I was drawn to Playtap Games‘ Card Dungeon primarily through the fancy graphic design. I mean, video games that emulate physical cards are not really uncommon, I could probably list a bunch of those. But games that actually try to emulate pop-up board game dungeons? Complete with cards, tiles, and little cardboard figurines standing in those plastic holder things that never quite manage to keep them upright? I’ve played just enough Hero Quest, and that odd Dungeons and Dragons Introduction Box thing, to have a very direct and visceral reaction to that.
And then I also learned that Card Dungeon was to be a roguelike dungeon exploration game, featuring fighting and looting and procedurally-generated cellulose halls, and hey! It was in my Steam library before I knew it. Cardboard glory, ho!
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low-medium. Mechanical, high.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Card Dungeon opens up on, appropriately, a cardboard dungeon. Grey and green tiles slam down into a black void, and a title menu slides down from above as a knight of some description and a disembodied dragon head chase each other across the featureless expanse. It’s all a little surreal-feeling, to be completely honest.
There are no options.
I mouse around the title menu for a minute or so, but there are just no options. Nothing at all. And that’s… I won’t go as far as to say this ruins the experience for me, but neither will I pretend I can just shrug this thing off. No options, geez. What if I don’t like your graphics? What if want to turn game sound down if it’s too loud, instead of messing with my audio hardware? What if I need subtitles? None of these are game-breakers per se, for me, but it always just feels sloppy when developers don’t include them.
But, then again, I guess Card Dungeon was a mobile game before it was ever anything else. And as I’m sure you know, in the mobile landscape, it’s much more accepted to ignore graphics settings and shunt audio settings to the device’s volume button. So it’s not sloppy overall design, then, just sloppy porting work. Which… eh. I’d have preferred it differently.
I poke around the title menu a little bit more. Let’s see, what else do we have? New Game, let’s save that for now. Greyed-out Continue, that’s obviously no good. Three Twitter links for each of the game’s three core contributors, which saves me the trouble of looking those up myself. And hey, look, Credits! Let’s see what happens if I…
Suddenly I find myself in a dungeon.
Aah! Dude, what the?… In a flash, I’m overwhelmed with new information. A knight in the center, thinking up gameplay hints. A treasure chest. A giant pink shape of some description. Blue arrows, red hearts, walls, doors. Blackness. Elevator muzak plays in the background. What in the devil did I do? Did I mis-click, somewhere?
Panicked at the prospect of accidentally starting something important, I hammer the Escape key. And when that fails to make everything go away, I hammer Alt-F4 instead. Yeah, readers, you’re reading that right: Jarenth, Ludic Adventurer And Wordsmith Extraordinaire, got so upset by an unexpected screen transition that he basically turned around and ran for the hills. Not quite my proudest moment, this.
Cautiously, I boot up Card Dungeon again. Same title, same tiles, same knight-and-dragon dance. So far, so good. Then I click the Credits button again, and…
Ah, okay. So this is intentional. I guess this… hearts dungeon, or whatever it is, is the Credits screen? That’s pretty original, I guess. Confusing as all hell, but original.
But then why is the knight — ‘my character’, I’m assuming at this point — spouting gameplay hints right now? Is that just what he always does at the start of a game? Or… no, he said a different thing last time. And as I click on the blue arrows around him, which make him move from place to place, he spouts a few more helpful lines… then stops talking altogether.
Did I just waste the tutorial?
Carefully, this time around, I hit the Escape button again. With the benefit of Not-Stress, I can see now that this brings up an actual in-game menu. And hey, wouldn’t you know it: the options I lambasted Card Dungeon for earlier for not having, are actually all in here!
Also visible in this in-game menu is a handful of ‘how-to-play’ help pages. My ancient nemeses. Still, again, I appreciate them being there, considering I squandered my one tutorial session on pointless fear. The first page of the list also serves as a handy-dandy visual overview of icons and conditions, and this is the one thing I’ve always considered these kinds of ‘help pages’ to be useful for. So there’s that.
But, you know what? I’ve already worked out so much all on my own. Menu activation, movement. Rage-quitting. At this point I might as well start the game proper, don’t you agree? I’m sure I can pick up the rest of Card Dungeon’s operation with the help of that best teacher, Experience.
I exit to the main menu, hit the New Game button, and…
Alright. So what I have to do here is… pick a ‘good trait’. I have eleven cards to choose from, except ten of them are covered up and unusable. ‘Find a Knowledge Gem to unlock this character trait!’ So this choice isn’t actually very difficult at all! By necessity, I opt for ‘Crusader’s Breath’, which can ‘randomly heal me for 5 health at the start of every turn’.
Similarly, out of the six ‘bad traits’, only Cheapskate is actually open for selection.
And with that, we’re actually off!
A poster map unfolds before me. It’s dotted with adventure locations: ‘Northvale’s Three Nightmares’, ‘Acid Mausoleums of Ooool’, ‘Crypts of the Dread Monovis’… As I’ve come to expect, though, only one of these locations is open to my right now. ‘Gorebash’s Doomed Isle’, the bottom left of the world, is where my journey takes me today.
Gorebash’s Doomed Isle greets me with a quick adventure summary.
And with that, we’re actually actually off! For real this time!
The knight called Crusader, my stand-in for today’s adventure, finds himself hanging out in a small stone dungeon room. To the left, a treasure chest and a table with some gold pieces. To the front, mushrooms, a water puddle, and a door. And a small sand creature apparently called a ‘Grunt’. It does not appear to be happy to see me.
