I love the idea of Guild of Dungeoneering. As developer Gambrinous explains on their site, it’s an exploration game where “you lay out the dungeon but can’t control the hero”. A turn-based rogue-like in the same vein as free will RTS Majesty? Someone out there has my number. Yes, please!
And from the moment I booted it up, I’ve been chronically infected with the earworm soundtrack (“This is the guild of Dungeoneering…something something never fearing!”) and won over by the precious pencil-on-graph-paper aesthetic. The clever gameplay got its hook into me quickly enough. Dungeon spelunking as deck-building, with sleek card-based battles and longer term unlockables. Imagine Card Hunter minus the grinding and drawn-out tactical battles, but cuter and with that soundtrack I can’t stop humming. Come for the presentation, stay for the slick gameplay.
So, after the jump, what could go wrong?
It’s easy enough to make a game that draws me in. I’m curious to a fault and inherently supportive. Going into any game, indie or otherwise, I’m rooting for it the moment I start playing. As long as it doesn’t screw up early on, I’m an easy cheerleader. But once I start asking questions, the honeymoon is over. Now the folks who made the game have to earn their keep. Now I’m digging. Now I’m prying. Now I need to see some design chops. The answer to each question should make me want to keep playing. How does this work? Why did that happen? How do I accomplish this? When will I be able to accomplish that? Why does this work that way? I was a cheerleader, but now I’m a pernicious child pestering the developers, wanting to see under the hood, wanting to wring from them everything they know about game design, wanting to min/max not the gameplay mechanics — that comes later — but the experience. Help me fall in love with your game. I am willing. Indeed, I am eager. I am yours to lose.
So it’s frustrating that the folks at Gambrinous have created a clever system of pulling an adventurer through a dungeon without explaining how the adventurer is pulled, or how he levels up, or the significance of the cards I’m dropping to build the dungeon. It’s frustrating that they hook me early on with the concept, the pencil artwork, and that adorably plucky mandolin soundtrack and mischievous narration. “This is the guild of dungeoneering, something something never fearing!” It’s frustrating that I love the battles, but can’t parse the context in which they’re supposed to matter.
While humming the theme to Guild of Dungeoneering, I’ve written this open letter to developers with clever ideas.
Dear developer with a clever idea,
First, allow me to thank you for your idea. In a sea of non-clever ideas flowing daily from the gaping unstoppered spigot of Steam’s new releases, your contribution is greatly appreciated. You’re the men and women who make my entertainment worthwhile!
But please remember that unlike you, I haven’t been playing your game for months. I furthermore may not understand your clever idea. So please explain it to me. I’m going to write this in all capital letters, not because I’m shouting at you, but because, well, you know what? Screw it. I am going to shout at you, because if you haven’t done what I’m about to shout at you, you deserve to be shouted at.
PLEASE EXPLAIN YOUR GAME TO ME.
There. I feel much better. Sorry, but I really needed to get that off my chest. Your clever idea deserves to be understood, experienced, and appreciated. This will not happen when you frustrate so many of the people willing to pay to try your clever idea.
Okay, so lets unpack the clever idea in Guild of Dungeoneering. As Gambrinous mentions on their site, “you lay out the dungeon but can’t control the hero”. I’m dealt a hand of cards, each of which is a room, treasure, or monster. I can play up to three of these, so long as I can find a place for them on the board. Once I do this, my hero moves of her own accord, triggering battles and hopefully winning treasure, wending her way to the dungeon’s objective. If I win the dungeon, I spend the treasures I’ve collected to unlock new heroes, new cards for combat, and new powers.
Although I can’t tell my hero where to go when she moves in the dungeon, I’m supposed to influence her with the placement of rooms, monsters, and treasures. This is an important element of the gameplay. It is, in fact, arguably the foundation of the Guild of Dungeoneering concept. So sometimes she moves someplace I didn’t expect or want. Sometimes she ignores treasure. Sometimes she blunders into a monster that’s too high level or too low level. Sometimes she merrily drinks from a cursed fountain. Free will, man. What are you gonna do?
But the dirty little secret in Guild of Dungeoneering is that this isn’t free will at all. It’s a system of rules that I’m apparently supposed to suss out to inform which cards I play and where I play them. I should place these cards based on information about how they affect my hero. If there’s not some random die roll representing free will — I’ve been assured there isn’t — and if the randomness is in the card draws, I should in fact control my hero within the framework of Guild of Dungeoneering’s determinism. You can describe this as “knowing the rules”. If I put a jewel to the left and a level three monster to the right, I should anticipate where my hero will go.
But the rules of where she goes are nowhere presented in the game. They are not explained. The concept itself isn’t even explained. When a couple of developers helpfully tried to untangle my confusion on the Steam forum, I was left with just as many questions. If they can’t explain it outside the game, is it any surprise they don’t explain it within the game?
Furthermore, the basic mechanics of playing a dungeon are undocumented. A hero resets to level one and naked at the beginning of any dungeon. Heroes don’t keep their levels and they don’t keep the gear that adds cards to their decks. The only persistence is the stuff you’ve unlocked at your guild, which determines the pool of cards from which you draw as you play a dungeon.
