Okay, a skeleton requires a magic 2 and a magic 4 to get past its armor, as well as the inherent strength 10 for being on the third level of the dungeon. Once I’ve covered those boxes with dice, then I need two strength 3s, one strength 5, one strength 6, one agility 5, and one magic 5. In other words, once you’ve magically blasted away a skeleton’s defenses, you mostly punch it really hard. Its only special ability is that it runs down the timer if I don’t fully defeat it. For some reason, this represents a skeleton being “Undying”. That’s what the card says. Just go with it.
So let’s get down to the anatomy of a skeleton murder.
My leveled up archer is super agile, which isn’t a great thing to be when you need magic to blast past some armor and strength to punch really hard. She gets five agility dice, but only three strength and three magic dice. She also gets two wild dice for being level four. My rolls are 6, 5, 4, 2, and 2 agility, 6, 4, 4 magic, and 4, 1, 1 strength. My wild dice are a 6 and a 2.
Fortunately, her Crushing Blow skill turns a strength 1 into a strength 6. Her Persistence skill lets me cash in two strength for a rerolled strength and a wild die, which nets me a strength 4 and a wild 5. Nice. I could use Shimmerblast to turn magic dice into wild dice, but I need all the magic I’ve rolled to take out the skeleton’s armor. Finally, my Critical Strike skill lets me convert two agility dice into wild dice, which is where having five agility dice comes in really handy. Critical Strike, which I got early on, has been instrumental in getting me this deep. It’ll be a big help when I get to the dragon at the bottom.
I plug the dice into their appropriate slots and handily dispatch the skeleton with two agility and one wild dice to spare. Pfft. Skeletons.
Did I lose you during all that? Did all those numbers and colors just blur together? Because that’s what it looks like from inside One Deck Dungeon. It’s a series of increasingly intricate dice puzzles, using colors for character stats, dice manipulation tricks for special skills, and puzzles for monsters and traps. It’s even loosely adapted to a longer term rogue-like by giving you persistent progression across games. On an included pad of paper, tick off boxes for leveling up, descending floors, and killing bosses. These boxes will earn your character special perks to help you through the harder dungeons, which are required to tick off boxes for the more powerful perks. It’s the classic feedback loop any RPG nerd will understand: kill things to get more powerful so you can kill more powerful things.
The name of One Deck Dungeon implies something really simple. So does the little box, which is about the size of a box of wooden kitchen matches. But this isn’t just a deck of cards with a single inherent puzzle, like the flatly simple Friday (T.G.I. not F.). One Deck Dungeon includes a bounteous bag of colored dice, some wooden heart markers, some wooden potion markers, some oversized character cards, a game reference card, some dungeon reference cards, and then the eponymous deck. In other words, it’s more than just one deck.
Really, it should more accurately be called Handful of Dice Dungeon. That doesn’t sound as catchy, but it’s the essence of what you’re doing. Here you are, approaching the final boss, counting out five yellows, four reds, five blues, and two blacks, thinking to yourself, “this is going to be easy”. Clatterclatterclatter. Oh dear, look at all those 1s. Let’s see how you can work with what you’ve rolled.
The deck itself is a timer. Flip cards into the discard pile to represent actions. Some cards come into play as puzzles representing monsters or traps. Beat the card and take it as loot. Fail to beat it and take damage or burn time off the deck, but still take the card as loot. Now you have to decide whether to equip your new loot card as a magic item, add it as a new special skill, or throw it into the xp pile to level up. Each card can be used for any one of those things. It’s your choice.
Your choices, themed as character building, give you the tools to beat the dice puzzles. Each time you run through the deck — the cards sure do go fast! — you descend a level, which front-loads the difficulty of any monster or trap with more dice requirements. A skeleton on level one, which is your first run through the deck, is easier to kill than a skeleton on the second and third levels.
The theming can be pretty thin, but it gets the job done and it’s always there to hold your hand. Archers are nimble, warriors are hardy, rogues take risks, all expressed with some sort of diceplay. An Invisibility potion lets you automatically resolve an encounter, a Haste spell gives you two more agility dice, and Steady Hands give you an extra die, but only for disarming traps. If you come to a locked door, using red agility dice is Pick the Lock, but using yellow strength dice is Bash It Open. You’ll find very little “just because” abstraction. A green ooze makes you discard all 1s because Split, a wraith dissolves one of your magic items because Drain, and bandits make it more expensive to cash in spare dice because, uh, Dodge. Like I said before, just go with it.
Shortly after solving The Puzzle of The Skeleton on the Third Floor of the Dragon’s Cave — as I said, the cards sure do go fast — I’ve beaten the dragon boss pretty easily. This is, after all, the easy dungeon. I tick off the marks I’ve earned, putting them into my archer’s Dungeon perks. The boxes on the pad are tiny, so I make sure the pencil is sharpened first. Some people will probably print out their own sheets so the pad is pristine and unused. These are people who will put sleeves on their cards or people who don’t turn down the corner of the page when they read something cool in their book. These are people who will find their copy of One Deck Dungeon in the back of the closet ten years from now and find nothing inside except the game. I’ll find the dates on my character sheets, the ticked boxes, the checked off boss and dungeon names. I’ll find a historical record that I was here. Reduced resale value be damned.
So now I’ve got Cunning and Veteran on my archer’s sheet. I need to earn points from a medium dungeon to finish off Speed and Durability. So I’m off to the Hydra’s Reef. I could have done the Yeti’s Cavern for the medium dungeon, but the bottom floor has Biting Cold, which emphasizes strength dice. That’s no place for an agile archer. I’ll go there when I’m leveling up the warrior or paladin.
One Deck Dungeon even does that thing of letting me progress when I fail. When I get killed in the Hydra’s Reef — I will, repeatedly — I still earn points to improve my archer. Eventually, I’ll take her into the Minotaur’s Maze or Lich’s Tomb. A character’s sheet has a separate tick box for each dungeon’s boxes, so I suppose my archer will go into the Yeti’s Cavern eventually. That Yeti box isn’t going to tick itself.
This is the heart of One Deck Dungeon even more than the handfuls of dice. It’s a quick and easy character leveling system, with minimal set up, minimal play time, and handfuls of dice that need lots of futzing after they’re thrown. The end result is a more powerful archer or rogue or paladin, with a better chance of reaching the yeti or lich at the bottom of the dungeon. This is the same thing you get with games like Gloomhaven, Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game, and Fantasy Flight’s misbegotten Arkham Horror LCG, but at a greater cost of money, time, and storage space. Because detailing costs extra. But as long as you’re content to throw some dice, apply some special skills and spells, and then move on, One Deck Dungeon is a satisfyingly simple handful.