Three cards are sitting on the bottom of the screen. ‘Flash of Steel’, ‘Heal’, ‘Shock Blast’. Clicking on a card once selects it; clicking twice zooms in further. Doing so provides me a lot of numerical information and icons that I can’t quite parse, and a short verbal description that I actually can. These cards, it turns out, are my equipped skills: they are the things I can actually do. Flash of Steel allows me to attack an enemy in melee range, Shock Blast attacks at a distance, and Heal — stunningly — heals me. All cards have mana costs, which refers back to the blue circle under my character standee, and an effect on health, which is shown in the red circle.
I toy around with the cards a little bit. Selecting them once primes them for use, so I could attack that Grunt creature with my Shock Blast. But… both the treasure chest and the table are sitting on yellow tiles, and I’m just dying to work out what that means.
I click the treasure chest. It opens. And inside is… a new card!
Cool, cool. So, do I just add this card to my set? Or…
No, I do not. As it turns out, the only way I can keep my new Cleaving Hit card is by ditching one of my three existing cards. Man, that’s a downer. Still, its damage numbers are higher than the other numbers… I opt to toss Shock Blast, reasoning that I might as well have two melee-range cards for optimal efficiency.
For my next lesson, I learn that Card Dungeon is evidently turn-based. Opening and looting that treasure chest constituted my first turn. The Grunt’s turn is next, and it makes full use of this opportunity to throw sand in my eyes.
The enemy’s activated card sits on the right side of the screen in my next turn, allowing me to see just how mean that guy was. And, come on. This obviously won’t stand.
I move one tile towards the Grunt. This triggers a ‘hidden trap’ on the tile I step on, which… heals me? Apparently? Before I fully parse the effect, though, the Grunt uses another attack card, sneakily stabbing me for three damage.
But now I’m in melee range too! I select my Cleaving Hit card, wind up my swinging arm, click the Grunt, and…
A quick trip to the how-to-play section teaches me that I am currently Stunned, thanks to the earlier sand attack. This also teaches me that what ‘stunned’ means in this universe is that all my attacks have a certain high chance of missing. Which… wow, isn’t that fun. I love that this is my first real Card Dungeon combat encounter, I really do. ‘Stunned’, what a hoot.
For its turn, the Grunt just stands around emoting at me. This proves to be a costly mistake, however, when my second Cleaving Attack the turn after does connect.
The dead Grunt leaves behind a skull-marked burlap bag. In it, I find a new card: a ‘bottle of blood’. Which I can throw to attract a… mole shark?
I also find GOLD!
Anyway, this room is done. I move to the door, and open it. And in response, tiles rain from the infinite sky to form the room just beyond.
I slowly make my way through the dungeon, fighting more Grunts and looting more chests. I also run across several ‘neutral’ creatures, like bats and ‘weird rat things’. It’s not really necessary to kill these things, but they do drop potentially cool loot bags. Empty, most of the time, but not always. And, crucially, I quickly learn that enemy proximity hampers movement: without enemy creatures nearby, I can move at a rate of about three tiles per click, but once enemies are nearby, I’m reduced to just one.
When you put all of that together, I almost really have to kill everything I meet.
As I move through the dungeon and fight monsters, my cards slowly start looking worse for the wear. No, but like, literally. The crisp colours fade, dents and wrinkles appear, and eventually, cards actually start tearing at the edges. It’s a neat visual way of indicating that these cards just aren’t going to last forever. But the collector in me feels a pang of pain every time I use the card again.
Finally, after about a dozen doors and hallways and Grunt-battles, I enter a room to find… a mini-boss! A larger robed Grunt appears, the Grunt Summoner, with the power to… summon more Grunts! I make it my business to take it out as quickly as possible, but its high health total and summoned reinforcements make that difficult. My poor Cleaving Hit card in particular sees play after play, until it is barely more than a scrap of paper with the vaguest hint of a drawing.
In the end, though, I come through! The Grunt Summoner falls, and Card Dungeon triumphantly brings in trumpets and rainbows to announce that this ‘Level’ is now ‘Complete!’. A few tiles from the fallen mini-boss, a glowing pink portal spawns; the level exit, there to take me to adventure 2 out of 3.
The second verse is very similar to the first: I traverse another dungeon in the same dark stone tile set, with the same tables, chests, water pits, and annoying Grunts. More varied enemies do show up, however, like spiders and Dire Foxes. Before long, my staple cards actually give out under the strain — and it’s then that I learn that routinely scavenging for new cards isn’t just the law, it’s a good idea.
Broken cards and suboptimal layouts are no deterrent to the mighty Crusader, though! And before I even know it, I find myself in the third act of the adventure, face-to-face with the titular Gorebash himself.
Gorebash is difficult, of that there can be no doubt. Strong, well-skilled, lots of allies. But through the slow process of withering him down with thorn bushes, mind-controlling him to fight his own allies, and the occasional summoning of a tentacle monster…
…I finally emerge victorious! Gorebash is no more, and his Doomed Isle is now just… an isle, I suppose.
As Crusader, flush with victory, I decide to take a little break before continuing onward. Gorebash may have been beaten, but there is plenty of adventure still left in these lands. Next stop: the Crypts of the Dread Monovis!
Be back when I kill whatever a Dread Monovis is!