99 at launch, Trials of Fire has a whole lot to offer when it goes live on April 9. According to the developers, you can expect the game to increase in price to $19.99 after the first week on sale.