Indie Wonderland: Desktop Dungeons

A few hours in

I fought some more goats. Guys, I fought a whole bunch of goats. But as it turns out? Once you get over that initial sense of revulsion and existential dread, goats aren’t even all that scary.

I mean, sure, they’re still nothing to be scoffed at. But what I’m saying is that if this guy here can take down a goat…

Top right corner. *That* guy.

…and he totally could!…

It’s always the doofy ones.

…maybe, just maybe, we’ve reached a point where we can start considering them something like our equals, not our bleating overlords.

Beating back the immediate threat of the goats has secured the direct area around Indie Wonderland. This, in turn, opened up the world map, providing access to a whole mess of additional dungeons.

This many of ’em.

And the kingdom itself hasn’t sat still either. For instance, I persuaded some financial experts to join the ranks of Indie Wonderland’s administration.


And look at these dwarf bros! What up, dwarf bros? I built them a sweet dwarven frat house, and they repaid my generosity by dying in dungeons for me over and over.


And dwarves and bankers aren’t even the end of it, either. I found elves, and halflings, and surprisingly civilized orcs… and monks, and berserkers, and several different gods…

Like this god: the Crazy Kid God of Magic.

I could go on, but the upshot of it is that I’ve played quite a lot of Desktop Dungeons over the past week or so. It’s a fun game, you guys! It’s easy to pick up and play, simple to learn but hard to master, great to play in short bursts, it looks great, it’s well-written, and every time you think you’ve seen everything it has to offer, it blindsides you with something new. It’s definitely not flawless, and the experience it provides will likely not appeal to everyone. But even with those caveats, I find it difficult to talk about Desktop Dungeons in any terms that can’t be considered glowing.

The visual appeal is the easiest part, so let’s start with that. Desktop Dungeons looks gorgeous. Your kingdom is an ever-expanding storybook image on par with the cities from Heroes of Might and Magic 3, the character and monster portraits are literal works of art, and even the dungeons’ pixelated tiles have a definite atmosphere of their own. You can basically see all of this in action in the dozens of screenshots present in this review so far, but just to give you one of my favourite examples:

I recommend not drinking the tea until after you find a good place to lie down for a few hours.

This screenshot also aptly demonstrates Desktop Dungeons’ quality of writing, which is… uniquely interesting, I guess? In relatively little formal backstory, Desktop Dungeons presents a fantasy world that is both homage to and parody of classical fantasy writing, with enough of its own twist on things to allow for it feeling like a world all its own. Hipster elves, fratboy dwarves, high-class orcs… but also sour, unsociable halflings, financial expert vampires, and an extradimensional demonic entity serving as dungeon-wide shop front.

You can still see the demonic tentacles writhing in and under the tents.

And as a final word on visual appeal: I cannot express enough just how much I love that every race-class combination has their own set of lovingly hand-crafted portraits, both for male and female adventurers. Those are a lot of portraits, you guys! 18 classes, 7 races… it would have been so easy, and probably tempting, to make all adventurers default to male and cut the artwork-work in half. Kudos to QCF Design for not taking these shortcuts: as it stands, the combination of race-class-gender-specific art and names manages to make every adventurer you send to their untimely demise feel just that bit more unique.

Desktop Dungeons’ moment-to-moment gameplay is an interesting, occasionally highly frustrating variant of the roguelike. As I’ve mentioned before, you, the player, are the only acting entity in any dungeon: monsters only strike when struck, leaving the pacifists among us relatively safe in their endeavors. Also relatively not doing anything, but maybe that’s a small price to pay for safety?

In every Desktop Dungeons… dungeon, your goal is to beat the dungeon boss(es) and take their trophy item home. You always start at level 1, race and class of your choice, and each dungeon is seeded with a (semi-)random assortment of monsters, powerups, items, spells, shops, and special encounters. It’s up to you to find the optimal path through each dungeon, gaining enough power and possibilities to take down the final boss… or die trying. Or flee, if you think you can’t possibly handle it. It’s an option.

