Dicey Dungeons by Terry Cavanaugh
Terry Cavanagh releasing a new indie game into the pond always causes big ripples. He may be a brilliant game designer, but he plays a manic maniac on indie game release TV. From Super Hexagon to VVVVV, his tongue-in-cheek, hyper-game offerings are often pure uncut
ludology video gaming.
Dicey Dungeons, finally out of a lengthy Early Access phase, sees the purist moving into meta-tabletop with a challenge to the ever-despised random number generator (RNG) framework that begs Lady Luck for mercy. Quite literally, in this case.
Show Me The Game Show!
Dicey Dungeons is his new turn-based, dice allocation fighter/RPG-light dungeon crawler Rogue-like. It’s sure to find appeal with a massive tabletop gaming community that seems to see to limit to its growth.
Not dissimilar to Slay the Spire, where you draw upon a card to make a variety of moves against generated foe tables, here you will instead deploy dice in various ways to defeat a series of enemies, as you deftly manage the gauntlet in some kinda cosmic arena game show.
Blasting open the welcome doors with a game show-meets-Edwardian-culture intro that mixes a hand-drawn art style with Commodore-64 diegetic audio design and bucket-loads of contemporary tropes – like winning a monster truck – Dicey Dungeons tosses you into what is essentially an explainer video for how your die rolls will somehow affect things.
Which reminds me – I often wonder, when playing Cavanagh’s unforgiving, deep-dive, twitch-gamer offerings, if they are more meta-gags or adept theming wrapped around (hard)core mechanics.
So as I was saying, Dicey Dungeons reminds me a little of Slay the Spire because you move through an arena with little pathways between hostiles and treasures, building an inventory and arsenal of weapons and tricks to which you can allocate your die rolls. These pathways are not as linear as in Slay the Spire but can become more multi-channel so that you can also strategize which sequence to take on to clear a level.
The map also reminds me a little of Peter M. Whalen’s super ugly and totally amazing Rogue-like deck-builder Dream Quest for iOS or QFC‘s Desktop Dungeons in its manner of laying out pics of boons and bad guys, their difficulty level displayed on their faces.
Roll Them Bones
Some special moves allow you to re-roll, modify or otherwise manipulate your thrown dice pool, while others require you to roll over/under thresholds to activate their powers and modifiers or multipliers. Some dice, in a move I recognized from Asmadi Games‘ One Deck Dungeon, have to be piled up onto a particular block to reach a target number to trigger the effect.
I love how easy the game is to pick up, but I also love the way its complexity scales as you begin to add more dice to your pool as well as new ways to delegate or mutate them.
You can unlock and play a variety of classes to add a variety of gameplay and strategy approaches. You manage and prioritize your gear on a grid and optimize your special abilities vs. your big damage weapons.
There is also a nice equalizing mechanic that sees you building up a power attack the more damage you take.
Despite the minimalist graphical treatment, the artwork by Marlowe Dobb is notable. Though reductive, it’s reminiscent of a lovely papercraft eastern European style, or perhaps like slightly more hyper-colorized Stanislaw Lem book covers.
The soundtrack by Chipzel is also super awesome: a groovy, sweaty vaporwave/schmaltz mash-up that could very well be confused at times for instrumental Mr. Bungle doing chiptune.
Rolling and Rolling
Caveats: the grindy churn of a game like this that doesn’t include any sort of overarching story or meta-game can get a little repetitive, in spite of all the variety and flavor. It isn’t unlike those edutainment math games of yore. Well, that and a touch of ye olde Frog Fractions.
People who are not into dice-rolling need not apply (this holds true here), though RNG isn’t so much a factor, as there are so many ways to hack your rolls that it is more like a raw resource to manage rather than a random force derailing your efforts. Reiner Knizia would be proud.
When you are ultimately bested, your game is over. No inserting another quarter. However, this is also where you discover your new unlockable characters, and the game begins again with a whole new ball of wax you can deploy to make your attempt at winning this diabolical game show.
Also, because it is a Rogue-like, I really wish there was a button to skip the opening cut-scene. It gets old after the third of fourth play-through. Really, really old. I found I also had trouble continuing my games between different computers – not sure why the cloud sync wasn’t working, but I had to start from complete scratch on a different computer with the same Steam account.
As you progress, these dice machinations become increasingly wacky and creative, and perhaps it is in this consistent renovation of applications that Dicey Dungeons sustains long-term intrigue.
I find I keep launching the game for another round; there is something meditative about carving the numbers up in myriad ways to create different effects and fell the colorful array of challengers. As the options increase, the richness of the game’s play also increases. You may find a combination you love, rather than cycling in new gear or effects, but eventually, you will meet a mozzie with special moves that you simply aren’t equipped to handle.
At the time of this writing, the mobile versions for iOS and Android have yet to be released, but I hope and assume that some of the minor gripes will be smoothed out and feel that on mobile devices this game will be a huge hit.
Modestly-priced, Dicey Dungeons is a polished game, worth the price for the art and music alone, and a great addition to almost any casual gamer’s catalog, likely to become a classic.
Watch the official trailer for Dicey Dungeons below: