Two Minds About One Deck Dungeon
Today on Two Minds About…, Dan Thurot and Brock Poulsen are here to dissect the claim that One Deck Dungeon only contains one deck. Because it totally doesn’t.
Dan: You heard the invisible man. So what’s your take, Brock? One deck or not?
Brock: Is this one of those Zen kōans? Are we going to have some kind of pseudo-intellectual discussion, like when those people argued about whether you can shuffle a single card?
Dan: Well, can’t you? (faint whiffling noise) Never mind, let’s move on.
Dan: Because One Deck Dungeon sounds significantly snappier than One Deck Plus Tokens And Dice And Character Sheets And Campaign Tracker Dungeon, this is where we’re at. The idea is adorably simple and perhaps also adorably naïve: take a roguelike dungeon-diver, complete with multiple floors, escalating stakes, a menagerie of monsters, high probability of defeat, and oh so many ways to upgrade your hero, and compress the experience into a single deck (plus all that other stuff) of cards. Hopefully while retaining enough of the experience that you won’t notice that the whole thing fits into a box only four times the size of a mints tin.
Before we dive into the game itself, do you have any experience with this genre, Brock? And if so, how well do you feel the concept was miniaturized?
Brock: I’ve tried a fair few digital roguelikes and Diablo-toos, as well as several of their cardboard cousins. Most tabletop versions tend to be large, sprawling affairs, punishing to both the wallet and the flexor digitorum superficialis.
One Deck Dungeon accomplishes its task with surprising competence, while leaving your precious forearm muscles intact. It captures the crucial roguelike “one more try” flavor in the way it streamlines setup for repeat plays, one right after the other, and the way every encounter resolves so quickly.
What are your thoughts on the dungeon delve reduction? Is it a critical hit, Dan?
Dan: I think my first encounter with the genre was a free game from an old PC Gamer demo CD. The goal was to reach the hundredth floor of the dungeon and kill a baddie. I once made it to floor seven, I think.
In terms of faithfully replicating the genre, I was surprised at how well it succeeded. There are some obvious limitations, of course. Having only one deck of traps, monsters, and upgrades is sort of like putting a single album on shuffle, and the deepest you’ll ever delve is four floors.
Brock: If Gloomhaven is the entirety of Spotify, then One Deck Dungeon is a 12-track mix CD. Not as deep, but it hits some of the same notes. Right, Dan?
Dan: Yes. Affirmative. Um, musics.
But what really impressed me was the way it fudges some of the genre’s conventions through sheer inventiveness. For instance, with every floor you’re facing the same monsters, but also gaining equipment, levels, and potions. So things will get easier, right? Well, rather than letting that happen, each floor adds certain dice checks that you’ll have to surmount or suffer a penalty. And over a couple of floors these checks keep piling up, so the low-level jelly that was hardly any trouble at the start of the game might seem like a bus-sized wall of molasses by the time you’re nearing the end of a session.
Look at me, talking about dice checks and so forth. Why don’t you explain a little bit about what the game’s about before we go any further?
Brock: In general terms, it’s about adventuring. Whether solo or in pairs, it’s about exploring a tidy dungeon where the monsters wait politely behind large wooden doors for their turn to be slain. It’s about using what you learned from killing those monsters to kill other, stronger monsters, until you at last reach the biggest monster and die horribly. Sure, you can choose a Dragon — perhaps the most iconic of final bosses — as your final challenge, but designer Chris Cieslik also included four other big bad monsters, each with their own unique ways to ruin your day.
But also, it’s about rolling handfuls of tiny, colorful dice, and then stressing about where to put them.
Dan: It makes for a well-rounded dice game, even though it’s nearly as bare bones as rolling bones gets. There are four “colors” of the things, blue for magic and pink for dexterity and yellow for strength, plus a final class of wild heroic dice that can be used for any task. When you stumble onto a monster or trap, you either assign dice to all its boxes or suffer some penalties. With the monster dead, you can claim its card as some form of reward, whether experience, equipment, a new ability, or maybe a fresh brew of potion.
Brock: It’s clever the way the cards tuck behind each other, leaving just the upgrade that you want. I appreciate the efficient use of card space, making great use of every centimeter without feeling busy or crowded. It’s also a game mechanism that Dan and I have great affection for: cards with multiple uses! It’s honestly kind of remarkable that so much is happening in this one deck.
