If you were to see the name Desktop Dungeons and study a few screenshots, you would get the wrong idea about this fiendishly clever little gem. You would think it’s a roguelike. A cute frivolous one with wacky graphics. You might figure it had a lot of competition. You might figure you’d just as soon play Dungeons of Dreadmor, Rogue Legacy, or Diablo. You might figure you already have games like this.
Boy, would you be wrong. Furthermore, you would have no idea what you were missing.
After the jump, the anti-roguelike.
Although it’s got a lot of the trappings of a roguelike — randomly generated dungeons that you spelunk until you die — Desktop Dungeons is a flat-out, uncompromisingly cerebral, brain flexing, get-a-cup-of-coffee-and-consider-your-monitor-for-several-minutes-at-a-time strategy game. Whereas most roguelikes are about exploration and discovery, Desktop Dungeons is about carefully calculated exploitation and resource management. It’s supernerdy in a completely different way than most games with elves.
Each dungeon is a randomly generated location, stocked with randomly placed treasures, and home to randomly generated monsters. You don’t explore it conventionally, by moving a dude around one tile at a time. You just pick a tile to unfog, similar to Oasis or even Minesweeper. As you explore, it’s completely static. Monsters sit patiently where you find them, until you’re ready to fight them. This expedition plays out at your convenience. Whether you unfog a square on the far right or traipse across the map to the far left doesn’t matter one whit. Time and distance don’t exist down here. You aren’t running down a clock. You do not need to eat food. No one is going to ambush you.
Part of the unique charm of Desktop Dungeons is that you are always and entirely in control of what happens. In fact, once you learn to do the math — there will be math — you will never die unless you make yourself die. You always know exactly how a fight will turn out. There are no dice or random numbers. Take your time with that cup of coffee. Check the numbers again. Weigh your options. Don’t back yourself into a corner!
Your goal in a dungeon is to defeat the main boss. He’s level ten. You’re level one. The trick is to amass the tricks necessary to beat him, and it’s very mathy. Your attacks do this much damage and he has this many hit points. His attacks do that much damage and you have that many hit points, so you’ll need a certain number of health potions. But you also have a fireball spell and this much mana. Close, but you’re not quite there. Can you level up again? Let’s see, if you kill those two level six guys, you’ll get enough experience so that killing that level eight guy, which will entirely deplete you, will handily earn you enough to level up and therefore fully recover. Oh, wait, alternatively, you can kill that level seven guy, who’s undead and therefore a source of piety points, to earn enough for a pair of protection blessings that will basically function like extra potions.
Ironically enough, a lot of Desktop Dungeon plays out in your head. It might seem complicated, and it is, but it doesn’t start that way. Just use a basic fighter to punch things and you’ll easily get through the basic levels. Then you start carrying booty out of dungeons, and spending the money to develop your town, which gives you more and more options. You’ll fold into the mix different races, different classes, advanced classes, special equipment, special objectives. Magic attacks start to matter. Resistance matters. You’ll find enemies you can’t possibly beat until you hit upon certain combinations. It gets incredibly complex. But for such a complex game, it’s never not elegant. All those numbers fit together neatly, and everything works exactly as you’d expect. It’s more clockwork than guesswork, more strategy than action, more calculation than discovery. But it’s never dry. Your halfling monk is a far cry from your elven wizard and now you’re getting attached to orc berserkers and please please please let the next store sell that +4 sword. Desktop Dungeons is absolutely brimming with options and possibilities. The race and class combos, the equipment options, the opportunity to cash in treasure you don’t need for upgrades, the side dungeons, the quest system, the meta game of expanding your city, unlocking new character options, and the religion system.
The religion system deserves a shout out. A loud enthusiastic shout-out. You won’t encounter any of this game’s gods for a while. And when you do, you might think you’ve seen what it has to offer. Then you’ll find another god. And another. At first, Desktop Dungeons seems like a game where you pick a race, pick a class, and explore a dungeon. It’s not. It’s a game where you pick a race, pick a class, explore a dungeon, and decide to worship the god you find down there. Or don’t. Atheism is a perfectly viable choice, but it’s still a choice. So is desecration. The god system introduces wild new rules and bonuses. It’s a wonderful addition to the usual character building. In fact, it can be one of the most important parts of a character build, but you have to find that altar first. Who knew that monsters and treasure would take a backseat to the local gods?
Desktop Dungeon also deserves a shout-out for being so meticulously documented. The tooltips are great, and the ingame tome/manual is even greater. But to help you really wrap your head around the rules, you’ll want to take advantage of the tutorials, the challenges, and the puzzles, which really drive home how best to play. It’s a challenging game. At times brutally challenging. There are puzzles down here that I’m certain are unsolvable. Oh, except for that one option that didn’t occur to me. But it’s never unfair. If you think you don’t understand something, try the tutorial for that particular aspect of the game. If you can’t figure out when something would be useful, there are plenty of opportunities to work it out. This isn’t a game that will force you through rounds of trial and error. It’s a patient and thorough teacher. Which is good, because you’ve got a lot to learn.
Remember when you thought this was a frivolous roguelike and not a seriously meaty strategy game that you’ll be playing for literally days? How silly of you.
Desktop Dungeons is a quick-play roguelike (their words, not mine!) puzzle game that gives you roughly 10 minutes of dungeon-crawling action per serving. It straddles the casual and hardcore boundary in that, while you might die frequently because the game is tricky and unforgiving, it’s so approachable and quick to get into that you keep wanting just one more round.