Friday, August 25, 2017


Unplugged Dilintia: One Deck Dungeon

I am green with envy.

Between realizing that Desktop Dungeons is basically a card game and that Spider Solitaire has the brutal difficulty and opportunities for improvisation of a roguelike, I got to wondering if it was possible to make a proper dungeon crawl with a single deck of cards.  I even got some blank cards and made a few abortive attempts at it.

And then Asmadi Games just goes and does it.

To be fair, I never would have made a game this awesome.

This game ticks every box on my list.  It's a tiny box filled with very simple pieces that display extraordinarily complex behavior.  Character cards and dungeon cards introduce nuances that shake up the game every time you play it.  Setup is blindingly quick (once you're a little familiar with it), you don't need a lot of tablespace to play it, and cleanup is a snap.  You can even make out a character sheet to mark your progress in an ongoing campaign, earning yourself abilities that you'll need to conquer the tougher dungeons.  Every other dungeon crawler that I own is basically obsolete.  Dungeon!?  Hero Quest?  Wrath of Ashardalon?  Why mess around with those huge boxes and hundreds of pieces when I can just flip out this deck of 56 cards?

The game's single deck may be the headliner, but the mechanics are the real star of the show.  The main basic conceit is that you have a dice pool that represents your stats: yellow for strength, red for agility, and blue for magic.  (There are also black Heroic dice that you can earn in various ways which act as a wild card.)  Every encounter has colored boxes that you need to cover with your dice.  A small box needs a single die of the same color that's at least as high a number as the one listed.  A large box can contain any number of dice of the same color that total up to a number at least as high as the one listed.  Every box that you leave blank costs you some time and some life.  So far, so hoopy.

Then you add in character abilities and magic potions.  These allow you to trade dice, re-roll dice, add more dice to your pool, and so forth.  These abilities mitigate the random nature of the dice rolls, turning each encounter into a puzzle.  Which dice do you spend on abilities?  Which ones do you use to cover up the colored squares?  Which damage effects can you afford to suffer?

Then you add in monster abilities.  Every monster you encounter adds some little quirk to the encounter, like doing extra damage, costing extra time, and so on.

And then you add dungeon effects.  At the beginning of the game, you choose which dungeon you want to explore, and the deeper you go, the more buffs the monsters in the dungeon receive.  This is a really great way to steadily increase the difficulty of the game without having to make a separate stack of monster cards for Level 1, Level 2, and so on.  On the back of the dungeon card is the stats for the dungeon boss, which you get to face if you clear three levels of dungeon.

And let's take a moment just to appreciate how elegant the game's single deck is.  The draw pile represents time left to spend in the dungeon.  Exploring the dungeon and entering a room take time, and sometimes combat and traps will eat up time too.  The passage of time is represented by discarding cards off the top of the deck without playing them.  If you get to the bottom of the deck, additional time wasted comes with a slow health penalty, so you're encouraged to descend to the next level.

Facedown cards represent rooms you haven't entered.  Turning a card up represents opening the door and peeking inside.  You can then choose to have the encounter or flee.  (Fleeing, of course, ultimately costs you time because you'll need to open or search for a different door.)  The center of the card has a picture of the encounter and the colored boxes I mentioned.  Combat encounters work by rolling your entire dice pool and placing dice.  Trap encounters allow you to pick one of two ways to proceed.  One usually costs time and carries a smaller risk than the other.  You then use just one type of dice to try and fill one large box (in addition to rolling against the buffs listed on the dungeon card).

After suffering the consequences of an encounter, you get to loot the room.  (It's assumed that you defeat any encounter that you survive.)  Three edges of the card have information about what kind of loot is available.  You can take the loot as an item, increasing your stats and therefore your dice pool.  You can take it as an ability, giving you more ways to use your dice in combat.  Or you can take it as XP, which will eventually level you up and allow you to carry more items and abilities.  It's a really interesting choice because every option is beneficial and it's not always obvious which one you should choose.  But whichever one you go with, you then slide the card under your character card (or, in the case of XP, your level card) so that only the relevant edge of the card is showing.