The straightforward way of gaining more power is through leveling up, which involves smacking monsters until they die. Desktop Dungeons’ core combat system is relatively simple: you click on a monster, and both you and the monster strike each other. Highest level strikes first, advantage-monsters. If either of you dies… well, if you die, that’s it. If the monster dies, you gain a certain amount of XP. Rinse, repeat, level up.

Desktop Dungeons always provides you with all the information you need in order to make combat decisions. Both you and the monster have a health total and a damage total, and those work out pretty much the way you’d expect them to. Mousing over the monster tells you, both in numbers and in a clever graphic metaphor, just how much damage the exchange would do to either party. Like so:

All things remaining equal, this dwarf would kill Lord Gobb in six strikes. Lord Gobb would kill this dwarf in two strikes.

If the little ‘Next Hit’ sign reads ‘win’, your next strike will win the fight! If it reads ‘safe’, you won’t win, but you won’t die either. If it reads ‘death’…

Maybe not take that action.

EXP calculation is equally simple: monsters reward EXP equal to their level, plus bonuses if you beat a monster at a higher level, plus any other bonuses. As with health, you can always see how close the EXP from any given fight would put you to or over the next level. And as leveling up fully heals you and removes any status effects, this is good to know.

Save for leveling, your principal source of healing damage in Desktop Dungeons is through exploring dungeon tiles. And while that can initially sound fairly… easy and forgiving, I guess, you’ll quickly come to realize what a careful game of resource conservation this really entails.

Consider: in the early levels, as you’re searching for enemies you can actually handle, every un-damaged step represents a waste of valuable resources.

So many monsters, but none of them in my power range! What an awful, awful waste.

While in the late levels, you’re desperately scrounging for any unexplored tiles left. C’mon, just two more… that’s all the health I need to kill this guy and level up!

I am, of course, ‘shit out of luck’.

And that’s not even getting into the spellcasting glyphs that can mess up the dungeon layout… or the items you can find and equip, the gods you can worship and/or offend, and the random side-dungeons that are as often straight boons as they are straight traps.

And occasionally, straight pop culture references.

And I feel I shouldn’t even have to mention that the class you play as has a massive impact on how each dungeon plays. The Wizard can carry much more spell glyphs than anyone else, the Priest’s health potions heal them to almost-full, the Fighter has one-time death protection and can see same-level enemies on the map… And have I mentioned there are 18 of these classes?

Tying this dungeon crawling together is the kingdom, where you use the gold you gain from successfully completing dungeons and quests to unlock new races, character classes, and options.

On the one hand, the kingdom screen gameplay is much less satisfying than Desktop Dungeons’ actual dungeons. Upgrading your kingdom is mostly a matter of grinding and luck. Gold is primarily obtained by successfully completing dungeons and quests, and — at least in the early stages of the game — your flow of gold income will pale in comparison to the many, many cool and shiny things you’re tempted with. Particularly because, once you start playing with kingdom preparations — sending your heroes into new dungeons a little more fore-armed…

Which is to say, ‘not *entirely* empty-handed’.

…failed dungeon runs can actually end up costing you money. As such, between the inherent randomness of dungeon success and the fact that you need to play certain random encounters well in order to even get certain options — goddamn Gnomes — the persistent, long-term gameplay connection offered by the kingdom can occasionally start feeling like a choice-overload-mandated grind. I have to unlock all of these cool things!

On the other hand, the persistent, long-term gameplay connection offered by the kingdom does offer just that: a reason for all these individual dungeon runs to feel meaningful, connected, working towards some larger goal. A Desktop Dungeons sans kingdom screen would still be fun in the moment-to-moment gameplay, but that game would only really work as a coffee-break diversion.

The kingdom screen hides an amazing depth of additional content. Old quests lead to new quests. Upgrading buildings reveals new enemy types. The classes you unlock lead to class-specific maps, revealing sets of challenges specifically tailored to each class’ strengths and weaknesses.

The pop culture references are tailored too.

For my money, though, my favourite feature so far is the ‘puzzle’ mode, which is to regular Desktop Dungeons what… well, what chess puzzles are to a regular game of chess, I guess. Shut up, it’s not a great metaphor.

