Thursday, September 03, 2015


Unplugged Dilintia -- Dungeon Roll

To me, Dungeon Roll most readily recalls Desktop Dungeons.  Both are deceptively small, fast-paced games that let you have a complete roguelike adventure in about ten minutes.  Both games give you finite resources and a seemingly insurmountable challenge, but with mastery of your character's abilities and a little creative use of special items, you can turn the odds to your favor.

I won't just sit here and rehash the rules when Watch It Played exists, but I do want to go on and on about how much I love this game.

Let's start with the package.  The game comes in this cozy little box that's just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand.  It's shaped like a treasure chest, and that's wonderful.  What's even more wonderful is that the box doesn't just house the game when you're not playing it -- it's also a functional prop that you use in the game.  There are treasure tokens to collect, you see, and whenever you win one, you shake up the treasure chest and reach inside and draw one out.  And I love that.  I love little touches like that.  And I love games that fit inside of tiny little boxes, but when you take them out and spread them out on the table, they coalesce, like a djinn coming out of a bottle, into these huge games with lots of variety that you can play for hours and hours.

And the game itself is just super.  In the basic set, there are eight different characters that you can play as, and each one has some little ability that lets you bend the game just a bit.  It isn't always immediately obvious how best to synergize your character with the rest of your resources, but it's amazingly satisfying when it clicks.

Take the Bard, for instance.  His specialty allows Champions to defeat an entire pack of one kind of monster and one individual of another kind of monster.  This is very useful because one of the most common (and annoying) situations in the game is that the mob you're facing is heterogenous, forcing you to waste multiple units to get through it.  With this ability, you can sometimes clear entire levels with a single Champion.  But your units are randomized -- how do you get Champions?  Well, every time you see a Potion in a dungeon level, you can sacrifice one unit to drink it and bring one unit of any type you like into your team.  This seems pointless -- wasting a unit to get a unit -- but if there's a particular one you want, it's a useful maneuver.  Of course, it's usually a bad idea to stack your team with only one kind of unit because the only way to defeat the Dragon is to have three unique units on your team.  And that's where the Bard's other ability comes to play -- once per delve, he can put the Dragon back to sleep, making it relatively safe to keep a party of nothing but Champions.

Every character has something unique about them that benefits some style of play.  Yeah, there's a lot of luck involved, but that kind of comes with the territory with roguelikes.

I've read a bit about the game, and I've seen some criticisms leveled against it.  The game bills itself as a "press your luck" style game, but it kind of fails on that account.  It's almost always clear when you've run out of resources and need to stop pressing forward before you lose everything.  When the odds are clearly against you and the choice is to leave with 6 points or take a million-to-one chance to try and bump that up to 7 at the risk of losing everything, the smart choice is obvious.  And honestly?  I'm fine with that.  If the game started out as a "press your luck" style game but it turned into a roguelike instead, that's perfectly fine.  I'm totally cool with that.

There's also the fact that players don't interact very much.  This is very much a single-player game that your group plays in turns -- even when someone else is acting as the Dungeon Lord for you, their actions are automated -- with no opportunity to really help or hinder your opponents, and with nothing that you can do between turns except sit and watch.  Again, I think this is fine.  The game can be interesting to watch, as you can pick up strategies from other players and think to yourself what you would do in your opponents' situations.  And that's to say nothing about offering your opponents advice (for good or ill) or goading them into pushing their luck by reminding them how many points you picked up on your last turn.

There is one criticism I have to agree with, and that's the fact that the way the game scores you encourages you to play in a way that you wouldn't expect, and that the developers probably didn't intend.  See, at the end of the game, every treasure adds 1 point to your XP score, which is how the winner is determined.  The problem this creates is that treasures are almost always more valuable as XP than they are serving their intended function as treasures.  In a low-scoring game where a single point could make or break you, the only time it would ever make sense to use a treasure would be if it had a good chance of earning you two or more points back.  And going back to the idea that the game doesn't tempt you to take risks, those situations are rare enough that it makes more sense to value one point in your hand as being worth two in the next level of the dungeon.

When you start to compare gathering treasure to the other means of gaining XP, it becomes even more baffling.  Say you've looting Level 5 and you've got one treasure chest.  Sacrificing a unit to claim a single chest seems like a waste, but the XP you'll earn from it puts you in the same position as if you'd skipped the chest, gone on to Level 6, and cleared the entire level with the same single unit.  The chances of that are often negligible!  You'd do just as well to grab the treasure and retire to the tavern.  And consider fighting the Dragon.  This is one of the greatest ordeals in the game, requiring you to sacrifice three different units for the reward of 1 XP and one treasure -- effectively 2 XP.  Compare that to using the same three units to open three individual chests -- effectively 3 XP for the same sacrifice!

It doesn't make sense.  It's a system that seems to favor gathering treasures and cutting out early rather than trying to think of ingenious ways to clear dungeon levels and move on.  I have the distinct impression that this wasn't the developer's intent; the tiebreaker rules in the instructions specify that the player with fewer treasures -- in other words, the one who earned most of his XP through clearing dungeon levels and fighting dragons -- wins.  My best guess is that he envisioned the game as being a lot like a roguelike, where players constantly burn through their items to try and dive as deep as possible, but somewhere down the line he decided that the players should get something for their trouble if they had one or two treasures left over at the end.

Fans of the game have been offering up suggestions for house rules that would put the emphasis back on the adventuring aspect of the game.  And I've come up with a humble alternative myself.

A Modest Proposal for Alternative Scoring

  1. The player must pay 2 XP to use the Town Portal.  If she doesn't have enough XP, she cannot use the portal at all.  If this would take her below 5 XP, she does not "level down" in any way.  The portal otherwise works as described in the instructions.
  2. At the end of the game, players receive a 1 XP bounty for each of their dragon scales and return them to the treasure chest.  There is no bonus for pairs, and no other treasure counts for XP (including the Town Portal).
  3. The player with the most XP at the end of the game wins.  In the event of a tie, the player with the most treasures wins.  If the game is still tied, the tied players celebrate a shared victory.
This is sort of off the top of my head, but it's not much different from the game's current balancing -- dragon scales still serve their purpose of awarding extra XP, there's still an XP incentive against using the town portal -- it just changes the game so that "hard" XP takes priority over treasure.

And while we're at it, I have an idea for the single-player variation.

A Modest Proposal for Solo Play

When playing alone, the object of the game is to clear the 10th level of the dungeon within three delves.

Keep score as normal (and use the alternative scoring rules above if you like).  When you clear the 10th level, you win the game and add the following points to your score:

If you fail to beat the 10th level on your last delve, or if you are forced to flee the dungeon at any time, the game is over and your score for the entire game is zero.

It goes without saying that using a Town Portal on Level 10 doesn't count as clearing it, but any other ability that allows you to discard all of the dice left in the dungeon does.

Tricky?  Sure.  But that's roguelikes for you.

So Yeah, I Love This Game

I took a chance and picked up Dungeon Roll completely on a whim without knowing anything about it, and lucky me, it turned out to be exactly the game I wanted it to be.  It looks nice sat on my coffee table, ready to roll up a dungeon on a moment's notice.  I think it's great, and if you like tiny boxes of fun, you might think it's great too.


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