I went to a spa and stayed in the lobby because it has a better A/C system, and also because I was about to clear Slay the Spire with Defect: a game about startup entrepreneurship.
I don’t recall how many times I’ve tried and failed. I’m around 50H into the game since my friends and colleagues told me about it. They convinced me to buy it. Truth be told, I only decided to purchase it because it finally released in a physical (with a box) version. On Switch. And my gaming PC was broken. And I had a coupon for 20% off.
When I received that game on that Monday’s early afternoon, I wasn’t sure whether I’d test it. I mean, seriously, it’s a card game. But boredom is the key to innovation; it drives people to do what they never expected to. In my case, my choice was to write memos or to contemplate my 240hz monitor’s uselessness without the rig. I chose the third option and put that SD card in my console. And just like when I first started building a company, without even knowing it, I was immediately hooked.
It took me about 10H to get a good grasp on IronClad and Silent. None of it is trivial, it requires a lot of attention. But unlike Defect, these 2 classes are much more consistent, have less variance. They are typical B2B and enterprise startup companies. The way you build them is to focus on defence, being solid, being resilient, make something that “just works”, and follow the plan. Always follow the plan. Of course, RNG always happens in this game and you can’t control fate. But in these companies, you can minimise the importance of fate by building a longer runway. Give yourself time to react. You also have more reassurance in your go-to-market because you typically building solutions initially for very concrete, and existing problems.
Defect is a B2C company. You can have all the best plans you want, but before you go to market, they are all pretty much useless. Your first interactions with your users can change everything. And from one niche to another, from one community to another, you have to always reconsider your plans. It’s much more about tactics than pure strategy. Execution is key. Having the best ideas on paper means nothing if you don’t play you cards the right way. Be ready to pivot, or at least to adapt significantly, or just to change. Fast. The vision can remain the same, your OKRs have way more fluidity and your company is almost always under immediate danger: you can have all the best cards, win all your previous battles, the next battle, if you aren’t properly prepared for it, can destroy you. It can make all your cards irrelevant and make you pay every penny you have left to retain some of the users you thought were “sticky”. Yup, Defect is brutal.
I’m starting a new run. Like every run, I’m confident. I’ve learnt from my previous wins and losses. I know the system better. I understand the meta. I spent hours debriefing and post-mortem-ing my previous runs. This time, I’m going to make it. I choose Defect and hit play.
What a horrible Whale.
Every run starts with that unfair advantage you can choose. The Whale is your parents gifting you with their DNA. It is your mentor who taught you some valuable lessons. It is your rich Chinese uncle who gave you a massive red envelope for Christmas. It is your friends at Google and Facebook who are tired of their situations and are ready to work for you (maybe or maybe not for free). Choose wisely. Oh, and just like in life, you are never given all the choices all the time. You have some. So choose.
Before choosing anything, I want to look at the map. Every battle is a user to acquire. Every Elite is a high-risk and high-reward situation. Every boss is a key milestone that takes me closer to IPO. There are many ways possible, not infinite though. Which way is the better one? This is where experience comes into play.
Just like a serial entrepreneur, I now have enough scars on my back that I can recognise different situations and calculate the different risks. I know that Defect has very low defensibility early on. Sure, I can always claim I have this cool idea and that nice piece of code, but in the end, Google and Facebook always have more everything. If they care enough, they’ll destroy me. And I don’t even talk about all the thousands of other founders building the same thing at the same time and competing for the same resource: consumers’ attention (and money). But unlike building IronClad and Silent, I have more initial firepower. I have higher market penetration potential and my weapons are much cheaper. I’m way cooler than the boring Silent selling enterprise solutions no one can even name, or IronClad making yet another SaaS to reduce yet another cost that yet another business is too lazy to optimise itself. Defect is direct to consumers. And it goes in style: with flashes!
