Rougelike deckbuilding minigolf—those three words were all it took to entice me to give Golfie from developer Triheart Studios a try. It’s a genius idea that could become something great with the right vision. While Golfie is still in early access and might change, the current version fundamentally misses what makes minigolf fun.
The simplest description of Golfie’s concept is Slay the Spire meets minigolf. In Slay the Spire, the defining entry of the roguelike deckbuilding genre and a clear inspiration to Triheart Studios, you climb the Spire in self-contained runs, aiming to make it to the top. Your available actions are represented by cards, and as you defeat monsters on your journey, you build a progressively stronger and more synergistic deck to conquer increasingly difficult foes. Golfie takes this template and translates it to minigolf. Rather than defeat monsters, your goal is to golf your way through an 18-hole course.
Golfie’s cards range from starter deck fundamentals like power shots and lobs to exotic abilities like teleportation and jetpacks. Your basic shot is pathetic, so you’ll need to enhance it with cards to get anywhere, but don’t play too many or you’ll overheat and explode. Your goal is to get the ball in the hole naturally, and you lose energy by going over par or hitting the ball out of play. Run out and you’ll have to try again on a new course. Along the way, you’ll gather cards and perks while holes become longer and more difficult. Finish all 18 holes, which is harder than it sounds, and you’ll win the run.
Rather than dole out rewards between holes and include separate shops, Golfie adds an extra layer of risk versus reward by incorporating these aspects directly into the playing field. You can earn bonus coins for finishing under par and a free card for a hole-in-one, but most of your upgrades are won on the greens. You can collect coins by rolling through them, and then shop at vending machines by hitting your ball into those. Besides shopping, you can gain cards and perks by hitting your ball into blue and red crystals respectively, each giving you a choice of three.
So far Golfie sounds like a great concept. So why doesn’t it work? To answer that, let’s first take a detour and think about what makes minigolf (and roguelike deckbuilders) fun.
A good minigolf course balances temptation, risk, and reward. In the carnival-style minigolf that Golfie emulates, holes feature enticing “shortcuts”—hit the ball through the windmill for a hole in one! But with reward comes risk: mistime your shot and you’ll see your ball cruelly swept aside by a spinning windmill blade. The key is that the reward feels achievable enough and the consequence of failure manageable enough to entice you to try. Each hole must be carefully engineered with all this in mind. A good design communicates what you should aim for, what skills you’ll need to succeed, and what’s likely to happen if you fail. The course as a whole should test a range of skills: power, accuracy, timing, and touch, as well as the ability to hit unusual shots and recover from setbacks.
The reason Golfie is such an intriguing idea is that the design philosophy of a good minigolf course has a lot in common with the design philosophy of a good roguelike deckbuilder like Slay the Spire. The Spire is procedurally generated in that the specific cards and enemies you encounter on a particular run are random, but the granular elements are anything but. Each card has a purpose and in the right deck, a home. Encounters are designed to challenge you in different ways. The Gremlin Nob punishes decks that rely on shelling up defensively, while the Three Sentries test your deck’s ability to deal with useless cards. To win, you’ll need a deck with a clear plan and good synergy but also enough flexibility to overcome a variety of obstacles.
Into the Rough
Unfortunately, Golfie fundamentally lacks the sense of careful purpose that makes both minigolf and roguelike deckbuilders work. This is most apparent in the hole design. Golfie’s holes are procedurally generated, stitched together from various prefabricated pieces like a randomly assembled Lego set. Unfortunately, golf holes designed this way aren’t fun to play. They feel arbitrary and directionless. You can attempt to hit the ball further at increased risk of hitting it off the course, but holes lack clearly communicated “sweet spots” to entice you. Coins, crystals, shops, and shortcuts may provide incentives to venture from the most obvious path to the hole, but often spawn incoherently. Sure, you could hit your ball ten feet backward onto a tiny island in the middle of a water hazard for some extra coins. Maybe it’s even worth the stroke if you have a plan to get back onto the main part of the course. It certainly doesn’t feel like the kind of tempting risk that’s a natural outgrowth of thoughtful course design though. Golfie’s holes also become repetitive as you get deeper into your run, as there aren’t many distinct prefabricated pieces for each of the four possible biomes.
Compounding these issues are Golfie’s wonky object and physics simulations. Many objects have sharp edges or subtle divots that are nearly impossible to perceive from the simplistic graphics and can send the ball careening in wildly unpredictable directions. Even the brief shot preview sometimes gets things wrong. Ramps and bridges aren’t always smoothly attached to the ground and can be useless as a result. Crystals hover up and down in real-time, so it’s possible to roll slightly under them or bounce off them in unexpected ways. Friction feels too low. The ball takes forever to stop rolling, and because surfaces usually curve slightly down towards their edges, this often causes a seemingly well-hit shot to slowly roll off the course. When the ball stays in play, it tends to roll into corners or get caught on obstacles, ensuring you constantly struggle with both shot and camera angles. This can be a problem in physical minigolf too, which is why courses often allow players to freely move balls a short distance away from boundaries and objects. Golfie instead forces you to spend a stroke tapping your ball to lie in a playable place.
