Review: Guild of Dungeoneering

GuildofDungeoneering_1

Drawn in an understated yet arresting pencil sketch style, Guild of Dungeoneering is now officially recruiting chumps brave adventurers for a devilishly charming fantasy adventure that’s equal parts roguelike dungeon crawl, turn-based card-battler, and digital single-player board game. Topping everything off, is a fun sense of humor that adds some Monty Python flavor to the experience, led by a bardic narrator who uses lyrical poetry to introduce new heroes, celebrate key events, and, more often, twist the knife when you suffer an epic fail.

As the Dungeon Master of a new guild set up to rival and discredit the virtuous jerks of the Ivory League of Explorers, you’re in charge of commanding a ragtag bunch of dispensable heroes on a quest that spans 20 dungeons, 40 or so individual missions, and around 15 hours. The adventure begins in the guild, a hub menu from which new hero classes, loot drop upgrades, and bonus traits–categorized into Might, Magic, and Loot skill trees–are unlocked using a currency of “glory” pillaged from dungeon critters. When purchased, upgrades are represented by cards that add room expansions to the guild by dragging and dropping them in any open space connecting to an adjacent room. What begins as a single room eventually grows into a hustling, bustling guild of about a dozen different dungeoneer recruits and as many as 20 or so distinctly hand drawn rooms.

GuildofDungeoneering_4

Leaving the safety of the guild behind, your chosen hero enters a selected dungeon, where parts of the map are set in place like a tabletop board game, while the rest must be constructed manually on a turn by turn basis. Everything in the game is governed by the rules of a card game. From a pool of five random cards dealt at the start of every turn, you are allowed to place anywhere from one to three cards, each adding a corridor/room, monster, or loot item to the dungeon map. Based on the layout that you create, the hero automatically charts a path through the dungeon one room at a time until he or she dies or the quest objective (kill “X” monsters, loot “X” treasure chests, reach the exit tile within a turn limit, slay a boss, etc.) is successfully completed. While movement is automated as if an invisible dice is being rolled under the table, the way you plot out the map helps to determine the dungeoneer’s direction. Gems and coin pouches, for example, seem to have the strongest carrot-and-stick effect. Conversely, monsters that are too powerful may frighten the hero into taking another route.

Upon encountering a monster, the game switches into full on card battle mode. By default, a hand consists of three cards (though there are ways to increase starting hand size), and each turn you get to play a single card in an attempt to out rock-paper-scissors the opponent’s visible top card until you or the monster runs out of HP hearts. Cards are primarily used to attack in the form of either magic or physical damage, with shield cards available to block or counter each element. Certain cards also have special abilities attached to them, such as bleed damage, health regen, bonus card draws, and modifiers that make damage unblockable or add a quick strike that plays the effect of your card first rather than both cards going into action simultaneously as normally occurs. The mechanics are incredibly simple, but there is enough nuance to outdueling monsters and strategizing dungeon crawl routes to keep you engaged, even when you’re only input is the click of a single mouse button.

GuildofDungeoneering_2

Guild of Dungeoneering handles deck building differently from a traditional TCG. Each dungeoneer class starts with a pre-set deck of cards and a special trait that determines how they should be played. From there you must expand the deck during dungeon play. In addition to providing experience to level up (raising in rank grants an invaluable extra HP heart), slain monsters, as well as treasure chests, present a pool of three random loot drops in the form of head, chest, weapon, and offhand equipment slots. Loot drops are essentially mini-booster packs that add new cards to your deck, with the hero only capable of equipping a single pack in each gear slot. Choosing the right loot and making tough decisions to replace pieces of gear that may cause the loss of a helpful ability but help to add more overall depth to your deck is crucial to survival.

Death is handled similarly to a roguelike. Should you lose a dungeoneer in card battle, he or she is placed into the guild graveyard–where you can track the stats of all deceased heroes–and a new adventurer of the same class is automatically generated in their place. Glory and purchases made on the guild expansion trees are persistent, but hero progression and loot drops do not carry over from one quest to the next. Each dungeon is its own self-contained entity.

As a board/card game, luck of the draw does play a role in whether you achieve victory or incur the pain of failure, and at times the randomness does become a bit frustrating. Getting outdrawn by a monster in battle comes with the territory, but failing a turn-limit quest due solely to not receiving cards necessary to complete a path through the map shows that maybe the RNG is not as balanced as it could be. Fortunately, once you gain a solid understanding of the rules and some of the finer details, the game does give more than enough opportunity to seize control of your own destiny and curry a little favor with Lady Luck. Certain heroes have decks suited to certain dungeons, and vice versa, so it’s important to play with different approaches rather than sticking with a favorite dungeoneer and trying to force a single strategy on every level.

