Indie Wonderland: Card Dungeon

A few hours in

Or not.

I mean, I did kill *one* of them.

The Crypts of the Dread Monovis turned out, er, a little more than my Crusader could handle. While I survived the first floor’s weird giant mouth-ball, I was mobbed by cultists and floating Definitely-Not-Beholders-Please-Don’t-Sue-Us eyeballs on the second. As Crusader’s life ticked down to zero in poison and fire, he fell, leaving a headstone in his wake. ‘Don’t worry though’, Card Dungeon told me, ‘if you make it back to this level again, you can loot your own cards and items!’

Yeah. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Crusader The Second didn’t even make it out of Gorebash’s Doomed Isle — and yes, he was forced to start there, earlier clearing be damned. I learned a little too late that summoning uncontrollable tentacle beasts in enclosed spaces isn’t always the path to a bright and shining victory future.

I brought it into this world, and it — and all the spiders and summoners — guided me out of it.

And then I created a third Crusader, functionally identical to the other two in every way, and I effortlessly beat 5/6th of the whole game. I would have almost cleared the whole thing, in one go, if it hadn’t been for one tiny mishap.

This was the mishap.

I doubt I’ll be making another attempt.

Five-hour play time notwithstanding, I honestly did not have a lot of fun with Card Dungeon. There’s no nice way to say this: a significant part of this game is just a slog. Card Dungeon’s core involves trudging through room after room in procedural identikit dungeons, fighting slow battles of attrition against a cavalcade of monsters that all lack a strong identity, hoping against hope that this room is the one holding the level boss — so you can defeat it, finally, and move on. To the next level. The cards are unbalanced, the mechanics don’t seem to match the intended experience, the customization options lacking, and the visuals… well, the visuals are still nice. Real nice. In fact, let this be the one unqualified nice thing I’ll say about Card Dungeon: it looks exactly as rad and amazing as I was hoping it would when I hit that Purchase button.

Is this a Card Dungeon screenshot, or a picture of an actual cardboard dungeon box setup? You can’t tell, can you?

What personally trips me up the most about Card Dungeon — and I’m well-aware this is going to sound petty in hindsight — is how slow it feels.

This is how a typical gameplay round in Card Dungeon plays out. First, you open a door. Most of the time, nine out of ten doors, this resolves to a large rectangular room with a bunch of monsters in it. Which is to say, the rooms are always rectangular: even the connecting hallways don’t escape this fate. And the monsters are usually a bunch. Particularly in later levels, ‘quantity over quality’ seems to be the mantra.

Once you open the door, the monsters in the room beyond immediately and irrevocably spot you. And they will come for you. There is no escape from this. Once the monsters have been revealed, there doesn’t seem to be any way to get them off your back save for murdering them. You can run away, but they’ll follow. And you can try to hide, but they’ll always perfectly know where you are — shin-high wall stubs don’t seem like such a good idea now, do they?

As long as the room beyond doesn’t *exist* yet, you’re good. But once it does…

So, you fight.

Because the door-opening constituted your ‘first turn’, the monsters get to act immediately afterward. Every monster takes an individual turn: they analyze the situation, and then either move towards you or play a card. And when I say ‘analyze the situation’, what I mean is that every monster takes something like half a second after becoming ‘active’ to even start acting to begin with. Combine this with low animation speeds, and the fact that cards appear on-screen and slide off the side when activated so you can check back later, and each individual monster turn can easily take one, two seconds to complete.

And then the next monster moves. And that takes two seconds. And then the next monster moves. And that takes two seconds. And then the next monster moves…

And then, at the end of the whole shebang, play passes back to you. We’re as far as ten, fifteen seconds into this room, now. And that was only the first turn. You haven’t actually done anything yet.

This can even apply in the case of monsters that don’t actually interact with you.

So what I’m saying is, Card Dungeon’s combat isn’t exactly a high-octane affair. Particularly in the later dungeons, the ratio of ‘actually acting’ versus ‘sitting on your ass’ is low. And this isn’t even calculating in planned waiting, where you sometimes find yourself skipping turns just to wait for enemies to burn to death. It can get a little dull at times, honestly.

Compounding this problem is the fact that a lot of Card Dungeon’s combat is unnecessary.

Every Card Dungeon level has the same basic goal. Beat the boss, and get to the exit. Every monster room that stands between you and that boss is more time-burning filler. But more to the point, it’s resource-burning filler: (almost) every fight in Card Dungeon necessitates you using your cards, and card lifetime usage is always sharply limited. So every Hack And Slide or Teleport Stab you use to defeat a Grunt Minion is one Hack And Slide or Teleport Stab that can’t go towards the dungeon boss du jour.