In puzzle mode levels, all of Desktop Dungeons’ inherent randomness is eliminated in favour of a set layout of monsters, items and skills. Here, the game goes: this is the stuff you have, these are the monsters in your way. Beat the highest-level one and you win.

Man, this puzzle. First and (so far) only puzzle I had to look up. I could *not* figure it out.

Puzzle mode is a great, grind-avoiding way of testing your understanding of Desktop Dungeons’ mechanics against its developers’ warped hatred of happiness. And inversely, particularly with the trickier races and gods, puzzle mode can sometimes feel like a brief mini-tutorial on the new and interesting ways these new and interesting elements allow for breaking the rules as you knew them.

Though, in fairness: some of the larger puzzles get *so* many moving parts at once, that it can be nigh-impossible to figure the right answer out in any other way than ‘trial and error’.

Honestly, though, I think my favourite part of puzzle mode is how well it reflects on Desktop Dungeons as a whole. Because for all its inherent unfair randomness and weird bullshit, this is really what Desktop Dungeons is: a collection of random-generated murder puzzles. A collection of random-generated puzzles, tied together by a larger meta-game where you unlock new puzzle elements, that then feed into new, interesting puzzles. It’s an endless procession of opportunities to test your ability to plan and to improvise against ever-shifting nonsense odds.

I dunno. Does that sound like something you’d be into?

Final thoughts

Desktop Dungeons is a game about smacking random monsters in random locations for random benefits. It’s a game about building a kingdom from the remains of a rather ill-planned caravan, using all the parts of the vampire buffalo you just killed next door. It’s a game about learning mechanical mastery of a set of often-shifting rules, and about improvising when you suddenly run across an unexpected benefit, and about boiling with rage because you forgot to feed the damn Gnome again.

Desktop Dungeons is random, and unfair, and rather grindy, and it won’t appeal to everyone. It’s the gaming equivalent of a bag of fun-size Snickers, except like half of the peanuts are actually walnuts. Or cocktail nuts, or olives, or rocks. But you still keep eating them, one after the other… because the chocolate filling is just so good.

Desktop Dungeons is a game that makes me write in tortured metaphors, apparently. If that’s not a glowing recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Desktop Dungeons can be obtained for the equivalent of 15 dollars on the official site, netting you both a Steam key and the ability to play in-browser. Mac and Linux support are also offered. And while it doesn’t have a demo in a traditional sense, the original prototype version is freely available online.

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  1. Interesting review. You really liked the graphics, but looking at the screenshots, the interface looks a little too busy and hard to interpret. Is this just an artifact of looking at screenshots that’re smaller than the actual game? Did you run into any problems trying to get the information you needed from the UI?

    1. Good point! The interface is definitely quite cluttered and information-rich at the start, and it can take a while to wrap your head around where everything is. But once that happens — and I accommodated quite rapidly — you’ll find that most of the necessary information is fairly easily in-reach.

      Some examples:
      – As I’ve mentioned in the review, almost *all* information that plays into any individual fight is displayed both numerically and graphically when you mouse over an opponent. I love this system so much.
      – The stuff to the left of your character portrait is relatively unimportant for its prominence, and most of the time, you won’t even be looking there.
      – The little icons on the character portrait could actually maybe have been done a little better. You can mouse over them to get a description, but that’s hardly ideal. As it stands, however, they represent class-specific information that you’ll just kind of *know* after two or three games with a class.

      So, to answer your question: yes, the interface is quite visually busy. But no, I never really found myself having any problems getting the information I want out of them.

      And you can click on the screenshots to see them in full-resolution glory, if you’re so inclined. ;)

  2. Ok, that’s pretty cool! I guess I should be used to information-rich yet useful interfaces from Fire Emblem (and Paradox games, though that blurs the definition of “useful”).

  3. Man, every time Desktop Dungeons has gone on sale, I’ve looked at it for awhile and been this close to buying it. But somehow, I’d completely missed the whole “persistent and slowly growing fantasy kingdom management” aspect, which sounds like it really gives the whole game context and is just plain cool besides.

    I’m still not sure where the “desktop” part of the title comes in, though. Methinks the game got away from its original vision a bit.

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