GuildofDungeoneering_5

Just learning the ropes is the hard part though. Guild of Dungeoneering‘s main flaw is its general lack of clarity about, well, pretty much everything. The first couple of dungeons ease you in with the basics, but from there you’re left to fend for yourself. The game does not provide a meaningful tutorial or even something as basic as a rule manual. There is never any explanation given on how to influence the hero’s movement in a dungeon; you have to figure it out on your own. I’ve played for 16 hours and finished the campaign, and I still don’t quite have a grasp of how leveling up works because there is no experience bar or visual indication of how many creatures need to be killed to rise to the next rank. More disappointing is the inability to view a dungeoneer’s deck and abilities from the guild so you can at least have a basic understanding of their play strategy before undertaking the next quest.

Although the game isn’t necessarily hurt by not having them, I can think of some features the game could benefit from in future updates. Repeatable quests would be a good place to start. For most of the campaign, the world map opens up to allow for choosing from multiple dungeons at a time, but occasional bottlenecks limit you to a single quest. Depending on your guild expansion choices, it’s possible to get stuck in a rut on a single dungeon, dying and retrying to grind out glory until you can afford to buy an upgrade or unlock a new hero better equipped for the troublesome quest at hand. Having the ability to go back and repeat previous dungeons to cut down on the grind would help a lot. Or perhaps the rate of glory gain could be rebalanced so at least there would be a better sense of forward momentum when you’re having to replay a dungeon again and again. I wouldn’t be against a respec option either, that way there would be a way to try out a different approach in the event that the expansion choices you’ve made don’t seem to be working out.

It also would be nice to have a way to somehow upgrade lower tier heroes so you could continue to use them as the adventure progresses. As it stands, as you reach certain milestones in the campaign and unlock a higher tier dungeoneer all of the preceding characters become obsolete due solely to their lower starting HP. It seems like such a waste to have so many different classes only to be limited to which ones you can use based on how far along you are in the campaign. I don’t know if it would throw the game out of balance or if it’s even feasible at this point, but maybe the developer could make it so that once you unlock a hero in the same guild tree the lower tier characters rank up to have the same starting HP.

GuildofDungeoneering_3

As a one shot experience, Guild of Dungeoneering‘s lengthy and challenging campaign offers great value. Currently, however, the game doesn’t have any meaningful reason to replay. Cards are drawn randomly, but the dungeons themselves have pre-set objectives and starting layouts. About the only reason to replay is to try different guild tree expansions, because there simply isn’t enough glory to unlock every single hero and room add-on within a single campaign run. I have read that the developers are tinkering with the idea of adding an endless dungeon mode in a future update, and that’s definitely something that would give the game the shot of replay value it needs. With roots in tabletop gaming, the game also seems ideally suited for expansion packs featuring new cards, heroes, loot, monsters, and quests. I’m generally not a DLC guy, but in this case it would make complete sense. I got so hooked that I sunk more than 15 hours into beating the campaign over the weekend alone. Now I just want more of this game.

Guild of Dungeoneering embraces a trial by fire roguelike approach to learning its rules and overcoming its hurdles until, finally, everything clicks into place. Anyone with experience in games of the tabletop persuasion is sure to have a blast as soon as the first hand is dealt, but I can see how the unsuspectingly devious level of difficulty combined with the random nature of the card-based gameplay might discourage certain players, especially early on. Hopefully, in time, Gambrinous will take steps to provide clearer in-game explanation and maybe draw from community feedback to include ways to lessen some of the grind. In the meantime, Guild of Dungeoneering is, warts and all, a fun and inventive card battle dungeon crawl hybrid, set apart by a distinct style and an infectious doesn’t-take-itself-seriously sense of humor that bites with just the right amount of snark. If you’re willing to give the game enough time for all of its nuances to sink in, you’ll be proud to call yourself a dungeoneer.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Pencil on graph paper art invokes tabletop nostalgia
+ Soundtrack adds so much humor and personality
+ Generally well balanced mix of card and deck building strategy
+ Build-a-dungeon approach puts a refreshing spin on the roguelike
+ Lengthy campaign puts up a good fight, keeps you coming back for more

Cons:
– Unclear rules and lacking in-game reference material
– Losing out to luck of the draw causes occasional frustration
– No way to replay completed dungeons; little replay value period

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Versus Evil
Developer: Gambrinous
Release Date: 7/14/2015
Genre: Turn-based card battle roguelike
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!