What, you thought I was making those card names up?

And in return, you don’t get a lot from Card Dungeon combat. There is no intrinsic reward for defeating monsters; no experience, for instance, and no levels to gain. All monsters do drop a loot bag on death, but those bags aren’t nearly as useful as you’d think. Not often, at least. Some bags contain gold, which is used for a sharply limited ‘upgrade shop’ system. And some bags contain health and mana potions, which you absolutely have to chug on-the-spot for fear of losing them forever. Some bags contain the meta-game knowledge gems, which are nice, and some bags contain equipment cards, which are as close to straight power upgrades as you’re likely to get. Some bags even contain nothing at all! More bags than you’d like to, in fact.

Also notice that even in the case of empty bags, you have to manually click either ‘Take’ or ‘Discard’ to continue playing.

But by far most of the bags contain new skills. And, oh boy, the skills. Talks about a whole new can of segues.

90% of the skills in Card Dungeon are varying degrees of worthless.

For instance, *this* masterpiece.

Or rather, maybe it’s fairer to say that about ten percent of Card Dungeon’s skills are either ‘just’ good, or exceptional. And over the course of play, you quickly learn to identify and prioritize these rare good skills. For instance, any skill involving sustained area damage is a must-have. Like Heat Wave, or Poison Mist. Or Lava Eruption, dear god, Lava Eruption. Listen: always pick up Lava Eruption. That skill is so hilariously broken. Direct damage, sustained damage, and the enemy AI just cannot deal with it.

I will fight *anyone* who disagrees with me on this.

Even single-target sustained damage skills are pretty amazing. Counter-intuitively, no single monster is immune to any debuff. So you can poison Acid Cubes, or set Flaming Skulls on fire, and laugh at your broken powers all day erryday. And even purely single damage skills have some merit, particularly those with neat secondary effects.

Everything else? Worthless.

The thing to consider here is that, as I’ve said, the goal of every Card Dungeon level is to beat the boss and get to the exit. In order to beat the boss, you need to deal damage. And in order to deal damage, you need damage-dealing cards. There’s really no easier way to put this core loop.

But straight damage cards are sharply limited in usage. Because there are many monsters, with many hit points, and you only play your card so often. So if have a 7-damage attack, and the monster has 14 hit point, you’re looking at two activations — and two turns — to kill it. If it’s 15 hit points instead, that’s three activations. And if the monster isn’t alone… and it’s never alone…

Well, do the math.

It very quickly becomes a necessity to deal lots of damage to lots of monsters at once. And this is where damage-over-time cards begin to shine. Depending on the debuff and the card’s quality level, a single application of (say) Flaming Torch can deal up to 21 damage. No single single-damage card gets that high. And ground-targeted cards are even crazier: the aforementioned Lava Eruption creates nine fields of fire that deal direct damage, and inflict burning damage over time.

Oh, and like I said, the enemy AI can’t seem to deal with this kind of attack. At all. As far as I can tell, enemies basically have two drives: a) get as close to you as possible every turn, and b) try to avoid taking unnecessary damage while doing so. But the former strongly overrides the latter: if you put a lava field in a single-tile door, monsters will line up to walk through that sucker. Better yet: they’ll walk into the lava, catch fire, panic, run away… and then turn around next turn and walk straight back in!

Here, a dungeon boss used a skill on me that amounted to ‘teleport you somewhere, and put a lava moat around you’. And I was like… thanks?

Every other kind of skill is worthless. Healing skills are worthless, because you find health and mana potions everywhere, and because you can find equipment cards that provide health and mana regeneration, if you’re lucky.

Once I slipped this thing on, I was basically indestructible. Seriously, I just *couldn’t* die.

Buff tiles and other boosting skills are worthless, because you might as well be killing enemies. Targeted debuffs that don’t deal damage are worthless, because they don’t deal damage. Summoning skills are largely worthless, because the summons can’t be controlled directly and they’re honestly not that powerful. And the whole package of movement blocking and enemy relocation skills is entirely worthless, for reasons I hope I don’t have to expand upon. Basically, the rule is this: if it doesn’t kill, either outright or over time, it’s garbage.

Consequently, 80% of the skill-providing loot bags you find… I guess you can see where I’m going with this.

Oh goody! I can summon the weakest enemy in the game!

