Loop Hero Shows There’s More to Tabletop Than Deckbuilders

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We’ve seen a renaissance of video games inspired by tabletop games, though with a caveat: Most of them are based on the deckbuilder genre. The idea that you build a deck on the fly as you progress through a gauntlet of foes and traps gets a lot of traction and representation in successful games like Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, and Monster Train. But tabletop games have so much more to offer in terms of inspiration than deckbuilders, an untapped source of reference for amazing games that don’t exist yet. Just look at Loop Hero as an example of what’s possible when you look outside of deckbuilding for how you can build a game off of tabletop mechanics, because while Loop Hero has the slightest whiff of deckbuilding in it, that’s the least interesting tabletop-related thing about the game.

Loop Hero is a game about building the world around you. Every run starts with the titular hero as he walks on a barren road that loops back to the beginning. This continues until you either die or retreat back to camp. During your trek, enemies will spawn on tiles at variable rates, which will drop either better gear for your hero or terrain cards that you can play. These cards facilitate the rebuilding of the world as they change a tile into something new, with different effects on you, the enemies, and the world itself. The way you get the cards mean you’re not really building a deck, but rather a pool of drops that you can get from defeating enemies. Loop Hero already breaks the mold for this one reason, as there’s no clear analog to tabletop games for this mechanic.

What does invite comparisons is the act of laying down a terrain tile, many of which have effects that check to see what other tiles are adjacent to it. These mechanics are directly ripped from placement games like Carcassonne, Kingdom Builder, and Deus, where you get points or other resources based on terrain or settlement placement. This forces you to have a plan for your terrain placement in Loop Hero to maximize the good effects – and sometimes the bad ones if you need to get a specific outcome. This system also makes for an impressive visual that shows the very large impact that you had on the world. What was once a blank canvas is now a big world marked by your choices.

Speaking of your choices, Loop Hero also borrows from legacy-style games to slowly increase your toolbox of interactions, though with a very video gamey touch. One of the hallmarks of legacy games is how they give you different metagoals that will unlock new game mechanics for future playthroughs. In Loop Hero, you don’t unlock things per se, but rather discover interactions between terrains that will create new mechanics when combined through experimentation. You won’t be explicitly told what you need to do to see these things, but flavor text will hint at interactions such as when you place a Vampire Mansion next to a Village, turning the latter into a ghoul-filled Ransacked Village. The general vagueness of these conditions wouldn’t be possible in actual tabletop games because you wouldn’t know exactly when to unlock things. In video games, however, the game can obfuscate as much detail as they see fit and trusts the player to experiment. Inspiration here is turned into something that’s uniquely a strength of video games as a medium.

But Loop Hero doesn’t just borrow mechanics from tabletop games. It also borrows a generalized tone from one in particular: Kingdom Death: Monster. In this campaign-based board game, you literally come into the world with nothing as you scrape and struggle to survive in a brutal, oppressive world that wants you dead. The dour, hopeless tone that this game strikes is something that Loop Hero also plays off. The small sliver of existence that remains after the rest of the universe is erased really feels like it’s holding on by a thread, which in turn makes every small triumph feel huge.

The real victory of Loop Hero is that it shows the vast untapped wellspring of possibilities that exist in the realm of tabletop gaming, a medium that’s so much larger than deckbuilding. But more importantly, it shows that the inspiration you can take from tabletop can turn into something completely new when interpreted through the lens of video games. Let’s hope that this is just the start of more experimentation between them.

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