Review: One Deck Dungeon01 Jun 2018 1
Review: One Deck Dungeon
Released 26 May 2018
Rolling dice, hacking and slashing monsters, grabbing loot, and taking the fight to the big boss of a dungeon…One Deck Dungeon is a tabletop game that really captures the essence of pen-and-paper RPGs. You deal out dungeon encounters—traps and monsters—from a deck of cards as you go, making it ideal for solo play or cooperative monster slaying with a fellow human. It's one of my favorites and when I heard that Handelabra—the fine folks that ushered both Sentinels of the Multiverse and Bottom of the 9th from our tables to our mobile devices—were doing the digital conversion I was instantly excited.
You play one or two heroes (I enjoy a heroic tandem most myself) and head off to slay a dastardly creature tormenting poor villagers. We're talking big bads on the level of a dragon, hydra, lich, minotaur, and even a yeti. One does not simply walk into a dragon's lair, however. You must fight your way there through room after room of lesser yet still dangerous monsters and have enough left to get the best of a difficult boss fight.
Each encounter card has several challenge boxes that must be bested in order to defeat the monster or survive the trap and win some loot. Challenges boxes are color coded based on the heroic ability needed to overcome them—yellow for strength, pink for agility, and blue for magic—as well as a numeric value. The dice in One Deck Dungeon are colored to match these abilities and each hero has a specific number based on their capabilities. Each also has a heroic feat that, when triggered, provides black heroic dice that can be used as any color.
At the beginning of any encounter you're rolling (what would be) fists full of dice for each hero and matching up the results with the numeric requirements of each challenge box. If you meet the challenge there are no ill effects. If you fail a challenge it'll cost you either health (from your heroes) or time. Yes, there's a clock on the game and time counts down until you are pushed to descend a level a level of the dungeon where, ready or not, things get even tougher. Whether you meet all the challenges or not, so long as all of your heroes survive an encounter you get some loot.
When I'm talking about fistfuls of dice, virtual or otherwise, obviously chance—or luck or RNG (random number generation), whatever you want to call it—has a role in the game. Chance has gotten a bad name with many gamers since the rise of Hearthstone and some of its rather unpopular random effects. Certainly, chance can be a problem if a game is designed poorly. Thankfully chance is an asset in how One Deck Dungeon plays, rather than a downside.
You may be battling monsters on the way to a showdown with a big scary boss beast, but in many ways, chance is the real opponent, and the game's antagonist. Variance in die rolls is expected and your job is to collect the tools to win in spite of them, which is where your loot comes in. You grab items which can increase the number of dice you get to roll and the health of your heroes. You pick up skills that allow you to reroll dice, increase rolls, swap one type of result for another, and a lot more. You collect potions that heal hit points, dramatically change dice rolls, and even let you skip a tough battle and get right to the looting. Rather than grabbing loot you can give your heroes experience and when they level up you get to carry more items and use more skills and potions. A big part of the strategy in One Deck Dungeon is mitigating chance by first choosing the right arsenal of these tools and then using them effectively in your encounters.
The game has a lot of strategy, in fact, including the very first thing you do: picking your heroes. There are five different heroes in One Deck Dungeon and they match up with traditional fantasy classes: Archer, Mage, Paladin, Rogue, and Warrior. Each hero has different abilities, different heroic feats, and different starting skills. Party building offers all kinds of opportunities for optimization, and the heroes work together in interesting ways. The old fantasy standby pairing of warrior and mage is solid for starters. They offer a strong mix of all three-ability dice and have complimentary skills, but there are other very compelling combos as well. It's well worth playing around with different pairings to see what clicks and what doesn't, a lot of it is up to taste.
The strategic and tactical decisions keep coming, and One Deck Dungeon is far deeper than its simple hack-and-slash dungeon-crawling premise suggests. Encounters have a clear push-your-luck feel to them and before each you must decide if it is best to fight or flee. A lot depends on how well you think your dice and skills match up, what you think you can get away with, and how aggressive you want to be. Once the dice are rolled you must figure out the best way to use your skills and potions to modify your rolls, and then how to assign your dice to meet the challenges on the table. Sometimes failing a challenge box isn't that big of a deal, and you're better off doing so than straining to meet it. You've also got to decide how best to use your more limited resources, mainly heroic dice and potions. Do you use them to get through an otherwise dicey encounter or horde them for the boss battle?
Complimenting the strong strategic gameplay of One Deck Dungeon is its high replay value. The characters are all fun to get to know, both in single-hero runs and paired with each other in new and interesting combinations. As you successfully descend dungeon levels you gain points to invest in character progression, persistent benefits that stick with that hero, which making future games with the same heroes different than those before.
One Deck Dungeon also has a couple ways to up the ante in terms of challenge level. First, there are five different dungeons from which to choose (and a sixth available via in-app purchase) and they are ranked easy (Dragon's Cave), medium (Hydra's Reef), and hard (Lich's Tomb). You can further tweak the challenge by choosing one of the game's four difficulty levels. Novice lets you start your heroes at level 2, which includes gaining a second potion use right away. Standard starts you off with a bit of an experience boost but not a full level. Veteran provides no rules changes and Fearless starts you off with no potion uses. The higher difficulty you choose the greater the reward, in terms of character progression, upon reaching the boss.
One thing to note is that if you're not familiar with the game you'll need to read through the game's 'How to Play' before you start, and throughout your first few games. One Deck Dungeon largely dispenses with a tutorial to hold your hand as you learn the game. An NPC pops in here and there to give some high-level guidance, but that's about it. This can be good or bad depending on how you feel about tutorials and how comfortable you are with teaching yourself to play.
Lots of tabletop games jump to digital and struggle to create a quality single-player campaign mode. This isn't a problem for One Deck Dungeon. I would absolutely argue the tabletop version is best suited for one player managing two heroes which made it ideal for a digital conversion. Handelabra Games nailed that conversion and One Deck Dungeon is a no-brainer mobile purchase for strategic gamers and board-game fans and is on my short list for game-of-the-year. It is packed with meaningful strategic decision making and oozing with replay value. If you don't mind referencing the rules as you're learning the ropes and don’t mind facing off against chance, there's really nothing not to like.