So naturally you’ll want to know how to level up your hero. Nowhere in the game does it explain that you level up a hero by defeating a monster of equal or greater level. And what happens when you level up? Nowhere in the game does it explain that you get an extra heart of health and that higher level gear is now available when you defeat a monster. It’s not even clear that gear itself doesn’t give you cards. Instead, gear gives you skills; skills give you cards. It’s a bit confusing that upgrading from a stick to a scimitar gives you two new cards, but upgrading from a fork to a scimitar only gives you one new card because a fork and a scimitar both give you blade skills.
You can eventually figure these things out, and it’s a really cool system. But why not explain those things — also known as “how to play” — during the game? They’re worth knowing.
This system of resetting the hero for every dungeon means a couple of important things. It means dying is not a big deal, as a character is really only a class (which in turn is only a base health, a special ability, and a set of starting cards that you don’t get to see for some reason). Your veteran character who’s beat ten dungeons is always going to begin every dungeon at level one with an empty inventory, and therefore nothing to distinguish her from a character who has beaten zero dungeons. Fair enough. Not every rogue-like needs persistent leveled heroes.
It also means there’s no penalty for trying a new type of hero. They play differently enough, tapping into a few clear concise concepts when you fight battles. If the dungeon building is the main pillar of gameplay, these battles are the second pillar. They’re simple, quick, and wonderfully transparent, with ample tooltips and a detailed combat log. Everything Guild of Dungeoneering does wrong at the dungeon level it does right at the battle level. This is a wonderful little battle system, snappy and addictive and almost single-handedly capable of moving the game along.
But the third pillar of gameplay is the unlockable stuff represented by rooms in your guild (“This is the guild of dungeoneering, something something never fearing”). You buy these rooms, which unlock new classes, new groups of cards, and new abilities you can combine with your classes for a little mix ‘n match variety. And here’s where the game starts to lose me even once I’ve resigned myself to having only a rough idea where my hero is going to move in a dungeon.
It’s gratifying enough to unlock a blacksmith or magic shop that throws new cards into the mix. Ho ho ho, now I have an owl familiar. Well, I will when I find one in a dungeon. Not to mention an eyeball charm, a fez, doom plate armor, and whatever a mind staff is. I’m sure my alchemist will synergize smartly with a mind staff. And it’s certainly gratifying to unlock new passive abilities and more powerful versions of your old abilities. Why, yes, I would like an extra card in my hand at the beginning of every battle. I would like a wider of choice of gear when I win a battle. I would like an extra heart of health and whatever cards I get with the Holy skill.
But when it comes to unlocking types of heroes, Guild of Dungeoneering starts to fall apart for how it affects the rest of the game. For starters, you can’t replay any of the dungeons. You can only move ahead to the next one. I suppose the thinking is that you never have to grind. But would grinding be any worse than the current situation, where you’re replaying the same dungeon over and over and earning only a pittance for losing it? What’s worse, grinding, or being unable to get any traction at all?
The hero progression isn’t really progression so much as obsolescence. There are three tiers of unlockables, and once you unlock a tier two hero, all your tier ones fall dramatically behind in the power curve. Because there’s no character persistence, and because a class can’t be upgraded, you no longer have any reason to play with other characters. Say hello to your new ranger and say goodbye forever to the cat burglar, bruiser, mime, and apprentice. You knew the tier zero chump you start with was going to be obsoleted. Did you know it would happen to everyone else you unlocked?
At this point, the dungeons you have yet to play become trivially easy. Instead of throwing up difficulty spikes, Guild of Dungeoneering tumbles into difficulty chasms when you unlock the next tier of hero. Once you realize this, you might as well hoard your gold to save up for any class of the next higher tier. You’ll have to buy a certain number of upgrades before you can move up a tier, but consider it part of the cost. It feels as if there was little thought given to how to keep the guild upgrades relevant.
Which would be okay if there was any replayability built into the game. For instance, maybe next time you’ll go with the mathemagician (the classes are as precious as the artwork). These new heroes are a joy to discover, but the game doesn’t give you any incentive to explore them. Without a new game plus mode or even difficulty options, Guild of Dungeoneering feels very once-and-done. This is a terrible way for a rogue-like to feel. Just as the lack of documentation and tuning is a terrible thing to do to such a clever, addicting, and charmingly presented concept like this. If there’s one thing worse than not telling me how to play your game, it’s revealing to me I no longer need to play it once I’ve figured it out. Sadly, that’s the case with Guild of Dungeoneering.
But, hey, at least we’ll always have the soundtrack. “This is the guild of dungeoneering, something something never fearing…” I’ll be humming that pretty much from now until forever.
Guild of Dungeoneering
Guild of Dungeoneering is a turn-based dungeon crawler with a twist: instead of controlling the hero you build the dungeon around him. Using cards drawn from your Guild decks you lay down rooms, monsters, traps and of course loot! Meaningful documentation not included.