I can see what Playtap Games was trying to go for, with this card-deteriorating mechanic and the wide skill variety. Because you lose your skills over time, you can’t afford to get complacent with what you have. And because there are so many skills, it’ll always be a surprise what you get and what you can work with. And, in fairness, I’ve had this experience once. In dungeon 3-1, the first zombie dungeon, I at one point found myself surrounded by a horde of zombies, armed with nothing but a prodding-stick skill and a summoned zombie of my own that needed corpses to activate. What followed from there was a wild goose chase through the level, me desperately trying to find crates and chests with new cards and environmental traps to lure the zombies in, all the while pushing away the ones that got close. Card Dungeon wants to be that more often, I think: a wild rush through a random assortment of skills, items, and dangers, forcing you to think on your feet and make the most of every situation.

There was a lot of silent swearing going on during this section.

But here’s the thing: I wasn’t exhilarated at all during that big chase scene. I was frustrated. I figured that there was no way I was going to win, that I was going to have to replay the previous two dungeons all over again, and that I only lost because I didn’t get the random drop cards I needed to beat those goddamn frustrating cheat-zombies and their immobilization bullshit. And even when I did win, I attributed it as much to my own tactics and skill as to the kindness of the random generator. If that last chest had been another self-heal or mana drain…

And, okay. In theory, dying shouldn’t even be that much of an issue. It’s a roguelike, death happens. But in practice, the slow pace and linear experience that Card Dungeon offers quickly kill any desire to go through the whole circus again. And the provided individualization options — the ‘good and bad traits’ — that you can unlock during play, aren’t nearly as impactful on the overall gameplay experience as I would’ve liked them to be. Neither of the starting traits had much of a measurable impact on gameplay to begin with, as far as I experienced it, and I don’t really see any of the new ones change that up overmuch.

Oh no! Two particular cards, which have this effect, are now marginally less useful to me than before!

And all this is not even mentioning some of the relatively minor quibbles I have with this game. Like the weird speed-walking system, which — when out of combat — forces you to always walk three tiles in one go, even if you’d like less. Of the ‘dangerous’ hidden traps, easily revealed by the aforementioned walking system, which only really serve to further waste your time. Or the equally unbalanced nature of the equipment system, which seems to think an item that lowers your evasion is somehow of higher quality than an item that helps you kill enemies, and which overvalues the binary-feeling ‘hit chance’ to an absurd degree. Or the card quality system, which does nothing more than incrementally change number values on otherwise identical cards. Or the random nature of the Knowledge Gems, which saw me get zero of them in my first two runs, and then thirteen in the third, unlocking almost every new trait in one fell swoop. Or the terrible quality of the repeating banter, particularly where the squid mages are concerned. Or, or, or…

I don’t know to what degree my experience was typical, of course. Particularly in my third run, I found some incredibly powerful cards and equipment relatively early. So maybe the early experience would’ve been more exciting?… But even factoring that out, my main complaints still stand: Card Dungeon is a slow, prodding, samey-looking experience, a randomness engine with careless weighting, a marathon-like endurance battle without all the benefits of fresh air and exercise. Most of the time, I found it either frustratingly boring, or frustratingly unfair. And for a game genre that’s built around incremental improvement through replay, Card Dungeon doesn’t really offer enough incentives to engage in either.

So yeah.

Final thoughts

The more I think about, the more I find myself thinking that Card Dungeon would be much improved if your character just had a basic attack. The ridiculously over-weighted importance of damage-dealing cards can all be brought back to the fact that you can’t do anything without them. And with only three cards in your sleeve, and big bunched-up monster battles that often wear your cards down quickly, you can’t really afford to carry anything but murder-tools. But adding in a basic attack function, an indestructible 1-damage card or something to that effect, would mitigate so much of that. Suddenly, it’d be plausible to focus on healing and buffing yourself.

Or, changing the mechanics up even more, why isn’t Card Dungeon a multi-agent game? Either multiplayer, or party/squad-based. Again, this would totally allow for non-combat skills to be useful. Have one character with damage cards, one character with healing cards, one character to control and misdirect monsters… and obviously, that would all change up over time, as cards get damaged and replaced by random drops.

But sadly, Card Dungeon is neither of those games. What it is is this: a samey, linear monster-fighting experience, leaning too heavily on unfulfilling combat and the Skinner Box effect of random card drops to really provide any long-term meaningful gameplay. It’s fun for a while, picking up new cards and seeing the new dungeon sights — and the terribly groan-inducing quotes, jokes, and monster designs. Yes, there is an ‘Arrow To The Knee’ skill. No, I’m not showing it.

But at the end of the day, Card Dungeon is essentially a solved game that provides little engagement. Much like the cards themselves, Card Dungeon ends up just not lasting very long. If you really want to try it for yourself, it’s currently ten bucks on Steam. But me, I’m starting to see its tears and dulling colours. Time for me to pick up something else instead.

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Jarenth would never *ever* let his cards get *this* messed-up. Have you no heart, card monsters? Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam to express how much cards mean to you. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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