Dan: Even the deck’s girth acts as a game timer. Want to explore? You’ll have to flip some cards. Want to encounter a new chamber? Flip some cards. If you see the bottom of the deck, your time on that floor is pretty much spent.
Brock: It’s a nifty function of the compact design. But all this discarding means that you’ll see a lot of the cards while only interacting with a handful of them, which unfortunately does kind of highlight the limited variety.
Dan: What gives combat that extra edge is that you can use all those abilities to manipulate your rolls in all sorts of different ways. Sometimes you’ll exchange a bunch of weak dice for one powerful die, other times you’ll swap numbers or make new dice spring into existence. By tweaking your accumulated abilities, it’s possible to take on monsters that your dice alone might not be able to vanquish.
But what’s really cool is that you’re not only leveling up your hero across a single session, but also across an entire campaign. Brock, have you dived into that yet?
Brock: I’m normally pretty susceptible to the allure of ongoing campaigns and experience-gathering in my games. But this one didn’t quite grab me the way Shadowrun: Crossfire or Star Wars: Imperial Assault did. I only played a few games where I was adding marks to my campaign sheets, and I just didn’t find it as compelling as other “grinding” experiences. Maybe it’s just the small scale that made it feel more like a “one and done” kind of game.
Dan: You’re as backwards as a paladin after a failed trap encounter with a swinging log! The campaign just might be one of my favorite implementations of persistency. Maybe because it keeps the accounting as streamlined as possible.
Did you complete a floor? Beat a boss? Level up? Then convert those into checkmarks, which eventually bestow new bonuses. Not only is it fun, but I also suspect it might be necessary if you want to risk the harder dungeons. I know the only way I beat the hydra was because of my extra starting skill and enhanced potions.
Brock: I do think it’s a good system, and encourages the player to try the more difficult dungeons, even when death is a certainty. It’s also another facet that encourages you to hunker down and play multiple times in the same session; I just think maybe it’s punching a bit above its weight class. It’s likely I’m just being contrary, though, because a game trying to extend its life and variety is the opposite of a problem.
Dan: I have a confession: I’m technically cheating. I believe you’re only supposed to have one class per hero sheet, but I bounce between them like a kid who’s snuck a glug of haste potion. Herbert Trebelmere has been every class of hero in his day.
Brock: The rules are there for a reason, Dan. You’re having fun wrong, and I won’t stand for it.
In seriousness, though, I had fun with One Deck Dungeon, but not always. There were times I didn’t feel like I was in control of my fun, simply because of limited choices. The times I played with another player felt almost no different from solitaire, because so often there’s only one right place to use each die. There are neat touches and occasional spurts of cleverness, but in the end it failed to slay me.
Dan: Maybe my enjoyment is because I’ve only played it solo and have no interest whatsoever in the cooperative game. Each monster is its own little dice puzzle, especially once you have a few extra skills under your belt. Much of its play space comes down to a sort of evaluative fight-or-flight, where you’re assessing whether you can beat up a monster without taking too many licks yourself. And that feeling of helplessness tends to dissipate as a dungeon progresses and your list of skills grows longer. I enjoy those sorts of games, where you’re sizing up the odds and maybe manipulating them a bit.
The sequel, Forest of Shadows, adds an extra inch of depth with poison tokens and extra heroes, but I don’t necessarily feel that one is preferable above the other.
Brock: Since you mentioned the sequel, I’ll quickly mention the four-player mode. If you find yourself with two One Deck Dungeons, you can try out the game with four heroes. You’ll play with the two-player rules, but the difference is that each “door” is now two obstacles, and the players must decide which heroes to pair up to handle each card. It’s a tricky little twist on the formula, and it lowers the difficulty pretty significantly, since you’ll have a versatile team to choose from.
My last thoughts on One Deck Dungeon: it’s a competent solo game, with some really clever touches and entertaining gameplay. For whatever reason, though, it failed to capture my attention. What about you, Dan? Did it plunder your dungeon?
Dan: Broadly. Like many dice games, it veers between rewarding and infuriating, especially when you’re wiped out by a bad roll. But it does give you the tools to avoid, mitigate, or manipulate chancy odds, and wraps it together with a delightful campaign structure that rewards even minor accomplishments.
All in all, I do think it’s a good solo offering, though I can’t conceive of ever wanting to play it with another human.
Brock: We’re agreed, then: other humans are an unwelcome part of any experience.