Golfie’s course design and physics combine to create risk to reward ratio that’s way out of balance. Hitting the ball out of play results in a mulligan, a lost stroke, and an instant loss of energy. This far outweighs the few coins you get for finishing a hole under par, so Golfie is mainly about avoiding mistakes. Even if you can attempt a wildly impressive shot with your hand, the likelihood of hitting it out of play is so high and the reward for succeeding is so low that it’s rarely worth it to try. In fact, Golfie feels more survival horror than roguelike deckbuilder. You attempt to survive by puttering along, taking advantage of Golfie’s generous stroke limits and various ways to get free strokes, and watch in horror as what you thought was a brilliant shot inches its way off the course, taking a chunk of your energy bar with it.
Even if the course design were better and the physics were more consistent, Golfie’s fundamental shot mechanic—clicking and pulling back like a rubber band before releasing with a snap—is too simplistic. It feels like something out of a Flash game. Other arcade-style golf games like Nintendo‘s Mario Golf have much richer fundamentals. It’s fine if Golfie wants to attach power, lobs, and spins to cards—it’s a deckbuilder after all—but I want more meat to my basic shot.
Fixing the Flubs
If Golfie is to reach its potential, the developers need to fundamentally rethink the way holes are designed and constructed. Rather than use procedural generation, they should follow Slay the Spire’s example and design entire holes with purposes in mind. Each hole should ask a question about the player’s skills. Can they hit a precise lob and control the topspin? Can they find the right touch on their power shots? These questions must further be considered in the context of the different decks players might build. Powerful cards should have value and open up possibilities, but no one combination can be allowed to trivialize every hole. Then on top of all this, the extra risks and rewards can be layered. Coins and crystals can spawn randomly, but possible locations should encourage the player to consider a riskier or more difficult path to the hole rather than whether they want to trade shots and energy for an unrelated secondary objective.
Doing all this plus the necessary balancing and polishing would be substantial work, certainly much more than using procedural generation. Golfie would need significantly more than 18 handcrafted holes so that the specific holes encountered each run could be doled out randomly for replayability. Building difficulty in a more sophisticated way than simply making holes longer would no doubt be tricky. It’s hard to imagine the many possible deck combinations and the various ways players might find to exploit them. However, I think these are the things that need to be done if Golfie is to become an effective roguelike deckbuilding minigolf game.
Heart of the Cards
My favorite part of Golfie was the creativity of the card designs. Basic cards like power shots, lobs, and curves form the bread and butter of your starter deck. After that, things start to get wild. You can place a spring-loaded pad to launch your ball into the air or a set of paired portals that open up all kinds of possibilities involving direction and momentum. You can coat your ball in glue so that it sticks to whatever it hits. You can even transform your ball into a beach ball, significantly changing its physics. I do wish Golfie included a way to place extra topspin or backspin on lob shots, since that’s a classic golf concept, but overall the cards are fun and interesting. It’s too bad the course design so often punishes you for trying to use them.
While most abilities modify things pre-shot, Golfie also includes activated abilities that can be played post-shot, which I found quite clever. Regret that you put a little too much mustard on the ball? Deploy an emergency parachute to slow it down, drag race style. Ever wished you could go tap your ball again while it was still moving? You can do that too, adding an extra burst to the end of your shot with the click of a button. Activated abilities are a fun way to add depth and expand the gameplay past the initial shot.
Early Access Things
Golfie is currently in early access and does have its share of bugs and incompleteness. I lost a few runs to hard locks and occasionally played cards with no effect. It’s also possible though rare to get shots that are unplayable by normal means. Either you have some special ability like a teleport to get you out or your ball is stuck wedged between two rocks and it’s game over. The start of run bonus can offer the option to transform a card in your deck or remove a card from your deck, but these concepts don’t appear anywhere else in the game, and so would seem to be planned features that have yet to be implemented fully. Overall, these are minor issues that are forgivable in an early access build so long as they are fixed for the full release.
Golfie is a game that’s worth following if you find the concept intriguing, but not one I’d recommend in its current form. The roughness and bugs are forgivable for an early access release and will probably get ironed out. Many of the ideas for cards are clever and creative. However, the design philosophy fundamentally misses the elements that make minigolf and roguelike deckbuilding fun. Golfie could be great, and I hope the full release gets there, but it has a long way to go.
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Many thanks to Yogscast Games for a PC review code for this title.
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.