It's so beautifully elegant.  Every card in the deck is capable of representing any aspect of the game, and so you only need one kind of card and therefore one deck.  Nothing needs to be divided at the beginning of the game, nothing needs to be sorted back into proper piles at the end.  Shuffle the deck and you're ready to start.  Gather the cards back up and you're done.  The game does cheat a little with a pile of extra components -- damage tokens, potion tokens, dozens of dice, and cards to describe the dungeon and your experience level -- but you're free to be a little messy with these.  It won't slow you down to just leave them in a big pile off to the side and pull them into the game as you need them.

And it really does feel like a roguelike.  It's tough.  The first time you play it, it might feel impossible.  But when you start trying out your skills and start to get a feel for how they might link together into combos, you'll start pulling out those tricky reversals and cunning escapes that the best roguelikes are known for.  I died on my first four attempts at the Dragon's Cave, but I never really felt frustrated.  I always felt like next time I would get a better ability, or better rolls, or I would just have a better idea of what I could have done differently.  And my gosh, did I ever feel like a clever asshole when I finally slew that dragon.

But if you don't enjoy being beaten by a deck of cards, there's Campaign Mode.  Campaign Mode is a set of optional rules that serves two functions.  First, it's a way to track your progress and score your victories.  Second, it puts the game's difficulty on a sliding scale that adjusts itself as you play.  You get a sheet that describes a number of abilities, each with a number of tick boxes next to them.  Every time you play, you earn checkmarks -- one for each time you level up, one for each dungeon level you clear, and three for slaying the boss.  Some tick boxes can only be filled if you challenged the harder dungeons.  If you fill in all of the boxes for a skill, you get access to it the next time you play.

The upshot of all this, of course, is that the game gets easier the more you play it.  Once I finished the Dragon's Cave, I took a peek at the later dungeons and boggled at some of the nasty effects that were at play.  I figured I should start building up my character if I had any hope of taking them on, so I started filling out a Campaign sheet.  And it's stunning how much easier the next two dungeons were.  I finished the Yeti's Cave on my second attempt and the Hydra's Cavern on my first.  Partly it was luck of the draw, partly it was my experience and understanding of the game developing, but the extra potion and hit point and starting skill sure didn't hurt.

See, if you fail repeatedly against a dungeon, you still earn checkmarks to boost your abilities, which makes subsequent attempts easier.  Play enough, and the game will eventually power you up enough to win.  For more immediate results, Campaign Mode also introduces an explicit difficulty select.  Novice mode allows you to start at experience level 2 with an extra healing potion, Standard mode allows you to start with one random card's worth of XP, Veteran mode is playing by the regular non-Campaign rules, and Fearless mode is beginning with no healing potions.  And as it happens, you get bonus checkmarks for the difficulty mode you chose -- you get two free checks just for playing the game by normal rules.

Purists will sneer at this style of play, but I'm glad it was included.  Not everyone is a hardcore roguelike fan, and adjusting the difficulty to meet the player's needs ensures that everyone can have a good time with the game and eventually see all of the dungeons it has to offer.  Normal mode is for people who want to "win" the game by out-smarting and out-lucking it.  Campaign mode is for people who want to "finish" the game.  It turns the game and its five dungeons into a story and gives them hope that they will eventually see the end of it.  After the initial difficulty of the Dragon's Cave, presented as the easiest dungeon in the game, I shuddered to think of what I'd find in the other dungeons.  I probably never would have attempted them without the training wheels offered by Campaign Mode.  Seeing how easily I got through the intermediate difficulty, I was actually kind of disappointed.  It's emboldened me to try them again sometime, but this time without "cheating".

And let's face it -- it's satisfying to tick off boxes on a sheet.  Even though the mechanic is designed to take some of the sting out of failure, you don't get the checkmarks for nothing.  Leveling up and clearing dungeon floors are small victories in and of themselves, and even the extra checkmarks you receive for difficulty selection require a certain degree of boldness from the player.  The bottom of the sheet has a number of boxes to allow you to track how many games you've played, so another measure of success is to finish the five dungeons in as few games as possible.

The game's great.  It's tiny, easy to learn, easy to pick up, moves quickly, and gives you a lot to think about.  Perfect brain candy.  I always want to play it forever.


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