There’s no doubt that we’re seeing a resurgence in “analogue” games. Following in the footsteps of video games, which in the last two decades have managed to escape the basements of misunderstood tweens and antisocial loners into the world of the trendy, card, board and tabletop roleplaying games are enjoying a new popularity among diverse audiences. And forget Monopoly and Risk: today’s popular tabletop games have involved narrative structures, complex gameplay that can last well over a few hours, socially conscious messages, regional tournaments, and even… err…“adult” themes . So of course, one can expect the resulting cross-media derivatives: board games based on computer games, mobile games based on card games, and most bizarrely, computer games based on board games based on computer games.
Games like Card Dungeon, however, fall into an altogether new and different camp. Created by Playtap Games, Card Dungeon is an original (as in, not based on any existing IP) digital game whose gameplay and aesthetics are designed to feel like a board game. Take a moment to think about that: videogame developers are attempting to make virtual games that make you feel like you’re sitting around playing a board game. If nothing else, that fact alone should convince you that we’re entering a new silver age of tabletop games.
So does Card Dungeon succeed at providing a satisfying gameplay experience? The premise itself is pretty ordinary (some might even say stale). You play as “Crusader”, a holy knight serving the divine but capricious “Lords” in a quest to “free the lands from the hordes of the Nethermist”. Like most games, it’s basically just an excuse to run around and kill zombies, evil shamans and menacing-looking bats (whose only crime, honestly, is to look menacing: the game specifically states that they’re harmless, and yet even the most righteous Crusader feel compelled to murder them for their ever-necessary Loot).
So if you’re looking for a masterful plot, you’ve come to the wrong place. If it’s riveting game mechanics, however, keep on reading. As a roguelike, Card Dungeon features the familiar procedurally generated, tile-based dungeons with turn-based combat and permanent death. Nothing new there. In fact, I tend to get frustrated by roguelikes whose only claim to the title is permadeath. If you have to start over, the game should let you reinvent your character somehow. Card Dungeon lets you do this in two ways. First, through character creation, which is refreshingly simple: there’s no lengthy class descriptions to worry about, nor any convoluted skill trees to meticulously comb through. The only thing you do is pick one positive trait (such as “Crusader’s Hex”, which makes it more likely for enemies to miss you on attacks) , and pick one negative trait (like “Cheapskate”: you can only buy 1 thing at the shop) . This means that when you die, you can easily change up your character traits to see if you fair better. Of course, “easily” might be too strong a word; unlocking new traits requires special “knowledge gems”, which are fiendishly rare loot drops. Nevertheless, you tend to progress pretty quickly through the game, so chances are that by the time you die, you’ve found at least one of these gems, and when you do eventually die, you can set yourself up for different experience.
The second way in which Card Dungeon adds variety is through the basic gameplay mechanic itself. Each turn, Crusader can either move or perform an action. Every action is represented by a card in your inventory, and it is these cards that make the game truly shine. Each card costs mana to play and can be collected as loot, and they run the gamut of actions you can take, from basic things such as healing, sword attacks and disabling traps, to more interesting and complex actions such as conjuring up thorny brambles on certain squares and vanishing and reappearing elsewhere in an explosion of fire. The twist is that Crusader can only hold three cards at a time, and that cards deteriorate with each repeated use (as in literally deteriorate: their colors start to fade and their edges get more and more ragged until they’re unusable). This forces you to be extremely thoughtful with your loot retention strategies, because getting stuck with no attack cards is…unfortunate. Should you take the common and weak poisoned dagger card to make sure you have fresh attacks, or should you milk your uber-powerful Lovecraftian-horror-summoning spell to the last drop, hoping that something else will turn up soon after? Should you waste a slot on a healing spell, or rely on healing potions that you may or may not find in the near future? The card mechanic is the pulsing heart of the game, forcing you to constantly be on your toes, keeping track of your precious card supply. It also means that the game never gets monotonous: Crusader is basically mutating new and different skills every few minutes.
Finally, the art style really makes you feel like you’re in a board game. Characters are paper-thin cutouts slotted into plastic bases, and move as though they’re being manually placed (one might argue that sometimes, enemies move a bit too slowly, but that’s only a minor annoyance), while the simple textures on the board really like they could have been painted onto cardboard. The camera angles can sometimes be a little tricky to manage (and have an irritating tendency to obscure your health and mana bubbles), but again, not a big deal. The visuals are charming enough to make up for any minor complaints, and it looks like the developers have been responsive to such player grievances.
For a digital game masquerading as a tabletop game, Card Dungeon ends up doing extremely well. Every rare card discovered and every mini-boss defeated packs a satisfying punch. It’s like that feeling you get when you cross things off of your to-do list, or when you finally fold that last piece of laundry: that warm glow of having accomplished something. Then there’s the real desperate sort of drive to stay alive, that rush of adrenaline that comes with finding that one lightning bolt you need to obliterate that zombie you’ve been frantically dodging… Both emotions are here in spades. All in all, an excellent roguelike RPG.
A satisfying roguelike with innovative card-based mechanics.