Looking at the map I realise that there isn’t any perfect path. I want to trade my HP, my runway, against upgrades so I have a chance to win that key Boss battle in the end. For that, I got to make sure I have at least 1/3 of my total HP left before hitting that last rest area. At the same time, I also want to make sure I have enough opportunity to grow.
Now, I look at my Whale. Damn.
What a horrible Whale. Why aren’t you nicer to me?
No option is really good here. I’m offered to get random cards, which is usually risky because it takes so much space and is horrible to manage. Think about it: if you are offered random employees, that you know neither the cost nor their skill and not even their position, what would you do? Sam Altman wrote once “you got a problem so you hire people. Now you have 2 problems. So you raise money. Now you have 3 problems.” That is what happens when you pick that choice.
I consider the other one. Not good. I can trade my initial relic with a random one. Problem is that my initial relic is what makes me so aggro at the start: it’s my cheap weapon that deals consequence damages against monsters in Act I. And knowing the high variance of Defect, I cannot take the chance of losing one ok-for- sure for one great-maybe-could-be-horrible. In a way, if I’m born handsome and thanks to that I’m an Instagram celebrity, not sure I’d trade that unfair advantage against “some random perks” with that class.
I can also pick something that gives more initial runway. Like raising from some friends, family, and fools. But that amount… I’m so weak anyway, not sure how much 7 additional HP would change my life.
I look at the map again. You know what, I’m going full aggro. B2C is all about GTM. If I have a good early validation and get some crazy wins, it should give me enough momentum to build my defensibility and hire some talents. Ok, I pick the last option: the next 3 enemies are 1HP. And I’m going to take the path that has 2 battles for sure before hitting an Elite. If I’m lucky, I can fight an Elite with 1HP and win easily. This gives me a chance to obtain great loots, which helps my early build, and guarantees that I have full life. Not too bad.
And of course, I’m not that lucky. The plan was to take a path with many question marks. 3 in total before the Elite. It also has 1 merchant and a rest are. If the first question mark returned some loots, the 2nd spawned a monster. Which made me use my last perk. And now I’m too committed to change path. So, I’d have to fight a full-life Elite. I’m still in my garage and I’m facing that cool YC-alumnus that just raised its series A from a top-tier VC in the valley. Ouch.
Everything isn’t bad. Far from it. If I didn’t get lucky on my choice of path, thanks to that perk, I’ll have full life against the Elite. Plus, I obtained some good potions and interesting cards. For instance, I immediately hit Glacier. This is probably one of the best cards for that class. It is like hiring a good technical project manager from the beginning who can be upgraded to become a great COO. Sure, it doesn’t always win the game but it prevents you to lose it immediately. On that question mark, I decided to give some HP to upgrade two cards for free. It’s like sending my employees for some webinar: could be completely useless and could be very beneficial. In my case, I got Dualcast and Defence upgraded. Nice. That is quite helpful in the early stage. Then, I let go of one of my Strike cards at the merchant. It costed me and would make my life harder in the immediate future, but now I have Glacier and Dualcast upgraded, I want to make sure I start to condense my deck so I have a better chance to draw them. I want to keep my team small and efficient. If HP is my runway, energy is my time. And I have to make sure I maximise both.
During my first battle, I decided to skip some potential hires because they didn’t fit the company’s culture I want to establish. But I got lucky and met Capacitor. Not the greatest card for an early-stage company though. It is basically an industry veteran who has the potential to become a great Chief Strategy Officer. For now, it is just an advisor. It could be just another mouth to feed without concrete benefit during the first phase if used incorrectly. The importance when hiring that one is to make sure you know exactly when and how to use it. Since my class is orb-based, having more orb could make sense. Especially if I can stack them and rotate these orbs quickly. Plus, even though GTM is important, I won’t IPO without a long term plan. I took the risk and got that card in my deck.
Finally, I upgraded my Glacier at the rest area. I want that extra HP against the Elite. That’s why people want to work in startup companies: if you show your value fast enough, you get more responsibility immediately. Now, I got my COO.
