If there’s a primary distinction between tabletop games and video games, besides the technology, it’s that video games usually try to obscure the inner workings of the game while board games almost necessarily leave them exposed. Sure, for many video games the competitive level involves lots of number crunching to develop strategies that give you the marginal edge, but the average player isn’t comparing DPS minutiae of Overwatch heroes. Excluding legacy games where some of the components are hidden from view until a later time, board games let you peruse all of their parts at your leisure. While during the game the order of a deck of cards may be hidden, the cards themselves are knowable.
And yet board games can still inspire wonder and tension and excitement. How do they achieve this? I suppose you might similarly ask how light projected against a surface can do the same. The human mind is an amazing thing, and our propensity to draw patterns and create narratives from noise, while often a liability, flourishes in the context of gaming. Even with the most abstract games, like Go, I imagine armies shifting and moving, dancing for position.
Do games have to do this in order to be great? Not necessarily. I can think of a few games I love, like Castles of Burgundy and Sprawlopolis that don’t engender any of those traits. They’re deeply satisfying and morphing puzzles that unobtrusively tickle that part of the brain that longs for repeated small moments of satisfaction.
Outside of that specific kind of pleasure, I long for the games that bring excitement to my play experience. Usually that excitement is internalized, wedged amongst the analytical electronic pulses of my mind in thought. What to an outside observer might seem like silent pondering could be a wonderfully tense moment of intellectual combat.
One Deck Dungeon has an uphill battle to capture either of these play experiences, though it tries for a bit of both. Announcing his high concept intentions upfront with the title, designer Chris Cieslik tries to encapsulate as much of the roguelike dungeon-crawling experience as possible in a deck of cards. And some larger cards. And some dice. And tokens.
(I should note here that my experience with One Deck Dungeon has been limited to the solo game, as I honestly didn’t even realize it could be played with more than one player until I read the rules. I’ve also only played the easiest level dungeon outside of the optional campaign mode because I first kept losing early and then I lost interest.)
As a test of concept, One Deck Dungeon does remarkably well. You pick from a slate of stock fantasy archetypes and send them down to encounter stock fantasy foes, acquiring skills and tools and powers along the way. If you survive long enough you fight a boss. Everything’s there, but each time I play I find myself caring less and less.
Part of that has got to be how bland everything is. I assume the generic quality of you and your enemies is sort of the point in an ironic kind of way, but that doesn’t make it interesting over 30 minutes of play. I just opened the box and grabbed 4 random encounter cards. We’ve got an ice elemental, a plague rat, a cave-in, and a skeleton. I mean, come on. They couldn’t be bothered to at least give that poor skeleton an adjective?
The process of playing the game, fortunately, is more clever than the enemies. One Deck Dungeon is a dice allocation game. Every time you flip a card to enter a new room, you see what kind of generic enemy you’re up against, and if you don’t run away with your tail between your legs you roll a handful of dice. Which dice you roll depends on where your character’s skills lie. The mighty warrior begins with four sword icons, so she rolls four yellow sword dice, and so on. You’ve also got potions, which you can use to heal or do other stuff once you get the upgrade for it, skills, which do various skill-like things, and feats, which are like skills but also not skills.
Every time you defeat an enemy or overcome an obstacle you get to take that card and tuck it underneath your character card to get more of these upgrade-y things. More dice! More abilities! It’s all well and good and precisely what you’d want from a dungeon crawl.
The problem isn’t in the upgrading itself, but in keeping track of everything. For a small solo game there sure are a lot of little bits to remember. Say I want to enter a new area and fight something. I first have to spend 2 time units, represented by flipping cards off the top of the deck. Then I should check to see if this particular floor of the dungeon has any special rules regarding exploration. After sorting that out I flip over a card and see what kind of enemy it is. If it’s a monster I can roll all of my dice. If it’s an obstacle I have to choose between two options and only roll some of the dice. That card may have an ability printed on it. I also have to choose if I want to use my heroic feat before rolling. Once I roll dice, I should check to see if there are any dungeon floor-related effects that apply in this stage.
I’m just getting to the point where I actually do battle with my foe, and I’ve already darted my attention back and forth between three or four different areas of play. Dedicated readers will know that I do not often criticize the complexity of a game. I love complex games. Most of my very favorite games are extremely complex. But One Deck Dungeon drove me a bit batty as I kept missing rules and exceptions nearly every time I played. Part of the problem is the graphic design and art, which is drowned in greys and tans and small print. Another is the fact that related information is often on different pieces of cardstock, so during any particular action you might want to look at three different cards to make sure there are no caveats to what you’re about to do.
Ultimately I think the problem is that while you make a lot of decisions during a game of One Deck Dungeon, not many seem to matter compared to the roll of those ever-present dice. Each enemy or obstacle has a number of little dice-sized boxes on them with a number requirement. You’ve got to match or exceed those numbers with the appropriately colored dice to avoid consequences (in terms of HP loss or time). Where to put the dice is hardly ever a choice at all–arrange them to fill up as many spaces as possible. Sometimes you’ll have to weigh the relative value of HP vs. time. You’re allowed to combine two dice to make a die of whatever color you want, with a value equal to the lower of those two dice, which is a nice “wildcard” effect.
You need to make choices in terms of feats and skills, but most of those simply activate once a turn, so you use them if you can. Potions are expendable, but you only get a couple throughout the game. The most meaningful decision point is after you defeat something and need to decide where to slot your upgrade. That little nugget of choice is by far the most compelling part of One Deck Dungeon, and it’s what kept me coming back to the game as much as I have. Do I try to get as many dice as possible first, or do I try to load up on skill effects to make my dice more flexible? Do I level up quickly or only when necessary? These strategic-level decisions bring you into the roguelike mindspace better than any other part of the game, as you toy with the system itself, trying to pull marginal benefits out of a lot of dice-rolling chaos.
But after a while you realize that there’s only so much you can do. One Deck Dungeon is known for being difficult to beat, and there’s no denying that’s true. But “difficult” implies a level of skill to overcome that difficulty, and while I certainly won’t claim that One Deck Dungeon is “difficult” the way a slot machine is “difficult”, it does lean that direction a bit too much. Once I was just before the final descent down to the boss. My character was leveled up high, and I was rolling nearly twice as many dice per enemy than at the beginning of the game. I had to fight one more enemy and promptly rolled a bunch of 2’s and 1’s. The penalty for low rolls is severe. Only a few upgrades let you do anything with those dice, otherwise they sit there, pathetic and useless. This monster knocked me down to only a couple of hit points, sending me limping to the boss where I was inevitably squashed.
Such variance is part of the roguelike genre, I know. They’re supposed to be challenging, with permadeath a necessary feature of the genre. But in a digital implementation the time between real decisions is compacted because the computer does the upkeep. Here the mental and physical load of accounting for all of the variables and manipulating the dice and tokens take up the large majority of play time. Compare this to Friday, which blasts you through each gameplay atom until you are able to hone your deck into something powerful for the final encounter, where cards and decisions pile up into a final display of deck manipulation excess.
The first time I played I thought One Deck Dungeon had promise. As a work of design it’s undeniably slick. The upgrade system is fantastic, with each part of a single monster card potentially put to use after you conquer it. The way the challenge scales up in difficulty each floor with mandatory dice slots sucking your best rolls away is elegant. But as I played more the veneer vanished, and the gears grinding away behind the scenes were a few luck-pushing decision points and a lot of upkeep.