One Deck Dungeon locks up its own dice

, | Game reviews

This mostly very good port of the card game One Deck Dungeon did the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do. It made me think it didn’t need to exist.

Although the name emphasis the card aspect, One Deck Dungeon is really a dice game. It’s all about hucking handfuls of dice — all of them d6s — and then arranging them into vaguely themed math puzzles. It can be epic. So many dice. So many 6s! It can be catastrophic. So many dice. So many of them 1s? The thrill of victory and agony of defeat in the oldest known random number generator other than the d2 (i.e. coin). One Deck Dungeon’s dice are colored to represent the usual fantasy attributes. Blue is magic, red is speed, and yellow is strength. The blue I get. Mana. Magic takes mana and mana is blue. But red for speed? Red means stop. Shouldn’t speed be green? Or yellow, for the color of lightning? But strength already took yellow, when it should probably be red, because red is associated with hardiness, especially in contrast to blue being associated with mana and wizardly frailty. But One Deck Dungeon is all about the abstraction. It’s not for thinking about the theme. It’s for thinking about the numbers.

This is one place where the videogame version trips over its own dice. An integral part of the math puzzles is the concept of armor. Most of the cards you fight have boxes that require certain numerical values, sometimes with only one die, sometimes with multiple dice. These “armor” boxes have to be filled if you want any of the other dice to take effect. For instance, a card might have a one-die yellow 6 for armor. Unless you roll a yellow 6, you can have a million other dice and you won’t be able to affect the card, because none of them will fit into that box. Sometimes, you have to stack up multiple dice to get past the armor. For instance, you might need 12 points of red. This is one of the ways One Deck Dungeon is a puzzle about divvying up your array of dice by pips and colors. If I use the red 6 on the armor box, I can’t use it on this other box. But if I use the red 3 and the red 5 and the wild 5, then I’ll have the red 6 for the other box. Oh, but look, I can use this ability to turn a yellow 6 to a red 6, because I need the wild 5 for that box, so now I can swap out the red 3 and wild 5.

This is the kind of short intensive brain puzzle you play during any given encounter in One Deck Dungeon. Figuring out which dice go where according to whatever esoteric restrictions are applied because orc, or because dragon, or because poison arrow trap, or because whatever words and artwork are on the card. When you play on the tabletop, there’s a lot of moving dice around to test where they might go, and maybe swapping this one out of here and into there to free up this one here to go over there so that one can be converted into these using this power. This pip-based jujitsu, back and forth, this for that, here for there is the essence of One Deck Dungeon.

But the digital version hits a snag. It won’t let you actually assign dice until you’ve met the requirements for that armor box. “Oh no you don’t!” it chides when you try to swap out the red 3 and wild 5 with your newly acquired red 6. It seems to think you were trying to sneak something past it instead of trying different configurations. “You can’t put any dice anywhere until you’ve committed these armor box dice!” So it’s going to make me undo everything and start all over. It’s being a bit of martinet about it. But when I’m playing on the tabletop, I’m constantly lining up dice on armor boxes and then taking them out again to try other dice. I know I can’t lock everything in until the armor boxes are satisfied, but I can freely shuffle different options until I come to something that works. I can’t do that when I’m playing the digital version because it’s being a control freak and refusing to let go when I want to move dice around.

One of the advantages of digital versions of boardgames is that you can move pieces around to check possible outcomes without doing all the calculations yourself. Obsidian’s Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, for instance, does a tremendous job of letting you scooch around different cards and different dice at will, backing up as few or as many steps as you want, all while poking around at your various options. It even tracks your percentage chance of success, in case you’re the kind of guy who wants his numbers really crunched. There’s something similar in One Deck Dungeon where it shows you the fallout of any given dice configuration. You’ll take this much damage and discard that many cards. Very helpful. Except that it doesn’t come into play until I commit the dice I’ll be using in armor slots. And if I want to change how the dice are used in armor slots? Too bad. Back everything all the way up. Everything. Do it all over! That’s not terribly helpful. In fact, it’s anti-helpful.

This is a relatively minor issue, but it’s a sticking point in the fundamental moment-to-moment gameplay in an otherwise thorough translation of the tabletop game. Thorough, but not complete. Last year the creator released an expansion that added new characters, new persistent leveling options, and a few significant new rules. Perhaps most importantly, it added enough new dungeon cards so that you don’t have to use repeats when you play (without the expansion, there are two copies of every card in the deck). All this stuff is nowhere to be seen in the videogame version (although you can buy an extra dungeon for an eleventh dollar on top of the ten you paid for the game). It’s hardly the game’s fault that this is how business models work. But I’ve been playing an updated and fuller version of One Deck Dungeon on my tabletop for some time now. This digital version is a trip back to the olden days of 2017, when I was playing that rawer version of One Deck Dungeon.

Developer Handelabra did something similar with their excellent videogame version of Sentinels of the Multiverse. A lot of the content wasn’t included until later, and milked for a higher price tag. That’s just the way of these videogame ports. But Sentinels of the Multiverse benefits so much as a videogame because it processes all the complicated and myriad rules exceptions so you don’t have to. It tracks all the nested actions as they unfold. It does the bookkeeping for you, which lets you focus on which cards you’re playing. It also gives the excellent artwork a new place of prominence, and many months after its initial release, it’s brimming with add-on content. Thanks to Handelabra’s port, a really good boardgame has become an even better videogame.

But whereas the Sentinels of the Multiverse port took care of all the bookkeeping for you, I’d argue that the bookkeeping is the heart of One Deck Dungeon. Dicekeeping? Pipkeeping? Rollkeeping? Whatever you call it, the specifics of where to plug in which numbers is the point of One Deck Dungeon. This port makes it more demanding instead of less demanding.

The most damning realization I had playing One Deck Dungeon as a videogame is that it’s really not much of a game unless you’re actually chucking handfuls of dice. The videogame version seems to know this. So it lets your dice bounce all over the screen before dragging them into neat little rows, as if the random number generator is too much chaos to contain. The dice roll where they will. But a big part of the appeal of dice is their tactile nature, more than any other component in a tabletop game. Cards are nice to flip and shuffle. It’s pleasant enough to place a token somewhere or move a piece. Some people are really into miniatures. A tabletop game might lose a little of its essence when these things are made virtual. But much more is lost when you can’t jostle those little plastic cubes in your palm and spill them out onto the table. That’s a big part of the appeal of One Deck Dungeon. All these geometrical expressions of chaos in my hand, spooling up to do whatever they’re going to do, and then the gratifying clatter as they tumble loose to decide their numbers for me. When this is a just a graphical flourish, something is lost.

The videogame version has a high score gauntlet mode with leaderboards. That’s a nice addition. It’s also nice that it tracks the persistent character progression. I particularly appreciate how it includes it on the screen with just as much prominence as my character’s other abilities; in the tabletop version, this stuff only exists on a separate notepad that’s easy to overlook. But unlike Sentinels of the Multiverse, I’d still rather play this on the tabletop. Handelabra seems so preoccupied with whether or not they could make a One Deck Dungeon videogame (they can!), but they didn’t stop to think if they should.

  • One Deck Dungeon

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • A videogame port that actually makes it harder to play? You don't see that very often.