The Elite battle starts. I saved all my potions thanks to my perk. The plan is to make great damages before the Lagavulin could react. Then, I’ll abuse Glacier and Dualcast to make sure I’m protected from its aggression.
It worked! Nice loot: got the opportunity to welcome another member to the team, Hologram. This will give me another shot to play a card I used. How many times I was saved because one of my partners did some extra work, stayed extra late, put in the extra effort. Sure, time-crunch is bad and burnout is a real problem, but when you don’t have enough resource, there isn’t any secret: got to work more. And in a startup company, you don’t really have anything else but time and effort.
Now, let’s finish that first Act. I have some protections but I lack firepower. I will choose to fight as many basic battles as I can before the Boss to get more cards. Hopefully, I can get some nice ones. I want to build a solid team: my first 10 employees are critical.
And I got lucky again. Thanks to that early upgrade in Dualcast, Defence, and Glacier, I built enough protection to win all these battles by grinding the opposition faster than they could grind me. In return, I also got some very nice cards. I upgraded another card in the rest area. My hand before going to the Boss is composed of Glacier+ (COO), Claw (UX), Capacitor (Industry advisor), Genetic Algorithm+ (young MIT dropout), Hologram (coffee machine), FTL (marketing director), Scrape+ (free breakfast), and all the other basic cards. Could be much worse.
Fighting Slime Boss isn’t the hardest task considering my deck. But I can’t be overconfident. It’s my first AMA on Reddit: sure I “own” that thread and sure I have built some hardcore fans, but one bad mistake, and I immediately lose all my creds and become a bad meme on 9GAG. Worse, on 4chan. And probably get banned from RNG Discord too. Terrifying.
I calculate every move. Looking at my hand, I have very little firepower at the beginning of the fight but it grows with proper care and could eventually become monstrously strong. I have also mentored my young MIT dropout and this Genetic Algorithm is returning some serious protection I can use just in case. The plan is simple: I’ll get as many orbs as possible and distribute them so I always have lots of defence and some offence. I want to abuse Dualcast, which is now upgraded so it doesn’t consume mana, with scrape, FTL, and hologram. And I pair that with Claw as often as I can. Claw is an interesting card: it starts at 3 damage (or 5 for upgraded) and stacks 2 damage points every time it is used. It is that UX designer who will need time to figure out the best way to design the UI and improves dramatically every time this one meets the users. I’ll get that one a lot of meeting. By the end of the combat, that UX designer will be a legend.
And I won. It was 18 turns. About what I expected. The loots are interesting: Reboot (HR consultant) and Runic Pyramid (offsite). They give my team more flexibility. Which is really important.
And more important: I just completed my first Act. Many validations. And for sure: I’m now on the market.
Act II is more difficult. It’s growth time. My team is too brilliant to be ignored. My competitors know me, they are much more prepared. I cannot run under the radar anymore and the Elites are also way more difficult to beat. I decide to take a path that avoids early Elite confrontations and takes me to as many merchants and rest areas as possible so I can get rid of cards I don’t use anymore, purchase new ones, and upgrade those that are important. Never let the fat drags your team down. And always upgrade. Always improve. As Reed Hastings once wrote, “a business is like a professional sports team”. I only want the best of the best to be the best of the best. And in that game, Strike cards are just not good enough. I’d also want to have some battles to get a chance to pick more cards like Scrape so I can fully utilise the value of my 0-mana cards like Claw.
I followed this new plan and got myself an Omamori at the merchant. This is an important purchase for my run. Because I want to avoid confrontations with Elites, I have to hit as many question marks as possible to get relics and good cards. By doing so, I take the chance of hitting Curses. Omamori is my insurance policy against buying broken second-hand computers for cheap or get my office robbed for whatever random reasons.
That path took me to an interesting crossroad. I can fight normal enemies until the Boss or I can get an opportunity to hit another question mark before it, but I’d have to beat an Elite too. Considering my HP is still pretty high and I’ve considerably upgraded my deck, I feel confident to take that fight. It is a calculated risk because even if I get beaten hard, I’d still have one last rest area before the Boss. And I have enough protection to get past the 2 last minions just after that Elite too.
