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The Best Card Game You’ve (Probably) Never Played

I’ve played my fair share of tabletop games over the course of my life. As such, I know that truly great tabletop games, ones that can continue to be played for years without ever getting too stale, can be hard to find. However, one card game has remained a staple of my friend group ever since we first started playing it. A game so consistently fun that I requested it to be ordered for our collection at Media Services just so that anyone else could enjoy it (and also so that I could write an entire blog post dedicated to it). That game is The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls, the best card game you’ve (probably) never played. 

Promotional Kickstarter image for The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls
The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls,

The title The Binding of Isaac may be familiar. That’s because The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls is a card game based on the video game The Binding of Isaac, a classic indie roguelike designed by Edmund McMillen. Originally released as an Adobe Flash game in 2011 and later remade as The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, the game features a distinctly disgusting art style and heavy religious imagery. In it, you play as a boy named Isaac, who must escape from his devoutly Christian mother that believes God has commanded her to kill him. There are also several other characters you can play as (who are all, in reality, just Isaac in different costumes) that each have their own abilities. Players make their way through a series of procedurally generated levels fighting monsters, acquiring items, and growing more and more powerful until they either die (in which case they lose all their items and must begin again from the start) or defeat one of the final bosses. 

Screenshot of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth,

The gameplay of Four Souls is based off that of the video game. Every player plays as a different character, each of whom has a different eternal item (a permanent, indestructible item that grants them a unique ability). They must play loot cards (single-use cards that cause specific effects), fight monsters (which drop rewards such as money or loot cards), and buy items (which grant new abilities) to help them become the first player with four souls (which are usually gained by killing boss monsters or completing bonus objectives). Monsters are fought through a series of dice rolls in which either the player deals damage to the monster (if the player rolls a number equal to or higher than the monster’s evasion stat) or the monster deals damage to the player (if the player rolls under the monster’s evasion stat) until either the player or the monster runs out of health points and dies. Players can also make deals with each other by offering money or help in return for favors, but this introduces the risk (or opportunity) of backstabbing, as promises made to other players do not have to be fulfilled. I unfortunately cannot detail all the rules for Four Souls in this blog post, so if you want to learn how to play Four Souls, this video serves as a good tutorial for learning the basics (but keep in mind that it was made for the first edition of the game, so some of the cards may be a little different).

Picture of an example setup for The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls
An example setup for The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls. Each player has a different character along with their respective eternal item. They are each given 3 loot cards and 3 cents. 2 monsters are placed face-up (left), 2 shop items are placed face-up (center-right), and 3 bonus souls are placed face-up (far right).

Now, with that background information out of the way, what exactly makes Four Souls such a fantastic game? For one thing, it is one of the most replayable tabletop games I have ever played. I truly mean it when I say that every game of Four Souls is different from the last. One of the main reasons for this replayability is that Four Souls is wacky. Many of the items and loot cards in Four Souls have extremely powerful effects, and due to the vast number of possible combinations of items, loot cards, and enemies that can show up during any given game (especially if you play with all the expansions), the things that can happen in a game of Four Souls range from silly to downright insane. For example, I once played a game of Four Souls in which someone used two items, The Shovel (which can bring a previously defeated monster back to life) and Battery Bum (which can recharge any item, such as The Shovel, for 4 cents) to repeatedly revive a monster called Holy Mulligan (who is extremely easy to kill and expands the number of monster slots by 2 upon death). As a result, there were around 30 monsters in play by the end of the game, at which point one of the players used Mama Mega (which deals 3 damage to every monster and player), killing around half of the monsters (along with every player) and winning them the game. In another game, one player tried to kill another player using a loot card; in reaction, the targeted player used a Butter Bean (which cancels the ability of a loot card or item being played). In reaction to that, the other player used an item called Athame to destroy all of the targeted player’s loot cards (including the butter bean), at which point the targeted player used an item called Smelter to retroactively turn all of their loot cards into money before they could be destroyed and then spent all of that money on an item called the Crowdfunder, which killed both the other player and enough monsters to ultimately win them the game. These are just two of the many memorable and wacky things that have happened during my years of playing Four Souls, but the possibilities are practically infinite.

Combine these these three cards, and you’ve got basically as many monster slots as you can afford!

Another reason why Four Souls is so fun is that it allows for a lot of player freedom. While there is certainly plenty of chance involved in the game, players can have a multitude of different options available to them at any given time. This includes the option to use your items and loot cards on other players, as well as making deals (as mentioned before). This is especially important because it introduces the element of politics (players forming rivalries and alliances, working together to beat the player in the lead, etc.) into the game. In fact, while many of the combos available in Four Souls are extremely overpowered, there have been plenty of games in which one powerful player seemed certain to win but ultimately lost to an underdog that the rest of the players banded together to support. Sometimes a losing player unexpectedly wins the game by gaining multiple souls in a single turn. There have even been games I’ve played in which a newcomer will completely wipe out the competition in just a few turns. Although my friends and I have been playing Four Souls for years, there has never been a consistent winner. This once again aids the replayability of the game, as you can almost never tell who will win at the start of a game of Four Souls.

Loot card for The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls titled "Butter Bean!" Its effects text says "Cancel the activated or paid ability of an item or a loot being played."
Nothing can ruin someone else’s day quite like a well-timed Butter Bean.
The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls,

One final reason why Four Souls is so great is that it is highly customizable. For example, you can build each deck to suit your friend group’s playstyle and remove any cards you may not like (looking at you, R Key). Or, if you’re feeling particularly creative, you can even add your own custom cards (such as characters and monsters) into the game. Custom content can introduce a whole new level of wackiness to the game. For instance, one of my friends created a custom character called The Scrambler, whose eternal item (called “The Pencil”) allows them to change a single word in the game (whether that be on a card or even in the rule book), so long as it makes grammatical sense and does not allow them to instantly win the game, gain souls, or duplicate things. This has led to some truly insane moments, such as the ability to become nearly immortal by changing the description of one item, Callous, from “Prevent all non-combat damage” to “Prevent all fatal damage.” (Because non-combat is hyphenated, it is considered one word.) However, if you do try to add custom content to the game, be sure not to make things too overly complex. Another custom character made by that same friend was called The Capitalist, and their ability was that they could take out loans which they had to repay over the course of the game; however, The Capitalist involved so much constant math that they took extremely long, sluggish turns and practically required a receipt-printing calculator to play. As a result, the character was ultimately banned because it simply made the game a slog for literally everyone playing. So, if you want to add custom content to the game, playtest it thoroughly lest you end up with something that makes the game less fun. 

Picture piece of paper cut into the shape of a card with text written on it in pencil. It is titled "The Pencil," and its effect text says "Replace one word on anything with a word of your choice. You can't use to collect souls, win automatically, or duplicate things. You cannot change numbers and you cannot change 'cents.' The words you change have to make sense. Once you change a word, it lasts until this is recharged. Roll 1, 5, or 6 to recharge at start of turn."
Our original paper card for The Pencil, The Scrambler’s eternal item

In my opinion, The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls is a truly underrated card game, so hopefully this blog post has not only made you aware of its existence but also helped convince you to try it out if you haven’t already. If your interest in Four Souls has been piqued, I highly encourage you to gather up a few friends and give it a try. You might be surprised by how much fun it is. And the best part is, it’s in our collection at Media Services, so you don’t even need to buy your own copy to play it!

Bryce Cain is a junior at IU studying Interactive & Digital Media as well as Theatre & Drama. He has worked for Media Services since the fall semester of 2022. His interests include theatre, video games, and graphic design.


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