Dicey Dungeons first caught my eye because it was a Terry Cavanagh game; ever since he released Super Hexagon, he’s been somebody whose work I am curious about. Though, to be sure, Dicey Dungeons seemed quite different from Super Hexagon! It’s clearly dice-focused; and the game blurb says that it’s a deckbuilding roguelike. All of those properties are things that I’m open to, and am willing to believe that I’d enjoy; so when Dicey Dungeons got released on iPad, I gave it a try.

And, yeah, there are lots of dice in the game! And I also can’t argue with the characterization of the game as a roguelike; having said that, though, Dicey Dungeons doesn’t have the sorts of virtues that I expect from a roguelike.


As you’d expect from a deckbuilding roguelike, you’re traveling through floors, each of which contains a graph whose nodes are either fights or ways of improving your character. But the navigation part just isn’t that interesting: because of the way leveling up works in Dicey Dungeons, you’re strongly encouraged to fight every battle on each floor, and you don’t encounter situations where navigating to node X precludes you from also navigating to node Y.

So, basically, you’ll do all the fighting, and get all the power-ups; the only real navigation choice, then, is when to grab health refills, and honestly that’s not a particularly interesting choice.

This isn’t to say that all the roguelike virtues are missing. The combat is pleasant enough, and there’s both enough variation in monster encounters and in the availability and choice of moves to keep me interested in the game across multiple runs. But if you come into Dicey Dungeons hoping for the kind of depth that you find in, say, Slay the Spire, you won’t find it, and part of why you won’t find it is that some entire classes of level variation were removed.


That’s the roguelike part of the description; as for the deckbuilding part, my take on that is simpler: Dicey Dungeons isn’t a deckbuilder. You start with access to a limited set of moves, you get access to more as the game goes on (with both randomness and choice playing a role in what you gain access to), and, for each battle, you have to pick a small subset of those moves to be available for you during your battle. The loadout in each battle is static, and all of the moves are available for use each turn.

There’s no shuffling, no randomness of your hand each turn leading to hopes for a draw to give you the card / combo you want, no confronting an overly large deck that you want to prune down, no having to make hard cohices about whether your deck would be better if you were to add one of the offered cards or if you were to skip both of them. I simply do not understand why the store description of the game uses the term “deckbuilding”.


So: Dicey Dungeons isn’t what I expected coming into it. Which is fine, I like lots of different genres, and the way it leans into dice is new to me. I enjoyed learning about the systems of the game by going through the dungeon while playing the first class (Warrior); I enjoyed trying out the next class (Thief), being surprised at how difficult I found it, and eventually coming to grips with the way the Thief move set played out.

Dicey Dungeons has six classes; and each class comes with six episodes. So the first episode shows you the basic idea for that class, giving you a feel for what moves you’ll start with, what moves you’ll encounter as you progress, what sorts of combos you’ll try to put together. And then the subsequent episodes play around with that: sometimes in a simpler way (the same thing but harder), sometimes with a different but related set of moves available to you, sometimes changing the underlying rules of that character and even of the game.

When I tried out the first two characters, I assumed that a different character simply meant a different move set, with more variation in move sets appearing as you change characters than is present across the different episodes for a given character. But, in fact, the differences between characters can be much more profound than that. Above, I said that Dicey Dungeons isn’t a deckbuilder; except that, for one of the characters, the game actually more or less is a deckbuilder! So it’s not just your move set that changes across classes: the fundamental rules of the game change as you try out the different classes.


Ultimately, that variation what makes Dicey Dungeons interesting and special. It’s an exploration of a design space, with major variations appearing as you change classes and minor but still significant changes appearing as you try the different episodes within a class.

And those variations really can be significant: for example, I said above that Dicey Dungeons is missing a certain class of interesting choices that I would expect while navigating the room graph of a roguelike; but there’s one episode where your health decreases instead of increasing as you level up, and with that change, all of a sudden you don’t necessarily want to fight every enemy in every floor, and you have interesting choices as to what parts of a floor you want to interact with and what parts you want to bypass.


So: neat game. It’s basically a theme and variations: you start with a stripped down roguelike with a character that has moves mediated by dice, and with a given set of enemies and attributes of your and your enemies’ moves. (E.g. the existence of a certain set of damage types: fire damage, ice damage, electricity damage, etc.)

And the game makes a bunch of changes to that theme: what if we tweaked aspect X? What if we did a complete overhaul of aspect Y? What if we brought in an entire new system?

But, underneath those variations, the theme is always there, bringing coherence to the different variations, and providing baseline expectations that the game uses to surprise and delight you during those variations.

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