Gremlin Leader isn’t the hardest one. The important element is to time it correctly so you can mad damage it when it isn’t shielded and kill its minions when shields are in place.
Took me 7 turns to win that battle. Got myself Defragment. Which adds additional focus in exchange for an orb. Nice, focus is always good. It makes everything more optimised. It also combines well with Capacitor that creates orbs. I can have my industry guy create new opportunities and get my different directors to focus on them using great processes and frameworks. For sure it will help to grow faster.
With that deck, I fought through the last few battles. It took more runway than expected though; so I decided to use the rest area to actually rest and get back some HP just before the Act II Boss. That’s my series A.
The Collector is an upgraded version of the Gremlin Leader. Now I know the pattern, I can estimate the chances it has to cast certain attacks. Thanks to more Claw and Scrape cards I got in this Act, I will double down on that offensive strategy. On defence, I’ll keep spawning frost orbs and use Dualcast to protect me. Now I also have more Defragment, I can have some serious focus that eventually reduces my cost in building defensibility for that combat. My MIT dropout is now one of the best engineers in the Valley and can save me if I’m ever in big trouble. And finally, I always have Reboot in case I need to quickly change my hand completely.
After 7 turns, Act II ended on another win. The loots aren’t good though but I still got myself a Frozen Core. Going on Act III, I got to start thinking about serious defensibility. Channelling one frost orb each turn is potentially a life saver. Lighting was good until now, but I know that Act III is a whole new game, on a whole new level. I can’t win if I only stick to what I was given before I started, I got to evolve, I got to be better, maybe different.
I’m now a multinational and my competitors are the Amazon and the Microsoft of the world. It is all about domination.
Just like Act II, every battle is much more difficult and I don’t want to take any stupid bet. My deck is good: it has very good cards. But it is also a tad too fat. When abusing Scrape, I got to make sure I have enough 0-mana cards in proportion. I choose a path that gives me as many merchants and rest areas as possible. More than new hires, it is about maximising the team’s value and promote early individual contributors to become leaders.
If the GTM had the highest variance, the growth stage was all about improving the team. The dominance phase is about consolidation. If the first 2 phases were exciting, the third phase is much slower and requires tons of patience. Now, I have something to lose, I can’t afford to lose it.
During Act III, I mainly picked Defragment to increase focus. With a total of 22 cards, my deck before hitting the Boss is Reboot, Hologram, Barrage+, 3x Claw, Dualcast+, Defend+, 3x Defend, Glacier+, FTL, Genetic Algorithm, 3x Defragment+, Scrape, Scrape+, Self Repair+, Capacitor, and Zap+.
Donu and Deca are arguably the most horrible ones against my build because they counter decks that take time to build momentum. They also counter the abuse of “infinite draws and callbacks”. Not surprising: we’ve been long enough on the market and made such a name that our competitors have probably studied every bit of data they found about us. They know exactly what we like to do… do they? Because people can always learn and copy what you’ve done, they can’t copy what’s in your mind.
In my play, I have to take into account that I have 22 cards. It isn’t too small so I can probably get some Daze cards (distractions) without losing too much steam. I can afford to let some of my staff going on vacations from time to time. So I’ll focus on getting rid of the one scaling damages.
It is an epic battle. If the general plan makes sense, I still have to adapt accordingly. Dony and Deca are serious and seriously dangerous so I cannot make silly mistakes.
With great organisation, focus, and consistency, I landed my last hit on turn 12th. What a battle.
Let’s exit now! Let’s IPO! Finally won with Defect. Should be the last one before the true ending. I already completed the game with the other 2.
Wait… what, it isn’t over? What is Ascension?… and global leaderboard?… wait, I’m that low in the ranking?! I got to raise my stock price!
Let’s do it.